Tuesday, 13 April 2010
Warrior Ghosts at West Tump, Gloucestershire
War has rumbled back and forth across Gloucestershire for centuries. Castles and fortifications of all kinds mark the passing tide of battle as key river crossings and routes through the hills need guarding from enemies and rivals. Standing on the border between England and Wales, the county has seen more than its fair share of raiding and invasions between the two nations.
But the oldest fighting ghosts of Gloucestershire date back to a time long before either England or Wales had ever been thought of. Deep in the dark Buckle Wood south of the village of Birdlip the undulating ground is the site of the well known West Tump long barrow. The barrow dates back to around 2,700BC, or thereabouts, and was the burial place for generations of a royal family. Originally the barrow was around 50 metres long and some four or five metres tall, edged with a dry stone wall and guarded at one end by a pair of upright monoliths. Over the millennia the stones fell and tree roots undermined the earthen mound until it was virtually impossible to distinguish it from the surrounding, entirely natural undulations.
Then, in 1880 the archaeologist G.B. Witts stumbled across the barrow and decided to excavate. He found within it a chamber containing the remains of at least 20 individuals jumbled together, including both men and women. Whatever grave goods had been buried here had rotted away long ago. The presence of two 'horns' of piled up soil reaching out to enclose a form of courtyard in front of the monoliths marked this as one of the Cotswold-Severn Group of ancient barrows, a specific design widespread around this area.
His excavation finished, Witts retired to Oxford with his finds to clean them up and evaluate them before putting them into storage in a museum. Back at the West Tump, however, things were happening. Locals walking through the woods began reporting seeing strangers lurking among the trees. At first dismissed as gypsies or other travellers, the men caused sudden alarm when four were seen at once - and all were carrying spears.
The ghosts of the disturbed occupants of West Tump Barrow, for there was now little doubt among locals that the strange men were just this, seemed to mind their own business. They are still seen, though not so often as they were when the Tump was freshly disturbed. Standing among the trees in the heart of the dark wood, the warriors mount guard equipped with spear and shield. But whatever, or whoever, they are guarding has been removed from the ancient barrow and now lies in a drawer at a museum in Oxford.
This is an extract from Haunted Gloucestershire by Rupert Matthews