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With origins and myths dating back thousands of years, the long barrow known as Wayland’s Smithy near Ashbury in Oxfordshire is one of the most atmospheric places to come across in the British countryside.….read on below to find out more.

Thank you for contributions to this Top 50 from G Pictor, E Gayle and Ridgeway art journaling group in 2023.

Archaeological excavations have revealed bones of buried Neolithic people dating back to 3590–3555 BC at the earliest, with three or more skeletons showing signs of potentially lethal arrowhead strikes. Thousands of years later, the name is recorded as Welandes Smithan in an Anglo-Saxon boundary charter dated 955AD for nearby Compton Beauchamp.

Wayland was a God to the Anglo-Saxons and leaders such as King Alfred knew of him. He features in Anglo-Saxon texts from the 6th-9th centuries, including a story that many students of literature will know well as Beowulf. He stands out as being the son of a mermaid and the God-Giant Wade, King of the Finns, but his renown is in fact linked to being a blacksmith. Wayland began as an apprentice to the master metalworker dwarves in the Icelandic Mountains and then, through many years of isolation during which he simply worked hard, he honed his skills to such an extent that his work was prized by gods and kings alike. Metalworking was admired as an almost magical craft – turning metal from the earth into mighty swords and enthralling jewellery using fire and skill.

Since Anglo-Saxon times, the long barrow has been regarded as Wayland’s refuge. Although he may be in hiding, it is said that he was seen in 1920 when one evening at the White Horse Inn at Woolstone, Oxfordshire, he walked into the pub wearing a leather apron and a tall hat. He left suddenly with the sound of a horn echoing through the night and, when people looked out after him as he limped away, they noticed the chalk horse on the nearby hillside at Uffington was gone! It is said that the White Horse wakes every 100 years to thunder across the sky to Wayland’s Smithy to be re-shod before returning back to its hillside. More frequently, Wayland shoes the horses of passers-by if they are left tethered outside his smithy overnight with a coin, traditionally a silver sixpence, left on the uppermost stone – but only if the blacksmith is left alone to work!

Wayland spent his early life in the Forest of Wolfdales with his two brothers. Every day they would go hunting on skates and, one fateful day, they came across three beautiful princesses spinning beside Lake Wolfsair. By the water’s edge, the men spied three swan-forms (winged costumes) and knew that stealing these from the swan-maidens would trap them in the forest. Wayland married Allwise, whom he fell deeply in love with, and his love didn’t falter even when the three women eventually fled. Sure that Allwise would return, Wayland did not search for her and instead kept himself busy in his smithy. His pieces became more and more superb, especially his rings which he strung up on a willow twig; the best he reserved for his wife to give to her on their reunion. Amongst his many admirers was King Niduth of Sweden who, driven by greed and frustration, captured Wayland to ensure his work would forevermore be only for him. To prevent escape, the king sliced through Wayland’s hamstrings with Wayland’s own sword Mimung and threw him into a deep cave on the island of Saevar-Staud! Wayland patiently plotted a terrible revenge to punish the King and his family for their greed. He enticed the two sons into his smithy where he killed them both with a newly forged sword and made gifts to mock the king, queen and their daughter – goblets from the two boys’ skulls, a necklace with their teeth and gems with their eyes. With wings made by his brother, Wayland flew away over the North Sea to The Ridgeway! This story is depicted in the carvings on the Frank’s Casket dating back to the 8th century and now displayed in the Early Medieval Room at the British Museum.

Since the Anglo-Saxons, generations of people have added their meanings and stories to this long barrow including modern writers such as JRR Tolkien and Susan Cooper. Photographs from the Victorian and Edwardian periods convey a romanticised view and some visitors carved messages into the surround beech trees, including one referring to a picnic in 1896 (see image gallery above). The site’s pagan associations mean some of today’s visitors leave wreathes of flowers as ‘offerings’ whilst artists and photographers continue to be enticed.

Some say that meditating at these sorts of sites allows you to experience more than just the visual or obvious aspects and instead tap into ‘place memory’ to travel back in time…..perhaps you will hear Wayland’s hammer ringing on his anvil? Several Ridgeway visitors have described their experiences, including G Pictor who said ‘I remember having a strange, mystical feeling when arriving there and sat on the stones recovering from a long walk in the heat.’

For more details, watch this video showing the National Trust ranger explaining the long barrow’s history to a group of visitors.  


Please leave this special place as you find it – do not leave litter, graffiti the trees etc.

For more information about paganism, artists and famous writers inspired by Wayland’s Smithy is available in other Top 50 entries.

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