The story so far.....share your thoughts and photos about The Ridgeway's earthworks to help us create a community Top 50!

Ransacked, worn down, overgrown and silted up over the years, there are bumps and dips along The Ridgeway which were once much more prominent in the landscape and in people’s minds. Compare Wayland Smithy long barrow near Uffington which is one of the most popular monuments to visit in the country, with the misshapen long barrow on Whiteleaf Hill near Princes Risborough which most people walk past without a glance. Whilst excavations have sadly left Whiteleaf’s barrow with a misshapen form (see image gallery), it is still significant for persisting for thousands of years and such Neolithic long barrows require respect as places where people were buried and as a rare sight in England.

In some places there are groups of several Bronze Age barrows, known as barrow cemeteries, which were constructed over centuries. The atmospheric Seven Barrows near Lambourn has revealed interesting artefacts including daggers and pottery (see image gallery) and inspired JRR Tolkien, author of Lord of the Rings, to imagine fantastical stories. However, just as interesting are the truer to life stories linked to the variety of features along The Ridgeway, from World War I practice trenches on Whiteleaf Hill near Princes Risborough to the largest Iron Age field system in the UK near Wantage. Read on below….

Banner image: Long barrow on Whiteleaf Hill near Princes Risborough. Credit: Sarah Wright

An unassuming mound hidden amongst trees just off the Trail and known by various names over the years, including Scutchamer Knob, is rich with stories. Local legend has it that the barrow is the burial place of Wessex royalty, King Cwichelm, who reigned over the upper Thames area between 625 and 636AD. The hill’s symbolic importance was recognised by raiding Vikings in 1006AD when, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, they chose to camp there after destroying Wallingford ‘for it was often said, that if they sought Cuckamsley, they would never get to the sea’. Such claims led to more recent excavations for grave goods (and fertile soil!) which hollowed out the centre to leave the crescent shape we can see today. Consequently, the scale of the monument is much diminished and there is no visible sign of a ditch dug 1.5m (5 feet) deep.

Earthworks are traces of what once was and often very faint, but there are fairly obvious linear ditches and ridges cutting across The Ridgeway trackway in the World Heritage Site near Avebury and at Bury Down in Oxfordshire. These linear features are thought to be field boundaries dating back thousands of years to the Bronze Age. Field boundaries from the Iron Age have been mapped around Lowbury Hill and Roden Down in Berkshire, revealing a patchwork of small fields that are very different to the expansive fields we see today. In prehistory, the countryside would have been busy with people and animals labouring in the fields to produce food, especially when the Roman army needed supplies. Earthworks have survived best where more recent ploughing and other types of disturbance have not taken place and this makes The Ridgeway’s verges an ‘archaeoreserve’ in comparison to the adjacent fields where there has been considerable change. Many of these earthworks, as well as cropmarks, are shown on an interactive map called the Aerial Archaeology Mapping Explorer launched in 2021 by Historic England.

Some lumps and bumps are the rare remains of deserted settlements at Snap in Wiltshire and Great Kimble in Buckinghamshire. Snap was a small farming community with a farmhouse and seven dwellings which were home to carters, a shepherd and agricultural labourers. A decline in the price of grain during the late 19th century and increasing mechanisation led to a reduction in agricultural work and so residents left the village in search of work. Great Kimble, in contrast, was a prestigious medieval residence comprising a moated site and fishponds to supply fresh fish to the household. The moat features in a painting by war artist John Nash and today it is still possible to see, from a footpath, a multitude of undulations across the field.

There are zig-zagging earthworks on Whiteleaf Hill near Princes Risborough which have been identified as World War I practice trenches. It is thought that they were dug in 1914 by men from the 21st Division at Halton who were billeted in the local area. They were used to train men before posting to the Somme in 1915 because the First World War was mainly fought by infantry in trenches. Military trenches were usually about 1.8m (6 feet) deep but Whiteleaf’s trenches were only half this depth at the most, and they have since filled in over time and suffered the impacts of falling trees etc. The earthworks reveal a typical arrangement of a ‘fire trench’ at the front with firing positions for rifles and machine guns, and ‘shelter’ or ‘reserve trenches’ behind where troops could muster for attacks. ‘Passing trenches’ connected the two, with passing places for stretchers.

Other more obvious earthworks are the sections of Grim’s Ditch stretching for miles across the Downs and also strip lynchets that appear as distinctive stripes on the sloping sides of some small valleys near the Trail. These terraces are man-made and, whilst many surviving examples across England consist of only two or three, the lynchet system near Bishopstone is an excellent example with multiple lynchets (see image gallery). Today these steep slopes are grazed by sheep, but the strip lynchets indicate that they were cultivated in medieval times.

With such a variety of intriguing features to spot along the Trail, why not head out to investigate those bumps you would usually walk or ride past…..

Notes: More information about The Ridgeway’s hillforts, military heritage, sheep, Wayland’s Smithy, Lowbury Hill, Grim’s Ditch, artefacts, writers and artists is available in other Top 50 entries.

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