Aside from Gog Magog Down, it’s true to say that there aren’t many hills of note in Cambridgeshire. Bartlow, a tiny rural hamlet near Linton, however, boasts three. The village sign, refurbished in 2000, shows three conical hills in a row, even the pub is called The Three Hills. Unlike Gog Magog Down which is geological, the Bartlow Hills are historical Roman-period burial mounds, they lie just beyond the village.
There is a footpath sign for the Hills just in front of the church, one of the few round towered churches outside the counties of Norfolk and Suffolk. Dedicated to St Mary, the small church has some interesting features in itself. According to legend it was built by King Canute in 1020 CE, although the existing building dates from the 14th century. There are also some intriguing 15th century wall paintings, featuring St. Michael weighing souls, and St. George and The Dragon.
The sign directed us behind the east wall of the church, along the side of a charmingly overgrown corner of the graveyard and onto a muddy path sandwiched between 2 rows of wire fencing. The short walk meandered through a stretch of mature deciduous woodland, sprinkled with ‘PRIVATE PROPERTY’ notices. The path trickled over the River Granta, a mere stream at this distance from Cambridge. The path zigzagged up and then over a disused railway cutting. To our left appeared a shallow mound overgrown and sinking back into the woodland. This we subsequently realised was the first in a row of four burial mounds. Up ahead we saw another tumulus rising up across the path. We skirted the base of the mound, out into a woodland clearing, and the largest of the mounds came into view. Just beyond it, another smaller but still impressive tumulus rose up at the furthest edge of the woodland. The largest mound measures 45 feet in height and is flanked on either side by smaller mounds of maybe 30 feet.
In spite of the suggestions of the pub name and the village sign, there are in fact seven burial mounds at Bartlow. Only three of the mounds survive in any state of preservation in the clearing, three more have all but disappeared, the other is the badly overgrown one, still recognisable but severed from the main group by the disused railway cutting.
A flight of wooden steps up the side of the highest mound made the ascent fairly simple, from the top we stood level with the highest trees and we judged the view northwards as unusually hilly for fenny-flat Cambridgeshire. The four Tumuli seemed to stand perfectly in a row, aligned east/west.
We discussed Alfred Watkins Archaic Tracks Around Cambridge, first published in 1932, in which some 61 leys are identified in this region. Using the list of these leys reprinted by Nigel Pennick in the Journal of Geomancy (from around 1978) we homed in on Ley 28 which names Bartlow Hills as a marker. To us, this leyline (if ‘ley’ does indeed mean ‘straight track’) seems dubious: none of the markers could be physically sighted from Bartlow, and three of the markers we could identify with any certainty on a map formed an uneven triangle shape!
We wandered around the woodland clearing, identifying plants, trees, rabbit warrens, bird and bat nesting-boxes. We discussed the significance of seven hills. It was suggested that Rome was built on seven hills, or was it six, like the Six Hills of Stevenage new town. Was it related to the seven Classical planets? or the seven sisters of the Pleiades constellation?
A informative information board at the base of the largest burial mound answered none of these questions, but did proclaim the mounds to be the “Largest group of Roman barrows in Northern Europe and includes the highest burial mound in Britain”. It also shows a reproduction of an 18th century engraving claiming that the mounds were built by King Canute (again)! Archaeological opinion dates them to the late first or early second century CE, identifying their distinctive steep and conical outline as typical of contemporaneous graves of merchant traders found in Belgic Gaul. This European Celtic connection is further reinforced by grave goods imported from the “Rhineland and Northern Gaul”, suggesting trading and cultural links.
In summary, the grave goods were of a ritual rather than personal nature, there are no records of weapons, tools or jewellery recovered. Cremation burial in mounds with rich ritual depositions implies native Celtic practices rather than Roman, although strigils and other items do hint at a Roman cultural influence.
During the 1830s a number of excavations of the Hills were undertaken, unfortunately the artefacts themselves were destroyed by fire. Records and illustrations of the finds are in Saffron Walden Museum. Many other pieces have simply disappeared. Records show that in 1815 at least one of the mounds was inexpertly excavated and ”despoiled of its contents, which were distributed and no account made of them”.
The information board also mapped out the relative positions of the seven mounds, which are clustered fairly closely together in two rows, with no more than 10 feet or so between each of the surviving three. We spent some time poking around and viewing the clearing, in the hope of getting a feel for the area and size of the complete monument. This proved quite difficult and we were unable to definitely distinguish three of the mounds from the uneven floor of the woodland.
Wandering back to the church, through the woodland we discussed other features of the surrounding countryside. The Bartlow Hills lie just a few miles south east of the meeting of the Icknield Way and Via Devana, vaguely in the area of the curiously named
‘Four-Went-Ways Services’. The Icknield Way weaves off towards the Neolithic flint mines of Grimes Graves. Via Devana strides directly north-west as a walkable track, passing the edge of Wandlebury Ring Iron Age hillfort, becoming the suburban Hills Road as it enters Cambridge. It then cuts straight across the city from south west to north east, it passes the Round Church (reputedly of Templar origin), past Mount Pleasant Roman rampart, and Castle Hill Motte, emerging out of Cambridge as the A14 northwards.
Mick Sharp – Holy Places of Celtic Britain (1997)
Nigel Pennick – The Cambs. Ley Project from Journal of Geomancy Issue 3 & 4 (1978)
Paul Broadhurst & Hamish Miller The Sun and The Serpent (1989)
St Mary’s Church Bartlow, Parish Information leaflet
OS Explorer 209 –Cambridge, Royston, Duxford and Linton (1999)
OS Ancient Britain Historical Map and Guide (1996)
Bartholomew’s Half-Inch Series Sheet 20 –Cambridge(1945)
first published in Northern Earth magazine, Spring 2004.
And in Silver Wheel Anthology 3, Summer 2011