Figsbury Rings, a circular Iron Age hill fort north-east of Salisbury, inspired E.M. Forster (1879-1970) when he met a lame shepherd boy here on 12th September 1904.
Figures in a landscape, beneath a big sky. Two members of the Salisbury tour exploring the Rings on a blustery May day, sunshine alternating with heavy rain.
There was general agreement that the Rings are, as Forster describes them, 'more curious than mysterious'. But offering fine and inspiring views over the Wiltshire landscape and Salisbury Cathedral.
Aged 25, Forster had regularly holidayed at Salisbury with his mother’s friend, Maime Alyward, since his schooldays and never looked closely at the natural world. The boy taught Forster to look at the landscape until, as he wrote, ‘it began to look back at me’.
The meeting transformed and fired the way Forster saw the natural world and human relations. He used Figsbury Rings as the basis for Cadbury Rings, the Winterborne valley becoming the Cad valley and Winterborne Daunstey manor house the basis for Cadover, in The Longest Journey (1907).
In this symbolic and philosophical novel Forster locates the heart of England in Wiltshire, with the waterways and ‘slowly modulating’ chalk downs - contrasting with the quadrangular academic world of Cambridge - converging at Salisbury.
The 'lonely and deformed’ character Rickie is at the Rings when he recites the lines from Shelley’s Epipsychidion (1821) that establish the novel’s theme and gives it its title.
I was never attached to that great sect
Whose doctrine is that each one should select
Out of the world a mistress or a friend,
And all the rest, though fair and wise, commend
To cold oblivion, - though it is the code
Of modern morals, and the beaten road
Which those poor slaves with weary footsteps tread,
By the broad highway of the world – and so
With one sad friend, perhaps a jealous foe,
The dreariest and longest journey go.
The lines refer to life as our longest journey and the problem of our choice of companions. Love, for Shelley, is a light of understanding not limited to one that ‘fills the Universe with glorious beams and hills’. In this, his most autobiographical work, with a mystical and symbolic structure, Forster draws upon Shelley’s poetry, G.E. Moore’s Principia Ethica (1903), as well as Greek and Wagnerian mythology.
In 1964 Forster returned to Figsbury Rings with novelist William Golding. They were discussing the near extinction of the Chalk-hill Blue butterflies through the use of pesticides when one flew between them and settled on a tall grass stem in the entrance to the Rings. Forster, in a skit on the world’s destruction, danced after it shouting ‘Kill, Kill!,' brandishing his walking stick.