Wednesday, May 30, 2012

A walk in the sacred landscape: Uley

Hetty Pegler's Tump

It has taken over five thousand years to work the spiritual loom over the land between Uley and Nympsfield, two villages up on the Cotswold scarp between Stroud and Dursley. The area is overflowing with ancient monuments, you can barely move without stubbing your toe on a long barrow. But it seems to me that, with so many meaningful relics in such close proximity, the whole of this area must be a sacred place in its own right. Indeed the name Nympsfield is thought to mean "field near the holy place". So as well as taking in some of the obvious tourist spots, it seems to me it's worth sauntering around and in between them to see what might be here that isn't on the map.

My visit to this site starts with my meeting Western Mysteries author Gordon Strong at Hetty Pegler's Tump, in my capacity as publisher of his forthcoming book. The insides of Neolithic burial chambers are not the conventional place to have publishers' business meetings, but that's the advantage of co-running your own press – you can be as weird as you like. I stop off en route for a flying visit to Nympsfield Long Barrow and its Bronze Age neighbour the "Soldier's Grave", a round barrow hidden in the adjacent woods. Ever the rabid snapper, I have to lie on the ground to get the best camera angle on the Nympsfield stones, but fortunately Gordon knows what I'm like and isn't bothered that I turn up looking dishevelled and smelling of fox wee. Hetty Pegler is welcoming ... she smells a bit damp and wee-like herself.

Inside the 5,000-year-old tump (above) there is plenty of space to sit comfortably and chat about the powers and origins of barrows, the electric torch redundant as the sun pelts against the east-facing tunnel entrance and illuminates the passageway just enough to create a pleasant twilight. I sit with my back to a pitch dark side chamber and Gordon asks me my views on the purpose of barrows, so I talk about ancestors and the disarticulated burials, how the barrow people moved and mixed the bones. Like most Cotswold barrows, Hetty Pegler's Tump contained at least 20 skeletons, all jumbled. I'm just waffling on about how lovely and peaceful barrows are, and that even though they are burial chambers they never feel like graves, more of a comforting, nurturing sanctuary where you hang out with the ancestors and never feel frightened. At that moment there is a strange scratching noise in the darkness behind me. "What the fuck is that?" I strain to identify it. Maybe it's a rodent burrowing in the earth on top of the barrow? No, it's definitely something moving about in the chamber behind me. A gnawing, scratching, fluttering noise that gets more intense the longer I sit there. Bugger. Am I going to get a rat running across my leg or a bat whistling past my head? Fortunately neither transpires. I still don't know what it was. I gave the chamber a once-over with the torch on the way out and couldn't see anything.

Looking outwards

Hetty Pegler's is one of the most atmospheric long barrows I've ever visited, and here's a curious thing: this tump has been ravaged and savaged multiple times and what "survives" today is largely a reconstruction, and yet it remains imbued with a tingling sense of potency. Whereas poor old Nympsfield Long Barrow, its mound scalped and its stone chambers standing open to the sky, has almost no atmosphere left at all that I can discern. Putting aside the obvious psychological factor that a dark passageway underground is always going to be more evocative than an open ruin, I sense that the power of a long barrow is connected to enclosure, darkness at its core. When light floods into its hollows and the sun warms the stones, ephemeral ancestral threads dissolve away. The opened barrow is disengaged, its dynamo unhitched.

 Nympsfield long barrow: nice orthostats, shame about the vibes

An hour later Gordon has gone on his way and I saunter on up to Uley Bury, a fairly enormous Iron Age hillfort perched above the village. The middle bit is fenced off and accessible only to cows, but you can walk around the perimeter, between the ramparts. It's more than a mile all round, and the sun is starting to blaze, but emboldened by a tasty half of Pig's Ear ale from the local Uley Brewery, I set off. Within minutes I'm down on my hands and knees inspecting the wild blossoms. What caught my eye was this rather beautiful vetch blossom. Vetch is very common; I suppose that's why it's called Common Vetch. But I was struck by the intense and velvety purple of this particular patch growing on the ramparts – far more vivid in colour than the stuff I usually see.

Vetch, in beautiful magenta-purple, alongside some speedwell and a plantain "sparkler". To me, no domestic flower garden is as beautiful as this.

Uley Bury holds a memory of the Dobunni people; their golden horse emblems have turned up here on the odd coin find. Some parts of the fort are more atmospheric than others, and it seems to be focused in hotspots. On more than one occasion I am drawn towards a tree on the ramparts which seems to be blazing with inner life, only to find when I approach it that the ground yields beneath the grass and I'm standing over a not-quite-breaking-the-surface spring. The most striking of these trees is a mature elder close to the southern gateway, which stands as a green beacon, flaming on the inner levels. A stream of umbelliferous blossoms courses by at the root.

