Today I’m musing about the atmosphere of particular places. I’m taking us back a long way in English history, beyond the Regency, beyond those ubiquitous Tudors, to a time before the Norman Conquest when England was split into the Anglo Saxon seven kingdoms. The village where I live has a recorded history that goes back to this distant time – there are actual documents from the era relating to events that happened in this very place over a thousand years ago and I find that mind-blowing. As I walk along the footpaths and over the hills I frequently imagine how it might have looked in that time and try to see all the way back through the mists of history to think myself back there. I can be pretty successful at this; when it’s quiet and I’m standing on the Ravens’ Fort and all I can hear are the birds singing and I feel the breeze on my face I can persuade myself, for a split second anyway, that I have travelled in time. Then an aeroplane flies over and I think perhaps not after all.
Certain places have a very strong sense of atmosphere. I’ve been to battlefields such as Flodden and Culloden where the whole landscape feels as though it is steeped in the bloodshed and suffering of the men who died there. I’ve visited historic houses that feel imbued with the personalities of the people who lived there, and I’ve wandered happily through gardens that feel peaceful or visited buildings that have a joyous atmosphere. How much of this is down to the emotional memory of the place and how much is down to my imagination, I cannot say. As writers and readers of historical fiction I think we all step into that other world. One of my books looks at “stone tape theory” which was an idea popular in the 19th century and later in the 1970s that places retain emotional memories in their very fabric. This is one theory said to account for ghostly sightings. It’s an intriguing idea around which to build a timeslip novel.
Anyway, back to the Anglo Saxons. The area around here, now known as the Berkshire Downs, has been disputed land for generations, on the borderland of several warring tribes and the site of a number of battles.
In 870 CE, the Danes (otherwise known as the Vikings) embarked on an invasion of the Saxon kingdom of Wessex. They sailed up the River Thames and came ashore at Maidenhead in Berkshire. Moving inland, they captured the town of Reading and began fortifying the site as their base. The Danish commanders, Kings Bagsecg and Halfdan Ragnarsson, were supported by five Earls. They met considerable resistance from Aethelwulf the Earl of Berkshire, who was backed up by King Ethelred of Wessex and his younger brother, Alfred. After initial successes Ethelred planned an assault on the Danes' camp at Reading but was unable to break through the defences and was driven back to the Berkshire Downs. The Danes, seeing an opportunity now to crush the Saxons and take the whole of the Kingdom of Wessex, rode out from Reading with the bulk of their army in the winter of 871, intent of meeting the Saxons in battle.
Local legend tells of Prince Alfred riding to a place called Blowingstone Hill to use the ancient sarsen blowing stone to call all men of Wessex to battle. He then mustered his forces at "Alfred's Castle" (this name only dates from the 18th century though – before that it was called Ashbury Camp) the Iron Age hill fort situated to the west of Ashdown House, joined with his brother's troops who had been encamped nearby, and rode to do battle with the Danes. The actual site of the battle has always been disputed because no one thought to record it accurately. However, field names and local folklore, which often contains more than a grain of evidence, suggests that the Battle of Ashdown took place to the south west of Ashbury village, along the escarpment that borders the Ridgeway. Up until the mid-eighteenth century this escarpment was too steep to cultivate for crops; even now the steepest inclines are covered in trees. Ancient records identify this area of land as called "The Wayte," meaning a look out place or ambush. This meaning is still in use today in the form of "lying in wait." Could this be a record in a place name, a piece of land where the Saxon lookouts patrolled and Alfred's army lay in wait for the Danes as they marched out of Reading?
This brings us to the Rammesburi, the Ravens’ Fort. The raven is the familiar of Woden, the Teutonic god of war and death. It also has sinister connections in literature as a bird that haunts battlefields. Could the Ravens' Fort have been named in memory of the Battle of Ashdown? As a final twist, ravens are birds that habitually nest in the same places that they have inhabited for centuries. Today there are ravens on Weathercock Hill and in the woods around Ashdown.
The description of the Battle of Ashdown in the Anglo Saxon chronicle is superbly bloodthirsty and summons up the atmosphere of that violent era: “In the year 871, which was the 23rd of King Alfred’s life, the pagan army, of hateful memory, entering the kingdom of the West Saxons scoured the country for plunder… The great army came to Reading and King Ethelred and Alfred his brother fought with the enemy and there was much slaughter on either hand. And four nights after this, King Ethelred and Alfred his brother fought with all the army again at Ashdown. And when both armies had fought long and bravely at last the pagans took to disgraceful flight and the Saxons pursued them all day and all night to the gates of Reading. One of their two Danish kings and five earls were slain, together with many thousand men, who fell on all sides, covering with their bodies the whole plain of the Ashdown.”
Asser, the Welsh monk who was King Alfred’s biographer, recorded the event in slightly sparser terms: "Alfred moved his army against the enemy… the Vikings had taken the higher position, and they were deploying from a lower position. A rather small and solitary thorn tree grew there, around which the opposing armies clashed violently.”
Alfred became King of the West Saxons a few months after this. King Alfred the Great – the only English King ever to bear that title – may be our most famous local celebrity in the days before the concept was invented. He was born down the road in Wantage and had a royal hall nearby at Lambourn. This was a land he knew well: the Downs; the villages; the kingdom of Wessex stretching away to the west.
We will never know for certain the exact location of the Battle of Ashdown unless some incontrovertible proof comes to light, which seems unlikely. But standing on the edge of Alfred’s castle with its commanding views of the surrounding landscape, it’s easy to feel the sense of history and imagine the desperate preparations for impending battle, the blowing stone calling the men of Wessex, the assembling armies, all in a spot that sometimes feels as though it has barely changed in a thousand years.
Is there a particular place where you feel a strong sense of atmosphere or history? Do you think it’s down to a vivid imagination or a sense of memory that places retain of the past?