Standing to the West of the Wiltshire town of Warminster stands Cley Hill. Rising out of the landscape, this large hill sits 239 meters high, with some people describing it as looking like a woman’s breast! I’m not sure about that but I know this; there is plenty of history associated with Cley Hill. There’s a good dollop of folklore involving the Devil, some ghostly Fae tales and some other strangeness. It even holds the status as one of the best places to sky watch and capture a sighting of The Warminster Thing.
The Rich History of Cley Hill
Cley Hill is an interesting place historically, being an old Iron Age hill fort. The summit of the hill is encircled by a series of ramparts (old Iron Age earthworks). Within these limited defences (although just getting up the side of the steep hill provides a defence in itself) sit several Bronze Age bowl barrows; ancient burial mounds of centuries past. On the southwest side sit several medieval lynchets, flattened sections of the hill which allowed farmers to grow crops on steep slopes. Burnt bone fragments have been found on the hill, along with ancient remnants of wheat. The barrows were probably plundered many moons ago and much of the evidence of early settlement would have now returned to the earth, from whence it came.
The Devil and Cley Hill
If you’ve read my blogs about Avebury, you may remember the story of how Silbury Hill came to be. It involved the Devil getting up to mischief and a very, very large shovel of dirt. You can read that story here, but right now I want to tell you about Cley Hill today. It’s quite a similar tale though.
It is said that the Devil noticed the people of the town of Devizes were becoming quite a religious bunch and embracing Christianity. Of course, the Devil was not happy about that, as you can imagine. His punishment and this seems to be a forte of his in Wiltshire, is to go and cover the town in a massive hump of dirt. So, he picked up the hump from Somerset and started to make his journey to Devizes ready to bury the town. But, it’s quite a long way to Devizes and when he was nearing the town of Warminster he stopped to ask an old man, who happened to be travelling the same road, if he knew how far it was.
Seeing that it was the Devil asking him the question and knowing that he was likely to be planning bad deeds, the old man said, ‘That’s what I want to know myself. I started for Devizes when my beard was black and now it’s grey and I haven’t got there yet.’ The Devil, who was really getting quite fed up with carrying the huge and heavy shovel, decided he’d had enough. He dumped the load onto the ground, turned his hoof and returned to Somerset. And that is how Cley Hill came to be!
From a book called Wiltshire Folk by Ethel Williamson (1934), here is the story told from another perspective in the old Wiltshire dialect.
Well, zur, it wer like this ye zee; the ‘Vizes volk had offended the devil mainly, an’ a swore ‘ad zar ’em out. So a went down the country, an’ a vound a gert hump, an’a putt it on’s back an’ a carried along to vling at ’em. An’ a come along be Warminster, an’ a met a m an, an’ a zays to un: “Can ‘ee tell I the rhoad to the Vizes?” ‘an t’other zaid “Lor ther now, that’s just what I do want to know myself, for I started for un when my beard wer black, an’ now as gray, an’ I hant got there yet”.
“Lor,” says the Devil (t’wer the Devil ye knaw) “if that’s how ’tis, I beant gwine to car thick no vurder, so here goes”; an’ a vling thuck gurt hump off’s shoulder, an’ thur a be, look zee, an that’s how Cley Hill got there.
The Devil is mentioned once again in connection with Cley Hill. There is a large stone said to be up on the hill that has been turned face down. On the underside, imprinted on the rock is the Devil’s face. Lift it at your peril as serious misfortune is said to await you if you do.
The Helpful Fae
Told in the out-of-print book, Folklore of the Warminster District: a supplement to the History of Warminster and the Official Guide by V.S. Manley (1924) is another bit of Fae folklore. What follows is an account of a benevolent spirit found haunting one of the barrows. It seems he took it upon himself to help the local folks of the hamlet of Bugley with his work. And luckily for them, he did because, as anyone who has had a Fae experience knows, they don’t always want to help us humans out and they can be downright mean and spiteful if the mood takes them!
What is quite unusual about this story is that fairies are not often associated with healing wells. They are, however often found associated with mounds.
