Crickley Hill, just south of Cheltenham in Gloucestershire, was occupied for 5000 years between the Mesolithic period and the Anglo-Saxon period. It was at the intersection of an important routeway leading south across the Cotswold Hills from Gloucester, and some archaeologists believe the famous bluestones were brought this way on their journey from the Preseli Mountains to Stonehenge. It is also one of the earliest known battlefields, with evidence of prehistoric warfare in the 4th millennium BC.
Crickley Hill is on the northern edge of the Cotswolds, with the vast plains of Cheltenham and Gloucester stretching beyond. Its stunning views would have given good information to the early hunters on the whereabouts of herds, or in later times, the whereabouts of approaching enemies. Its very steep slopes were a key part of the fortifications of later eras, but in the earlier, more peaceful times, the dramatic landscape seems to have been chosen for its own sake.
Several Mesolithic huts were built on the hill around 4500BC, and a series of pits were dug on the highest point of the hill. Pits were usually used for offerings, but nothing has been found in these. They may have contained plants, fruits, woodwork or other biodegradable items.
The view north across the Vale of Cheltenham
A causewayed enclosure was dug in the early Neolithic period, around 3700BC. This comprised a low, circular stone bank, dug from a ditch immediately outside, with a wooden palisade inside it incorporating several entrances. These enclosures were common and seem to be gathering places for feasting, trading, exchanging livestock and affirming community relations. In common with other places, Crickley’s enclosure was levelled and the palisades burnt several times before being rebuilt. It seems as if the memory and spirit of the gathering was sealed back into the soil on each occasion.
A shrine was built on the western end of the promontory. This spot is hidden from the rest of the site by a natural dip in the slope and only the sweeping view across the vale is visible from it. It’s interesting how the alignment focuses on a small hill in the near distance, the only obvious natural feature in the vale. Many of these sites have a focus on other landscape features.
The location of the stone circle, focusing on a hill in the near distance.
Crickley Hill was the site of a largescale battle around 3500BC. Hundreds of arrowheads have been found, clustering on the main entrances. This is the earliest evidence of largescale violence in Britain. The site was then abandoned but the shrine was eventually rebuilt. A stone slab was laid over the original structure, surrounded by a small stone circle, and a 100m mound of soil was raised leading to it. Stone slabs all along its length covered items such as animal bones. Eventually the stone slab was smashed and the circle of uprights pushed over, a clear destruction of its power. But people kept an uneasy respect for the site: objects such as brooches were buried in the mound well into the Roman period.
The remains of the Iron Age rampart
Crickley Hill was reoccupied in the Iron Age, around 600BC, and a large defensive ditch and bank was dug around the settlement, still visible today. Not long after, the wall was torn down, brushwood piled against the timbers and the site incinerated in a fire intense enough to turn the limestone walls to quicklime. Another new settlement a hundred years later was also destroyed.
An Anglo-Saxon village built on the site around AD420 was also burnt on at least two occasions, and then people abandoned it for good. It became rough grazing and woodland as it remains today. Now its unspoilt woodland and hundreds of wildflowers are of as much importance as its history.