Monday, 17 June 2019

Crickley Hill

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.

Monday, 10 June 2019


Lindisfarne, or Holy Island, lies in the North Sea near Berwick upon Tweed in Northumberland. It can be reached by a mile-long walk across the causeway at low tide, or for the more dedicated visitors, posts mark the pilgrims’ route across the mudflats.

Walking across the open expanse of mudflat, surrounded by flocks of foraging wading birds whose piping calls are the only sound in this seemingly vast emptiness, with the sea unseen in the distance until it turns and rushes back across the mudflats, is a profound experience and certainly illustrates why the island was considered special.

The island’s recorded history is mainly linked to the Christians who settled here in the 7th century, but it was considered sacred before this point. Its oldest name, Medcaut, probably derives from the Latin Medicata Insula or ‘Healing Island’. Lindisfarne is a Celtic name: Farne means land and Lindis is the name of the river which flows across the mudflats at low tide.

St Cuthbert’s Isle, just off Lindisfarne. The cross marks the former altar of the chapel known as St Cuthbert in the Sea.

King Oswald, who came to the Northumbrian throne in AD634, had converted to Christianity and arranged for a team of monks to come from Iona to convert his people. They built their monastery on Lindisfarne. Soon afterwards Oswald and his bishop, Aidan, died and the church was burnt by marauders.

A shepherd named Cuthbert had a vision of Aidan telling him to continue the bishop’s work. Cuthbert trained as a monk and began to preach. The conversion of the Northumbrians to Christianity is credited to his work. He eventually retreated to a small island off Lindisfarne where he lived in solitude for many years, and he was eventually buried in Lindisfarne’s church. The famous Lindisfarne Gospels, an illuminated manuscript containing the four gospels, was written here at this time.

Page from Lindisfarne's illuminated Gospel of St Matthew. 

Almost two centuries after Cuthbert’s death, when Vikings attacked the island, the monks abandoned the site and Cuthbert’s body was carried on the long journey to Durham where it was laid in the cathedral along with the monastery’s other sacred relics. Many places in Northumberland are linked to that journey, including St Cuthbert's Cave in the Kyloe Hills.
Following the Norman Conquest, the priory was rebuilt in typical Norman grandeur and remained a large and influential site until its closure in 1537 following Henry VIII’s Reformation.

The Norman priory, which replaced an older building in the 12th century.

Tuesday, 4 June 2019

Silbury Hill

Silbury Hill, a mile south of Avebury in Wiltshire, is one of Britain’s most enigmatic monuments. It is an artificial chalk mound, 31m in height and around 140m in diameter, built in a curve of the spring-fed River Kennet. It was built in the early Bronze Age, between 2400BC and 2300BC.

Tradition says it was the burial mound of King Sil (pronounced Zel) who was buried on horseback in golden armour. Other local lore says it was formed when the Devil dropped a sack of earth with which he had intended to bury Marlborough, foiled in his intent by the Avebury priests.

Despite eager exploration, no evidence of Sil or his gold has been found, but in the 18th century, a body was found buried in the top of the mound, complete with a horse bit. This probably dates to the Medieval period when the top was levelled and fortified.

              Silbury from Waden Hill

Excavation has found Silbury to be far more complex than previously imagined. First, a gravel mound was raised, around a metre high and 10m in diameter. This was covered by turf and soil with a wooden retaining wall, then marsh-soil, chalk and gravel. The mound was now 5m high and 34m in diameter.

At least two other small mounds were incorporated into it. One contained yew berries, sloes, hazel shells and brambles: woodland soil which seems to have come from some distance away. The area around Silbury was open grassland grazed by farm animals. Sarsen stones were seeded through the mound ‘like raisins in a cake’.

The mound was soon expanded. Chalk was dug from a surrounding circular ditch and built over the mound. This ditch was 6m deep, 6m wide and 100m in diameter. As soon as it was dug, it was backfilled and redug further out, presumably linked to the new layer of chalk added to the mound. This happened five times.

Digging a ditch of those proportions with antler picks would take months of back-breaking labour, and raises questions of the mindset of these people. Why immediately destroy their achievement and start again? Assuming the labourers were working through free choice –there is no evidence of slavery at this time – they must have shared some common vision that lauded what to us seems entirely pointless work. Many monuments were continually remodelled, Stonehenge an obvious example, and it seems the process of construction was more important than the finished product. Perhaps the growing mound reflected the community’s growing spiritual or real-world prospects, so every remodelling was a celebration.

