My recent blog post about stone circles got me thinking about those other enigmatic ancient monuments, the Long Barrows. Neolithic tombs that have somehow survived for thousands of years. Some have survived better than others. Some tombs have survived as Quoits and Dolmen – the long mound of earth eroded over the centuries to leave the burial chamber, sometimes fallen into ruin, sometimes preserved as a huge capstone held aloft by standing stones, like some dining table made for Giants. Whilst others have the long mound remaining, and within the mound, stone burial chambers invite us inside.
If my memory serves me my first encounter with a Long Barrow was the one at West Kennet near the Avebury stone circle. It’s a fair walk up the hill across the road from that other strange monument from the Avebury complex, Silbury Hill. The Long Barrow is clearly visible on the horizon from the main road – a long undulating mound fronted by massive standing stones. As you approach, the scale of the monument becomes clear and you have to step around the huge sarsen megaliths to step inside, and once inside the world changes.
But let’s step back a little.
What is it that calls us to visit these ancient tombs? Last September Cerri and I went on the only road trip of 2020 and joined Kristoffer Hughes and his husband Ian on a walk around the Isle of Anglesey. It was wonderful. One of the places we visited was the barrow called Bryn Celli Ddu, one of my favourite sacred sites. During the tour, we made a recording of our thoughts as one of the Walking the Talk interview segments on the DruidCast podcast and you can still listen to that here.
When we arrived at Bryn Celli Ddu there were families there, and their children were rolling down the hill and having a wail of a time, but one of the questions I asked myself is why families come to places like this? It was the same when Cerri and I visited one of the other famous Long Barrows, Wayland’s Smithy, and found the same there. That morning someone in the family had suggested “let’s go on a family day out to an ancient tomb. Go on kids, it’ll be great”. And as I said it was great, and they all had a wonderful time, including a horde of children invading the interview between me and Kristoffer inside the tomb – which I kept in DruidCast because it was so funny.
What draws us to these places?
Of course, it will be different for everyone. For me, it is a similar calling that draws me to visit stone circles, but Long Barrows are very different. As I said in the last article, we don’t know what happened in stone circles, but we do know what happened in Long Barrows, and what they were for. The stone circles stand there teasing us with an unknown mystery, but Long Barrows hold a different mystery – the mystery of life, death, and rebirth – and maybe that is why we are drawn to them. When I stepped inside West Kennet Long Barrow all those years ago I knew I was entering a tomb. I knew the bones of the dead had been found there – up to 50 peoples’ remains were held within. I know those bones, once interred, had not remained untouched within the tomb, but instead had on occasion been disinterred, and brought out of the tomb, or had been moved deeper into the tomb to make space for more remains. I also know there is a suggestion that some of those bones had been stripped clean of flesh. Stepping into the darkness of the tomb I was aware of all of this.
And yet I felt gently held.
When I lived in Haywards Heath as a child I used to cycle to the huge cemetery on Western Road, and just sit there on a bench among the gravestones. I was so peaceful. I never felt scared. It was the same in West Kennet. I could sense the Spirits of the Ancestors there within those stones, but they held no fear for me, and I never felt they wanted me out, or that somehow I was invading their private space. I don’t think Long Barrows ever were private places.
We have such a bleached and detached relationship with death these days. It’s all hidden away. I’m not at all sure it’s a healthy relationship. As they say, along with taxes death is life’s other certainty. The people who built the Long Barrows lived with death as a part of life, and thus that fear just isn’t there when I go to a Long Barrow. I feel grief, of course, but I also feel love, reverence, community.
However, it does always feel like I’m being watched. The hidden eyes of those ancestors long departed, fascinated by what I bring to their resting place. I will leave an offering. A flower or leaf brought from the surrounding countryside – more often than not I will seek out a Mugwort plant and leave a small flower or leaf, in honour of the Ancestors. I like finding others have left a similar offering, but I don’t like it when I find non-biodegradable offerings, spilt wax, or empty aluminium nightlight holders. However, I’m not going down that particular rabbit hole with this article. I did that 8 years ago.
Other Long Barrows I love? Hetty Pegler’s Tump, Belas Knap, the Coldrum Stones, to name just a few, but there are many more. Wayland Smithy is our go-to Long Barrow though. There on the Ridgeway, surrounded by a whispering Beech Grove. Intoning the Awen at sunset on Samhain Eve standing within the opening chamber of the tomb. It’s like a hundred voices sing with you, as the veil thins, and the shades ride out from those Hollow Hills.