One of the most curious items is ‘The Spirit of Cley Hill,’ a legend which would apparently have died with its narrator, an old woman of 80. The legend records that the guardian spirit of the Bugley folk lived inside the barrow on the top of the hill, and one day hearing water running beneath him he directed its course underground until it came out at Hogs Well. He told the people not to drink it but to use it only for curing weak eyes, and an old woman who disregarded his order and drank the water died that night, and a cow that polluted the water was drowned in the mud. It is in any case a fact that until recently this water has been in great request for bad eyes, 6d. a bottle being paid for it, provided some Ground Ivy was included to be brewed with it. The appearance of the Well Fiend is recorded of Bicker’s Well, in Prince Croft Lane, at Bugley, and under a large oak tree which formerly stood where North Lane meets the Half, below Blue Ball, Bugley, elves lived and might sometimes be seen gambolling by children.
The well in Bugley seems to be long gone now, with Bugley a collection of houses attached to the Warminster sprawl.
However, I did find an interesting account of a possible encounter with the spirit of Cley Hill from Alison Cocker here on YouTube. She said that up on the hill one day she saw a small figure coming towards her from the distance. She could tell he was small and estimated his height at 2 feet six inches. He appeared to be wearing a brown sack and dark material for footwear. As he walked towards her, he didn’t appear to realise she was there and then, he suddenly vanished into thin air. Interesting!
A Rough Tradition on Cley Hill
Moving back to a bit of history now, it is not known quite when this tradition started, but there’s a report about it in the Warminster and Westbury Journal on 24th March 1883. It talks of a series of, at times, rough games like backsword but other more boisterous fun, like rolling down the hill, played out on Palm Sunday up on Cley Hill. Whilst this had gone on for many decades, it seems the Journal was pleased to report that this tradition ‘not of the most orderly kind’ seemed to be dying out of late, with some locals just marking the tradition with a walk to the top of Cley Hill and back rather than the rough games.
It is likely a meeting here would have taken place over centuries as it was an ancient parochial boundary dividing Warminster and Corsley. By meeting up and reiterating this important boundary, it prevented encroachments and made sure it was respected and remembered. At some point, some games must have been introduced.
Another tradition, last performed in 1924, involved parts of the grass being burnt ‘to burn out the Devil.’ And there he is again! The Devil seems to have a big connection to Cley Hill.
There are so many old traditions that our ancestors carried out for centuries or decades that have simply gone unrecorded and forgotten in the mists of time. It’s so important we keep these little titbits of history alive as we leave those times far behind. And that’s why I wanted to mention the games of Cley Hill here.
Flora and Fauna on Cley Hill
The 26.6-hectare site of chalk grassland has been deemed a biological Site of Special Scientific Interest since 1975. Six different varieties of orchids grow on this hill and many other species of plants and wildlife. This important site is now carefully managed by the National Trust and is free to visit. But take care of the plants growing there as you explore. They are precious these days!
Fires of Halloween
What is it seen each Halloween up on Cley Hill? Towering, flaming bonfires, seen with figures dancing amongst them each year on the 31st of October. They chant in some sort of unknown language. On investigation, the inferno disappears with no evidence of any fire and no people. Speculation exists (and they still get blamed for all sorts of stuff) of it being caused by Pagans or Devil worshippers and yet, there is nothing to suggest anyone has been there. Mysterious!
Sky watching on Cley Hill
You may or may not have heard of the Warminster Thing. It was an extraordinary decade-long series of UFO phenomena that occurred in and around this quiet little Wiltshire town, still debated to this day. It’s a complicated tale and one I have written about in the very next edition of Haunted magazine. You can buy it here!
It’s because of this peculiar set of events that Cley Hill found itself inhabited from 1965 through to the 1970s (and still by some to this day) by skywatchers and UFO enthusiasts from around the world. Whilst Cradle Hill was the most favoured spot, there have been plenty of witness statements gathered from Cley Hill.
There have in fact been reports of strange lights in the sky spotted from Cley Hill from as far back as the 17th century but the Warminster Thing is ‘the big one’.
The Warminster Thing was firstly only an audio phenomenon but by the time Cley Hill became a skywatching favourite, lights of different colours were seen flying across the sky. Cigar-shaped objects, sometimes flashing by, other times hovering around for periods of time. Sometimes they were singular lights, other times, they flew in formation. 1000s of witness statements were collected over the years and several of them were spotted from on top of Cley Hill which gives a most fantastic vista across this part of Wiltshire and on into Somerset.
I actually plan to spend a night up on Cley Hill or perhaps Cradle Hill this summer, if it ever warms up. I’d like to be able to officially say I have been sky watching for the Warminster Thing. Whether I see anything, who knows? I might actually catch a glimpse of the fairy from the barrow if I’m really lucky. I’ll keep you posted!
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