Silbury Hill is often thought to be unique, but another smaller mound at nearby Marlborough, long thought to be natural, has recently been proven to be human-made. Another mound, now entirely destroyed, was built in Marden Henge near Salisbury Plain. All three are situated in the curve of a river, on low-lying and probably very wet ground. Silbury is known for its springs, which flowed much more freely in the past, and would have filled the huge ditch with an unbroken sheen of water. The springwater is naturally warm and steams on a cold day, so the mound appears to be rising from the mist. Did the mounds represent the birth of the world, rising from the mists and the primeval waters, as features in so many mythologies? We shall probably never know.

Monday, 27 May 2019

Cuween Chambered Tomb

This is a tomb near Kirkwall on the north coast of Mainland Orkney, built by Neolithic farmers around 3000BC.

Dozens of tombs were built around Orkney and each was probably linked to a small community who farmed the immediate area. There was a small Neolithic settlement at the foot of Cuween Hill. Unlike the chambered tombs of southern Britain such as Belas Knap and Wayland's Smithy, Orkney’s tombs were often in use for a thousand or more years and may contain several hundred bodies.

Cuween comprises five dark, damp chambers leading out from a central chamber. This is reached by a long, low passage entered at a crawl. Some of the chambers are level with the central chamber; others are raised; others have a flagstone divider. The arrangement seems entirely organic with no overall grand design. This is the case with many of the tombs, which each have a unique layout. Perhaps the builders worked entirely through intuition or with the help of spirit guides who, while in a trance state, ‘drew’ the tomb into this world.

Cuween was excavated a century ago and was found to contain the bones of eight people and 24 dog skulls. The small number of human bones suggests the tomb was periodically cleared of bones, or perhaps emptied at the end of its use-life. The presence of dogs is unique, although other tombs contained animal bones such as red deer, otters or sea eagles, and may indicate a community totem or spirit guide. Dogs are commonly seen as guardians of the underworld or as guides for the dead. The dogs were collie-sized and resembled a grey wolf.

The view from the cairn across the farmland and the sea

Cuween probably derives from ‘kewing’, meaning cattle pasture. Due to the short growing season at this northern latitude, cattle have always formed the basis of Orkney’s agriculture. In more recent folklore it was known as the Fairy Knowe.

The tomb was cut out of the bedrock and roofed with flagstones then covered with earth. From a distance it blends into the hillside in this respect resembles the southern tombs. Its purpose was to form a bond with the land, and its influence spread over the farmland below it.

Most of the Orkney tombs face out to sea. The sea was a provider and nurturer as much as the land, and it makes sense for the guardian influence of the ancestors to extend across the water. It may also reflect the journey of the souls of the deceased.

Like many of the tombs, Cuween had been carefully sealed up. This generally seems to have happened around 2500BC, when Orkney’s Neolithic culture dramatically ended. The tombs gradually became the haunt of fairies and ghosts, left undisturbed for fear of violent repercussions from angry ghosts.

Monday, 20 May 2019

Belas Knap

Belas Knap is a long barrow near Winchcombe in Gloucestershire. It was built in the early Neolithic period and is of similar style to dozens of other barrows found across the Cotswolds and the Severn valley.

The barrow is situated on a wide, rolling hillside, with a wide view in three directions and a steep, wooded scarp dropping sharply on the eastern side. This was probably wooded in the Neolithic period and so would have obscured the only prominent view of the barrow. From all other directions, the barrow quickly blends into the ground. Like Wayland's Smithy long barrow, Belas Knap was not intended to be a visible statement, but conversely the barrow itself has a sweeping view of the landscape. They seem to be about blending with the earth, returning the ancestors and their skills to the earth, as well as legitimising their continuing presence on this tract of land. They reflect heritage and belonging.

            Belas Knap from the east.

                View south from the barrow.

The barrow is aligned to the north. This is unusual: most long barrows face roughly east. Four burial chambers were set into its length and the main forecourt with its stone fa├žade was actually a false entrance. It’s believed the chambers were built separately as individual burial mounds, then later incorporated into a huge barrow. Many barrows including Wayland’s Smithy were originally smaller structures which were extended into huge mounds a century or two later. Even earlier than the chambers was a circular arrangement of stones lying near the centre of the current mound.

The barrow was crudely excavated in the 19th century and restored to its current condition in the 1920s. It was originally 60m long and 25m wide but its edges have now been trimmed due to erosion, agriculture and excavation. Thirty eight bodies were found, dating from 3700BC-3600BC.

