Category Archives: Gloucestershire

Ghosts of the Mounds: prehistory and ghostlore in Gloucestershire and Wiltshire, a beginning

Lately, I’ve been intrigued by the different ghosts that emerge from the many, many prehistoric barrow mounds in the west. I’m doing talks on Gloucestershire’s ghosts and Wiltshire’s folklore, and I’ve been reminded of how, here in the west, they form an important part of the folklore of the region. This blog, probably the first of a few, explores some of the hauntings and their tales – if you’d like the full tales, you’ll find some of them in my books Wiltshire Folk Tales and Gloucestershire Ghost Tales.

Ghosts, fairies or giants? The case of Hackpen Hill

Back in antiquarian John Aubrey’s time, the 17th century, the mounds and the downland on which they were situated were things to be feared. In the long barrows, giant’s bones resided, and the very ground could open up and take you – like these incidents on Hackpen Hill near Avebury:

‘Some were led away by the Fairies, as was a Hind riding upon Hakpen with corne, led a dance to the Devises. So was a shepherd of Mr. Brown, of Winterburn-Basset: but never any afterwards enjoy themselves. He sayd that the ground opened, and he was brought into strange places underground, where they used musicall Instruments, violls, and Lutes, such (he sayd) as Mr. Thomas did play on.’[i]

Aubrey collected these snippets in his collection Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme, of 1686-7 – but not published until 1881 by the Folklore Society. It is a collection of folklore from all over Europe, collected together willy-nilly, with a little local lore slotted in.  Aubrey recorded that the people in the area thought that the long barrows around were the graves of giants. Round barrows were easily recognised as graves, too. Aubrey records that on Hackpen Hill ‘in a barrow … after digging, was found at thigh-bone of a man and several urns’. Many people at that time believed that what they were finding were the remains of Saxons and Vikings in these mounds. In some cases, of course, this was true – also on Hackpen Hill in the late 19th century Canon Greenwell, ‘a prolific excavator of barrows’, found evidence of the reuse of a Bronze Age barrow, finding a later Saxon inhumation with an iron spear over a cremation burial with a bronze dagger[ii]. Aubrey and his contemporaries were hindered by the lack of knowledge that there had been earlier cultures in Britain than that of the Iron Age that the Romans encountered and wrote about. Geoffrey of Monmouth explains away Stonehenge by ascribing it to Merlin’s magic (and giants in Africa … but that’s another story) but Aubrey and his contemporaries realised it and the other standing stones and burial mounds were much earlier, his generation creating a long-lasting misconception about druids and stone circles that still continues in the national psyche.

The haunting of the Woeful Dane

The idea, though, that it was Saxons and Vikings in the mounds lingers… In Gloucestershire, one of my out and out favourite stories is that of Molly the Dreamer of Minchinhampton, who encounters the ‘Woeful Dane’ (actually a Saxon) who is said to have named Woefuldane’s Bottom near the Long Stone. He was Wolfhang, and his shade haunts the lane. To Molly, though, he promised aid in the form of the glittering gold hidden in his grave – I won’t tell the tale, it’s in Gloucestershire Ghost Tales – but suffice to say that she didn’t get it! Sadly, the great battle where the Saxons under Wolfhang routed the Danes exists only in the imagination of the people of Minch – the name Woefuldane probably derives from a place where a wolf was caught[iii] … although that might shed some light on the see-through, headless black dog that also haunts the lane, and who caused carters in the 19th century to insist on being blindfolded on that stretch of road at night, lest they see its insubstantial form. Gatcombe Tump, Wolfhang’s mound, is a Cotswold-Severn type long barrow – dating from the early Neolithic, about 3500BC.