The outer plane view is pretty stunning too, especially to the south and west. A smoothly exquisite tump, Downham Hill, rises from the perfect greenness of fields. It's naturally formed, a natural outsider, a bubble that spurted from the contiguous heave of the Cotswolds, but with its glorious contours and soft sculpted shape and the little flutter of trees on the top, it looks like a giant long barrow.

Downham Hill, as seen from Uley Bury

During my walk around Uley Bury, I spot a translucent rainbow on the ground. Digging it out I find a small shard of glass, old bottle-glass weathered smooth, aqua-green with iridescent curves which the sun brings out in all colours as I turn it different ways in the light. I get a sense I may need it for something so I slip it in my pocket.

Scorched, dehydrated and knackered, I get back to the car to find that the lock has seized up and I have to climb in the passenger side. (Plus ├ža change – I once had a Ford Capri whose driver's door fell off completely, so let's be grateful for small mercies.) By this time I feel like calling it a day, but there is another sacred landscape at Uley which needs homage paid to it. This is one you won't find on the maps; it is hidden. Or to be more precise, it is so open you can't pin it down to any focused location. The whole hillside is implicated.

Uley Bury

The surface story goes like this. Between Uley Bury and Hetty Pegler's Tump is an east-facing slope called West Hill. A Romano-Celtic Temple of Mercury once stood on the top of this slope, the remains of which came to light during 1970s drainage pipe manoeuvres, close to the road and within view of Hetty Pegler. A subsequent excavation recovered its decapitated statue, now in the British Museum. It also turned up a substantial scatter of cursing tablets. These tablets, similar to the ones famously found in the Temple of Sulis in Bath, solicit the help of the Roman god in kicking the arse, literally or metaphorically, of an assortment of petty thieves and snotty neighbours. "I ask you that you drive them to the greatest death," one bloke petitions as a fate for three named individuals "who have brought evil harm on my beast". A chap called Biccus, a victim of theft, requests that the thief "may not urinate nor defecate nor speak nor sleep nor stay awake nor [have] well-being or health, unless he bring (the stolen item) in the temple of Mercury". The indictment was scratched into the surface of a small sheet of flattened lead, then folded up and tossed into a sacred well; the temple at Uley is thought to have had a pool in the middle for this purpose. Nearly all the curses here relate to thefts: of livestock, clothing, or household items, and in an age when there was no police force or criminal justice system, a good old zap from the Punitive Ray was probably the most realistic chance of getting redress.

I'm not a fan of cursing (despite my involvement in quasi-witchery I don't believe there is ever, under any circumstances, any justification for it) and neither am I a huge fan of the Romans, whose culture and remains give me no great spiritual connection. But what draws me to this site is that its sanctity goes so far back in time, the ranting Romans are actually little more than a flash of noonday sun on this sacred hillside. There was a temple here thousands of years before Mercury ever shook his curly locks and wiggly staff on these shores.

Given that there is now no visible trace of the temple on West Hill, it remains for the imagination to visualise the scale of it. There was a large complex here by the first century AD – lots of buildings, including accommodation, shops and bogs. But the archaeologists found traces of a Neolithic enclosure around the temple site, dating the shrine back a further two thousand years. A previously unknown round barrow was discovered (ploughed flat and now invisible) by the roadside. They also did a magnetometer survey over an area some way beyond the excavation site and found extensive and varied soil disturbance, too jumbled to interpret, which suggested an active presence in this place over a wide area and long timescale (Woodward & Leach, 1993).

My purpose today is not to find the physical location of the temple, but to attune to the landscape that held it. I want to know why the Neolithic people, the barrow-builders who made Hetty Pegler's Tump, chose this place as their shrine. I want to know what native deity or genius loci presided over this place and what traces it has scratched through the ethers.

The starting point for this is selected: a footpath down through Toney Wood. I just want to follow my instincts and not plan out this walk. Climbing by necessity out of the wrong side of the car, I take a left fork through the woods and soon find myself squelching through the mud of not-quite-evident springs.

It's really hard to describe the ambience of Toney Wood. It's Otherworldly to the point of feeling unreal – almost hallucinatory in its strangeness. It's not at all like the usual Gloucestershire faery woods, and is altogether more awesome – in the true sense of inspiring awe. Mildly unsettling too, but more because of its raw power than any focus of malevolence. It's a very old, mature wood and the trees are tall, which wipes out a lot of the light. The sun's orb dazzles the upper canopies but the pathway is dim. All around there are sounds of movement: branches sway, twigs crack. I'm most definitely not alone here.