Behind the slabs of the false entrance were the bones of one man and five children, along with flints and horse and pig bones. The western side chamber, lined with sarsens and drystone walling, contained fourteen bodies including a woman with fatal head injuries. The southern chamber, now almost entirely destroyed, contained one body. The south-eastern chamber, which is much lower and has to be entered on one’s belly, contained four bodies. The north-eastern chamber which is lined with sarsens contained twelve bodies.

The chambers were repeatedly visited and opened and sealed, probably used for rites such as marriage, blessing the land and blessing births as well as for burial. Then, like many long barrows, the chambers were eventually sealed for good. This often seems to coincide with the arrival of bronze in Britain around 2500BC.

                  The north-east chamber.

Barrows were often respected for millennia after their closure, although their stones crumbled and collapsed and trees and shrubs obscured them. Belas Knap means ‘beautiful hilltop’. As this seems to refer to the barrow itself rather than the hillside, it is perhaps a name of uneasy respect given by later, more superstitious people to a haunted and feared place. Many ancient sites were avoided as haunts of fairies or dwarfs, later still the work of the devil. This may derive from people unwittingly uncovering the bones of long-dead people, or perhaps it is a long-remembered folk memory of the fearful rites once conducted here.

Monday, 13 May 2019

Lydney Roman Temple

This Roman temple is on a precipitous hill in Lydney in Gloucestershire, overlooking the western bank of the River Severn. Rivers were Britain’s arteries in both a material and spiritual sense, and this site, overlooking the waters which dominate the view today and would have been even more spectacular in historic times when the river was a lot closer, was of strategic importance until the Medieval period.

The view from the Iron Age embankment towards the Roman site, with the River Severn in the distance.

The Roman buildings were built on the remains of an Iron Age hill fort, the latter dating to around 100BC. Both Celts and Romans extensively mined the hill for iron ore until the elaborate temple complex was built around 360AD. Its Roman name was Nemetobala, meaning ‘hill sanctuary’.

The temple was dedicated to Nodens, a Celtic God associated with healing, hunting, the river and fishing. Nodens has no other mention in the ancient world. This is probably unsurprising as in Celtic culture, as well as many other cultures worldwide, the true names of revered beings were rarely known and almost never spoken. Disguised names abounded.

Nodens has been linked to the Irish Nuada and the Welsh Lludd, and was probably associated with the healing God Asclepius by the Romans who respected and assimilated many foreign deities into their culture. Asclepius likely means ‘dog-man’, and several plaques and figurines of dogs have been found in the temple. Dogs were often kept in temples and would lick wounds to aid healing. This would have worked: enzymes in saliva are strongly antibacterial.

                           The Roman baths.

Near the temple was a bath house, probably for ritual use, and a long building comprising a series of rooms probably used as dormitories, dreams being powerful and prophetic and interpreted onsite by diviners. A mansio or guest house illustrates the importance of this site which attracted wealthy pilgrims from far and wide.

The temple was in use long after the collapse of the Roman Empire, after which the Iron Age ramparts were repaired and extended. Sometime during the 5th or 6th century, it was burned down and the roof and walls collapsed inwards, preserving its elaborate votive offerings and mosaic floors for posterity.

The remains of the ancient buildings remained visible for centuries and like many Roman sites the hill, now known as Dwarf Hill, was avoided as the haunt of fairies or dwarfs.

Monday, 6 May 2019

Old Bewick Hillfort

The escarpment which flanks the hillfort, looking across the vale to the Cheviot Hills.

Old Bewick Hillfort is on a steep hill near the Cheviot Hills in Northumberland. It comprises two stone-walled structures of circular banks and ditches, side by side, built against the steep hillside to the south. Little remains of them today but they can easily be seen as circles of green and brown. Bracken is very fussy about growing on the remnants of historic sites, and these patterns are often the first clue to their presence. Several hut circles can be seen.

It is described as a fort but was a relatively small settlement, perhaps for one or two families, although the effort needed to create the walls and ditches perhaps suggests another purpose. It may have had religious significance.

The fort dates to the Iron Age but the site was of significance long before this time. Several Bronze Age cairns were built nearby, and excavation has revealed pottery urns, a necklace of jet and shale, and another necklace of amber. These were prestigious items and suggests the graves of wealthy or important people. The site was venerated long after the Bronze Age.

Cup-and-ring marked rock, prominent in the moorland.

The site is also significant for its cup-and-ring marked rocks. Northumberland is famous for these stones, which are found on many hillsides with substantial views, and those at Old Bewick were the first to be recognised as of ancient origin, rather than the work of an idle shepherd. They are thought to originate in the late Neolithic or early Bronze Age.

