Just two weeks after my last visit to Avebury, I found myself with a spare-ish day. Quite rare here at Weird Wiltshire HQ! After a bit of last-minute rearranging of work projects and a sprinkling of good luck added in, I managed to snag virtually a whole day of freedom.
I decided I would head back to Avebury as I was a bit disappointed not to visit West Kennet Long Barrow on the last trip. I haven’t been up there for years, and in fact, the last time I visited was the day I was able to stand in a crop circle! Whilst I have mentioned them before and whether you feel they are caused by visitors from outer space or local mischievous circle makers, they are nonetheless a work of art! You can read about the Crop Circles of Wiltshire here.
Anyway, I arrived at Avebury on a chilly November Friday morning. I took a flask, towels for the inevitably muddy dogs, snacks, a map, camera. Everything you could possibly need except my coat! Definitely a bad move! But it looked like the rain was going to hold off and I headed off.
Heading to West Kennet Long Barrow
I took the route out of the stone circles along West Kennet Avenue, which I love. It really gives you a sense of walking along the exact path of so many, many people over the last 4000 years or even more. Buddy the lurcher, my constant walking companion and Bingo, the somewhat more reluctant Jack Russell adventurer, came with me. The weather was brisk but didn’t take away the big skies of this open landscape. These open landscapes always make me think of what Montana in the US must be like; real ‘big sky country.’ I’ve always wanted to go there!
I talked about The Avenue in my last blog. If you didn’t get the chance to read it, you can catch up with it here. We strolled through the last of the standing stones and took a right up a short, sharp hill which, upon the crest, you get your first sight of Silbury Hill. Again, I covered this in the last blog. I intended to pass the hill by, but you can’t miss it. The photos don’t do the size justice. It’s 30 meters tall!
As I walked along the path which takes you to the main road, I could clearly see the wide grass route that headed up to the West Kennet Long Barrow. From the crest of the hill, until you reach the grassed path through the crops, I could see a few people heading up the hill. I didn’t count them but there were enough for me to think, ‘It’s going to be tricky to get a good photo with all those people up there.’ There must have been eight or so.
West Kennet Long Barrow
West Kennet Long Barrow is older than Avebury and Silbury Hill. It dates back to around 3600 BC. It is 104 m long and one of England’s largest and most impressive long barrows. Essentially it is a burial site and was probably used for ceremonial events as well. Over the years, it has been filled with chalk, sealed with a sarsen stone, plundered by hill diggers in search of treasure, and partially collapsed. Thankfully, it has been fully restored, but not before the remains of 50 people, both adults and children, had been recovered and various kinds of Prehistoric artefacts. Interestingly only a sixth of the barrow has been excavated so far. Who knows what else is yet to be found?
To reach the long barrow was a gentle climb up through an arable field. The dogs loved every minute. I passed a National Trust employee and then a couple passed me, all on their way down from the barrow. When I reached the top there was no one about. I thought nothing of it, thinking the people were inside the barrow instead. I spent some time on top of the barrow to take in the view.
One of the lovely things about this place is the free access. It doesn’t cost you any money to visit and you can walk along the barrow and head inside for a good look around. I decided to go and explore inside and popped the dogs on their leads. The entrance is behind a large sarsen stone. I stepped around the stone and peered in. It was very, very dark. I knew my eyes needed to adjust, but I could not see anything but black from a few meters in. “Hello!” I called out. Buddy seemed a little tense. Not unusual, for he is a sensitive soul, but he was looking and sniffing the air, trying to figure out whether he wanted to go in.
I tried to create a video for this blog, but quite honestly, they all ended up a bit disastrous! On the first one I went in, I was all whispery! I poked my head reluctantly into the first two chambers and then the third. It was so dark. It almost felt like someone was up ahead at the end of the barrow. At this point, I got spooked.
Have a look at the disaster video of my first attempt to go into West Kennet Long Barrow here.
I backed out, had a little pep talk with myself, and went in for a second time. Again, I backed out even quicker than the first time. There was the darkness still coming from the back of the barrow. I can’t tell you what I felt, but it was like I shouldn’t have been in there.