This wood has a feel of being simultaneously immutable and in a constant state of change. The pathway cuts alongside a steep bank whose earth face is draped with old ivy and yet freshly crumbling away its layers, ever revealing. Looking at the fresh tumbles of red earth and pale stone I have a sense that if I so much as touch this surface it will fall away and expose the bones of the long dead, or other traces of old things hidden inside. I try to align my senses with the underlying layers, the resonance of a native spirit of place.

The logical assumption is that the pre-Roman deity must have had similar attributes to Mercury, since that's who replaced him (or her). But not necessarily. Stephen Yeates in his book A Dreaming for the Witches notes that the temple on West Hill was aligned so that the rising sun would stream through the entrance and illuminate the statue of Mercury on certain days in late April and early May, almost corresponding to the feast of Mercury on May 15th. From this he suggests that Mercury was chosen as the replacement god not because he had similar attributes to the local deity, but because he occupied an equivalent feast day (which may have been on or near Beltane). This rings fairly true to me, seeing as how Christianity subsequently superimposed itself on the native faith by subsuming its feast-days. I also read somewhere that the pre-Roman Uley shrine had been connected with the stag-god Cernunnos. Can I detect any feel of Cernunnos-vibes here, I wonder, as I descend through the sloping woods? At that moment there is a loud crackle of breaking twigs to my left and a swish of movement, and I turn to see a large deer pelting away through the trees.

The path presents me with choices. I try to follow intuitions, and one time when I take a path based on rational sense rather than instinct, a voice in my head says "wrong way! go back!" Following this imposed course I venture into the adjacent copse, Ring Wood. Heading towards sunlight and the green of a field glimpsed through the trees, I find the place I have been meant to discover. A thick mossy drystone wall holds back the forest, and on its other side is a low drop into a semicircular enclosure. From this circle of tree-ringed ground a stream emerges and chuckles away down the hillside. An old iron-barred stile, almost hidden, allows entry.

The alder tree above the spring. One well-head rises under the roots of this tree, the other can be seen emerging from the ground top right.

This is indeed a sacred spot. Admittedly it doesn't look that exciting, and its main use in these secular times is for cattle, as a drinking hole and occasional toilet. The enclosure is a squelching mire of their footprints, in deceptively deep mud. Tree roots weave the surface, which is spread with stone tumble, flat limestone bricks. A few bits of plastic litter and an old car tyre add a touch of modern decor. But on inner levels we have something special here. It is a double spring, a two-headed source. These are polarised, active and passive. One spring ripples straight out of the open ground, its current pulsing against the palm of my hand. The other emerges from a crease in the ground under the roots of an alder tree, and although it produces water at a similar rate, appears placid and completely motionless. In fact it took me a while to realise it was a spring because at its source it appears not to be flowing at all. A few yards from the twin springs the waters blend together and make a little stream, polarised unity.

Was this double-spring ever revered as a sacred place? Who knows. It's quite some distance from the temple complex, but then this whole area was in a sense a part of the temple, and there's no knowing which of the many springs on this hillside, if any, were singled out for special attention. I can't even be sure whether this double-headed flow existed in ancient time: some springs dry up over time, while others newly reveal themselves. But in recognition of this being a special place now, solitary, penannular and cowtrodden, I offer my piece of rainbow-sheened glass among the stones of its bed.

The "active" spring emerges from the earth.

If the atmosphere in Toney Wood was a little bit unsettling, I have to say there is a similar tension about this place. The polar spring itself is naturally buoyant, but there's something overlaid on the top, a thinly netted veil laid on the field. A little of its exuberance is stifled by this dusky web. Perhaps this negative tension is only to be expected in a place where people have pinned their curses, even if this isn't the cursing well itself. The Romans went in for cursing in a big way, but whether the practice of cursing has an older lineage in Uley, who knows. As far as I know there's no evidence that earlier peoples practised it, which is not to say that they didn't. It is, of course, perfectly possible that they did so without the relative permanence of inscribed lead. Perhaps a veneer of negativity on this place is inevitable.

I move on, down the slope into the sunlight, following the course of the young stream. The Ordnance Survey shows a footpath here, but there is none: a little used public right of way which leaves no track. The terrain is difficult as the cows' feet have left treacherous hollows under the grass; I have to reroute myself a little way into the field to avoid a twisted ankle.