They resemble art found in Neolithic passage graves such as Newgrange in Ireland and Pierrowall in Orkney, and engraved slabs have also been found in Bronze Age burials in Northumberland.

Each carving is unique and uses the contours of the rock to enhance its art. They are certainly of great symbolic importance, but their meaning remains entirely unclear.


Monday, 29 April 2019

The Ring of Brodgar

The Ring of Brodgar in Orkney is one of the largest stone circles in Britain. It sits on a narrow peninsula between the two vast Lochs of Harray and Stenness, a balance point between land, sea and air. The waters, usually turbulent with the wind and reflecting the grey, scudding clouds which race from the nearby sea, eventually touch the hills which frame this panoramic scene, and reinforce the impression that this peninsula is the centre of Orkney’s landscape. It has been described as a natural amphitheatre, and it is easy to imagine dozens of people on the hilltops, looking down at this stone circle and watching rites whose effects would ripple out to touch them all.

The Ring is flanked by the nearby The Stones of Stenness to the south, possibly the oldest stone circle in Britain, and the Ring of Bookan to the north, a possible henge now all but destroyed. Its two entrances focus on these sites.

It has been suggested that the layout of the three monuments reflect the three stars of Orion’s Belt. It is a convincing match, and may explain why the Ring of Brodgar is slightly off-centre on the sloping hillside, but my feeling is too much effort is made to link sacred sites to the stars. Most seem to me to be orientated to and blended with the surrounding landscape, which enhances the idea that they reflect a spiritual microcosm of the land where rites could be conducted to influence that land.

The Brodgar stones originate from various sites across Orkney, creating the evocative image of a blending of communities and their spirits into a single monument in the heart of the land. The circle is 104m in diameter and comprised sixty stones, of which thirty six remain, surrounded by a six-metre wide ditch. It was built around 2500BC, shortly before the collapse of Orkney’s highly advanced Neolithic culture. It was perhaps a last attempt to save it, or a lasting memorial to its existence.

The Comet Stone, an outlier of the Ring of Brodgar. Two other broken stones lie nearby. Legend says the stone was a piper, turned to stone along with the dancing giants.

Like many stone circles, legend states the Ring of Brodgar was formed when a group of dancing giants were turned to stone after failing to notice the approaching sunrise. I wonder if these stories reflect their former use for shamanic or ritual dances.

The two stone circles were known to locals as the Temples of the Sun and the Moon, and betrothed couples once prayed inside them to Woden to seal their relationship. This is likely a relic of Orkney’s Nordic heritage, and continued almost to living memory.

The Ring of Brodgar was built to guide the Orkney people’s lives. People have long memories. Five thousand years later, that spirit still survives.

Monday, 15 April 2019

Edgehill Battlefield

The annual re-enactment of the battle of Edgehill.

Relations between King Charles I and his parliament had fractured. In August 1642, the King raised his standard and civil war began. The first major battle took place at Edgehill in Warwickshire on 23rd October, each side comprising 15,000 foot soldiers and cavalry armed with muskets, pikes and cannons.

The battle began at 3 o’clock. The royal army advanced and a cavalry charge smashed the parliamentary cavalry, but the parliament’s foot soldiers held firm, exhorted by their pastors to fight for God’s right, and the battle descended into confusion and slaughter until nightfall, when ammunition and powder ran out and darkness made fighting impossible.

The next day, both armies withdrew. Neither side had won a conclusive victory, and both had suffered terrible losses. Over 1500 dead men were scattered across the battlefield; many more were injured or maimed.

The result was the war dragged on for several years, ravaging the English countryside and causing intolerable hardship for soldiers and civilians alike, until the king was finally defeated and executed.

Little can be seen of the famous battlefield today. Time and nature have consigned the slaughter to a long-obscured memory. But the unprecedented battle lingers in the local landscape, perhaps in more than one way.

The first account of apparitions re-enacting the battle appeared in January 1643. “Strange and portentous apparitions of two jarring and contrary armies… heard by shepherds and countrymen and travellers, first the sound of drums afar off, then the noise of soldiers giving their last groans. Then appeared in the air the incorporeal soldiers that made those clamours, ensigns displayed, drums beating, muskets going off, horses neighing… after three hours’ fight the army carrying the king’s colours appeared to fly, the other remaining masters of the field.”

Subsequent visitors to the battlefield identified among the apparitions key noblemen who had died in the battle including Sir Edmund Verney, the king’s standard bearer.

The apparitions eventually ceased, but still appear on occasion, most commonly the anniversary of the battle. And the battle is still annually re-enacted by the Sealed Knot.


