Wind. Lots of it. The Downs in February are cold. The gliders were out in force, swooping overhead like circling hawks. The wind was biting, taking my breath away, yet standing among the barrows, all seemed quiet.
Magnificent views to the north, and to the west is a slightly higher ridge. If the landscape were unchanged, I can't help feeling that the higher ridge would have provided a better site/sight for the barrows, being in view of Ivinghoe Beacon across the valley.
Despite the signs exhorting no damage, the barrows all look as though bikers have been using them for jumps, each barrow having a track right across its top.
Five Knolls Round Barrows is an ancient burial place dating from the New Stone Age/ Late Bronze Age. It is actually a group of 7 round barrows. Consisting of 2 bowl barrows, 3 bell barrows, and 2 pond barrows.
Over 90 skeltons have been found here, about 30 of these had there hands tied. Finds are in Luton museum.
The nearest site to my home (I think!) is a delight to visit, especially on a clear evening. The five knolls sit on the edge of the hills which abutt Dunstable, and sat on the Knolls an amazing panorama slaps the senses silly. To the west, Ivinghoe beacon, the start of the Ridgeway path, then over fields and hedges to Dunstable and then the M1 lurking under a cloud of smog to the east. It feels so free and clear up here - as though the pollution and congestion of the land below are not of the world on the downs. And behind the knolls - surely a grove of trees ? if not, it certainly looks and feels like one!
This article by the eminent Grinsell collects examples of witch and fairy lore being bound up with barrows:
Another possible instance comes from the trial of Elizabeth Pratt of Dunstable, Bedfordshire, in 1667:
"Elizabeth Pratt, when asked about two children of Thomas Heyward who were said to have been bewitched to death, accused instead three other Dunstable women. She said that 'the devill appeared to her about a fortnight since in the form of a catt, and Commanded [her] to goe to those three persons aforesaid to seeke the destroying of the two Children...' She said she was with them when they mett to bewitch the eldest childe of the said Heyward, and that they had two meetings about it whereof one was at the Three Knolls upon the Dunstable Downes, and the other a little lower upon the said Downes.'
The 'Three Knolls' are of course the well-known group of Bronze Age barrows now known as the Five Knolls, three of which are bell-shaped and enclosed by the same ditch. Elizabeth Pratt was committed to Bedford Gaol where her name occurs next to that of John Bunyan in the prison register.
I know, I know, the whole 'witchcraft' thing is highly suspect as we don't know if or how Ms Pratt was 'encouraged' to confess. But if someone else came up with the knolls as a location perhaps they thought them the type of place that would be right for a bit of witchcraft. Or, it really IS right for a bit of witchcraft.
From the eminent L V Grinsell's 'Witchcraft at some prehistoric sites', in K Briggs's 'The Witch Figure' (1973).
[Quoting Dr Stukeley:]"A high prominence of the Chiltern overlooks all, called the Five Knolls, from that number of barrows, or Celtic tumuli, which are round, pretty large, and ditched about, upon the very apex of the hill.
Close by is a round cavity, as often observed in Wiltshire [ie a dry valley in the chalk hill]. This, we are informed, is called Pascomb Pit, and is a great hollow in the downs."
Tradition, that unwearying journalist of marvellous tales, reports that a church was intended to have been erected on this spot, but that the materials were removed invisibly as fast as brought together.
From p29 of 'The Beauties of England and Wales' by John Britton, and others (1801). Yeah, John Britton sounds like a pseudonym for such a book title, but he was an antiquary. Online at Google Books.
More on the 'Pascombe Pit', where there was the tradition of rolling oranges on Good Friday. The writer connects this with the removal of the stone from in front of Jesus's tomb. But really that wasn't orange and didn't roll down a hill.
The tradition of orange rolling is believed to have started in the mid to late eighteenth century and involved hundreds of people. The juiciest oranges were reserved for pelting one another and knocking off the top hats of those foolish enough to wear them at such a spectacle. Additional entertainment was provided by a local band which was later joined by several fairground attractions including a merry-go-round, a coconut shy and a shooting gallery. They positioned themselves at the foot of the hill.
Attendance grew each year with people travelling from as far away as London by train, bus and eventually by motor car.
Sadly lack of oranges in the war led to the activity's suspension. And a revival later was 'squashed' by local traders in the sixties. Bring back the orange rolling!!
see Rita Swift's article here, which gives her sources.
Three photos from 1968 of the Orange Rolling Event can be seen here, at the Collections Picture Library.
Saxons 'used a Bronze Age barrow on the Downs for their dead, more than a hundred of them, probably the casualties from an unrecorded battle' - G.R. Crosher, Along the Chiltern Ways (London: Cassell, 1973)
There used to be a round barrow on the other side of the Icknield Way to the Five Knolls, about a third of a mile to the south east. There is a fantastic picture of what its excavators found, on p 168 of the Victoria County History for Bedfordshire (v1). It shows the skeleton of a small child being clasped by that of (presumably) its mother. "Near the head of the woman were two broken pots, near the right hand a stone muller and a white pebble; elsewhere in the grave were two other mullers, two scrapers and two very rudely chipped celts [axeheads]." But far more fantastic than this, about 200 fossil Echini (sea urchins) can be seen encircling the skeletons. Folklore has called such fossils 'fairy loaves' - could they have been seen similarly in the Bronze age - as helpful offerings of food for the next world, or perhaps they were added for another symbolic reason - or even because they were just really cool objects collected by one or other of the dead occupants?
Dyer, in his 'Southern Britain' (drawing on info from the Bedfordshire Magazine 8) describes the opening of two of the bell barrows in August 1850. The event drew a crowd: "a large assembly of persons of the middle and working classes who exhibited much interest in the progress of the works." Their conduct "was extremely orderly" you'll be pleased to hear. Personally I can't stand it when the hoipolloi get rowdy at one's archaeological dig. Mind you, the excitement was for nothing; nothing (ie no treasure) was found.
When the Northern most barrow was excavated in 1928 a crouched female skeleton with a late Neolithic knife at her shoulder was found. In Saxon times about 30 bodies were buried here, hands behind their backs, and people hung on the gallows were also buried here later.
I've always loved the idea of the fossil sea urchins at this site.
Here's an article about the subject in general, in a whole book about Myth and Geology.
It's by Kenneth McNamara, and called 'Shepherds' Crowns, Fairy Loaves and Thunderstones: the mythology of fossil echinoids in England.'