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In Search of High Ground

Ian Grosz | University of Aberdeen

Cleeve Common, Cheltenham
Cleeve Common, Cheltenham. Photograph by Ross Attwood

I took the car up the narrow roads of Cleeve Hill, at just over a thousand feet the highest point in Gloucestershire. Parking at a layby, I could see the wide expanse of the Severn Valley stretched out below me like a pale watercolour in the diffuse light. Distant scattered settlements amongst recently flooded fields appeared as though islands in a mythic sea, confusing the usual geography. The weak February sunlight glistened invitingly in the floodwaters around Tewkesbury, the worst affected town in a Severn River landscape that was shifting and changing almost before my eyes.

In the far distance, Worcester cathedral was just visible against an anaemic sky. I recalled the recent news footage: the water that almost surrounded the cathedral, the pipes coming out of local residents' basements pumping out the mud and silt, the racecourse a lake. It highlighted how closely tied our lives are to rivers; how precarious our existence can be. The climate crisis and accompanying protests had scarcely been out of the news, and the Covid pandemic of 2020 was just beginning. The eerie stillness of the flooded river valley felt somehow portentous, as though the world was giving us a taste of things to come.

The hill forms the high point of Cleeve Common, a site of Special Scientific Interest due to the bird, insect and plant species found there. Most famously it is the home of three wonderfully named, rare orchid varieties. Known as the bee, frog and musk orchids, they thrive in the unique soil found on the common: a product of thousands of years of grazing and the spoil and scree from centuries of limestone quarrying. But rather than hunt for rare orchids, I had come to find the trace of our earliest presence in this landscape: the descendants of the people who first cleared the land of its forest and began farming here more than six thousand years ago.

Located on the slopes of Cleeve Hill itself, above the village of Winchcombe where Queen Katherine Parr’s remains lie at rest in Sudeley Castle, is Belas Knap: one of the best examples of a Neolithic long barrow found in the River Severn-Cotswolds landscape. A barrow is the genus name for a type of stone and earthwork burial chamber in use in the early Neolithic. Found across Atlantic Europe from southeast Spain right up to northwest Sweden, they represent the earliest known buildings utilising a recognisable common form, pre-dating the grander and more famous pyramids of Egypt by up to two thousand years.

Figure 1: Looking at the entrance to Belas Knap
Figure 1: Looking at the entrance to Belas Knap

Belas Knap is part of a group of structures known as the Cotswolds-Severn Group, defined by their regional distribution and the use of commonly shared building material. Its name is possibly derived from the Old English words bel, meaning beacon, and cnaepp, meaning the top or crest of a hill. Across Britain, these tomb-cum-shrines built to house the bones of the dead are typically located on high ground: prominent hills or slopes overlooking the wider local landscape. The use of locally harvested limestone, carefully cut and piled into distinctive structures, would have been in stark contrast to the surrounding cleared land, gleaming like ‘freshly minted gold’ as the Historian Roger Hutton puts it.

It was widely thought that, along with other prominent features in the landscape, the barrows helped to form territory boundaries by marking ancestral claims to the land, acting as boundary markers that could be seen across a newly cleared landscape. But this territorial focus has been more recently challenged, and it is also possible that they mark seasonal pastoral grounds, waymark pathways between different but connected groups, or were the inherited sites of the earlier, mostly nomadic Mesolithic hunter-gatherers. In a river landscape covered by forest, any high point would become a natural place to gather and remember, overlooking the hunting grounds and the rivers that forged their way through them.

In A Phenomenology of Landscape, the archaeologist Christopher Tilley refers to the natural features in the landscape as ‘markers’ – both practical and symbolic – surmising that:

"Such markers and places were almost certainly in use during the Mesolithic preceding the construction of these Neolithic monuments. The Mesolithic hunter-gatherers would have used them, as they can be used today, as reference points and orientational foci. These were obvious locations for stopping, resting, telling stories, observing game movements."

Tilley’s methodology has its critics within archaeology, centred on ongoing debates between materialist archaeologists and more interpretative approaches. These interpretative approaches seek out the meaning of the material traces left in the landscape by prehistoric societies through the subjective experience of them, in situ. Necessarily based on the need for some assumption, it is a method of understanding the landscapes of the past that is inherently open to criticism, but this interpretative approach is compelling. Although knowing exactly why certain locations were chosen by our ancestors might never be possible, attempting to understand our prehistoric landscapes by experiencing them holds a personal draw.

Figure 2: Belas Knap within the wider landscape
Figure 2: Belas Knap within the wider landscape

I have been fascinated by the remnant landscapes of Britain – the ghost traces of people stretching back beyond knowing – ever since my parents took me to visit Stone Henge as a boy, when even at the tender age of eight, the mystery and magnificence of those tall megaliths wrought in me the deep terror of time. I’m not an archaeologist or an historian, just acutely and deeply fascinated by places, how they act as holding stores of time: retain the traces of who we once were across that seemingly unbridgeable gulf of unknowing. Places connect ‘now’ to ‘then’: connect us to others long gone yet still somehow present. It was this presence in the landscape that I was looking for, something I had been seeking out on days off and time away for years; from the Ring of Brodgar in Orkney to the menhirs of Carnac in France.