I always blame these feelings on it being ‘all in my head,’ but recently, I have been told by a very good and reputable medium that I am intuitive and should trust my feelings and what happens in my dreams. Maybe I should! So, what was the feeling I was getting from the barrow?
For my third attempt, I got a nature offering from my bag. It was some lovely autumn goodies that I had collected for an art project I have yet even to start. The collection had dried out in the tray and was perfect for binding with a bit of twine to leave as a little offering to the ancient spirits, Gods and Goddesses.
As I headed in the third time, I asked if I could enter, and I told the empty tomb I was bringing a little gift. The darkness did not feel quite so absolute. It’s hard to describe. It was peaceful inside but I still felt like I was disturbing someone, so I left quickly.
It was only after all this had happened that I realised the people I had witnessed walking up the hill, with the exception of the three I had passed, were nowhere to be seen. In theory, they could have walked off into the crops but I feel that is unlikely unless you want to face the wrath of the angry farmer. Also, from on top of the barrow, you can see all of the open farmland around you. There was no one about the place at all. I had planned to sit on top of the barrow for a while and crack open my flask, but without a coat and a brisk northerly wind blowing through, it was too cold, so I headed back down the hill to find Swallowhead Spring.
The Strangeness of West Kennet Long Barrow
I’m not the first to have had strange experiences at the barrow. It is used as a place to commune with ancient spirits, even to this day. After I posted my experience on Twitter, one of my pals, Paniculata111, got in touch to ask if I had ever been up there on a full moon. Apparently, it is a lovely yet mad experience with people gathering to sit in the individual chambers to commune with the ancients. Above ground, others stand on the mound and drum and howl at the moon into the sky. I have to admit, I would love to be there for that!
Over the years, there have been reports of whispered voices in the barrow, figures moving and a strong feeling of dread. One poor visitor to the site reported being grabbed at by multiple unseen hands, grasping at her and touching her. She tried to scream out but could not and felt like her feet were in mud. The experience lasted a few minutes, although it may have felt much longer before the woman managed to get out of the confines of the dark chambers and into her husband’s arms. In her excellent book, Wiltshire Stories of the Supernatural, Sonia Smith tells the whole story.
The most famous of the phenomena at the barrow is the legend of a priest dressed in white robes, who appears standing on top of the mound looking out to the east, waiting for the sunrise on the longest day. As the first light shines upon the land, the priest and his dog, a huge white hound with red ears, said to be a Fae animal, follows him back into the tomb. This priest is known as a guardian of the tomb and has been witnessed by visitors to the barrow and local farmers who keep early hours, particularly in the summer.
Update on West Kennet Long Barrow
Following this post being read, a few people have commented about weird experiences they have had up at the barrow. It seems for some people it causes a feeling of not being welcome.
Bec Lambert is an archaeologist who primarily focuses on the Neolithic. She said she had been in this particular long barrow and others, many times but on this one particular day something very scary happened there. She said that as soon as she crossed the threshold of the barrow she felt nauseous. She made her way to the terminal chamber which I guess is the one furthest from the entrance. Bec felt an ever-increasing heavy feeling that she wasn’t wanted there. As she walked into the final threshold she felt a stomach punch that physically doubled her over. She was there with other pre-historians who witnessed this distressing incident and helped Bec back outside. She says she is very reluctant to go back.
Stella from Radical Cartoons also sent me an email about a solo visit to the long barrow. Here it is in her own words:
While I was down Wiltshire way on the bike, I went to see West Kennett Long Barrow, and with the motorbike I was able to park really close to it.
I went inside, and I can honestly say that I have never been so frightened of an empty place in my life.
Whether it was fear, in case of finding tramps, or kids doing drugs in there, I don’t know. I have always been fascinated by prehistoric stuff, and have a strong feeling of the past being still present in the landscape.
But with the Long Barrow, all I can say is there was an overpowering feeling of “get out, you’re not wanted here”.
I never ran out of a place so fast! I jumped on the bike and zoomed away! That was 40 years ago, and I’ve never had that feeling anywhere else. I go for lots of long country walks, and I still love poking around old buildings.
Yet another person contacted me to say she found West Kennet a very scary place. She is still considering whether to share her story publicly. If she does I will report back to you!
