Our journey began with the iconic Uffington White Horse and Dragon Hill. We sat in the sunshine watching swallows dart about, with views stretching for miles. For over 3,000 years the chalk horse has watched over the land from this hillside. From there, the path led upwards to Uffington Castle, an Iron Age hillfort. Emerging through a gap in the ramparts we joined onto The Ridgeway. Along the white chalk paths we meandered, past hedgerows laden with haws and sloes and elderberries. The combine harvesters trundled through the adjacent fields leaving stubble and dust in their wake. A mile later we arrived at our intended destination – Wayland’s Smithy, a neolithic chambered long barrow.
Tucked just off the path in a small copse of trees, the barrow remains hidden until you come around the final corner and enter into the clearing. An unobtrusive information board tells you a little of the history and includes photos of the major excavation that took place here in the 1960s. What you see today is a reconstruction that took place after that excavation.
The day we visited was peaceful and quiet, the stones dappled with sunlight coming through the leaves overhead. The atmosphere was gentle and welcoming, although I have heard it can feel quite different on stormy, twilight evenings. And well it might, for it is named for Wayland, the Anglo-Saxon deity of Smithcraft. Of Norse and Germanic origin, Wayland is famed for his skill as a metalworker with many legendary swords attributed to him in sagas and poems.
However it is not swords that Wayland forges at his barrow-smithy, but horseshoes. In 1738 Francis Wise wrote of Wayland’s Smithy:
“All the account which the country people are able to give of it is ‘At this place lived formerly an invisible Smith, and if a traveller’s Horse had lost a Shoe upon the road, he had no more to do than to bring the Horse to this place with a piece of money, and leaving both there for some little time, he might come again and find the money gone, but the Horse new shod”
Wayland is also said to attend to the Uffington white horse. It leaves its hillside and gallops across the sky to the smithy to be reshod, once every 100 years. Despite the barrow being far, far older than any tales of Wayland, until recently people still left coins pushed into every nook and cranny. In fact, it got so troublesome the coins were in danger of damaging the stones. English Heritage removed the coins as well as the board telling Wayland’s tale, and the practice seems to have subsided.
One day later we entered another ancient tomb, West Kennet Long Barrow. Part of the Avebury World Heritage Site, it lies on a ridge overlooking Silbury Hill (the largest man-made mound in Europe, its function remains a mystery). When we arrived at the foot of the hill the skies were grey and ominous looking. Earlier in the day thunder had pealed over Avebury and we’d been caught in a downpour. However this time we were lucky and the clouds cleared as we began our ascent.
The path is merely a track leading through large stubbled fields, but the view of the barrow as it becomes visible is breathtaking. Large sarsen stones stand at the tomb’s entrance, behind which you may enter the mound. There are five chambers opening off the central passage. The first chamber held a nest with four swallow chicks, and the adult birds darted in and out of the entrance every minute or so. Despite West Kennet being far busier than Wayland’s Smithy, I found it has much more atmosphere. Standing at the far end of the last chamber the outside world disappeared in a white haze. Your eyes quickly become accustomed to the dark, but it remains womblike and strangely reassuring. The silence is punctuated only by the frequent chattering of hungry baby swallows.
Surprisingly, I’ve not come across much in the way of folklore associated with West Kennet, excepting this following gem. At sunrise on midsummer’s day a spectral white figure accompanied by a white hound with red ears is said to appear. They walk around the barrow as if inspecting it before disappearing once again.
Red-eared white animals are otherworldly creatures, associated with the Fair Folk. In Welsh mythology the Cŵn Annwn are supernatural white hounds. The red ears mark them out as agents of death. To hear their howling foretold death, and they take to the skies as part of the Wild Hunt. And the Fair Folk themselves have a long association with ancient barrows. Long barrows and round barrows, they are the Hollow Hills – the subterranean halls of the faerie peoples when they withdrew from this world.
There are far more tales to tell about the Fair Folk and their Hollow Hills, beyond the scope of this article. It is a subject I intend to return to. And I have further tales to tell about other places I journeyed to while exploring the ancient sites of Wiltshire (for of course I went to Stonehenge!). However, for now, my tale is told.
(With thanks for Bauhaus for inspiring this post’s title. Listen to Hollow Hills.)