Around 400AD, likely just after the Romans left Britain taking with them all those far flung ideas about Nazarene prophets, the community of Wilmington began to plug back into the good old ways. None of this nasty writing stuff down for them. Some sort of a faith structure that involved more terraforming and planting and cycles of nature and light and the moon, plonking the occasional monolith but fewer great big stone buildings everywhere. We call them the Dark Ages as we can’t really tell what the hell anybody was up to. It’s not that nothing happened. It’s that it didn’t get recorded and what did get recorded got burnt later on. But in Wilmington they did a couple of things that have carried through.
They planted a yew tree. The Wilmington Yew. At 1600 years old it’s seen a thing or two now, beyond whatever practices took place under the hallucinatory canopy of its boughs back in the early days. A beautiful ancient tree dripping with poison and magic. Or just poison. Or just magic.
Previous generations have tried to hold it together with huge interlocked chains, that still score into the skin of it, their rusted metal now part of this ancient and unusual being. Much more recently it has been propped up with huge wooden supports. The old thing is on crutches, scarred with age, but somehow still lush in the summer heat. The seed in the berry will kill you but you can carefully eat the flesh. I looked for some but the tree chose not to show them to me today. Don’t do it at home, kids.
But this ground must have been important to the people we will mostly reduce with the word “pagan” nowadays. Just up the hill there’s another preserved relic of those good old days where we could all get naked and eat each other or whatever the “pagans” were actually doing that wasn’t written down except by those scandalised Catholic monks. Probably mostly just whittling sticks and weaving stuff and just the occasional tiny little human sacrifice at harvest. But they made some art. Or was it art? Or was it worship? Or both? It’s not Caravaggio.
It’s a Man. On a hill. He’s a disproportionately long, but viewed on the angle, the proportions match much better. “Disproportionately long man? Nephilim, more like,” says that old mate of yours from school who has been pattern-matching for so long he’s gone off the deep end.
He is long and he holds two long sticks. If he ever had a huge priapic willy, it’s not there any more. Like Cerne Abbas it’s only been recorded since about 1710 but it’s likely much older. He’s probably Anglo-Saxon as he resonates with similar figures on pots. Those pesky Anglo-Saxons with their oral tradition and not writing very much down. We don’t know who it is, or why it is. But there it is, hard to see in the hillside.
In a spectacular failure to read the room, Wilmington council decided to pour concrete into the indentations to make it stand out better. Concrete, of all things. Concrete. Those “pagans” must be livid.
It still needs touching up. But we walked up there, to The Long Man of Wilmington. By the time we got there we were knackered after a morning of messing about in boats. We collapsed into the long grass and let all the creatures crawl on us as we soaked up the start of the closing act of summer. It’s busy with life up there at the feet of this long man. If he really is a man – where’s his willy? Could be a woman. If we know nothing about it, why do we assume it’s some geezer. Those “pagans” usually liked to stick a willy on the boys, or dance round one of a May morning with tassels and bells.
But I like it there at Wilmington. The houses are gorgeous and liable to set you back a few bob. There’s clearly something mystic going on. An ancient yew tree. The ruins of a Benedictine priory. This long person with a pair of sticks. And there are thorn bushes too – the Jerusalem thorn said to have been brought over by Joseph of Arimathea. They got planted in the important places by those people whose art we have lost, who perhaps knew our land better than any who have come since. But who get hauled over the coals because occasionally they liked sacrificing you or your friends.
It’s part of the local Cuckmere pilgrim trail. They mark the route with shells just like Camino. I’d like to walk that route from beginning to end – maybe bring my bivouac and take it slowly when the weather’s like this. If all the sites are as rich as Wilmington it’ll be well worth the walk.