Larches are most fitting small red hills
That rise like swollen antheaps likeably
And modest before big things like near Malvern
Or Cotswold's farther early Italian
Blue arrangement; unassuming as the
Cowslips, celandines, buglewort and daisies
That trinket out the green swerves like a child's game
O never so careless or lavish as here,
I thought, You beauty! I must rise soon one dawn time
And ride to see the first beam strike on you
Of gold or ruddy recognisance over
Crickley level or Bredon sloping down.
I must play tunes like Burns, or sing like David,
A saying out of what the hill leaves unexprest
The tale or song that lives in it, and is sole,
A round red thing, green upright things of flame
It is May, and the conceited cuckoo toots and whoos his name.
Crickley Hill is one of the most dramatic sites on the Cotswold ridge, overlooking the Severn Valley with a view which takes in the tower of Gloucester cathedral and the Malvern Hills beyond. On clear days you can gaze as far as the Black Mountains of Wales. Much of the Cotswold ridge undulates gracefully and is flat and level on top, hosting wide smooth fields of corn and ribbons of ancient coppiced woods, and Crickley Hill blends so seamlessly with its neighbour Shurdington Hill that you can walk from one to the other without noticing. On its other side however it has a steep, spectacular scarp plunging down into a green valley, and this is what made it so attractive as a site of human settlement, going back into the stone age.
Along the spine of the hill on its western edge is a long grove of very old beech trees, many over 200 years old and exquisitely gnarled, their ancient roots rummaging the mossy lines of tumbled drystone walls and forming natural hollows and stoups which collect rainwater in deep canopied shade. The thick carpet of leafmould creates silence underfoot but all the noise is overhead in the rushing of the wind through the boughs. The beeches grow in dense dark clusters but some of the open parts of the hilltop are also lined with beech trees along some of the steepest slopes, and these were probably planted in previous centuries to help reduce erosion of the crumbly limestone edge.
Crickley's most obvious feature is its iron age fort whose ramparts dominate the hillscape, but there are more subtle traces of a fortified village and ritual site from much earlier times. On the western edge, overlooking the beautiful valley, a small neolithic shrine was built which originally took the form of a paved circle. It later acquired a small building, which was approached by a fenced path and was found to have had fires lit outside it. After some 400 years it was replaced by a cairn and a small stone circle, paved with cobblestones on the inside with a slab in the centre, which bore traces of burning. The pattern of trampling around the circle shows that it was circumambulated in a clockwise direction. Finally, in the bronze age, the whole shrine was covered with a long low mound resembling a long barrow. The stone circle is still there, but you might be disappointed if you go looking for it. Having been found by archaeologists investigating the long mound, it was decided to re-bury it for its own good. Although the surface remains may be limited, the deep sanctity of this place is not difficult to appreciate.
The village of Shurdington and the dark mound of Churchdown Hill, seen from Crickley Hill
You don't have to go far to find an actual long barrow either, or a tump as they are called in Gloucestershire. The sweeping slope across the hilltop to Shurdington Hill is crowned by a large neolithic barrow, 189 feet long and 20 feet high, oriented east-west, and now topped by a cluster of coniferous trees. While the trees may have invaded the ancient remains below the ground, they have at least protected it from ploughing, as evidenced by the fate of a round barrow a short distance away in the same field. The round barrow is almost entirely ploughed out and its site can now be located only with a good map and a keen inner sense.
The Cotswold area is well known for its proliferation of long barrows and they represent some of the oldest architectural structures in Europe. The Crippets long barrow is around 4000 years old. At the eastern end is a semi-circular indentation which could very easily be mistaken for a horned false-entrance of the type seen on other local barrows such as Belas Knap. Unfortunately it's not; it's the scar left behind by 18th century treasure-seekers, who ripped away a large chunk of the barrow some time around the 1770s. Needless to say the results of this clumsy pillaging were not formally recorded, the only contemporary source reporting that a cromlech was found inside containing a single skeleton (subsequently lost) and a metal helmet which was so rusted that it dissolved to dust on contact with the air. Quite how you manage to lose a human skeleton is not entirely clear; perhaps somebody in one of the old farmhouses in the area will get a surprise one day while clearing out the loft.
The rusted metal helmet does raise an intriguing question though. The people who built the barrow, in the late stone age, were not in possession of iron or the skills to work it. The metal helmet couldn't have belonged to them. So how did it end up interred within their burial chamber?
The most likely explanation is that it belonged to a later Anglo-Saxon burial. As strange as it may sound, the Anglo-Saxons often re-used neolithic burial mounds for their own high profile interrments. This seems to have been done for the most respectful of reasons, as an attempt to continue a tradition or to connect with the ancestors – a desire to lay their own illustrious dead in an established sacred place alongside those who had occupied and cherished the same land centuries earlier.
To the eyes of vision, the Crippets barrow might show itself as a centre of inner activity, for the Cotswold faeries are considered to inhabit all hollow hills, natural or man-made. You might, in vision, stand on the crest of Crickley's undulation under a horned moon and look towards Crippets on the horizon, see the pulse of saturated colour in the faery light of the barrow, orange and purple and carmine streaming into the aura of the night sky. If you're very lucky, you might catch the tumbling shimmers of their music on a passing breeze.
This article first appeared on the Miles Cross blog.
References: Timothy Darvill, Long Barrows of the Cotswolds (Tempus Publishing, 2004).
Map Ref for Crickley Hill: SO928161 / Landranger OS map 163
Map Ref for Crippets Long Barrow: SO934173 / Landranger OS map 163