‘She did come out of the mound’

In the story at Manton barrow, near Marlborough, the tale goes that a finger bone was borrowed by a journalist after the excavation in the early 20th century, and when taken to a séance, a wronged Saxon princess was conjured up by the medium! Manton barrow is a round barrow in which were found the remains of ‘a woman of considerable age, and that their period was somewhere during the latter portion of the Bronze Age.’[iv] But there is a coda that seems more real. The grave goods were taken to Devizes Museum, but the skeleton was returned to the grave. Soon after, a woman of the village complaining to her doctor: ‘every night since that man from Devizes came and disturbed the old creature she did come out of the mound and walk around the house and squinny into the window. I do hear her most nights and want you to give me sammat to keep her away.’[v] Alcohol is secretly prescribed, and the old woman sleeps soundly from then on but I feel sorry for the lonely ‘old creature’, perhaps only seeking companionship after her lonely grave was disturbed and her spirit released.

‘I suddenly saw before me a long barrow’

The idea that the spirits of the dead are disturbed by excavation can also be seen in the tales of ghosts around the hard to find West Tump. Another Cotswold-Severn long barrow, it was discovered by the well-known Gloucestershire archaeologist, G B Witts, by accident while on a Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society outing in 1880. Witts, on horseback as opposed to in a carriage, took a shortcut through Buckholt Woods, and as he was riding through the portion the OS map calls Buckle Wood, with, as he says, ‘my mind intent on archaeology, and I suddenly saw before me a large barrow!’[vi] The barrow was duly excavated, the innumerable human remains removed in this case to the museum at Cheltenham, and, in time, nature covered the mound once more. But the people knew that the spirits were restless, and figures began to be seen around the mound, figures in leather cloaks, inked with tattoos and bearing stone-tipped spears. The ghosts in these last two stories, both from an era when people knew more about the pre-history of Britain, are more up to date, the ghosts seemingly reflecting the real occupants – or at least people’s imagined ideas of them.

It seems we create our ghosts anew with every generation, assimilating new information. What ghosts do the mounds conjure a hundred years on from the excavation of Manton Barrow? The mounds are now more in use than ever, visited by walkers and the curious – and by modern pagans honouring the ancestors and reinventing and imagining what might have happened when the original dead were laid to rest. But we know not what expectations the makers of the mounds had. Did they expect the spirits of their ancestors to lie quietly, as we expect of the dead today, or did they envisage a more active role for the spirits, perhaps, in the Bronze Age at least, still working to protect the living – many round barrows are placed on hills and ridges, or on boundaries. Were they set there to guard the land and the people in some way? What then if the barrow is disturbed? We can imagine that there would be dire consequences in the stories of the folk who raised the mounds… Did those stories linger? Perhaps it’s no wonder that the idea of ghosts – or fairies – in the mounds has come down over the centuries even to our materialist age.


  1. Featured image: Gatcombe Tump, near Minchinhampton © Kirsty Hartsiotis, 2014
  2. A view of Hackpen Hill, near Winterbourne Bassett
    cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Brian Robert
  3. Wolfhang  © Kirsty Hartsiotis, 2015
  4. The ‘Old Creature’ © Kirsty Hartsiotis, 2011
  5. West Tump ( Long Barrow )
    cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Michael


[i] Britton, John, ed. The Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme by John Aubrey RSS 1686-87 (The Folklore Society, 1881), p. 30


[iii] Palmer, Roy The Folklore of Gloucestershire (Westcountry Books, 1994), p. 3


[v] Whitlock, Ralph Wiltshire Folklore and Legends (Robert Hale, 1992), p. 24

[vi] Witts, G. B. ‘Description of the Long Barrow called “West Tump,” in the Parish of Brimsfield, Gloucestershire’

Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society, 1880-81, Vol. 5, p. 201-211


Roman Wonders! Heron of Alexandria and Ancient Automata

In a couple of weeks on Saturday 9 September I’m telling stories, Roman Wonders, as part of the Gloucester History Festival. Last year I was there telling Gloucestershire tales with Inkubus Sukkubus, but this is a little different – the brief was to tell stories of Roman invention and innovation for a family audience. So what did the Romans invent? I didn’t want to tell stories of siege engines or roads, so I looked further afield until I found what I wanted – steam engines, vending machines and robots!

