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Cley Hill


<b>Cley Hill</b>Posted by ChanceImage © Chance - July 2013
Nearest Town:Warminster (3km ENE)
OS Ref (GB):   ST840448 / Sheet: 183
Latitude:51° 12' 5.85" N
Longitude:   2° 13' 44.53" W

Added by Rhiannon

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I've not been up here for a very long time. Perhaps you're guilty of the same sort of thing - tending to overlook local places for new and exciting ones that are further away. But my sister and I found this excellent, complete with its air of weirdness. (A couple of vaguely peculiar things happened while we were here, although normal people wouldn't have given them a second thought. Maybe you find more weirdness when you're expecting it.)

It was exposed here but dry, and we could see great globs of low dark cloud moving across the landscape, pouring on less fortunate places. There's a 360 degree view - quite uncommon round here where lots of high spots are joined onto bigger bits of land like Salisbury Plain.

We were mostly here for the wildlife (we saw kites, a yellowhammer and oil beetles among other things) and specifically for the snails. It got hilariously competitive as we hunched over little chalky scrapes out of the wind, my sister triumphantly brandishing a tiny shell a few millimetres high - What?! Why haven't I got that one... (Competitive snailing eh, whatever next. But it's amazing how much variety there is, and because they're empty, you don't have to feel too guilty about collecting a few shells.)

On reflection I suppose we climbed the hill in a spiralling way like the shape of a shell. Much nicer than the more ghastly straight-up approach - it's precipitously steep in places. Most of the hill is so windswept and open, but the quarried area on the south is such a strange muddle of lumps and bumps. They loom up over you and it feels strangely enclosed and surprisingly claustrophobic. But the quarried area doesn't take up the amount of space that you expect from the carpark. It's only a little area really.

There are other earthworks too -the Iron Age ridge that circles the hill for one. It doesn't feel very usefully defensive but maybe the slope would be enough to put most people off storming up. I did start to wonder, did anyone ever really live up here? The top isn't particularly big or flat like nearby Scratchbury and Battlesbury. You can imagine people in their huts there but not so much here. Yet Martin and Dave from the National Trust did find some here with their resistivity experiments.

This strange isolated hill advertises itself from all sorts of spots for miles around. You'd want to know who was in charge of it. And who was buried in the Bronze age barrows on top? It's funny to sit in their lea and have the same sort of view that people have seen for thousands of years (if you ignore industrial agriculture). There's also a linear dyke that's said to cut across one of the barrows, dating it at least a bit.

We also walked down the amazing sunken lane on the hill's south (part of the Mid-Wiltshire Way) - recommended as another numinous spot.
Rhiannon Posted by Rhiannon
30th April 2018ce
Edited 30th April 2018ce

A chance visit, not planned at all. Just the other side of Warminster today on the way to somewhere else, spotted this marvelous enigmatic looking hill. Never seen before by me. Abandoned original plan with "Let's walk up it." Remarkably easy to access, just past the entrance to Longleat there is a National Trust signpost and small car park. Easy walk up ... today was very windy indeed which made it a lot of fun. There is a clear information board telling us about the Bronze Age bowl barrows, Iron Age hill fort and the six different varieties of orchid. Too late for the orchids today but amazing views - in some ways this hill reminded me of Uffington and even Glastonbury Tor as it has a smaller hill next to it. Very much the same 'feel' as Uffington but without the white horse of course.

Lovely, relatively, unsung place. Added to list of great hill forts around Wiltshire.
tjj Posted by tjj
11th August 2014ce
Edited 11th August 2014ce

[visited 28/12/05] I almost crashed first time I drove past this on the way to Dorset, not only are the ramparts immense but there was a gert huge nipple on top of a giant breast, just to the right of my vision. Cut to 1 1/2 years later, I finally had the Warminister map and went "Oh thats Cley Hill". This is a popular place and I was fortunate to get a parking space as I headed up here for sunset.

The defenses are steep, in fact the whole hill is steep, I imagine they had all sorts of fun trying to get the carts with provisions in up to the top here. Now perhaps my brain just sees breasts, but the barrow is large and very carefully placed... As a whole the hill is still in great condition and sees a lot of use, not surprising given how prominent it must be from Warminster.

