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The depth of permanence

History is such a rich legend in itself that we sometimes overlook its subtleties. Take "stone," for example. Within a great slab of stone lies all the mystery of the universe -- a kind of capsuled history -- and England's history is built. I sometimes feel, on the prodigious and amazing evocation of stones.

Take the Tarr Steps: This famous clapper bridge in Somerset rests on 20 piers , 3 feet above the water level. These bridges purport to be nearly two thousand years old and present a marvelous case for pure simplicity. They are built of long, flat stones (the clappers themselves), laid atop larger stones resting on the riverbed. Its strength lies in its own weight, enduring for centuries. What ancient and distant builder matched his strength to that weight? What was he saying in stone?

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To fashion stone hints of something noble. It's a kind of masonic adagio, requiring great skill and balance to keep to the basic principle of tempo. The great monuments of rock and stone are, indeed, primitive music to the eye.

There are many such "images" throughout the West Country. And there is the circle of Callernish in Scotland; the almost perfectly balanced Lanyon Quiot, looking like some frozen prehistoric beast; the Caratacus Stone, a relic from the Dark Ages; the Bronze Age Rolling Stones of the Cotswolds; Arthur's Stone in Worcestershire (said to date back to 2000 BC); there are also the 48 enormous stones of Castlerigg Circle. This last monument has been the object of local and distant curiosity for thousands of years.It was deserted by its builders for reasons that can only be guessed at.

But all of them suggest a world of profound reality with which we have somehow lost contact. What I have seen has filled me with a great sense of belonging to those that have seen them before me, as though these milestones were offering some sort of spiritual continuity. The raw, undressed stone is not designed to speak to us in the way a statue or a frieze would. There is a different kind of reflection in stone, something not quite so readily understood or accessible for interpretation.

As for the monarch of them all -- Stonehenge -- what about that ultimate achievement?People's imagination is continually caught by the images of sun worship, ancient rites and primitive astronomical computers, but who knows? -- perhaps they were erected simply as a monument to beauty and nobility by some prehistoric Henry Moore. At least I prefer to think that this great circle of sarsen stones was created for a far simpler reason than dogmatic -- worship or pagan rite.

There is a kind of magic in the patterns formed, not only by the placement of such rocks, but in their substance. Strange hues and unfamiliar shapes and topography abound. Standing before them, one loses himself in a new land, a strange country of nooks, crannies, miniature valleys and mountains, a kind of blueprint for benign mysteries.

But it is the solidarity, the overwhelming depth of permanence, that such rocks reflect. They seem to represent a continuance in action, which remains both immutable and changing. Subject to variations of light and viewed from different positions, they never offer themselves the same way twice. The permutations of Stonehenge are not really man-made, but reflect a natural, universal mathematics which seems coincidental rather than international, and establish a great rapport between man and his environment. And stone brides built with the simple logic of mathematics and craftsmanship carry modern-day traffic with an ease and toughness that could not possibly have been planned.

Call them what you will, stones, slabs, rocks, I find they all have the same quality -- strength. When I stood on that simple clapper bridge across the tumbling River Barle, I could almost feel the immovable solidarity that had kept these stones in place. So impressed was I that for a short moment, I believed the stones were wearing away the water, instead of the reverse. And when I stood under the rude arches of Stonehenge, I wanted to embrace the stones, and hoped that the embrace would somehow transmit to me the accumulation of those years of solid, almost obstinate resistance to change and altera tion.

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