When I told folk at the pub where I was going this week so many of them wanted to come with me but I limited space in my car to two young photographers and their kit. We were off to visit the first long barrow to be built in the UK for 5000 years.
I’ve been in a couple of the prehistoric long barrows namely, West Kennet and Maeshowe. Our visit today, on Armistice day, seemed somehow very poignant, remembering our relatively recent losses as well as revisiting something akin to the way our more ancient ancestors honoured their dead.
Accompanied by the fitting sounds of Martin Bennet’s ‘Bothy culture’, we drove in low cloud and constant drizzle through the villages of north Hampshire, on into Wiltshire where that county’s prehistoric landscape eventually loomed out of the mist. Nestled at the feet of the Marlborough downs, topped with their earthworks and enclosures we met Tim Daw, the inspiration and driving force behind the project. Sitting around his farmhouse kitchen table, snuggled away from the weather, I was delighted to get to know a bit more about this extraordinary, but equally self effacing man.
Most astounding was the revelation that he has, in two months since opening, sold two thirds of the niches in this retro-columbarium. I am so pleased for him, his financial ‘punt’ was not insignificant and could have bought him a smallholding retreat in Ceredigion should he have been so inclined.
At 11 am we sat in silence, our vigil breaking the excited chatter about the potential for open-air pyres and building techniques. We then jumped into Tim’s car and trundled round to the site. The local flora has yet to repopulate what was, until two months ago, a large, muddy, building site. Like human gestation, this build took exactly 9 months and there, standing proud, fitting perfectly into its hilly backdrop has grown a long mound.
In the centre of the facing front wall, built from Wiltshire Sarsens, is a large, low lintel. Ducking below this we entered through a wrought, helix embellished metal security gate into the 23 metre central passageway. The huge flat stones above our heads, holding back thousands of tonnes of chalk and earth, were so reminiscent of those in the ceiling at Maeshowe. Tim was keen to point out that this was not a pastiche or copy, he wanted a uniquely designed barrow meeting the needs of 21st century man. To the sides, circular chambers retreated into the darkness. Their walls and those of the passage are beautifully dressed, in the style of dry stone walls, with a sparkling, crystal loaded, honey coloured, limestone.
The temperature is pretty constant according to Tim’s max/min thermometer but our breath was visible by the light of our candles and torch. Still and in total silence, I gazed up into each of the circular domed chambers, constructed again with decreasing rings of flat limestone, skilfully laid by a couple of stone masons from Anglesea. I was also pleased to see that the local wildlife had discovered the shelter of the building, moths were hibernating in the crevices and Tim told me of the butterfly that led one family towards their niche.
It is a stunningly beautiful, peaceful resting place. Tim envisages that most families will seal their niche as have the Grays with a smoothly and skilfully carved stone.
We joked about the endeavours of our forbears with antler picks and buckets at Grimes graves and Maiden castle. What would they have made of Tim’s 350 tones of limestone, 45 tones of Sarsens and 3,500 tones of chalk being manoeuvred into position with the benefit of modern plant?
So who is buying all these plots? Tim feels his experience of the ‘average’ customer is pretty similar to that experienced by the natural burial site managers. It is definitely not your ‘tree hugging’ pagan, just regular everyday people. He does not expect that his ‘inurnments’ (his chosen term for the placing an urn in a niche) to appeal predominately to any one particular belief system.
The fact that he has sold so many, so quickly, must be a huge relief to his wife and bank manager. Although this fact, in another way, is a shame, as those who may have need of his facility may be sorely disappointed to find that it has become full within just a few months. Will he extend or build a sister mound? I got the feeling that he had been there and created that and wouldn’t revisit the experience. Maybe I will ask him again next year.