Silbury Hill, Wiltshire

Silbury Hill stands out in the landscape like nothing else. The largest man-made mound in Europe, we encountered it as we left Avebury. You couldn’t miss it. That it was made around 2500BC is doubly impressive. It was dated by the broken antler picks left behind by its builders – that means it was built around the same time as Egypt’s pyramids. And to this day it remains a mystery.

Silbury Hill

Silbury Hill

It stopped me in my tracks so that despite the rain I just had to stop and grab a photo. One thing I found remarkable is that although I was probably close to a mile away (1.6km) on a road leading over an adjacent hill I saw an indent near the top which suggested that a previous top – now a terrace-like feature – would have placed the hill top at that time in direct line with the horizon line from where I was standing. That is some serious engineering and surveying!

It was long assumed to be a larger version of the burial barrows in the district – but no burial chamber has been found despite three tunnels being dug through its centre.

  • The first tunnel was built in 1776 by a team of miners hired by the Duke of Northumberland and Colonel Drax. They sank a shaft from the top of the hill.
  • Then came an Archeological Institute dig arranged by Dean Mereweather in 1849. This tunnel went in from the side.
  • And finally, in 1968 the BBC and Cardiff University dug another tunnel close to the second one.

Assuming it was a burial chamber for a great chief, they were each chasing treasure – hopefully on an impressive scale. But to date none has been found.

What has been discovered is how it was built. First a layer of gravel covered in soil and surrounded by a ditch. The hill was raised several times, with each successive phase filling in the ditch and recutting in around the new base.

Today the base covers more than two hectares – 5 acres – and as the hill was enlarged, the soil was stabilised with sarsen boulders from the district incorporated into the soil.

Unfortunately, there is no public access to the site as it is unstable – in 2000 a portion collapsed into the first tunnel which had not been properly filled in.

But as a triumph of human ingenuity and tenacity to build something greater than themselves, the Silbury Hill is an impressive piece of work.


Salisbury Cathedral font – part icon, part water sculpture

For more than 150 years, Salisbury Cathedral had no permanent font. Instead, there was a small gothic-style Victorian basin that was wheeled out for baptisms from a side chapel.

Enter then Canon Treasurer and now Dean of Salisbury, the Very Reverend June Osborne, who set in motion the commission for a new permanent font. Rather than take the easy route of installing a neo-gothic clone of many other fonts, Osborne argued strenuously for a new work of art – something that would show Salisbury cathedral as looking forward rather than being constrained by its history. Osborne commissioned prominent British water sculptor William Pye.

Conscious that the church is renowned for its conservatism, Pye developed a series of designs which were placed in the cathedral to test the reaction of the parishioners – starting in 2001 – with the final design being approved in 2007. The result was gradual acceptance of a reflecting water surface as a font and a remarkable artistic achievement combining stillness and movement in the cruciform font – the largest in any UK cathedral.

Salisbury Cathedral font

Salisbury Cathedral font

The font measures 3m across (10 feet) with the vessel itself made from bronze, set onto a purbeck marble square base. The font is shaped to channel water into four spouts at the corners which pour into bronze drains set into the floor.

The surface is so smooth that visitors have been known to place bags and cameras on what they think is a hard shiny surface, only to see their belongings disappear into the water.

As the previous post here has noted, the font provides an excellent opportunity for some spectacular reflections of the stained glass windows.

Consecrated by the Archbishop of Canterbury on 28 September 2008, the font is a daring and great addition to the cathedral, and is admired by the many thousands of local and international visitors as well as the local congregation.

The photo was taken from the balcony over the West Front, during the start of the Tower tour – which will be the subject of a subsequent post 🙂


Is there a cathedral in that puddle?

Reflections can make for interesting photos, and with the rain in Salisbury, Sharon was prompted to ask the question in the title of this post – alas with all the puddles around I just couldn’t get a nice shot of the cathedral. That is, until we checked out the Salisbury and South Wiltshire museum. As we approached the museum – and being cued in to look for reflections I saw a great reflection in the window. The result is this fragmented view of the cathedral:

Salisbury Cathedral

Salisbury Cathedral

I used a wide aperture lens out to f2.8 in order to ensure that the focus would be on the cathedral, while leaving the window frame a little out of focus.

Sometimes you can find great reflections inside too – the modern font in the cathedral provides a wonderful reflective surface in which to mirror the main windows. The font was designed by William Pye and is the first permanent font for over 150 years. It was commissioned over ten years ago by by the then Canon Treasurer and now Dean of Salisbury, the Very Revd June Osborne. The font is three metres across and constructed as a bronze cruciform vessel atop a purbeck marble plinth. The water flows constantly, but the font is so constructed as to provide a perfectly smooth surface.

Salisbury cathedral font

Salisbury cathedral font

So it’s worth looking for opportunities for interesting reflections 🙂