Updated: Aug 29, 2019
By Sara French from Hireth Woodland Therapy
It is Good Friday and sunny as you like. The Orange Tips flit hither and thither. Just ahead, not promising a great deal, slumping partially shaded by a spectacular beech tree is Lanhill Long Barrow. Cloudless skies and curiosity have led to this hidden Wiltshire treasure. The morning had seen a brief consideration of a return trip to the most famous and arguably most remarkable barrow in Wiltshire; West Kennett perched smugly there amongst its community of important ancient sites looking down upon Silbury Hill. On previous visits to West Kennett I have found myself one of many and the many have their cameras. It had been tricky to settle without being somehow in someone's way or at the very least in someone's shot.
Today though I am drawn to a more solitary pilgrimage. Lanhill is just one of a hoard of around 200 that are named The Cotswold-Severn Group. This rural gang ranges across the North Wessex downs to the Cotswold hills disregarding county borders but perhaps mapping out the patchwork of more ancient territories.
Lanhill is so nearly upon the road that a glance at the right moment and you can see it. Lifelong locals say they have never even heard of it; like a door in a familiar passageway passed a thousand times yet unheeded.
Approaching in the shade of the hedgerow I notice that the bluebells are blue but still tightly packed and with each step the proximity of the road becomes a muffled thing to the point that, as I reach the barrow, the rumbling has slipped out of my consciousness entirely and will stay that way for two hours or so.
Despite many episodes of stone pilfering and sometime disorderly excavation this barrow stills stands; aided along the way by reconstruction. It is featureless from here and reminiscent of a giant belly. One way of thinking suggests this was the intention. It is tricky to get into the minds of the architects but I am seduced by thoughts that internment here marked return to the womb of the Goddess and ultimately the journey to the Underworld.
My eye is drawn toward the beech tree that reaches toward and over with such effort deep stretch marks beautifully scar the underside of its limbs. The beech and its companions follow the edge of the tangled shadow that is a dry ditch. On between the hedge and the barrow and circumventing the beech I notice around the base of its melded trunks harsh wire fencing protruding like careless stitches and 18 inches up a strange trapping; a twig gripped by two trunks grown into one. My new friend has a vociferous appetite for its surroundings.
Here I am looking at a shamble of brambles and stingers and no sign of an entrance or chamber or forecourt or the giant stones a part of me is seeking. On that quest I continue around the berg beneath the dapple.
This time of year Lanhill is accessible and flat and doable in sandals though I imagine the undergrowth could become prickly and stingy toward the summer. The greatest obstacle is the stile as you enter the field. Alongside there is a metal gate that is more visible from the road. If you plan to visit then perhaps to turn left into the track is easier so from the direction of Chippenham on the A420 just past the turning for Yatton Keynell and Castle Combe notice the telegraph wires across the road and turn into the track on the left almost beneath them. Leaving the gateway clear cross the ditch and over the stile. In front of you is Lanhill Clump and to the right is the barrow; approximately 185ft long and 90ft wide and perhaps 6ft high; presenting its broader short end tapering off to the West.
I pause and drift back to the inhabitants. It is hard not to.
I was told a skeleton was found just inside a tiny chamber ‘sitting up’. Aubrey Burl’s 1982 Rites of the Gods account seems to confirm this. So there He was in my mind’s eye crammed against the entrance stone trussed in a foetal position; a grown man with a terrible childhood injury to his elbow that would have left him disabled throughout his life and reliant on good will. Perhaps he was the last. Burl’s describes a strangely enthusiastic effort by two chaps named Piggott and Keiller to emulate the situation in the tiny chamber. A replica of the chamber was built and it was found that the stacking of inhabitants' bones further in could only have been achieved by wriggling on the belly amongst them. The bearer of what must have been a Neolithic short straw busied themselves in a macabre tidy up before easing out wormlike and then unceremoniously shoving the latest body into the space; wedging it there with a block stone. Many barrow explorers describe the journey in as one where they find complete skeletons near the entrances through progressive disambulation and finally in the deepest parts sometimes ad hoc and sometimes neatly organised bones. These are often re-categorised so that skulls are together, thigh bones together. Well....I am sure you get my drift. So the bones make their journey to the Underworld under ground and over time and enabled by their pals entering and re-entering to assist in the passage from body to spirit.
Emerging into the sunshine to the South and rewarded by a deer in the distance dashing across the base of Lanhill itself I suddenly come upon the only remaining excavated entrance and a cosy chamber the size of a small double bed. It seems a little incongruent in it’s preservation but nonetheless gives the barrow a face, a feature, a dank, cool mouth. The stones are wondrous as ancient stones always are.
The part of me seeking this ingress is thrilled but my feet quickly draw me back toward the beech. This phenomenon is familiar to me; that I go somewhere to see a particular aspect and then am unexpectedly distracted and drawn to quite another.
So I traverse the belly and find my home perching beneath the beech again upon the rise of the mound and blending into it and there I stay for perhaps an hour. These places are so much more than seeing sights. They can engage all the senses and most particularly for me a connection with past place and past people. Skipping over the myth that Viking King Hubba was buried here, leading to it sometimes being known as Hubba’s Low, I reach back to the founders who lived here, who died near and made their final journey through the chambers of Lanhill. In my minds eye an extended family group of perhaps 30 or more about their business with animals and crops, with dark skin and of Mediterranean heritage; small stature and delicate bones. The men wiry; the tallest 5ft 4. The women with Grecian features and beneath 5ft. There they are close to the dead.The boy with the shattered arm. The baby of just one year old. They have the flavour of an ancestral cult and belief in afterlife. There they are revisiting and rearranging.
It is difficult to pull myself away but I had promised at least two barrows in a day and am on my way to what turned out to be Lanhill’s bold counter-place, Lugbury. Quite a different story there!
At the stile exit I pause and look around. Behind me the back-to-reality traffic, in front a dissected image where blue sky meets sweeping green valley. So near to the right this gentle resting place that has left an impression of femininity and warmth. Lanhill successfully slumbers invisible but in full sight. She does not thrust herself upon you or demand much at all but as I climb the stile I feel sure she she is watching me go.
All images and text are copyright of Sara French