The Haunted Barrows of Gloucestershire
Down towards the southwest corner of Mercia, along the Severn south of Gloucester, lies a fascinating area of mystery. A high ridge stretches out from Stroud, giving utterly breathtaking views of the Severn valley below, and today the lives and deaths of the ancient tribes that made it their home still echo in the landscape, along with more modern ghosts making themselves known...
Three burial mounds, or barrows, lie along the ridge close by each other, and it is as if they were arranged in order of their condition. Starting at the furthest end south we find the 5000 year old Uley Long Barrow, or Hetty Pegler's Tump as it is sometimes known. A multi-chambered burial mound rather than a long barrow, this structure is very much intact today despite repeated grave robbing and amateur excavations over the centuries. Sitting in the corner of a flat field not far from the road, this isn't the most atmospheric of locations, but on an early winter morning with fog lying in the field it can still have an aura about it. Hetty Pegler was a local landowner the mound or tump was said to be named after, but a little digging seems to indicate the mound was probably named after a messy plum pudding specific to the area called a Heg Peg.
The entrance is small but an adult can crawl in on their hands and knees easily enough should they want to, and let's face it, if you've made the journey you couldn't leave without going in! Once inside this neolithic vault opens up so that one can almost fully stand, and each burial chamber is fully visible. The stones that form the structure of the barrow are huge, and looking up one marvels at how the colossal slabs that form the ceiling were arranged into place. I crouched there for some time in respectful contemplation, imagining what form the ancient rituals and practises our ancestors carried out here might have taken. Time and your sense of place seem to fade away inside the barrow. The remains of at least fifteen people from the neolithic era have been discovered during excavations along with various pieces of jewellery and ornaments. One interesting find was a pair of boar jawbones drilled with holes, to be worn either as pendants or more interestingly to to hang as “guardians” over the entrance.
Until a local vicar insisted on all the skeletons being gathered up and buried as one in the churchyard at Uley, local accounts tell of boys fighting with the bones so who knows what treasures have been taken over the centuries. As well as the neolithic people interred inside, a Roman man was strangely buried in the earth of the mound. Nobody is sure why, but local legend still tells of the ghost of a Roman soldier often seen standing around the tump in the mist, his plumed helmet and shield clearly visible. The spiritual guardian of whoever was buried there? Or the restless spirit of the chap himself, perhaps he was murdered?
Just half a mile along the ridge is another very similar site, Nympsfield Long Barrow. Although it is of a similar design to Uley, there the resemblance ends as unfortunately the top of the mound is completely open, leaving the chambers inside to the elements. It is not known exactly when this happened but was probably a gradual result of the same looting and clumsy excavation that Uley suffered from. The saving grace is that the construction can be clearly viewed in detail, and I guess in the right light and with nobody else around the stones that flank the entrance have a ghostly feel about them. Locals around the area believed it was the site of a small hospice for lepers and shunned the site, where this idea came from is anybody's guess though. The stones of the structure were believed to be able to move around on their own and on certain nights would roll down the hill down to the valley then back up again! There is also at least one tale of a local man who took a slab from the barrow to use as building material and regretted it, towing it back down and re-erecting it after hearing terrifying screams every night that the stone stood in his wall.
Just another hundred yards or so is the Soldier's Grave, a third mound and in much worse condition than Nympsfield Barrow. This is a “bowl barrow” but only the walls remain, all of the large stones are gone and the top has been completely demolished. The grave lies in a wood which gives it a secluded and peaceful atmosphere and as with it's neighbouring sites, there are tales of ghosts. A man holding a sword or club has been seen standing in the bowl by people approaching, only to fade away in seconds as they get nearer. This mound is from a later period than the previous two and contained the bones of at least forty people so who this ghost might be is anyone's guess.
Half a mile eastwards of Soldier's Grave lies the estate of Woodchester Mansion, the famous unfinished gothic edifice which, if accounts are to be believed, is the home of almost one hundred different ghosts and spirits. So much is going on there that I'm going to cover it in a separate piece to follow directly after this one, suffice to say though that Woodchester has added a host of modern mystery and folklore that acts as a bookend at the opposite end of the shelf from the ancient mounds and their legends. The winding drive to the top of the Coaley ridge is well worth it, the views down to the sandbanks of the Severn are reward enough alone but the opportunity to crawl inside a 5000 year old house of the dead and be completely shut off from the physical world outside – priceless.