This intriguingly named long barrow in Berkshire was built by some of the earliest Neolithic farmers. The many long barrows in this part of Britain were one of many new concepts introduced by the people who brought agriculture to this land.
It is one of the Cotswold-Severn class of barrows, commonly found in southwest Britain, and is sited on the ancient trackway called The Ridgeway, close to the Uffington White Horse. Its present appearance is a result of restoration in the 1960s. Before then, it was an overgrown ruin.
A timber-chambered barrow was built around 3550BC, and the remains of fifteen individuals were placed inside, fourteen of them male. Around a hundred years later, the mound was incorporated into a larger structure. A stone-chambered tomb, consisting three burial chambers and an entrance chamber in a cruciform layout, was built. The remains of eight people were found inside. Six huge sarsen stones were erected in front of it, four of which survive, and an earthen barrow, 56m in length and 13m wide at its entrance, was built over it. The stone revets used to support the mound are visible; they were originally covered with earth.
No long-lasting constructions have been found in Britain prior to the appearance of these tombs, and it is a long time before the same amount of effort was made to house the living.
Agriculture bound people to an area. It was a long-term investment, requiring the clearance of rocks and mature trees to give cultivatable soil, and needed a close understanding of how best to cultivate and manage that specific tract of land, which could take a lifetime to learn. It was perhaps now important to have the ancestors close at hand.
The long barrows are not overly prominent; they are not intended to be a statement to the living as later Bronze Age barrows, standing clear on the skyline, appear to be. To me they seem to be about blending with the land, incorporating the gifts and knowledge of people’s forebears so they could aid the coming generations, as well as reinforcing the fact that, for these people, this land was home.
The folklore of the site is no less intriguing. Wayland, also known as Völundr, is an important figure in Germanic culture, and the name was probably applied by Anglo-Saxon settlers. The first recorded use of the name dates to 955AD. Wayland was a fabled smith of unmatched skill, and like many smiths, such as the Greek Hephaestus, he was lame. In an Icelandic saga, he was captured by a king who cut his hamstrings and forced him to work for him. He eventually killed the king’s sons, forged himself wings, and made his escape.
Local tradition stated that if a traveller’s horse lost a shoe, he could leave it at the Smithy with some coins, and when he returned the money would be gone and the horse newly-shod. Wayland was also said to shoe the nearby Uffington White Horse.
A local shepherd’s rhyme recorded in 1859 states that:
They say in this cave did dwell,
A smith who was invisible.
At last he was found out, they say,
He blew up the place and flew away.
An intriguing similarity to the Icelandic story recorded 600 years earlier.