In the course of researching content for the show I was suddenly reminded of a Roman period inventor who would be able to supply the kind of Roman Wonders I wanted. His name is Heron (or Hero – from the Greek word meaning ‘protector’ or ‘defender’, not the bird.) and he lived Alexandria, probably around the first century AD, and he designed steam engines and We don’t know much about the man than that – and even that is debatable, with dates given for him between 150 BC and 250 AD! He was probably a Greek. After all, Alexandria, founded by a Macedonian king in 331 BC, was the capital of the great Hellenistic state that only came to an end in about 30 BC after Cleopatra VII’s death, when Egypt was annexed into the Roman Empire by Octavian.

Alexandria was an exciting place to be if you were a thinker or an inventor. The great museum (or mouseion – not the kind of museum I work in – but rather a shrine to the muses) there had been founded by the first Hellenistic kings, Ptolemy Soter, who may, like his friend and king, Alexander the Great, have been taught by the philosopher Aristotle. Ptolemy had travelled the world with Alexander, and seems to have shared his love of learning. It amassed as much of the knowledge of the ancient as it could. Unfortunately, its library was burnt down (probably…) during the war between Julius Caesar and Pompey in 48 BC… The library rose, phoenix-like, from the flames, and by Heron’s time it was flourishing again. The museum was a research institute and university, and Heron taught there. As we don’t know anything about his life, we can imagine a comfortable life for him, with a tenured position at the museum, some teaching, a lot of writing, and a lot of experimenting and completing commissions of his machines for temples and theatres and other clients.

He certainly wrote a lot – and here I am coming up against the fact that I didn’t even do physics gcse. He wrote on hydraulics, pneumatics, mathematics – and automata. He’s said to have invented the windmill, but typically, this innovation that would change the world he used to power a musical organ. Indeed, our Heron seems to have had a latent desire for the theatre as his inventions are extremely theatrical.

Simpler designs include mechanical birds that could sing and flap their wings – there was even one that protected her family of chicks from a snake! These were powered by either air or liquids, and are toys, curiosities:

Some of his most complex designs were whole mechanical theatres. To our jaded eyes these seem very simple, but imagine yourself back to the time of Heron and it would truly be a wonder. It moves by itself! Fires are lit! Water pours! The figures move! Music plays! This video, from the Kotsanas Museum of Ancient Greek Technology, shows a recreated model of the Dionysus theatre:

However, among these less practical items, there are one that would have provoked religious awe. It seems that Heron was supplying the Alexandrian temples with the means making their parishioners believe that supernatural forces were at work… For example, Heron invented the first automatic doors. Today, we don’t think when a door opens in front of us, but then, the only way to open a door would have been with manpower … unless it was godpower that was doing it. Or mechanics. Outside, under the portico of a temple, there would have been an altar fire where sacrifices could be seen even by those who couldn’t go in the temple. Heron cleverly linked up the lighting of the fire with the opening of the door using weights and counterweights. Here’s a little video, part of an Ancient Discoveries programme by the History Channel:

Perhaps his most famous invention, however, was a steam engine. It’s called an aeolipile, and it works by heating up water and forcing the steam through two jets, which cause the ball to spin around.  Here’s Charles Baetsen’s recreation of it:


As it is, it’s a toy, but imagine if Heron had applied it! We might have had an industrial revolution nearly 2000 years before it actually happened. Admittedly, it’s probably very good for the earth that that didn’t happen, but I can’t help envisaging an alternative steampunk past that isn’t Victorian in style, but rather Roman. Crack out your togas, reenactors!

If you’d like to find out about these ancient technologies, and more tales besides, come and join me for my family friendly storytelling show as part of Gloucester History Festival at 3.45pm on Saturday 9 September at Blackfriars, Gloucester. It’s free! I’ll be blogging about the other tales I’m telling over the next couple of weeks – so come back to the blog for tales of Alexander the Great, the Roman god Vulcan and Aesop and more!


First image: Modern reconstruction of wind organ and wind wheel of Heron of Alexandria (1st century AD) according to W. Schmidt: Herons von Alexandria Druckwerke und Automatentheater, Greek and German, 1899 (Heronis Alexandrini opera I, Reprint 1971), p. 205, fig. 44; cf. introduction p. XXXIX

Tales of Witchcraft and Wonder – videos!