Access is up a steep hill and through a gate from the car park.
juamei Posted by juamei
30th December 2005ce
Edited 30th December 2005ce

Cley Hill is, as Julian points out in his book, quite clearly a recumbent mother hill, with Little Cley Hill forming the head. Most interesting is the vulva shaped area between Little Cley Hill and the main hill itself, which is very rich in flint (light area in plowed field) and flint knappings and discarded flint scrapers are all over the place. The round barrow is not on the highest point of the hill, as you would expect, but is instead perfectly placed to overlook this vulva area, with cup and ring markings beneath (damaged by medieval plowing). Does this indicate that the vulva area itself was considered sacred?

I grew up around this area and saw my first crop circle in the far corner of the field bordering the vulva area in 1986, which appeared within the time it took me to walk around the hill. Of course this is area of high military activity and farmers with a strange sense of humour!

In the 60's and 70's this area was apparently also associated with "earth lights" and UFO activity, as reported in the Warminster Journal and various Ufology texts, although these reports have subsequently been disputed as hoaxes.

The location of Cley Hill in the surrounding landscape is interesting, being visible from all side of the surrounding valley and escarpment of Salisbury Plain.

The photos are from a visit in 1999. I have blanked myself out from the picture showing the vulva area, cup and ring marks and round barrow.
Mothy Posted by Mothy
23rd October 2005ce
Edited 23rd October 2005ce

Cley Hill is frankly like a huge breast on the landscape (complete with barrow nipple plonked right on top - don't tell me they didn't think of that at the time). It's owned by the National Trust and is an important nature reserve because of the early gentian and other rare chalk grassland plants that grow there. You will also find mountaineering cows and should check out the musk thistles bristling with bees. It's so bloody draughty you'll wish you were a bee stuck down in the flowers off your face on nectar too. It certainly clears your mind.

In all the books the site is mentioned as an Iron Age Hillfort, but frankly a place as obvious as this would hardly have been ignored by previous people - as proved by the older barrow on the top in any case.

JC mentions the site in passing in tma in a similar vein, commenting that perhaps Neolithic peoples had too much respect for the Mother to go altering sacred landscapes. It's certainly been altered since though - the side where the car park is has been extensively quarried.

If you're driving past , the best view is coming along the Frome road. And if you're stopping, there's an NT carpark conveniently located at the road, near the bottom of the hill.
Rhiannon Posted by Rhiannon
8th April 2002ce
Edited 31st October 2006ce


Add folklore Add folklore
BUGLEY FAIR. - There was a very small attendance of pleasure seekers at this fair, which as usual was held on Cley Hill on Palm Sunday. It is to be hoped that next year a still smaller number will be present.
Straight from the Warminster Killjoy Association. The miserable beggers. Reported in the Warminster and Westbury Journal, 8th April 1882.

Whether a relic of Druidism, or whether merely the vestige of some observance of Roman Catholic times, it has been a well-known custom for many generations to hold certain festivities on Palm Sunday upon Cley Hill, Bidcombe Down, and other lofty elevations in this neighbourhood. Crowds used to assemble in times past on these hills upon this particular Sunday, and amuse themselves in a variety of rough sports, from backsword playing to harmless competitions in rolling down the hill. It may be well imagined that such proceedings were not always of the most orderly kind, and that they were not particularly desirable on Sunday of all days of the week. Fortunately of late years the observance has almost entirely declined, and though a few people still keep up the old custom by walking up the hill and walking down again, no harm is now known to result from their so doing. It was stated that the old observance was to be revived on Sunday last by the Salvation Army, who, it was understood, intended to hold an open air service of a very demonstrative kind upon the top of Cley Hill. It had been feared that such a proceeeding might have revived the old abuses of the day to a certain extent, and it is therefore probably a matter for thankfulness that the Salvation Army did not carry out any such intention.
Warminster and Westbury Journal, 24th March 1883. What's worse, riffraff or noisy evangelisers?

The usual practice of setting fire to various parts of Cley Hill on Palm Sunday was again observed this year. On the Warminster Downs, too, a fire was kindled in the afternoon, leaving a big black patch.
Bad luck, sounds like things got even more anarchic.
Wiltshire Times, 26th March 1910.
Rhiannon Posted by Rhiannon
5th February 2020ce
Edited 5th February 2020ce

As the ancient parochial boundary between Warminster and Corsley passes over the larger hill, it has been for time out of mind customary for a great concourse of people to assemble here on Palm Sunday to defend the boundary, and prevent encroachments.

From 'The Beauties of England and Wales' volume 15, by John Britton and others (1814).

