The barrows at Therfield Heath are rather unexpected in this part of the country. They are beautifully positioned overlooking the ancient Icknield Way and you can see for miles across the flat Cambridgeshire countryside. There are five Bronze Age barrows in a group right on the 'turn' of the slope, and some way further back a Neolithic longbarrow, which was apparently reused in anglo saxon times. There are other round barrows on the heath too (even one with a bench perched on the top...). Part of the heath is a golf course so you do have to watch yourself crossing the greens, but the site is supposed to be a Site of Special Scientific Interest. It's chalk and there are lots of interesting flowers, including (i haven't seen it but if you get up there at Easter you might) the rare Pasqueflower.
Parking is easy - there's a small 'nature reserve' car park at the west end, or drive through the golf club car park at the eastern end, and then make your way up the slope.
Go into Royston to see the 'Roy Stone' a 2 tonne glacial erratic placed at time immemorial? at the crossroads of the Icknield Way and the Roman Ermine Street. Also there's Royston Cave, a v mysterious underground chamber with strange pagan/christian carvings of uncertain date but for some reason associated with the Knights Templar. That's at the crossroads too - popular with ley line fans also.
The barrows at Therfield Heath are somewhere to clear your mind and think about the passing of time; I think they're cool and pretty unmissable if you're about in this relatively barrowless land.
In ' Tongues in Trees,' a work on plantlore published by George Allen in 1891, I read at p. 48 :— "The pasque-flower, Anemone pulsalilla, a native in the fields near Royston, is there supposed to have grown from the blood of Danes slain in battle.
Pasque flowers (with luck) still grow on Therfield Heath just outside Royston. And of course the long barrow must be where the Danes are buried? Quote in Notes and Queries January 7th 1911.
From the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of London, v3 (1856) - strange sounding barrow-like and subterranean excavations up on Therfield Heath. In all likelihood not as old as the barrows? - although flint tools were found in one, interestingly. But maybe inspired by them and their location?
Once you arrive at the main group of round barrows the long barrow is easy to spot on the fairway of the adjacent golf course – 18th hole? It is larger than I expected, approximately 2m high x 30m long and looked to be in good condition. I know golf courses are not everyone’s cup of tea but at least they should offer some sort of protection to sites – excluding divots of course! I find it quite amazing that this long barrow was perhaps 2,000 years old when the ancestors decided to build their round barrows.
Makes you think – well, makes me think anyway!
Just off the A505, west of Royston. Large (free) car park.
Karen stayed in the car to keep an eye on the children (who were busy watching DVDs – Dafydd a documentary on the Vikings / Sophie Peppa Pig!) whilst I headed up the obvious ‘chalk path’ towards the barrows which are easily seen from the car park.
Despite being overcast, it was quite warm with only a little breeze. Surprisingly for a bank holiday there were no golf players around so I didn’t have to worry about stray golf balls hitting me!
The three larger barrows are approximately 2.5m high x 20 across, the smaller ones approximately 1.5m high x 10m across. The 'missing barrow' Kammer refers to is possibly either a very small barrow next to the long barrow? On the other hand it may not be! Although one barrow showed clear damage caused by previous ‘excavation’ the others all appeared to be in good order.
There are good views to be had from the top of the barrows north and west.
The O/S map shows a couple of other barrows to the east and a further barrow across the road on the other side of the car park. Unfortunately I decided I didn’t have enough time to visit these as I felt I had been gone too long as it was. Which proved to be the right judgment call given Karen’s response when I did eventually arrive back at the car! It is surprising how quickly time can pass when you immerse yourself in a site.
This is an excellent place to visit and well worth the minimal effort. Make sure you allow yourself plenty of time!
E B Nunn's account of digging the barrow in the 19th Century
'April 26th 1855, Opened the Long Hill on Royston Heath. Made a cut about 7 feet wide to the base of the hill throughout its length. Found in the east end at about 1 foot from the top a small heap of calcined human bones, and a small piece or two of iron very much corroded, a few pieces of flints. At the depth of 4 feet a human skeleton lying with its legs crossed, the internment was Head NE by SW, at the base of the hill a bank of flint lying NW-SE the portion above described relates to portion no.1 on ground plan. In portion no. 2 a cyst was found cut in the chalk at the base of the hill about 2 feet depth being 18 to 20 inches, containing ashes, at 6 yards farther west another cyst was found of the same description and dimensions. At about 2ft farther west a skeleton was found, the bones being placed in a kind of heap or circle. This was also on the base of the hill. Nothing more was found.'
Visited 26th April 2003: This cluster of barrows is visible from the Thurfield Heath car park. There are three relatively large barrows, and three smaller ones (of which I only identified two) that are much less well defined. The three largest in the cluster are very close to each other, and stand in a neat row. From the top of any one of these you get great views of the long barrow to the south and Cambridgeshire to the north (freakily flat to someone who lives in Wales).
Visited 26th April 2003: I was a bit concerned that we wouldn't find the long barrow because I knew it was of the low earthen type, but even without a Landranger it was easy enough to find. It's up on the hill to the east of the car park. Although you can't see the long barrow itself from the car park, you can make out the nearby round barrows.
Watch out for the golf players though. Whereas most of the round barrows are on the side of the fairway, the long barrow is part of the golf course (apologies to any golf players if my terminology is muddled). We watched a bloke taking a shot from the top of the barrow. It was rather amusing to me, but I suppose it's pretty routine for the local players. In this case I think he thought we were admiring his game.