Those lovely folks in Inkubus Sukkubus recorded the whole show on 9 September 2016 and are releasing videos on You Tube! Here are a selection – watch this space for more as they come up.

Kirsty starts the whole thing by telling The Deerhurst Dragon:

Ronald Hutton introduces the band in his own inimitable style:

And here’s one of my all-time favourite songs, the Witch of Berkeley:

The Life, Labours and … Ghosts of a Forest Collier – by Kirsty Hartsiotis


Timothy Mountjoy (1824-1896)


It’s fitting, perhaps, to be posting this on the death day of William Morris. Exactly ten years older than Morris, and dying in the same year, the man pictured here isn’t known at all. An internet search for Morris brings up thousand upon thousand of entries. For this man, Timothy Mountjoy, the references are expended by the end of the first page[i]. And yet, like William Morris, Timothy Mountjoy was a passionate, obsessive man, deeply committed to the cause of bettering the conditions of life – in Mountjoy’s case for his fellow miners and their families. Like Morris, too, he was compelled to write. In his case, it was a memoir of his life and the Forest of Dean in the mid-19th century, rather than poetry or actual Socialist polemic against the mores of their shared world.

I discovered Timothy Mountjoy while researching Gloucestershire Ghost Tales. There are many ghost tales from the Forest, but I was struggling to find one that spoke to me, that I wanted to tell. Then I found this strange tale of dark, drunken deeds on Ruardean Hill, and what happened after … which became ‘The Body in Pan Tod Mine’. And the source? Mountjoy’s book.

Now, this book is, on the face of it, a strange source for a ghost story. Mountjoy was a Baptist minister, a committed Christian who expends a lot of ink in The Life, Labours and Deliverances of a Forest of Dean Collier in telling us about his faith. He was one of the men who brought trade unionism to the Forest miners, was the General Secretary of the first union for coal miners in the Forest, the Forest of Dean Miners’ Association, and fought to improve their lot throughout his life – though with little thanks and only varying success! But hidden in the interstices of his book are fascinating glimpses of another life, one of haunted woods, of dark deeds and of Mountjoy’s own uncanny second sight. In Gloucestershire Ghost Tales, his story is told in ‘The Body in the Pan Tod Mine’ – which, it seems, Mountjoy (and the rest of the Forest, according to him!) witnessed. Note, dear readers – there’s a little extra ‘ghost’ tale at the bottom of this post … read on!

The Life, Labours etc. is exceedingly rare – though I would dearly love my own copy, they are not available for love nor money[ii]! So I went to Gloucestershire Archives to read it, armed with a notebook and a pencil. Everyone else seemed to have piles of documents, so I felt a little small sitting there with my single tiny volume. But it was worth it. Timothy Mountjoy should be better known.

Born at Littledean Hill in 1824, he was born into a rapidly changing world. In the 1820s the Forest of Dean was just about to become a major place of industry. Iron and coal had been mined there since at least Roman times, and small scale free mining had taken place since the reign of Edward I (a reward for Foresters who had taken part in the Siege of Berwick, apparently!). But the industrial revolution changed the pace and scale of mining forever. After all, what did it need more than anything? Iron and coal. Hundreds of pits were opened up – but as Mountjoy records, the conditions for the men who worked in them – and their families – were bad to the point of dangerous. He describes how, in 1819, 4 men were killed when their chain link (probably made of flat iron links and hemp rope) broke. The youngest man, Meredith, was only 12, the same age that Mountjoy started in the pits 17 years later.

Mountjoy own start in life was tenuous – as a baby he cried day and night, until the girl who was watching him was minded to throw him into a nearby well! As a young lad in the pit he was careless one day and knocked his head fooling around – knocking himself out and falling down the pit. He got away with bruises, but it must have been experiences like that that made him so keen to improve the conditions (and pay, of course) of the miners, but also made him turn to religion.