... "Cley" has nothing to do with the earth called clay because the hill is entirely of chalk. The name is a mere corruption of an old word, Cleg, which means hill.

Cley Hill had its revel. This was on Palm Sunday, and was probably a relic of the procession which on that day used to be made before the Reformation. It is said this gathering took place in order to keep up the boundaries of two parishes that cross the hill. The custom however led to riot and abuse and was discontinued.
Mentioned similarly in the Warminster and Westbury Journal, 12th August 1882.
Rhiannon Posted by Rhiannon
23rd April 2011ce
Edited 5th February 2020ce

Some time in the early 1970s, Mr R's mother and father to-be were driving past Cley Hill with two friends. It was night, and it had been snowing and the fields were covered. They saw lights silently firing out of the ground like a train with its lit-up windows running vertically into the sky. Obviously they thought it was totally strange but Mr R's rational father tried to think of sensible explanations.. I can't remember what those might have been, but they watched it for some time. The next day they went back but (And this is the clincher) there were no traces in the unbroken snow where they'd seen the lights. The silence is a weird thing too - and this was way before the lazer shows we might blame now.

Yes it's easy to misunderstand lights in the sky round modern Warminster what with all the military goings-on in the vicinity. But the snow makes for an extra weird tale. I'd love to hear more of local people's recent experiences here.
Rhiannon Posted by Rhiannon
17th September 2010ce

Mothy's post mentions Allegedly Discredited earthlights during the 60s and 70s, and perhaps that's what the following relates to - but that would still be an interesting merging of ancient and modern folklore themes?

Cley Hill was the home of the king of the Wiltshire fairies, who was responsible for the lights seen there.

Apparently from Mike Howard's article, 'Contacts with unreality', in 3rd Stone 19: 4-5 (summary taken from the Alternative Approaches to Folklore bibliography by Jeremy Harte, here:
Rhiannon Posted by Rhiannon
7th April 2008ce
Edited 17th September 2010ce

Today I was perusing Rupert Matthews' 'Haunted Places of Wiltshire' (2004) and noticed a story about a large stone on Cley Hill, which was supposed to have a carving of the Devil (yep the Devil himself)'s face on its underside. And anyone turning it over would have to deal with Unpleasant Consequences.

I see a stone is mentioned in one of the miscellaneous posts below.. is it still there?
Rhiannon Posted by Rhiannon
7th April 2008ce

[..] I was brought up to believe that the famous Cley Hill on the confines of Wiltshire was made by the inhabitants of that county who were induced to wipe their shoes before venturing upon our more favoured soil [i.e. Somerset.]
From a letter from Katharine Asquith at the Manor House in Mells, in The Times, Tuesday, Feb 09, 1960; pg. 11.
Rhiannon Posted by Rhiannon
21st May 2007ce
Edited 22nd May 2007ce

If you want the genuine* Wiltshire feel then you may like this version of Cley Hill's origins from 'Wiltshire Folk' by Mrs Ethel Richardson (1934):
Well, zur, it wer like this ye zee; the 'Vizes volk had offended the devil mainly, an' a swore 'ad zar 'em out. So a went down the country, an' a vound a gert hump, an'a putt it on's back an' a carried along to vling at 'em. An' a come along be Warminster, an' a met a m an, an' a zays to un: "Can 'ee tell I the rhoad to the Vizes?" 'an t'other zaid "Lor ther now, that's just what I do want to know myself, for I started for un when my beard wer black, an' now as gray, an' I hant got there yet".
"Lor," says the Devil (t'wer the Devil ye knaw) "if that's how 'tis, I beant gwine to car thick no vurder, so here goes"; an' a vling thuck gurt hump off's shoulder, an' thur a be, look zee, an that's how Cley Hill got there.
Rhiannon Posted by Rhiannon
4th April 2006ce
Edited 4th April 2006ce

'Big Cley Hill do wear a hat. Little Cley Hill do laugh at that.'
Little Cley sits at the foot of Cley Hill. Maybe the hat refers to the impression the earthworks give. Or maybe (as Ella Noyes says in her 1913 book 'Salisbury Plain') it's to do with cloud resting on the big hill when it's going to rain.

There are several customs associated with Palm Sunday here. The grass was burnt 'to burn the devil out' (the last time this was done was apparently 1924). People also used to play 'Bandy' - a kind of hillside hockey, where a line of people with curved sticks tried to hit a ball from the bottom to the top of the hill.

