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Should we celebrate the solstice on Capworth Street ? By David Boote

The ‘crop marks’ seen in aerial photographs have helped identify quite a few examples of a prehistoric feature, pairs of ditches running parallel with each other for some distance, and often meeting a ditch at the end that joins the two long ones.  This type of earthwork is known as a ‘cursus’.  One was found on the site of the Terminal 5 that was built for Heathrow Airport and archaeologists have suggested ‘at sunset at the mid winter solstice the community would gather outside the HE1 enclosure, possibly having observed their leaders processing along the C1 Cursus to this point’ 1.  Many of the known cursus features are close to rivers, often starting or ending at the river.  They often incorporate changes of direction, slight but definite 2.  It is possible water flowed along the cursus ditches 3.

I walked as close as I could to the Walthamstow Slip on 21st December 2008, and considered myself very lucky that the cloud cover was less than 100%. Walking down Capworth Street shortly before sunset at 4 o’clock on 21st December 2008, the brightest part of the sky was not straight ahead but somewhat to the right, to the north.  There was no chance of seeing the sun dip beneath the horizon even if there had been no clouds.  So an alignment to the winter solstice sunset is at best unproven.  The experiment did show the importance to winter solstice ritual of a flat landscape with a clear view.  The Walthamstow Slip was kept clear of buildings until after 1860.

Hollow Ponds at dusk

1    from the review by Timothy Darvill in Transactions of the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society Volume 58 2007 of ‘Landscape Evolution in the Middle Thames Valley: Heathrow Terminal 5 Excavations Vol 1

2  Pathways and Ceremonies, The cursus monuments of Britain and Ireland, edited by Alistair Barclay and Jan Harding

View across Hollow Ponds on or near the ‘Walthamstow Slip’

less than an house before sunset on 21st December 2008

Capworth Street sunset

Looking southwest down Capworth Street shortly before sunset on 21st December 2008

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3  ‘Great Monuments, Great Rivers’ J Leary & D Field British Archaeology Sept/Oct 2011

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