Thursday, October 11, 2012

Selsley Toots

The Toots long barrow

The other day I was driving up towards Stroud on the high road across Selsley Common when there was the most extraordinary downpour. I couldn't see where I was going even with the wipers on full pelt, but there was something strangely exhilarating about it too. And it went on and on and on, relentlessly, until the road was running like a stream. I decided to pull off the road on the edge of Selsley Common and wait for it to pass. And once it had eased off a bit I got out of the car with the camera stuffed up my jumper and had a squelch across the common, having intended for some time to visit its subtle but distinctive landmark – a long barrow known as The Toots.

I got completely soaked but I did manage to capture some attractive cloudscapes as the storm passed over.

 Toots on the horizon

Why does a long barrow attract a name like The Toots? It's got nothing to do with either smoking marijuana or farting, though no doubt both those things have been done there at various times over the centuries. Nor is the name a corruption of 'Tits', as is sometimes suggested by those who can't look at a tumulus without thinking of giant goddess boobies. But it's a name you often see associated with burial mounds in high places, and often those with a road or track running close by. Among many examples are barrows called the Fairy Toot and Wimble Toot, both in Somerset, and Toot Hill at Healing in Lincolnshire which has a likely barrow on the top. The name also sometimes occurs in relation to beacon hills and hilltop camps and castles, such as Toot Hill in Macclesfield Forest, Cheshire.

There isn't any definite etymology for the name but it's clear from the sheer number of them that are readily found across the country that 'Toot-hills' meant something significant at one time. Perhaps the most compelling suggestion is that the name comes from the Saxon word "teotan", to look out – a word which evolved into the Middle English "tote", to watch, or to look out. In short, most Toots have a view.

The view west from The Toots long barrow, over the village of King's Stanley, to the sandy silvery expanse of the River Severn and its great horseshoe bend, and the Forest of Dean on the far side.

That's certainly the case with The Toots barrow on Selsley Common. The barrow sits just on the crest of the Cotswold ridge with a magnificent panorama across the west, where the River Severn meanders like a silver serpent through its green valley with the Forest of Dean beyond. You can see the horseshoe bend in the Severn which stands out on every map of the UK, and also the sandy banks to the south west where it turns from a river into a tidal estuary. To the north, green rolling Cotswold tumps delight the eye as far as it can see.

I ought to know a thing or two about Toot-hills, because I was practically born on one. I spent the first years of my life in an old house on the Mythe just north of Tewkesbury, a round hill graced by a tumulus, known as the Mythe Toot. It fulfilled many of the criteria for Toot status: an obvious look-out point, a man-made tump on top of a natural hill with an old road (the A38) running right next to it – and the house was haunted – though not in an unpleasant way. But I have no more idea than anybody else what significance Toot-hills had to our ancestors.

If their purpose was as a lookout point though, that would make some sense. There are many other sacred places and landscape 'points' visible from The Toots, including some on the other side of the Severn where there were temples and shrines, not to mention a huge range of potential beacon hills. It's reasonable to assume that you would also be able to see the nearby Nympsfield Long Barrow and Hetty Pegler's Tump if it weren't for the woodlands that have grown up around them in recent centuries. With The Toots itself visible as a bump on the skyline from all around, it could be seen as a sighting point for a ley-line, as per Alfred Watkins' system of "old straight tracks". When I say ley-lines, I mean the straight-line alignments of physical features in the landscape, rather than earth energy lines (which to me usually appear to be spiralled more often than straight).

The Worcestershire antiquarian Jabez Allies, writing in 1852, was also intrigued by Toot-hills: "Although the Anglo-Saxons may have used such hills as 'lookout stations,' still many of them may have been of ancient British origin and derivation; and the fact that all the above-mentioned hills or places in Worcestershire [i.e. toot-hills] are either close to, or near upon the sides of roads, appears to favour the opinion that they were sacred to the Celtic Teutates, who was the guide over the hills and track-ways. Bryant says, Theuth, Thoth, Taut, Taautes, are the same title diversified, and belong to the chief god of Egypt."

I'm not sure I can quite get with the idea, now popular among new age questors, that the names of British sacred sites are derived from those of Egyptian gods, and/or that Egyptian priests came over here to share their secrets with the ancient Britons. I'm not completely closed-minded to the idea, but it always feels to me as if the British landscape and group-soul has a wondrous enough mystery system of its own, if you care to delve into it, without needing to be bolstered with bolt-on theories from more readily accessible traditions. The god name 'Teutates' sounds a bit classical to me and not very Celtic, though if it's derived from a simpler form such as 'Taut', or the Brythonic 'DĂș Taith', then fair enough. But I must admit the idea of these hills being named after a specific god doesn't ring true for me either, for reasons I can't put my finger on. The word Toot seems more directly functional somehow.

Toots long barrow, looking north along Selsley Common. The dip visible across the barrow here is, unfortunately, a scar left by meddling Victorian twerps.

What can I tell you about The Toots long barrow then? Er ... not that much. It's never really been excavated, other than having a few gouges taken out of it by amateur antiquarians of a previous era, who neither recorded their activities nor made good the damage afterwards, stupid buggers.

The barrow gets a one-line mention in L.V. Grinsell's The Ancient Burial-Mounds of England: "This is one of the longest examples on the Cotswolds, being about 210 feet long," he says. That's it. It may be one of the longest long barrows, but thanks to the twerps of yore digging a big slice out of the middle, it actually looks more like two shorter barrows joined end to end. It has a nice atmosphere but not an overwhelmingly 'buzzy' one; it's more of a passive giver and taker of subtle forces, slowly breathing them. It doesn't have an obvious entrance either on inner or outer levels, but invites your consciousness to go spiralling in.

It does exert a certain magnetic pull over people wandering on the common. The place is thrumming with dog walkers even in the vilest weather, and at more clement moments it's a popular place for flying kites and other airborne toys. It's very possible that many of the people who feel compelled to go and stand on top of The Toots don't even realise it's a long barrow, as it has no distinguishing features: no visible stones or chambers. But stand on it they do, as if drawn to it by something unconscious. And perhaps that's as much as you need to know about its power and purpose.

Quarry remnants on Selsley Common, echoing distant hills

Allies, Jabez, On the Ancient British, Roman and Saxon Antiquities and Folk-lore of Worcestershire,  2nd edition, 1852. (Good info on Toot-hills)
Darvill, Timothy, Long Barrows of the Cotswolds (Tempus, 2004)
Drayton, Penny, 'Toot Hills', from Mercian Mysteries No.21, November 1994; available online here.
Grinsell, L.V., The Ancient Burial-Mounds of England (Methuen, 1936)