From what my boyfriend's grandfather has said, I think it was a popular place for a knees-up in his youth, and he even said something about driving a truck up there (which would seem a bit difficult, but maybe if you followed the earthworks round it would no doubt have been possible?).
Rhiannon Posted by Rhiannon
13th May 2002ce
Edited 26th April 2018ce

Manley, V.S. (1924). Folk-lore of the Warminster district: a supplement to the History of Warminster and the Official Guide. Collected by V.S. Manley.
Warminster: Coates & Parker. I'm sure I've seen a copy but don't have one now. In a review of Manley's book in WANHM v43, it says that
"One of the most curious items is 'The Spirit of Cley Hill,' a legend which would apparently have died with its narrator, an old woman of 80. The legend records that the guardian spirit of the Bugley folk lived inside the barrow on the top of the hill, and one day hearing water running beneath him he directed its course underground until it came out at Hogs Well. He told the people not to drink it but to use it only for curing weak eyes, and an old woman who disregarded his order and drank the water died that night, and a cow that polluted the water was drowned in the mud. It is in any case a fact that until recently this water has been in great request for bad eyes, 6d. a bottle being paid for it, provided some Ground Ivy was included to be brewed with it. The appearance of the Well Fiend is recorded of Bicker's Well, in Prince Croft Lane, at Bugley, and under a large oak tree which formerly stood where North Lane meets the Half, below Blue Ball, Bugley, elves lived and might sometimes be seen gambolling by children.
This is a weird kind of place.
Rhiannon Posted by Rhiannon
10th April 2002ce
Edited 26th April 2018ce

The folk of Devizes had offended the devil, who sore he would serve them out. So he went "down the country" (ie into Somerset), and found a big "hump" and put it on his back, to carry it and fling it at them. On his journey back he met a man and asked the way to Devizes. The man replied,
That's just what I want to know myself. I started for Devizes when my beard was black, and now it's grey, and I haven't got there yet.
The devil replied, "If that's how it is, I won't carry this thing no further, so here goes, " and he flung the "girt (great) hump" off his shoulder, and there it is.
Collected in Warminster, 1893. On p78 of
Folklore Notes from South-West Wilts
John U. Powell
Folklore, Vol. 12, No. 1. (Mar., 1901), pp. 71-83.
Rhiannon Posted by Rhiannon
8th April 2002ce
Edited 15th April 2007ce


Add miscellaneous Add miscellaneous
The oldest inhabitant told me that about 65 years ago, on a Palm Sunday, some fellows got the large stone on top of Cley Hill, which had a socket (meant, my friend thought, for a flag-staff--? a cross), and rolled it down either to the lime-kiln or another side.
From Wiltshire Notes and Queries, June 1898, p486.
Rhiannon Posted by Rhiannon
18th January 2008ce
Edited 18th January 2008ce

The excellent Sir Richard Colt Hoare wrote these observations as part of his description of Ancient Wiltshire (1812):
[Near] Warminster are two very singular knolls, which form a very conspicuous and beautiful object from every part of the adjacent country. They bear the name of CLEE or CLAY HILLS. They differ considerably in size, and rise very boldly from the surrounding plain. The larger hill is surrounded by a ditch and rampart, bearing the marks of high antiquity*. Its form is like that of a cone with an obtuse head; that of the lesser hill is drawn more to a point.

On the summit of the larger hill are two barrows, both of which I have caused to be opened. The largest produced no evidence of its having been destined to sepulchral purposes**. Near the bottom of it we found some ears of wheat undecayed, and the soil of which the barrow was composed had fragments of pottery, charred wood, and ashes intermixed with it, which may be accounted for, by supposing that this eminence was inhabited by the Britons previous to the formation of their mound, which, perhaps in later times, was made use of as a beacon. The adjoining barrow was certainly sepulchral, and originally contained an interment of burned human bones, which, on opening it, we found had been disturbed.

*Bishop Gibson, in his edition of Camden, says that 'Clay hill shews no marks of any trenches,' a proof that he, like many other writers on topography, never visited the place he described..
**I thought this was interesting. Because let's face it he opened enough barrows and surely he knew something different when he saw it? (I mean maybe modern archaeologists would see it differently. but this did leap out at me, especially considering its position on a very prominent landmark.)
Rhiannon Posted by Rhiannon
12th May 2007ce
Edited 13th August 2023ce