Red Road in Kineton, said to have run red with blood after the slaughter 400 years ago.

Monday, 8 April 2019

The Stones of Stenness

The Stones of Stenness. The curiously sloping stones result from the natural fracture lines in the rock. The popular idea that they recreate the sloping peaks of Hoy in the distance, I feel is coincidence.

This stone circle in Orkney, built around 3100BC, is possibly the oldest in Britain. It is at the heart of a vast and complex ritual site on the Brodgar peninsula which would eventually comprise two stone circles, a series of earthen mounds and some of the most elaborate stone buildings of Neolithic Europe.

The circle once comprised twelve stones, of which four remain, the tallest nearly six metres in height. They were erected inside a circular ditch and bank which has now almost entirely vanished. The ditch was once two metres deep and seven metres wide, a vast construction effort considering it was cut through bedrock using only stone and antler tools.

The site is on a low-lying peninsula between the two huge lochs of mainland Orkney, the Lochs of Stenness and Harray. Beyond the lochs, hills rise in the distance and the dramatic peaks of the island of Hoy lie to the south.

The entrance faces due north, across the Loch of Harray and towards the distant hills. An interesting observation is that the surrounding hills and valleys from this point are almost symmetrical. This apparent balance may be the reason for the circle’s location.

The circle was used for feasting and hearth stones still survive in the centre. Pottery and animal bones have been excavated. Perhaps it was a gathering place, a microcosm of land surrounded by water, reflecting every island in Orkney and also perhaps the world in general and the spiritual world. A world surrounded by water which must be crossed to reach the spiritual world is a recurring theme in myths worldwide. That the stones seem to have been brought from various places in Orkney supports this notion.

The circle also contained other stone features. These were once presumed to be altar stones for human sacrifice and re-erected as such, and now their original arrangement is long lost. Other wooden features also stood on the site, perhaps much older than the stone circle itself. It is a common occurrence across Britain for wooden structures, perhaps temples or ‘spirit-houses’, to be later memorialised in stone.

The Stones retained their importance long after the Neolithic period ended. Burial mounds were arranged around the stones and the surrounding area into the Bronze Age, and into the 19th century local couples would pray to Odin – perhaps a throwback to Orkney’s Nordic heritage – inside the stones, now locally known as the Temple of the Moon, for a successful marriage. And today, they form part of a World Heritage Site which attracts visitors from across the world.

Monday, 1 April 2019

The Simonside Hills

The Simonside hills near Rothbury in Northumberland are home to some of the most sinister elemental beings I’ve come across. The duergars are dwarfish, earth-like beings which have a taste for human flesh and delight in leading people to an unpleasant death. The local shepherds respected and avoided them. Outsiders often blundered into their presence.

Two Newcastle gentlemen went shooting in the hills and came across a small, muscular man in clothing the colour of dried bracken. The rather unfriendly man invited them for a meal. The men refused and hurried back to Rothbury. Their landlord told them they’d had a very lucky escape.

A shepherd, recently moved to the area, saw a light in a hillside cottage when faced with a cold night under the stars. Nobody was at home but he seated himself by the fire until the owner returned. When a brown-clad dwarf entered, the shepherd realised he was in the home of a duergar. The duergar merely sat and watched him, and the shepherd decided to wait until dawn when he hoped he could make a run for it. He sat through the night, not daring to move or sleep, the duergar’s eyes on him throughout, until at sunrise dwarf and house vanished. Just inches from his feet was now a hundred-foot sheer precipice.

An educated visitor decided to prove the duergars were mere superstition. He went up the hillside one night and soon saw a lantern-light. He called out and the light went out. He heard scurrying coming towards him. He struck one of the figures, assuming it to be locals playing a trick on him, and a brown-clad dwarf leapt from the heather. The dwarf pulled his club and the man fled. He raced down the hillside, chased by dozens of the dwarfs, and made it back to Rothbury unharmed. He never ventured into the hills again.

I hadn’t heard these stories when I walked through Simonside. That made the place seem even more eerie, with hindsight. I’ve never been anywhere so unsettling. I’m used to walking through wild and lonely places on my own, and generally never get nervous. Here, walking through dense woodland, thick heather and bracken, across treacherously rocky ground which threatened to twist an ankle on every step, I found myself shrinking down, trying to walk as silently as possible, constantly looking around for the watching eyes I was sure I could feel. I eventually turned back, fighting the urge to run, and was very glad to reach the road in the valley.