The cattle are clustering. They move en masse to a scrape of bare earth in an adjacent field – another spring. I decide not to explore this one as it's on private property. But the terrain of many wells is clear.

And then I hear the sound of rapid sploshing water close by. Another circle of earth, hollowed and muddied and shaded by a ring of trees, but while the double-spring was presided over by alder, this one has a guardian of thorn. White may-blossom nods in the shade. Energies are feminine, and waters splurge. I can't get close to the spring itself but I can see it. Waters pouring from a gap, not in the flatness of the earth like the previous springs, but in a small vertical bank, straight from the tangled rootball of a hawthorn. The stream from the double-spring meanders in a reverent circle around it before meeting with its waters lower down. If there is a sacred well in this field, then this is surely it. Its powers flow forth, a gushing spark undiminished by nettles, barbed wire and the smell of biodegrading dung.

A small bridge takes me over the stream and into a sunny field, where my path is immediately sliced off by an electric fence right across the footpath. A short tube of hosepipe hangs on the wire, presumably to discourage hapless ramblers from blundering into the fence without seeing it. And perhaps to provide a zap-free passing place. I contemplate this obstacle. Under or over? Not ideal either way. On balance I decide to go for the undignified shimmy, and find myself for the second time today slithering along the grass on my front.

From here it's not easy. The electric fence scores an artificial ring within the meadow, and I can't get back to the woods. The only obvious footpath leads to the farm in the valley, in completely the wrong direction. I choose to forge my own path around the field edges, back up the hill towards the wood, hoping for an opening when I get there. Knee high grass and buttercups. English meadow magic. Marred by a distant warning as a tractor two fields away begins to creep towards me. Having strayed from the authorised track I now fear a bollocking.

Hogging the headlands I struggle up the hill. Grass becomes waist-high, buzzing with pollen, surging through umbelliferous blossoms and the squish of underfoot springs. That this hillside is a whorl of springs I already knew; the satellite image on Google Streetview shows the hidden watercourses as cropmarks, a tangle of meandering serpent outlines scotched in the grass. I reach the edge of the wood, but there is no way in. Threefold barbed wire lines the boundary. The electric fence, the farmer's curse, strings through the tall grasses.

And then a merciful stile appears, and I'm into the cool of the woods. Too knackered now to get back up the slope. Light-headed and struggling to breathe, but the strangeness of Toney Wood offers little respite. I sense the antiquity of the track, hauling me into its time loop. So I sit down on its bank to catch my breath, and watch the shining ones dance in their hall among the trees. Their floor level is below the ground of the present forest. I'm an outside observer acknowledging their music and colour. And then I move on, because if I rest here too long I probably won't be able to get up again.

I am, as it happens, just a few yards from the Romano-Celtic temple, invisible though it is beneath the ploughsoil. But the temple site is just a hub. Out from its core spins the weaving of a sacred landscape, where every twig carries the tremors of its weft.

Bord, Janet, Cursing not Curing: The Darker Side of Holy Wells (article available online)
Woodward, Ann, and Leach, Peter, The Uley Shrines: Excavation of a ritual complex on West Hill, Uley, Gloucestershire 1977-9 (English Heritage, 1993).
Yeates, Stephen, A Dreaming for the Witches: A Recreation of the Dobunni Primal Myth (Oxbow, 2009).
Several pages about Uley on Curse Tablets from Roman Britain website.


  1. Hi Rebsie,

    well you've done it again - another amazing and wonderful sacred post. This is so rich, and moving! Full of everything that makes an authentic and deep connection - personal experience, intuition, historical knowledge.. so, so good.

    Thank you!

  2. Great photos and writing. Particularly love your descriptive account of Hetty Peggler's Tump. I always thought that Hetty Peggler's Tump would be a great name for a folk rock band! Thanks for sharing your trip.

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  4. Fantastic article, totally agree about Toney woods, there is a feeling of uplifting power....but don't know the source.

    1. The Earth Herself...places that are uplifted such as mountain or hill-tops...outcroppings of rocks...springs...are Sacred.

  5. I don't know if first comment went through.
    My Penobscot Indian friends say they built America's Stonehenge in New Hampshire. They all have red hair and call themselves "Kelshy".
    Other Native American people like my MicMacs have a variety of sacred places too...Serpentine Hill formations.. mountain - tops...springs..Also Maize is very Sacred...I have often seen Corn- Spirit- Woman at the edge of cornfields. She is as tall as the Maize...has yellow corn silk hair and yellow skin the color of Maize and a green dress. She is a benign Goddess..