Bartlow Hills, Bartlow, Cambridgeshire

Tumuli:  OS Grid Reference – TL 586 449

Also Known as:

  1. The Three Hills

Getting Here

1916 photo of Bartlow Hills

1916 photo of Bartlow Hills

The best way to get here (when we went anyway, quite a few years back now), was via the old church . At the entrance to the church there was a signpost to the tumuli. Take the footpath to the left of the building and walk about 200 yards. Once you go under the railway bridge and into the trees, walk left and the overgrown mounds appear in front of you!

Archaeology & History

Thought to the largest Romano-British barrows in England, this was an incredible clump of giant burial mounds which, in more recent years, have been allowed to fall into neglect.  Although a railway was built through this clump, it bypassed the main tumuli—and in doing so uncovered another cemetery!  Four large barrows still remain and access, though alleged by some of those southern-types to be on private land, didn’t stop our foray here.  The usual “private” signs showing just how unwelcoming some of them are, just made us Northerners more determined to find ’em!  But that aside…

18th century drawing of the hills

18th century drawing of the hills

1916 map & plan

1916 map & plan

Although nowadays classed as being in Cambridgeshire, when the Royal Commission lads visited the site and described it in their Inventory (1916), the mounds were in the parish of Ashdon on the northern edge of Essex. But now it comes under the parish of Bartlow in Cambridgeshire—which seem sensible, as the word ‘bartlow’ itself stems from these very monuments. As the regional place-name expert P.H. Reaney (1943) told, Bartlow means,

“‘(At) the mounds of the birch trees,’ OE (æt) beorca-hlãwum, (from the verb) beorc, hlaw, i.e., the great Bartlow Hills tumuli which dominate the church and village.”

Described as early as 1232 CE as Berkelawe, these hills were opened in the middle of the 19th century and found to possess a mass of Roman remains.  A number of articles in the journals of the period gave extensive descriptions of what was uncovered, but they are summed up nicely in the Essex Royal Commission (1916) report, which told:

“The principal monuments are the Bartlow Hills, which lie…at the extreme N.E. of the parish. They form (or formed) two parallel rows, running nearly N. and S.  The eastern row consists of four large steep-sided mounds, in shape truncated cones, the largest 40 ft. high and 145 ft. in diameter; since 1760 three of the mounds have been planted with trees.  The western row is now less clear: originally, it consisted of at least three small mounds, as was proved by digging in 1832; only two can now be faintly traced. Excavations, chiefly in 1832-40, have shown that all seven mounds contained at the centre regularly walled graves, within which was very costly grave-furniture of glass, decorated bronze, and enamel; almost all these ornaments were destroyed in a fire at Easton Lodge in 1847.  The graves seem to belong to the end of the first and beginning of the second century and were doubtless built for Romanized British nobles of the district. The particular method of burial occurs especially in eastern England and in Belgium, and is native, not Roman, by origin.

“…Other burials have been noticed near the Hills — one with a flint axe and knife, presumably prehistoric.  A small dwelling-house was found in 1852 about 100 yards E. of the Hills — mainly, if not wholly, within the Cambridgeshire border — but nothing of it is now visible on the surface.”

Section & sizes of the tumuli, 1916

Section & sizes of the tumuli, 1916

The sites are very impressive indeed, though as we can see from the old images, when they were clear of trees they stood out much clearer.

Folklore

Old fairs used to be held at the Bartlow Hills, whose origin goes way back.  There is also a curious custom which probably originated in some way from traditional beating of the bounds of the local township boundaries, narrated by folklorist Enid Porter. (1969)  Throughout the region she reported how “skipping was performed on Good Friday”.  It commenced at 10am and would continue into the evening. Porter wrote:

“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.”

An early legend uncovered from archives by Leslie Grinsell told that here could be found a “treasure chest said to have been concealed by Oliver Cromwell in the barrows known as the Three Hills, or in pits near them.”

…to be continued…

References:

  1. Porter, Enid, Cambridgeshire Customs and Folklore, RKP: London 1969.
  2. Reaney, P.H., The Place-Names of Cambridgeshire and the Isle of Ely, Cambridge University Press 1943.
  3. Royal Commission on Historical Monuments, England, An Inventory into the Historical Monuments in Essex – volume 1, HMSO: London 1916.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

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About megalithix

Occultist, prehistorian and independent archaeological researcher, specializing in prehistoric rock art, Neolithic, Bronze Age & Iron Age sites, and the animistic cosmologies of pre-Christian & traditional cultures.
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