Perhaps the duergars are still there, watching and waiting. Perhaps there is something about the spirit of this place which triggers terror and the sense of being watched. It’s possible: certain resonant frequencies caused by rock and underground water can have this effect, something exploited by the builders of many megalithic monuments. Whatever’s going on here, it’s certainly creepy. Visit at your own risk.

This inspired a short story, The Watchers in the Hills, which you can read for free here 

Monday, 25 March 2019

The Uffington White Horse

This hill figure is carved into the chalk downlands on the Oxfordshire-Berkshire border, near the Uffington Hill Fort and Wayland's Smithy, overlooking the Vale of the White Horse. It is the oldest hill figure in Britain, dating to around 1000BC, the mid-Bronze Age, and was possibly created by the people of Uffington Hill Fort.

It is formed of trenches, originally around a metre deep. Chalk figures are rapidly obscured by grass and erosion, and the figure was scoured clean every seven years as part of a local fair. This was first documented in 1736 and continued until the late 19th century. It is now maintained by English Heritage.

The horse is very different to other British hill figures, and there is debate as to whether it even represents a horse. It resembles horses depicted on Iron Age coins, which has led to suggestions that it represents a Celtic horse-goddess such as Epona or Rhiannon. Horses were important in Iron Age Britain, and likely that reverence and the Goddesses linked to it originate in an earlier Bronze Age culture.

The figure is intended to be visible. Approaching from the north, it can be seen for miles across the flat vale and the hill itself commands all-round views for several miles. Standing beside the figure, which crowns the top of a punishingly steep valley, the focus seems to sweep down the slope and across the distant vale. It seems to reflect dominance and control of this vast area of the land, both territorially and magically.

The steep valley known as The Manger, above which the horse stands and where legend says it grazes at night.

The figure has been referred to as a horse since at least the 11th century, but some say it represents a dragon, associating it with ley lines or the earth-spirit which does feel especially strong on this part of the hillside. Its positioning, so it seems to be ‘flying’ up the hillside, perhaps supports this.

Intriguingly, a small hill a short distance from the horse is known as Dragon Hill, and according to legend is the hill where St George killed his dragon. The white patch of chalk where no vegetation grows was where the dragon’s blood flowed.

St George is a medieval addition to British legend, but the legend may have an historical basis. Archaeologists have found evidence of large-scale burning on the artificially flattened hill, perhaps from huge cremation pyres, and those fires may have survived in later legend as the fire of a dragon.

View from Dragon Hill. The topology of the surrounding hillside draws all focus straight back towards the horse.

A local legend states that the horse goes to Wayland’s Smithy every hundred years to be reshod. In 1920, an unknown man, dressed in old-fashioned clothes and a smith’s leather apron, limped into a local pub and ordered a pint. The locals heard a horn echoing through the night and the stranger leapt up and hurried out. They looked up at the hill; the horse was gone. The next day, the horse was back in its place, its hooves shining brightly in the morning sun. Some time next year, this will presumably happen again.

Monday, 18 March 2019

Lady’s Well, Holystone

This holy well in the village of Holystone in Northumberland has been venerated since at least Roman times, and possibly long before. It was situated by a Roman road running from the fort of Bremenium to the coast, and it was probably the Romans who built the stone walls which contain the waters today.  The spring-fed well never freezes or runs dry, and as well as a practical function in providing water to travellers and their animals, it was likely venerated as a sacred place. Springs are venerated in many cultures and the Romans commonly built shrines around them.

It was later dedicated to the Anglo-Saxon Saint Ninian, who performed baptisms here in the 5th century, and also St Paulinus, who reputedly baptised 3000 Northumbrians at the well in AD627. This is almost certainly legend rather than history. A 15th century statue of St Paulinus stands beside the well today. The Celtic-style cross is a Victorian addition.

The well was dedicated to the Virgin Mary in the 12th century when an Augustinian Priory was built in the village, and this dedication remains today.

It’s a powerful and peaceful place today, reflecting the wild nature of the Northumberland countryside and the number of people who have paid their respects to the place over two thousand or more years. The number of coins in its waters are testament to the number of people who still respect its vitality. It was recently announced one of the top ten historic spiritual sites in England.

A second ancient well is found in the village, dedicated to St Mungo, the 6th century founder of Glasgow. It’s possible this was once a ‘mugger’s’ (tinker’s) well, the saintly dedication a Victorian addition.

Monday, 11 March 2019

Yeavering Bell

Yeavering Bell is one of the northern-most Cheviot Hills in Northumberland, and is the site of the largest hill fort in the area. It overlooks the flat and fertile Milfield Plain, cultivated since the early Neolithic period. Mass clearance of the Cheviot uplands began around 2500BC, the end of the Neolithic period, and numerous settlements, henges, stone circles and rock art panels appear from this time. Many of the prominent and brooding hills overlooking these sites are forts.

