Updated: May 23, 2020
Swallowhead Springs is a bit of a mystery to me. I have heard whispers of a spring near Silbury Hill from many different people over the years, but never ventured out to find it. This year a twitter friend of mine, Bo Novak, reminded me about it and kindly provided a map so as soon as this year's lockdown rules were relaxed to allow us to drive to places for our exercise, I went exploring.
The spring itself gives rise to a lovely stream, which heads down the valley to help form the River Kennet as it heads towards Marlborough. It can be extremely wet in winter and rather deep, but in the summer months it can dry up until the rains come and raise the water table again.
In his wonderful book from 1743 called "Abury: A Temple of the British Druids", William Stukely writes :
“It seems no difficult matter to point out the time of year when this great prince died, who is here interr’d, viz. about the beginning of our present April. I gather it from this circumstance. The country people have an anniversary meeting on the top of Silbury-hill on every palm-Sunday, when they make merry with cakes, figs, sugar, and water fetch’d from the Swallow-head, or spring of the Kennet. This spring was much more remarkable than at present, gushing out of the earth, in a continued stream. They say it was spoil’d by digging for a fox who earth’d above, in some cranny thereabouts; this disturb’d the sacred nymphs, in a poetical way of speaking.”
I haven't been able to find out whether the spring was regarded as sacred in ancient history, but its place as a source of water in the vicinity of West Kennet Long Barrow and Silbury Hill surely shows that it would have been a place of importance. As the Roman road from London to Bath passes alongside I can just imagine thirsty Roman troops filling up their gourds for the march ahead.
In modern times it is clearly sacred to some as the surrounding trees and ground are covered in offerings, such as ribbons tied around trees and crystals and candles dotted around. A willow close to the spring has cracked and bent over, forming an arch that looks like a portal.
When I arrived, the stream was still very much alive, and some helpful sarsens provided stepping stones across the water. Passing through the willow portal, I made my way to the water source and watched the water bubbling up gently from the ground below. My feet squelched in the soft, wet ground that surrounded it.
The place definitely had an atmosphere, and I honestly felt I was standing somewhere special. A place that can transport us back to the past and link us to the ancient people. Wherever we are in time, we are just passing through but the earth has been constant and just as the people who built West Kennet Long Barrow 5,500 years ago would have stood here, today it was my turn to stand in their footsteps.
After leaving the spring, I climbed through a gap in the fence to the field behind and trudged up the hill to West Kennet Long Barrow. As the sun came down my son made shadows against a giant sarsen stone near the entrance.
As we walked back to the car, the sun was setting fast, and I watched it on the horizon as it set behind Silbury Hill.