Without any fieldnotes or a map these monsters took a bit of finding. I eventually parked at the south end of the village and walked back along a footpath through woods before branching off to the right deeper into the woods where the 'hills' suddenly appear in front of you. Wht are they not known better? possibly because there are very few other sites in the area?
Visiting in early April there is very little greenery around, though more than in Cornwall at the moment. Even so there is no view from the top of the tallest mound because of the trees all around, which is a shame.
I would love to know more about the excavations here, how they were carried out and where the story of the light being left burning inside came from.
Extract taken from a paper read to the (archaeology) society April 5th 1832
"At the north end of the parish of Ashdon, in Essex, are certain artificial mounds. They consist of a line of four greater barrows, and a line of three smaller barrows, at the distance of between 70 and 80 feet in front of the others.
“The situation of these mounds is remarkable. They stand on a general acclivity in face of Bartlow church, the country gradually rising around them like an extended amphitheatre.
“Between the hills and the church is a hollow to the north, down which runs a little brook that divides the parishes of Ashdon and Bartlow, forming the boundary of the counties of Essex and Cambridgeshire.
“Though the hills do not belong to the parish of Bartlow, which is in Cambridgeshire, nor to the hamlet of Bartlow which is in Essex, still, from the received interpretation of the Saxon word Low, a barrow, it is clear that they give their name to the place, a proof of their antiquity”.
Should they be on TMA these early Romano-British mounds, unique of course, and large. But in truth they have to be seen just to say 'wow'.
Second visit and we always start from the church, past the Three Hills pub/hotel, turn right at the cross roads and the church will be on your right. Stand and admire the round towered church, note the two paths that run through the church yard, one will lead you to christianity, the other to a pagan past.
The remaining three mounds are surrounded by tall trees, an ecosystem has evolved in this large glade the chalk mounds are covered in long grass and wild flowers, this is what enchants the place. Butterflies dance at your feet, there is a surfeit of these dark brown creatures, damselflies and dragonflies from the nearby stream, bees buzz busily round the plants.
The three mounds so steeply sided protect the plants, Silbury comes easily to mind with the largest mound, at 45 foot high, though the Bartlow mound misses the mark it still comes second, you can read the history here.....
This is the largest barrow in Britain and very few people know of it. This Romano-British site at Bartlow is on the Essex/Cambridgeshire border at TL 586453. Originally the largest group in Europe when there were seven enormous barrows here. Then the now disused railway came through and flattened four of them! The largest survivor is 45 feet high and the highest in Britain. The wooden staicase gives access to the top without causing erosion. You can then look down on the other two giants. Many suberb artefacts have been recovered and are now in Colchester Museum (Bartlow was formerly in Essex).
Access is via a footpath, but it is not well marked. Bartlow is a small crossroads hamlet with few houses. Look for the "Three Hills" pub and the path is beyond the entrance to the big house next door. It seems incredible that this magnifent and enormous site is so little valued locally. The largest barrrow is second only in size to Silbury Hill (excluding mottes and castle mounds) and if Bartlow were in Wilts rather than Cambs there would be hundreds of visitors every day. Go there and be amazed!
There seem to be various traditions relating to skipping in Easter week, from various places around the country. In Cambridgeshire, Good Friday seems to have been the day singled out. "An eighty year old woman of Linton recalled in the 1930s that in her youth the villagers of Linton and Hadstock used to skip on Good Friday to Bartlow Hills to join in the fun of the fair held there."
p107 in 'Cambridgeshire Customs and Folklore' by Enid Porter (1969).
In 1016 King Edmund Ironside fought and lost to the Danish invader Cnut at a place called Assundun. This was traditionally taken to be Ashdon, just south of Bartlow Hills .
In the parish of ASHDON, sparated from Bartlow, in Cambridgeshire, only by a small rivulet, are four large contiguous Barrows, called the BARTLOW HILLS, from their situation being not very distant from Bartlow Chuch. These are vulgarly regarded as the tumuli raised over the slain in the battle fought between Edmund Ironside, and the Danish King, Canute, in the year 1016; but as this tradition is not supported by any historical authority, it cannot be considered as deserving of credit.
(p380 of 'The Beauties of England and Wales, Or, Delineations, Topographical, Historical, and Descriptive' by John Britton and others, 1801. It's online at Google Books.)
Cnut rather kindly built Ashdon church over the graves of the English, and created Bartlow Hills as the resting place for his own fallen warriors.
It's true and if you want further proof, Camden reports in his 'Britannia' of 1610 that:
"Dane-wort which with bloud-red berries, commeth up heere plenteously, they still call by no other name than Danes-bloud, of the number of Danes that there were slaine, verily beleeving that it blometh from their bloud."
The tradition is rather like the one we have of poppies growing on the WW1 battlefields. Danewort is thought to be dwarf elder (Sambucus ebulus).
(Actually the battle is now thought to have been in Ashingdon, some way away. And of course, the barrows aren't Danish. They're generally referred to as (shh) Roman - you can't deny the wealth of Roman artefacts discovered there! but to be fair they were probably rich native people who were buried in the traditional British style through their own choice).