The North Wessex Downs is an area of outstanding beauty. It holds four counties across its AONB; which at 670 square miles, is now the third largest in the UK.
Picturesque villages and chalk downland straddle Berkshire, Hampshire, Oxfordshire and Wiltshire. In Wiltshire, the Marlborough Downs rise to a height of 968 ft on Milk Hill before falling steeply to the Vale of Pewsey. The Vale is a picture-perfect landscape, framed by the Downs to the north and Salisbury Plain to the south. The canvas is signed by the slivered silver signature of the Kennet and Avon Canal.
The rollercoaster ride of the Marlborough Downs begins in the east at Beacon Hill above Liddington. The sudden elevation provided defensive accommodation for Iron Age settlers at Oliver’s Castle. At its eastern terminus, where the scarp descends towards Savernake Forest, another hillfort, Martinsell Hill, terminates the ridge. Between these two Iron Age bookends, the scarp of the Marlborough Downs arrests the eye for twelve miles.
This high ground was an obvious feature for the Romans to exploit, laying their road from Aquae Sulis to Cunetio over the eastern Downs. Later, the Romano-Brits dug their Wansdyke, a demarcation line against the encroaching Anglo-Saxons.
But in keeping with the Neolithic people who valued the interaction between landscape and sky, their barrows and long barrows break the skyline in solemn remembrance of their ancestors along the ridge-top. Of all these stands Adam’s Grave, probably the most dramatic long barrow in the country.
Adam’s Grave is a funerary monument built during the Early and Middle Neolithic periods (3400-2400 BCE.) A Severn-Cotswold-type long barrow, Adam’s Grave is a long, trapezoidal earth mound that covers a burial chamber made of oolithic limestone. When excavated by John Thurnam in 1860, the Adams’ Grave chamber contained partial human skeletons and a leaf-shaped arrowhead.
The remains of the barrow are 230 ft long and around 23 ft high with ditches on either side, scooped out with antler picks and shovelled with bone shoulder blades over the tomb. The arrangement of stones around the site suggests there was once a kerb or forecourt at the entrance.
These stones, known as ‘Old Adam’ and ‘Little Eve’ lie close to the original entrance. Set high up on Walkers Hill between Milk Hill and Knapp Hill, Adam’s Grave is deliberately placed to be seen.
Long barrows represent the burial places of Britain’s early farming communities and, as such, are amongst the oldest field monuments surviving visibly in our landscape. Used for communal burial, often with only parts of the human remains selected for interment, long barrows acted as important ritual sites for local communities over a considerable period of time.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
This national chronicle, or annual record of events, was compiled around 890 during the reign of King Alfred the Great. It was the first attempt to give a systematic year-by-year account of English history, maintained, and added to, by generations of anonymous scribes until the 1100’s.
In the Anglo-Saxon period, the site was known as Wōdnesbeorġ – OE “Woden’s Barrow” and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records two battles here in 592 and 715.
The first battle was fought at ‘Woden’s Burg’ in the year AD592. The Chronicle states:
Her micel wælfill wæs æt Woddes beorge, 7 Ceawlin wæs ut adrifen
There was great slaughter at Woden’s Hill, and Ceawlin was driven out
Ceawlin was king of Anglo-Saxon Wessex. In most versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the entry does not record the identity of the force opposing Ceawlin, though it is thought they were most likely British.
The second battle in AD715 records the entry:
Her Ine 7 Ceolred fuhton æt Woddes beorge
There Ine and Ceolred fought at Woden’s Hill
It was Ine’s turn to be King of Anglo-Saxon Wessex and Ceolred King of Anglo-Saxon Mercia. The identity of the opposing force is not recorded.
In her book ‘Ghosts and Legends of the Wiltshire Countryside’, the late Kathleen Wiltshire, who spent forty years collecting stories of local folklore in Wiltshire, recounts a story told to her by Miss Murial Cobern:
Miss Cobern had an experience on Walker’s Hill in the summer of 1965 or 66. She was walking back from the barrow above the White Horse, towards the lay-by at the top of the hill, where she had left the car. About fifty yards from the barrow she suddenly felt very uneasy, and glanced around; it was very cloudy and rather cold, and no one else was about. A flock of sheep through which she was passing seemed untroubled, so she went on. Suddenly she could distinctly hear horses’ hooves thudding, as if a whole army was coming at full gallop; but there was not a horse to be seen anywhere. Miss Cobern, walking much faster she admits, passed Adam’s Grave, and could hear the hooves no longer.
- Wiltshire, K. (1973). Ghosts and legends of the Wiltshire countryside. Michael Russell Publishing Ltd.