Yeavering Bell fort, reached by a punishing but relatively endurable climb – many of the Cheviots are brutal and harbour treacherous and sometimes deadly peat bogs –  extends for 12 acres and is surrounded by a 950m stone wall, originally 3m thick and 2.5m high. It contained 130 roundhouses, suggesting a residential purpose. Little excavation has been done but pottery dating from the Iron Age and Romano-British periods has been found.

Like many Iron Age hill forts, it is focused on much older features. Some hill forts in the area enclose ancient rock art or tombs, and it’s been suggested that their function is at least partly ceremonial or ritual rather than defensive. The southern entrance to Yeavering Bell aligns on the distinctive Hedgehope Hill, suggesting a function in a larger landscape network. There is a sense of a vast, spiritual web linking these important sites.

The site was significant long after the Iron Age. In the valley beneath it, the remains of the capital of the Anglo-Saxon King Edwin can still be seen. This was built with respect to a Bronze Age cemetery, comprising a number of cairns and barrows by this time around 2000 years old.

‘Yeavering’ derives from the Celtic ‘Din Gefron’, which means ‘hill of the goat’. Today it is the home of the Cheviot goats, some of the only wild goats in Britain. They are descended from the livestock the Neolithic farmers brought with them from the Middle East. The hill is also linked to the goat-headed God Pan, who reflects the wilds of the natural world and is linked to the Celtic Cernunnos. Perhaps this site was once a centre for his reverence. It’s certainly appropriate.

Walking this area involves struggling through sodden heather and bracken, which disguises deep peaty holes and ankle-turning rocks, with wind gusting strong enough to knock a person over. And then the wind whips the clouds away to reveal a vast and beautiful landscape dazzling in the sunlight, before the rain closes in again. This is a land where nature tolerates its human intruders.

And when I was climbing down the steep hillside, I saw what I thought was a horned statue sitting by a stream. When it turned to look at me, I nearly fell off the mountain! I never did identify what I’d seen, but perhaps it was a manifestation of Pan or Cernunnos who has such a long connection with this place. When I wrote my novel The Story of Light, in which Yeavering Bell is a key place, I put that in the story for posterity.

Monday, 4 March 2019

The Rollright Stones

The King’s Men stone circle.

The Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire consist a stone circle called the King’s Men, a Neolithic burial chamber called the Whispering Knights, and a lone standing stone called the King Stone.

The Whispering Knights, dating to c3800BC is the earliest of these. It is a portal dolmen, a tomb consisting of several upright stones with a capstone. There were probably originally more stones. A fragment of human bone was found inside it.

          The Whispering Knights.

The King’s Men is a 30m diameter stone circle consisting around seventy irregular-shaped stones – legend claims them uncountable – gathered from the nearby area. It was probably built c2500BC, the start of the Bronze Age. Originally there were around 105 stones, set in a continuous circle with an entrance on the southeast flanked by two portal stones. The tallest stone in the circle is directly opposite it.

The circle is slightly off the top of the hill and focuses the eye on the wide valley to the south; all along this, it is clearly prominent on the skyline. The Whispering Knights the same. The location of the circle was probably chosen because of this now ancient and dramatic tomb, from which it seems to be set at a polite distance.

The south-facing valley is possibly the best farmland in the immediate area and has been cultivated continuously since the Neolithic period when early farmers, perhaps those who raised the Whispering Knights, cleared woodland and rocks and began to work the soil. The circle was a gathering point, and celebrations which overlooked the valley and vice versa would have sealed the inhabitants’ lives and stories into the collective memory of the area. It may also have been a trade point. Similar stone circles are found in the Lake District, and Lake District stone axes are found right across Britain.

The King Stone. Its unusual shape is a result of 19th century drovers chipping talismans from it.

The King Stone is set a few metres from the top of the hill, by a rise which seems artificial. This no doubt gave rise to the legend of its origin.

The Danish warlord Rollo had invaded England with his army and a witch told him:

Seven long strides shalt thou take,

If Long Compton thou canst see,

King of England thou shalt be.

Rollo strode forward, sure of victory, shouting: Stick, stock, stone! As King of England I shall be known!

The witch caused a hill to rise in front of him, obscuring his view, and proclaimed,

As Long Compton thou canst not see, King of England thou shalt not be.

Rise up stick and stand still stone, for King of England thou shalt be none.

