As you can see above, the colour photograph shows Wayland’s Smithy as it is now, whereas the others show it before it was ‘restored’ in 1962/3.
Wayland Smith . . .
No, not a real man, a character from a book or anything else of an organic nature. Wayland Smith is the name by which the prehistoric monument now called Wayland’s Smithy used to be known. It still means the same, of course, the smith/smithy of Wayland (a Norse smith god). But it looks odd to modern eyes.
Recent research for a novel has led me to investigate this famous site on the Downs of Oxfordshire (although the area was in Berkshire until the moving of county boundaries by the Local Government Act of 1972). Two of the characters I am writing about lived at the foot of the Downs escarpment, directly below Wayland’s Smithy, and so I thought I might be able to introduce the monument to the story.
Wayland’s Smithy stands on the Ridgeway, an ancient track way that led from The Wash in Norfolk to the coast of Dorset, and has been in use for at least 5,000 years. Eerie, isolated and sheltering behind a screen of tall beech trees, it presents a sight that is mysterious to our 21st-century eyes, and probably to those of long-past centuries as well. Built in two phases, the second on top of the first, it has a long mound over 40 metres wide, stretching back for more than 50 metres. There were once six great upright sarsen stones, three on either side of the entrance, but now there are only four sarsens left. No one knows what happened to the other two. The remaining four had collapsed over the centuries, and were re-erected when the barrow was investigated, renovated and rebuilt in its present form in the early 1960s.
Before then, moss-covered and half-buried (see the pictures above), the great stones were a shadow of their former selves, sometimes apparently surrounded by beech trees (as now) but at other times open to the exposed scenery all around. Whether there were trees originally, I do not know, but the yawning entrance—the ‘cave’—was visible before and after restoration, and much is known about what lay inside, burials, artefacts and so on. The purpose of the barrow is not known for certain, but it was probably simply a burial site. But was that all? And who was buried there?
Everyone knows the legend of Wayland’s Smithy, that if a lonely traveller should be troubled by his horse casting a shoe, he should take it to the Smithy and leave it there, with a silver coin. When he returned in an hour he would find the horse newly shod by the smith god. A charming story, but totally untrue of course. And now it is believed by some that the Smithy had nothing to do with Wayland at all, but much more to do with Woden, the deity more famous to us now as Odin in Norse mythology. Woden was the name and form he took in Britain, and he was a very important god indeed to pre-Christian Anglo-Saxons. He was believed to lead the Wild Hunt through the skies at night…
Wayland’s Smithy still exerts a power over us, a mysterious link to the pagan past, and no one who goes there today would be unaware of this. The atmosphere reaches out and settles around the walker or sightseer. Do they all shiver a little? Or simply put on a brave face and refuse to think about old gods and the primitive past from which we have all descended? How long ago was Wayland’s Smithy finally abandoned by pagans? If, indeed, it has been abandoned at all.
My research centred upon the 15th century, of course, but I have not been able to find out what condition the Smithy was in then. Were all six sarsens still there? Was it lost among trees and bushes? Did it stand starkly on the edge of the escarpment? Was it dreaded by those who hurried past along the Ridgeway? Would anyone dare to go near it on the night of a full moon? At Hallowtide? At midnight, or at dawn? Might Woden and the Wild Hunt come after them? It must have instilled fear in medieval people, who were so dependent on and influenced by the Church.
So, what would my characters have felt and thought about Wayland Smith, as it was in their time?