Sometimes, remarkable things come from a little conversation.
I looked like I’d been pulled through a hedge backwards. I felt like it too, standing in my shabby overalls, willing the smoking camp-fire to stay alight for a day’s archaeological experiments in the Harris Garden. And my supervisor taking a snap-shot of me to post to Twitter – thanks, Jim. So, to lighten my mood, I said,
“I’ve come across a couple of references to sarsen stones being brought to the Duke of Marlborough’s estate at White Knights. I wonder what happened to the stones?”
And pointing over his left shoulder towards the tangle of trees behind, Jim said,
“They’re over there in the wilderness.”
Now my research is into the use of sarsen stone, a hard, siliceous sandstone commonly found as large boulders in areas of southern England, and best known as the trilithons and lintelled circle at Stonehenge. How exciting, to discover tantalisingly brief references to Georgian landscape design using sarsens: and then find out that those rocks were still here two hundred years later!
It’s remarkably easy to find the stones on campus. Go to Biological Sciences and, passing the building on your right, take the footpath leading into the trees. Follow it for a couple of minutes, and you will see a pile of large stones in the trees to your right. You are in The Wilderness, and this is The Grotto.
The Wilderness – called The Woods by the fifth Duke of Marlborough who planted up White Knights park – was a designed landscape. The Duke (at that time the Marquis of Blandford, as his father was still alive) moved into White Knights in 1798 and promptly lavished enormous sums on the house and 300 acre grounds. He spent 21 years transforming the park into “a fairy-tale garden”; really, a series of gardens within a garden, including The Woods with its walks, lawns, plantations, themed flower borders, bowers, and romantic garden buildings (including one for his orchestra to play in). The Grotto, Grade II-listed, is one of the few remaining structures.
Nevertheless, it is much changed in two hundred years. It used to have branches of coral hanging from the upper stones, seaweed mixed in with the ferns, and was decorated with shells and crystals. We have this contemporary description of “the abode of Genii and Fairies” thanks to a book about the park written by Barbara Hofland, illustrated by her husband Thomas: you can read it in MERL Special Collections. The Grotto has lost all bar its huge sarsens, and stands forlornly overlooking not a stream-head and fountains leading to the lake but a rather marshy hollow you would do well not to get too close to.
Walk a few metres to the south, and you will encounter another arrangement of large sarsens. This peculiar garden feature, like a stone circle, has a more complex story. The Duke had used these sarsens to build a stone row, each half of the row either side of the gate to The Wood. The Duke was a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, after all, and sarsens are so appropriate for ‘archaeological’ monuments. This piece of modern prehistory, described somewhat unrealistically as “a miniature Stonehenge” by The Gardener’s Chronicle correspondent, was one of many eye-catching features in the grounds. In 1878, however, when the estate had been broken up into separate properties, the Honourable Mrs Marsland’s gardener Mr Lees took these boulders in hand.
After the Duke went bankrupt in 1819 the estate changed hands until, in the 1860s, it was divided into six plots. One plot was most of The Woods, and in it was built a large house called The Wilderness, rented by Mrs Marsland. Mr Lees decided to use the derelict stone row – reputedly 104 stones – to build a fernery. At no small effort, the sarsens were uprooted and re-planted close to The Grotto. Not only has the Duke’s grand house gone, demolished in 1840, but also The Wilderness, pulled down before 1959. Only the indurate, obstinate, sarsens remain.
And amazingly, I can show you where the sarsens came from.
There is an eye-witness account of the stones being taken from their original location in Wiltshire and being brought to White Knights. So now we return to those tantalising references that I had stumbled across in the library. Sir Richard Colt Hoare, an antiquarian who wrote a two-volume history of the antiquities of Wiltshire, actually witnessed the sarsens being loaded onto wagons to be taken away for the Duke’s pleasure at White Knights. Colt Hoare was visiting the prehistoric monument “Devil’s Den”, which stands in a long dry valley called Clatford Bottom about 3 miles to the east of Avebury. From there, Colt Hoare rode up the valley towards the higher ground where many thousands of sarsen stones lay scattered about on the surface.
Here he saw three wagons loaded up with sarsens destined for White Knights, and, fortunately for us, decided to mention this in a footnote in his magnum opus. Given how many stones there are on campus, and how heavy these dense, cumbersome, boulders are, many more wagon-loads must have been shifted. But it was a long way and a hard road in those days of horse-power. There is a hint, however, about how the Duke got the precious cargo from the wilds of Wiltshire to the sophisticated wildness of his pleasure gardens. In 1901 Professor T. Rupert Jones FGS reported a story told to him by Sir Walter Money FSA: that a row of sarsens in The Wilderness at White Knights had been supplied from Hungerford and Newbury by the Kennet River Navigation “in early times”.
Sarsens can be found around Hungerford and Newbury, but it is more likely that Money’s tale is about the Clatford sarsens, being shipped along the Kennet and Avon Canal that passed from Wiltshire through these towns on the way to Reading. From 1810, the canal made it possible to ship goods from Bristol in the west to London in the east, by linking the older Avon Navigation to the Kennet Navigation and into the River Thames. This was safer than the sea journey via the Bristol Channel, through the English Channel, and up the River Thames to London. The Duke could have arranged for stones to be carted from his Wiltshire estates down to a wharf, perhaps Honeystreet (from whence sarsens were shipped in the early twentieth-century for repairs at Windsor Castle), loaded onto barges, and floated all the way to Reading.
The fairies and woodland spirits have not entirely deserted The Grotto. A few ferns are still watched over by their sentinel sarsens. I hope that the Whiteknights stones remember their origin, and their journey. In the meantime, we have a little bit of Wiltshire in Reading by which to remember the profligate Duke and his pleasure gardens.
‘A.D.’. 1878. The Wilderness, near Reading. The Gardners’ Chronicle, 28 December 1878.
COLT HOARE, R. 1819. The Ancient History of Wiltshire., London, Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor, and Jones.
FREE, D. W. 1948. Sarsen stones and their origin. Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine, 52, 338-344.
HOFLAND, B. 1819. A descriptive account of the mansion and gardens of White-Knights, a seat of His Grace the Duke of Marlborough., London, Printed for His Grace the Duke of Marlborough, by W. Wilson.
OSBORNE WHITE, H. J. 1907. The Geology of the Country around Hungerford and Newbury. London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office.
ROBERTSON, J. G. 1846. The Botanic Gardens and WIlderness of Whiteknights. A Day At White Knights. Reading: Berkshire Directory Office.
RUPERT JONES, T. 1901. History of the Sarsens. The Berks, Bucks and Oxon Archaeological Journal, 7, 54-59.
SOAMES, M. 1987. The Profligate Duke. George Spencer-Churchill, fifth Duke of Marlborough, and his Duchess, London, Collins.