It’s amazing what you discover when you’re idly browsing Google Maps on a Sunday morning trying to decide which beautiful corner of the Cotswolds to visit on the sunny day ahead. Had Lee not being doing so last weekend, we would never have known that there is a Neolithic long barrow not far from our home! Unlike my home turf of the Salisbury Plain area, there isn’t a great deal in the way of prehistory round our neck of the woods (even the Rollright Stones are some distance from us), but I have since learned that there are several long barrows cared for by English Heritage in Gloucestershire, and Belas Knap near Winchcombe is one of them.
The long barrow is free to visit and it’s a beautiful walk of around 15 to 20 minutes from the road, on a stretch of the famous Cotswold Way walking trail. Parking is a layby on a narrow road, where you’ll see a brown English Heritage signpost. You’ll have to ignore Google Maps if you’re using the sat nav feature on it; it will try to take you as close to the barrow as possible, which means it takes you right past the parking and you have to find somewhere on the narrow road to turn round! The view from said layby is glorious, with Winchcombe and Sudeley Castle nestling in the valley below.
The first stage of the walk takes you over a stile and up a steep stretch of woodland. I fear my photos have rather failed to do justice to how magical the wooded areas of this walk were in real life, in particular the sun streaming through the trees. Of course, the gorgeous smell and the sounds of birds chattering in the trees added to the atmosphere. At the top of the hill you reach a kissing gate…
…which takes you out into a field. You can walk straight up the hill or round the edge of the field for a slightly gentler climb. The long barrow isn’t signposted at this stage, and we weren’t too sure of the way, so we elected to go round the edge of the field. The grass is cut short, so it’s obvious where the path is.
The higher up the field you get, the better the views become, and Winchcombe becomes visible beyond the woods.
All the way along the path, gaps between the bushes along the dry stone walls reveal glimpses of the rolling hills beyond.
At the top of the field is this rather nice old signpost to the long barrow. The unusual name ‘Belas Knap’ is thought to be derived from the Latin ‘bellus’ (beautiful, referring to the view), with ‘knap’ coming from an Old English word for the top of a hill. The word ‘knap’ brought to mind more prehistoric connotations for me, as it made me think of flint knapping.
Shortly after that, the walk takes you through a second wooded area, the path bordering another dry stone wall.
Less than five minutes later, you suddenly emerge from the woods and there is the long barrow. A low stone stile in the wall grants you access to it, and it’s completely free to go in (there isn’t even a box for donations).
The Neolithic long barrow is around 5,500 years old and contains four burial chambers accessed from the sides.
I got Lee to stand next to the false entrance to the barrow for scale (apologies for the horribly over-exposed pic – the iPhone was finding it hard to deal with the light levels). It’s amazing to think about the ceremonies that would once have been conducted in that very spot, thousands of years ago. It’s not known why there is a false entrance; according to English Heritage, some believe it was to deter grave robbers, while others argue it may have been some kind of ‘spirit door’ so that the dead could come and go. The skeletons of five children and a young male were found behind those stones.
It was excavated in the mid-1860s and the chambers and neat dry stone walling around the edge have been reconstructed since then. I’m assuming that this is how it would have looked originally and that it reuses the original materials.
In total, the barrow contained the remains of 38 people, buried over many years; radiocarbon dating shows them to have died between 3,700 and 3,600 BC. One of the chambers contained 14 skeletons showing signs of fatal head injuries. These included at least one woman and a child, painting a rather grim picture of early Neolithic life.
The chambers have been reconstructed, but they give a good impression of what they were like. Apparently, one of the skeletons was described as being in a sitting position.
This was once the entrance to another chamber, but it’s blocked up now.
Each of the other burial chamber entrances around the edge of the barrow would also have been covered up with earth and grass, so they wouldn’t have been visible from the outside.
A ditch runs round the edge of the barrow. Interestingly, Romano-British pottery unearthed in one of the chambers during the excavations shows that the barrow would have been open in Roman times.
On the way back to the car, a little green sign caught my eye among the numerous footpath signposts that told of the area’s connections with more recent history. On further investigation when we got home, it turns out that this is part of a walk known as Gustav Holst Way, inaugurated in 2011. The composer loved the Cotswolds and knew this area well, and this 35-mile trail connects several places associated with him in some way.
According to the website, “The budding composer would often take his trombone with him to practice his skills in the sparsely populated hills, much to the bemusement of the sheep and cattle. On one occasion he was chased off a field by an angry farmer who blamed him for alarming the ewes and making them lamb too early.” Fortunately no such antics shattered the peace of that beautiful walk today! I’ll leave you with a few photos of the walk back to the car.