Thomas Hardy in The Devil’s Den

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The Devil’s Den is all that remains of a dolmen or portal tomb built in the Neolithic period. Two monoliths support a 20-ton capstone. Two more stones lie between the uprights. This quartet of sarsen stones created an entrance to a long barrow, 230 feet long, 120 feet wide and similar in size to its more famous neighbour, the West Kennet Long Barrow. Ploughing and erosion have removed the soil leaving the fallen stones (re-erected in 1920) as totems amidst the rolling downs of Clatford Bottom.

When the British poet and writer on ruralism, H.J. Massingham visited The Devil’s Den in 1926, he wrote:

Its three uprights and capstone stand forlornly in the midst of an alien sea of ploughland swinging its umber ripples to the foot of a stone isle, drifted nearly four thousand years from the happy potencies of its past.

This Neolithic island of stone is marooned in Clatford Bottom, where the dry valley descends from Fyfield Down to the valley of the River Kennet. The stones of the dolmen haven’t come far. Fyfield is famous for its sarsen outcrops. Walking up the valley, the first sarsens (the locals called them Grey Werthers as they look like sheep lying in the field) outcrop a stone’s throw from the tomb.

Follow the track NE towards Overton Down and the sarsen field pours like a river of broken stones off Fyfield Down. This is where some of the Avebury stones were taken, selected, riven and carried by sledge, their route over Overton Down west via the Herepath or south-west towards the Sanctuary, turning North East to Avebury. The Avenue marks their processional route.

Thomas Hardy

The inspirational landscape for Thomas Hardy’s Wessex rarely crossed the border into Wiltshire. The Devil’s Den is featured in his short story What the Shepherd Saw. Hardy was prolific not only as a Novelist and Poet but also as a short story writer. He began publishing short stories in periodicals in 1874 and for the next thirty years, he published fifty in total. The main body of these were contained in three volumes, Wessex Tales (1888), A Group of Noble Dames (1891) and Lifes Little Ironies (1894). The rest was collected under the title A Changed Man and Other Tales in 1913. This collection contained What the Shepherd Saw – a tale of four moonlight nights:

To the south, in the direction of the young shepherd’s idle gaze, there rose one conspicuous object above the uniform moonlit plateau, and only one. It was a Druidical trilithon, consisting of three oblong stones in the form of a doorway, two on end, and one across as a lintel. Each stone had been worn, scratched, washed, nibbled, split, and otherwise attacked by ten thousand different weathers; but now the blocks looked shapely and little the worse for wear, so beautifully were they silvered over by the light of the moon. The ruin was locally called the Devil’s Door.

An old shepherd presently entered the hut from the direction of the ewes, and looked around in the gloom. ‘Be ye sleepy?’ he asked in cross accents of the boy.

The lad replied rather timidly in the negative.

‘Then,’ said the shepherd, ‘I’ll get me home-along, and rest for a few hours. There’s nothing to be done here now as I can see. The ewes can want no more tending till daybreak–’tis beyond the bounds of reason that they can. But as the order is that one of us must bide, I’ll leave ‘ee, d’ye hear. You can sleep by day, and I can’t. And you can be down to my house in ten minutes if anything should happen. I can’t afford ‘ee candle; but, as ’tis Christmas week, and the time that folks have hollerdays, you can enjoy yerself by falling asleep a bit in the chair instead of biding awake all the time. But mind, not longer at once than while the shade of the Devil’s Door moves a couple of spans, for you must keep an eye upon the ewes.’

The boy made no definite reply, and the old man, stirring the fire in the stove with his crook-stem, closed the door upon his companion and vanished.

William Stuckley

North-east view of the Kitsvaen in Clatford Bottom 1 July 1723 | Engraved by John Harris

The English antiquarian William Stuckley sketched the Devil’s Den on 1st July 1723. Stuckley was a significant influence on the development of archaeology and pioneered the scholarly investigation of the prehistoric monuments of Stonehenge and Avebury. Stuckley uses the Welsh Kistvaen, cist (chest) and maen (stone) to describe the tomb.

Bibliography

Thomas Hardy. A Changed Man and Other Tales, New York & London: Harper and Brothers, 1913

Notes

OS grid reference: SU 1521 6965
Historic England Listing

  1. Sarsen:  Sarsen stones are silicified sandstone blocks found in quantity on Salisbury Plain and the Marlborough Downs in Wiltshire. Sarsens are the post-glacial remains of a cap of Cenozoic silcrete that once covered much of southern England. Silcrete is a dense, hard rock created from sand bound by silica cement, making it silicified sandstone. Silcretes contain more than 85% silica by weight. The term was first introduced by Lamplugh (1902) to describe (in an Irish context) “sporadic masses of ‘grey wether’ type, indurated by a siliceous cement”. ↩︎
  2. Herepath or Herewag: A military road (here “armed host”, wag “way”. OE) dating from the ninth century. As superior or safer roads, sometimes following ridgeway routes, herepaths were intensely used by travellers and hauliers. Also found as a prefix in compound words such as harbour (a burh with a garrison) ↩︎

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