Thou and thy men hoar stones shall be, and myself an eldern tree.

Incidentally, Rollright derives from ‘Land of Rollo’. In the 19th century it was said there were enough witches in Long Compton to draw a load of hay up Long Compton Hill.

The King Stone is associated with a series of Bronze Age burials dating to c1800BC. It’s unclear whether the burials were positioned in relation to the stone or whether the stone was raised as a marker for them.

The view of Long Compton which Rollo was a few strides from seeing.

The stones are rife with folklore. The Whispering Knights, in common with megaliths across Britain, are said to go to the brook to drink at New Year or when they hear the church bells. Local girls ran naked around the stones on Midsummer’s Eve to see the face of the man they would marry. When a local farmer dragged the King Stone away to make a bridge, it took eight horses to draw it. After a plague of ill-luck, he returned it. Only one horse was needed for the uphill return journey.

Monday, 25 February 2019

Meon Hill Iron Age Fort

The wide-ranging view from Meon Hill.

Meon Hill, a prominent hill in south Warwickshire, is the location of an Iron Age hill fort, likely built on an earlier Bronze Age site. The hill is formidably steep with a wide, flat top, and the surrounding ditches and banks, positioned to make full use of the topology, are still several metres deep in places. Little modern excavation work has been done but quantities of Bronze Age, Iron Age and Romano-British finds including pottery and worked stones have been found.

Meon Hill dominates the surrounding landscape and offers commanding views for several miles in almost every direction. Similar to other hill sites, it was designed to be seen. The nearby Ilmington Hill, which is much larger and much more sprawling, has no such eye-catching dominance and although it harbours several ancient features, there is nothing of such dramatic presence.

             The still prominent ramparts

Meon has a powerful atmosphere. A deep sense of magic infuses the hill, and it’s unsurprising that Meon Hill is prominent in local folklore.

Tradition states that the Devil lives beneath it, and rides out on dark nights with his pack of infernal hounds. This is almost certainly a Christianised version of the much older Gwyn ap Nudd, the Celtic ruler of the underworld who was associated with prominent hills and was master of the Cwn Annwfn, a pack of spectral hounds. Gwyn was later synonymised with the Devil.

This story may have arisen due to the spectacular remains of the now long-forgotten site, or perhaps it originated when the site was in occupation and Gwyn was still commonly revered. Perhaps powerful Druids commanded this site.

A more sinister story comes from the 1940s. A farm worker called Charles Walton was found dead on the hill with a pitchfork through his neck. The story was quickly linked to witchcraft. Charles was said to have been murdered because of his link to the Devil. Spectral black dogs were also associated with the crime.

Despite a lengthy police investigation, the murder was never solved, but the story adds to the powerful sense of magic many people feel here.

Monday, 18 February 2019


Eynhallow is a small island in Orkney, a short way from the larger island of Rousay. With treacherous tides and currents seething through the narrow straits, access is difficult even in calm seas.

An ancient church, later converted into houses, indicates the presence of a Christian monastic settlement. In the 1850s, the houses were evacuated and torn down. The island has been uninhabited ever since.

The name, from the Norse Eyin Helga, means ‘Holy Island’, and the island holds a special place in Orkney lore. Among other traditions, it was believed cats could not survive on the island. They would die of convulsions within a day.

Eynhallow was a home of the Finfolk, a strange and feared people who could control storms, shapeshift as seals and whales, had phenomenal sailing skills, and also routinely abducted local people.

Thanks to the Finfolk’s enchantment, Eynhallow routinely appeared and disappeared into the sea as its inhabitants wished. It was one of two ‘vanishing islands’ in Orkney, the other being Hether Blether. The latter’s enchantment has never been broken and is said to still rise from the mists occasionally.

Eynhallow’s enchantment was broken by a farmer. His wife had been abducted by a Finman and when the island rose from the sea, he rowed towards it, never taking his eyes off it else the enchantment would break and the island vanish, and in revenge he sowed salt around the island, destroying its magical power. He didn’t get his wife back but the island has remained in place ever since.

The Finfolk have been linked to shamanic people of Finland and Norway such as the Saami people, a short distance away by sea.

Orkney was home to a powerful Neolithic culture which abruptly came to an end around 2500BC, with the deliberate and ritual abandonment of the hitherto important sites. Orkney then became a backwater throughout the Bronze Age and Iron Age, with little impact on national culture.

Perhaps the Finfolk were the survivors of a powerful shamanic tradition which still survives in Scandinavia, settled on an inaccessible island and feared by the newer inhabitants for their magical powers. Over time, history turned into legend.