Coaley Peak, just a few miles outside of Stroud, is a popular viewpoint and picnic spot offering incredible views across Gloucestershire. But it’s also a great starting point for a walk through thousands of years of the county’s ancient past, with just a few miles taking you from the Stone Age, through the Bronze Age and into the Iron Age.
Next to the car park at Coaley Peak is Nympsfield Long Barrow. Long barrows were a type of burial monument used during the Neolithic (or “New Stone Age”), which began around 6,000 years ago and is the period during which farming was introduced to Britain.
Burial in long barrows was communal, sometimes with only parts of the skeleton being interred, leading to the belief that these places were built as ‘houses of the dead’ for a community’s collective ancestry, perhaps being used for various ceremonies at important times of the year. Excavated in 1862 by Professor J. Buckman, in 1937 by Elsie Clifford and in 1947 by Alan Savile, the remains of at least 13 people have been discovered at Nympsfield Long Barrow, including the skeleton of a child enclosed in a stone cist.
With the roof of the mound having been removed by ploughing at some point, Nympsfield provides a great demonstration of the layout of one of these tombs – which are found all over the Cotswolds – with several burial chambers coming off a central passage. However, a truer “realm of the ancestors” experience awaits those willing to take a quick detour and brave the subterranean darkness just a little further down the road at Uley Long Barrow.
At this barrow, also known as Hetty Pegler’s Tump, a single low entrance leads you underground into a central passageway off which the burial chambers lie. Once your eyes have adjusted to the darkness, a deeper, more forbidding darkness emanates from these chambers. That being said, although the place certainly manages to command a hushed respect, it doesn’t feel unwelcoming. The feeling in here is probably closer to how it would have been experienced in Neolithic times. Once you’ve entered, any hint of the world outside disappears. The birds singing, the sound of the wind and (for the modern day visitor) the nearby B4066 – all left behind in the realm of the living. In here, it really is easy to understand how Neolithic people might have felt that they had left their world behind and passed into somewhere else – into the realm of the dead.
Just a couple of hundred yards away from the open-topped Nympsfield Long Barrow, tucked away from the crowds in woodland in a quiet corner of Coaley Peak, is something that represents the coming of a whole new age to Gloucestershire – the Bronze Age.
Soldier’s Grave is a round barrow – and more specifically a type known as a bowl barrow – which is a type of funerary monument that has become synonymous with Bronze Age Britain. Unlike the communal tombs of the Neolithic, these new mounds tended to be built as a resting place for just one individual or a very small number of people. However, what makes Soldier’s Grave particularly special is that despite being Bronze Age in style, it is much more Neolithic in substance, with the remains of between 28 and 44 individuals having been discovered in the tomb. Early Bronze Age pottery was also discovered here and so it is thought that the barrow may provide a very rare example of transition between the two ages.
A short walk along the Cotswold Way from Coaley Peak, through some stunning woodland, lies one of the great centres of power of Iron Age Gloucestershire – Uley Bury Hillfort. Occupied from approximately 300BC – 100AD, Uley Bury sits on a spur of the Cotswold escarpment, with a double layer of ramparts built into the steep slopes that surround the settlement area. With these ramparts enclosing an area of around 32 acres, Uley Bury might be described as an ancient town.
Although inaccessible today, the vast flat interior is clearly visible at many points as you circumnavigate the fort and offers a real hint of how significant a settlement this place once was.
Historic England’s website tells of a range of discoveries made here during excavation works carried out ahead of the laying of pipelines. As well as uncovering a crouched burial, the works “indicated one of the entrances was turf and timber lined with a metalled road and produced Iron Age pottery, shale armlets, a glass bead, a bronze ring headed pin and two Iron Age currency bars”. The presence of over 2000 flint artefacts also indicates that Uley Bury was an important place as far back as Neolithic times.
The vast open field that was once the bustling Iron Age settlement of Uley Bury provides a reminder that nothing is permanent. What to us is now a place for a Sunday dog walk would once have been the very centre of potentially hundreds of people’s worlds – a place to laugh, cry, love and live and everything in between. However, whilst the hillfort provides us with a glimpse of the lives of those ancient Gloucestershire residents, it’s the long barrows – which would have been considered ancient even by the hillfort’s inhabitants – that provide us with perhaps the greatest connection to them. It’s as if, in some sense, the place still belongs to them and that by entering it you temporarily leave your world behind and become part of theirs.
Some ancient places just feel more alive than others – and none more so than the ones that belong to the dead.