I made my way up a steep and muddy track through still winter-bare woodland toward the more open slope of the hill. Emerging breathless from the trees, a swift, dark arrow above caught my eye: a small bird of prey in silhouette against the sky. It remained with me, calling now and then across the open hillside, its dark shape patrolling the edge of the treeline. I fancied that it was a merlin: Britain’s smallest bird of prey. Though rarely seen, it is more widespread in the winter months, feeding on small birds and larger insects and favouring open moorland. It led me on, seemingly out of my own time and into another.

I headed out from under the trees and across a steep, grassy slope along the edge of a dry-stone wall, upward toward where the long barrow was hidden beyond more trees further on. I crossed through another short section of woodland and came briefly into a clearing where the merlin flashed again above me. Following the arc of its flight, my eyes found the low mound of the barrow surrounded by a stone wall on the next rise.

Aligned almost exactly north-south, there is a suggestion of an already important relationship with the movement of the sun and moon with the seasons that is evident in the later practice of building stone circles. This, in itself, hints toward associations that go beyond territorial claim alone. With its long, lozenge-like shape and its mysterious entrances, it seemed other-worldly to me, a man in the twenty-first century. To the people of the Neolithic, it must have had a profound impact: a portal to another realm, another, hidden layer of existence.

Figure 3: View from atop Belas Knap
Figure 3: View from atop Belas Knap

A book I’d been reading – evocatively titled Inside the Neolithic Mind – had highlighted the shift in spiritual and cosmological viewpoint that may have occurred at about this time. Previously the dead were left at the entrances to naturally occurring caves; in the authors’ words, ‘thus on the threshold of the nether tier of the cosmos; they were in a mediatory position, neither completely absorbed into the lower tier or tiers of the cosmos nor still part of everyday life.’ They go on to speculate about what impact the new practice of building burial chambers might have had:

"Neolithic people eliminated the variable labyrinth and replaced it with more predictable and simpler structures of their own design. In doing so they gained greater control over the cosmos and were able to ‘adjust’ beliefs about it to suit personal and social needs […] (in western Europe) they placed their dead deep in constructed exemplars of the cosmos […] They thus exercised greater control over the dead and kept them ‘active’ for longer."

They argue that remnant beliefs would have taken time to evolve into something unrecognisable to their ancestors, so these ‘exemplars of the cosmos’ – the barrows and burial chambers – would have remained interstitial zones, just as the sacred caves were: a place between ‘tiers of the cosmos’, a place between life and death.

The remains of thirty-eight individuals were uncovered in the Cleeve Hill barrow during excavation in the mid-nineteen sixties: a mix of men, women and children of varying ages representing a cross-section that spans several hundred years of burial, perhaps even pre-dating the construction of the mound. In this way, the remains, spanning many generations, constitute visible strata of dwelling that connects people to the living landscape around them: a record of life that is bound up with place, stretching back through time.

The archaeologist Miles Russell has suggested that the long barrows and burial mounds that emerged out of the Neolithic may represent a form of language ‘embodying the identity and memory-bank of any given community,’ whilst Christopher Tilley tells us that:

"What happens in the Neolithic is a constitution of a different sense of time, place and social identity, through monument building, […] An already encultured landscape becomes refashioned, its meanings now controlled by the imposition of the cultural form of the constructed monument."

In Tilley’s view, the barrows were deliberately located in the landscape and visibly highlighted specific locations, reinforcing an already deep connection with the land. Rather than being seen in purely territorial terms, specific places like Belas Knap assumed greater significances because they were already sacred or cosmologically important in some way.

It is this that rooted these people to place: a spiritual connection with the land that now stretched back visibly through time, as represented by the burial mound. It seemed to me that rather than being projected onto the landscape – an ‘imposition’ as Tilley frames it – the burial mounds had emerged out of it: out of the associations and beliefs already embedded within it.

How would the earlier Mesolithic hunter-gatherers have explained the great floods following the last ice age? Perhaps then, seeking out the high ground, they first looked to the heavens and began to speculate, began to observe the stars and other celestial bodies more closely, formed the beginnings of a fuller cosmology as they gathered at these high places to bury their dead and tell their life-stories: not only as individuals within a group, but now as a People within a much greater, grander story that encompassed the cosmos. Constructing monuments placed carefully in an already significant landscape now provides a conduit for formally and ritually recording both personal and collective histories. In this way specific places in the landscape come to represent identity.

Belas Knap, then, is not only a place where a forgotten people were once buried but a long-lost holding store of myth and story, identity, ritual and belief, embedded in a once sacred and richly contextualised landscape. As I prepared to make my way back toward the floodwaters below, I took a last look along the low, curving spine of the barrow – this ancient house of the dead – and wondered what new stories we might begin to tell of our place in the world.


Further Reading

  • Barret, J.C., ‘A Phenomenology of Landscape: a crisis in British Archaeology?’, Journal of Social Archaeology, 9.3 (October 2009), pp. 275-293

  • Hutton, R., Pagan Britain, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013)

  • Lewis-Williams, D. and D. Pearce, Inside the Neolithic Mind: Consciousness, Cosmos and the Realm of the Gods (London: Thames & Hudson, 2005)

  • Tilley, C., A Phenomenology of Landscape: Places, Paths and Monuments (Oxford: Berg Publishers, 1994)

Ian is in the first year of a PhD in Creative Writing funded through a New King's Studentship with the University of Aberdeen. His combined creative and research-based thesis explores place and identity through autobiographical narrative landscapes.


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