In 1849, workmen under the direction of Dean Merewether hacked another tunnel into the side of Silbury Hill, hoping to uncover the golden coffin of King Zil or else the legendary ruler himself seated on a life-size horse cast from gold. In keeping with the superstitious dread at the time at the prospect of despoiling barrows or ancient funeral mounds, it was an ill-omened venture, because on August 7th, the desecration of the hill was accompanied by one of the most powerful thunderstorms ever witnessed, “a splendid if awe-inspiring affair; the hills re-echoed to the crashing peals, vivid hashes of violet-coloured lightning lit up the landscape, and Silbury apparently trembled to its base, according to the workmen still working at its centre.”
The horror and sorrow felt by many at the prospect of desecrating such a place was articulated by a teenage girl named Emmeline Fisher, second cousin to the renowned poet William Wordsworth. Emmeline composed a poem asking forgiveness of the souls of the dead for the treasure-hunting expedition that had disturbed their rest and her work was sealed inside an envelope with red wax; it was then placed in a time capsule inside the Cyclopean earthen monument and recovered in the late 1960s, when Professor Richard Atkinson had tired of his rampage at Stonehenge, turning his gaze instead towards Silbury Hill which he suspected was the tomb of the genius architect of the colossal stone circle some twenty or so miles to the south of Silbury.
Emmeline’s verse began with these lines:
“Bones of our wild forefathers, O forgive,
If we now pierce the chambers of your rest,
And open your dark pillows to the eye
Of the irreverent day! Hark, as we move,
Runs no stern whisper down the narrow vault?
Flickers no shape across our torchlight pale,
With backward beckoning arm? No, all is still…”
Her description of being inside this awe-inspiring edifice is evocative and melancholy, but my own heart-stopping experience of crawling through the pitch-black voids above Merewether’s cursed tunnel was subtly different, so I shall be including a detailed account of this in Otherworld, a book that deals with the time I’ve spent over the decades in some of this world’s more evocative and terrifying shadowlands.
“Flickers no shape across our torchlight pale?”
From lines suggested by the opening made in Silbury Hill, 1849.