At the bottom of the field, you will find the lovely Swallowhead Spring. Or so the OS map told me. I walked along a large overgrown ditch which has yet to recover after this summer’s drought. A big sign said ‘No footpath.’ Probably put there by an angry farmer to stop people looking for the source of the River Kennet, for that is what Swallowhead Spring is supposed to be. That being said, there is some discussion over this matter. One folklore story claims it to be a holy well and modern Pagans worship the Goddess of Spring, Brigid, there. As Brigid is an ancient Celtic goddess of spring and new life and the deity of fair weather, fertility and the dawn, the association with Swallowhead is clear.
It would have been a good place to access clear and clean water. In times gone by, on Palm Sunday, local people would celebrate. The author of this blog, In search of Holy Wells and Healing Springs, found a mention of Swallowhead Springs and its waters in a book from 1915:
“A sacred spring – It was formerly the custom to make merry with cakes, figs and sugar mixed with water from the Swallowhead, the sacred spring of the district, and the principal source of the river Kennet.”
It seems to me that these springs have probably been adopted by more modern neo-pagans and used as a new place of worship. There are apparently clouties galore and offerings left by visitors, but I wouldn’t know as I thought the spring came out of the ground a little further on. Note to my future self: Look at the photos before you go so you know what you are looking for!
If I’m honest, after my strange long barrow experience, I was fairly keen to get back to civilisation. I wondered a little way along the field to see if I could find what may be a spring, but it wasn’t easy as there was no water. I should have gone just a little further and I would have found the right place. Oh well, I’m just going to revisit when there has been plenty of rain. I think it’s a place to go at the start of spring.
Below is only one of my rather unimpressive photos of what I thought was the spring. But, it was not a field’s length on that I found the water was starting to flow a little more. So it was here that I decided to leave my second offering to the Goddess with the hope that, Brigit being a Goddess and all, she would know my offering was just a little further downstream. I hope it floated along all the way to the full flow of the River Kennet. And I hope someone looked down and wondered why a little parcel of nature offerings was floating its way down the river!
Whilst I haven’t found any ghost stories associated with Swallowhead Spring, I did read about an encounter some new-age folk from the area had back in the early 80s. The whole story is in Sonia Smith’s Haunted Wiltshire book. She tells of a free-spirited couple who decided to camp there for the night. They had a bit of trouble from a local woman who turned up, but the undines of the spring, which reside in the waters of Swallowhead, gave the couple a helping hand by scaring the unwelcome guest away. The undines made her slip on the stones that cross the spring and pulled her into the water by her ankles.
Undines are elemental beings, associated with water. Being an elemental, they are a type of spirit that is not of this world. They are ancient beings and have never been human. They live within nature, and I believe that if elementals are real, Swallowhead Springs would be the perfect place to find them. A place of replenishment; peaceful and spiritual. It’s quite a story and the part of me that wants to believe in elementals and nature spirits can imagine the undine water nymphs hiding in the clean and clear waters of the spring.
Have a look at this lovely illustration of an undine by the talented late English illustrator Arthur Rackham.
Have a look at this video taken when the spring waters were in full flow. It was captured by Steve Harrison. I suspect if there are undines to be seen, they will be hiding amongst these plants. It’s also just over two minutes of relaxing water sound. Sit back and close your eyes for a bit and enjoy!
I will definitely head back to the West Kennet Long Barrow and Swallowhead Springs. I’d quite like to go up there on a full moon just to see what is going on. But, for today, it was time for me to head back to the stone circles. I needed a cup of tea and following that, I headed off to mooch around the shops of Avebury. I had a lovely conversation with the owner of The Henge Shop and came out with a book about ley lines!
In my next Avebury blog, I’ll tell you all about the actual stone circles and all the mysterious happenings recorded there. And there are, A LOT! Bye for now!
Wiltshire Folk Tales by Kirsty Hartsiotis
Wiltshire Folklore by Kathleen Wiltshire
Ghosts and Legends of the Wiltshire Countryside by Kathleen Wiltshire
The Folklore of Wiltshire by Ralph Whitlock
The Haunted Landscape by Katy Jordan
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