On Silbury Hill by Adam Thorpe

Amongst other things, 2020 really does seem to have been the year of the independent publisher for me. I’ve discovered some wonderful imprints and read some amazing books from some fascinating indies, and one lovely recent discovery was Little Toller. As I mentioned in my review of my first book from their range, “Beyond the Fell Wall” by Richard Skelton, they’re based in Dorset and focus on work based in nature and the landscape. I picked up two works in my first purchase from LT, the Skelton book and “On Silbury Hill” by Adam Thorpe. Both works are in LT’s ‘monographs’ range, and although very different books both are wonderful and fascinating.

Thorpe may be best known as a novelist; certainly, his debut “Ulverton” I recall being very lauded when it came out. And I think I may have read it, although as this was when the offspring were small and so I was in the midst of the mania of child rearing, I can’t be sure… Anyway, I was very much drawn to “On Silbury Hill” because of the subject matter and location. Although I was born in Edinburgh, we moved south when I was six, and so I grew up in Hampshire, close to the border with Wiltshire. Additionally, I worked in Salisbury for some years so the area is familiar to me; and I have happy memories of visits to Stonehenge and the surrounding areas. I can’t recall going to Silbury – but frankly, with my rubbish memory, who knows…

Adam Thorpe also knows the region well, and has a long and powerful relationship with Silbury Hill. Although born abroad, he spent much time in the area nearby when he attented Marlborough College; and indeed those were pivotal teenage years when the personality develops and takes on forms which will stay throughout a person’s life. A strong bond grew between Thorpe and the hill, and he uses his monograph to explore not only the history of Silbury, the discoveries and theories about it over the years, and the possible reasons for it having been built; but also to look back at the periods of his life in relation to the hill, as well as links to other parts of his life which might initially seem to have no connection to a strange prehistoric man-made structure….

Silbury Hill itself is something of a mystery; the largest artificial mound in Europe, its size compares to Egyptian pyramids of the same era. Yet nobody actually knows what it’s there for. It’s not any kind of burial chamber or tomb – excavations (with near catastrophic results) have revealed that – and as obviously there are no records from prehistoric times, any theory about Silbury’s purpose is pretty much pure guesswork. So Thorpe explores the various attempts to explain and explore the place over the centuries; the damage done to it (and other ancient monuments in the area) by greedy, land-grabbing farmers; and finds himself in sympathy with Wiccans and others who see some kind of religious or pagan importance in the area. His narrative reflects a growing concern (which I share) about the pollution of the modern landscape with chemicals and unrestricted building, and the fact that it’s becoming harder and harder to connect properly with the natural world.

So a life builds up in layers, piecemeal, a kind of haphazard engineering that has elements of skill and cunning – the previous layers mostly hidden, as are the small mounds within, the clumps of different-coloured earth, the burnt offerings, the nodules of pain and the delight. The hard graft of the chopped off antlers, picking and stabbing and scraping. The embers of old fires, old flames, in mute fragments of charcoal.

Thorpe’s book is a very personal take on the area, as you would expect I suppose from a monograph. This is *his* Silbury Hill, a meditation on what the area has meant to him over the decades and, indeed, continues to mean. Places *do* have an emotional resonance with us, even if we don’t physically visit them often (Edinburgh has had that effect on me); and it’s clear that a place like Silbury, encountered at a young and impressionable age, left a lasting mark on Thorpe. The book is laced with quotations, illustrations and photographs and builds up a wonderfully vivid picture not only of Silbury and its history, but also of Thorpe’s experiences with the place.

Silbury Hill (via Wikimedia Commons)

In truth, “On Silbury Hill” is a hard book to categorise. A beautiful and evocative mix of memoir, history, archaeology, I found it absolutely compelling reading and impossible to put down. The intertwining of mythologies, stories of Neolithic peoples, discussions of the shadows of the past and meditations on his own life and experiences created a wonderfully unique narrative, which I loved. Thorpe’s theories on the possible use of the chalkland areas were just as convincing as any others I’d heard, and he introduced an interesting angle on the monuments of the past about which I’d never thought.

So “On Silbury Hill” turned out to be a second winner from Little Toller. My familiarity with the area, and the fact that I was growing up in the vicinity at a similar time to Thorpe, gave even more resonance to my reading of the book. I like writing that steps outside boundaries and genres; both of the the publisher’s books have done this, featuring beautiful, evocative writing and wonderful ideas. There’s definitely a risk I could be wanting to start a Little Toller collection….

(My first read of the month qualifies for Non-Fiction November – so yay! That’s a good start!)