But Mountjoy knew things … he speaks how he would dream true, and recounts how once, he dreamed that there were lots of men milling about Prospect Pit, and as he came in he saw there was a man lying dead. Alarmed by the dream he reported it to the bosses (though maybe not to the man he saw dead) but nothing happened. Then, a cry was heard, and it was discovered that the roof of part of the pit had collapsed, crushing a boy, Mark Williams, to his death beneath. Mountjoy was sure his dream had been a warning. His first wife, too knew things too. He records how she told him early in their marriage that she would die in her 35th year … and she did.

He describes forgotten ghosts, too. Who was the ghost by the crooked pear tree that his sister saw, and who was haunting the Temple[iii]? He himself had an experience. One night when he was walking over Owl Hill homewards through the Heywood Enclosure, the woods closing in on him as he went, the night dark under the trees … and there, eyeball to eyeball with him, a white face, two huge dark eyes… He backed away… It followed … and so it went until the edge of the wood when a shaft of moonlight revealed the spook – a calf and its mother! Full of relief and chastising himself for believing for a moment that ghosts really existed young Timothy made his way homewards only to see a white shape rise in front of him when he was nearly home. Hair standing on end, Timothy stopped – but the spook took fright at the sight of him and legged it … and Timothy saw he was leaving a trail of potatoes as he fled. No ghost there, but a potato thief in a sheet!


[i] You can find out about him in Four Personalities from the Forest of Dean by Ralph Anstis (Albion House: Coleford, 1996)

[ii] There is a booklet of extracts from the book Hard Times in the Forest by Timothy Boughton and Fred Mountjoy (Forest of Dean Newspapers Ltd, 1971) but this is almost as unavailable as the book itself!

[iii] This is Solomon’s Temple, an 18th century house built on what is now Temple Lane – but of course a real temple was discovered many years later near Littledean Hall, a Roman temple!


Tales of Witchcraft and Wonder in Gloucester

1-iksu-pic-by-mick-robertsOn Friday night I had an absolute blast! I had the privilege to take part in an amazing show, Tales of Witchcraft and Wonder with the incomparable Inkubus Sukkubus, as their storyteller. This was part of Gloucester History Festival – so it was great to introduce a bit of folklore to all that ‘real’ history. We were telling the histories we all want to believe are true! The stories that are true at gut level … the kind of stories that make you nervous when you go are out into the darkness at night … and in some places, during the day as well. And though I might have been the official storyteller, Candia, Tony and the band were telling tales too … tales that ranged from local folk tales like the Witch of Berkeley (one of my absolute faves in song and story!), to witchlore to, er, activities on a certain local landmark to personal tales to touch the heart.

Inkubus Sukkubus have recently released a new album, Barrow Wake, an acoustic album full of the dark tales of Gloucestershire – and beyond (there’s an allusion to my original part of the world with Hopkin’s Man, Matthew Hopkins, the foul Witchfinder General, denizen of Essex and my native Suffolk. I’m so proud. Sigh.) It’s a great listen – sample it here, and then you know what to do!


So, they decided to play a gig in their home city as part of the History Fest, and donate the proceeds to the lovely folk at Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust who manage the Barrow Wake nature reserve. They wanted local stories to go alongside the music, so they approached Anthony and me. Candia McKormack, the lead singer of the band, also happens to have her pulse on the county – she works for Cotswold Life, and as a pagan, a nature lover and a folklore aficionado, she knew about Anthony’s Gloucestershire Folk Tales and our follow up, the Ghost Tales book. Anthony’s away right now, on a research trip for his new novel, in the South Pacific (poor thing!), so it was me. I offered a selection and Candia and Tony selected.

Two of the stories I was expecting – the Deerhurst Dragon and the Fairy Horn – but the third, the Seventh Bride, was a surprise. I was really pleased to do the Deerhurst Dragon in particular. Dragons can be seen as representative of all large predators, and our reaction to them – fear and the urge to destroy – we see even with what scraps of large mammal life we have left in Britain, such as foxes and those goalpost moving badgers. Several people came up to me afterwards to say how affected by the story they’d been – exactly what you want. It breaks my heart, too. But I also love that story because it taps into my old love – Anglo Saxon architectural sculpture. Deerhurst has some of the most intriguing in the country. Fitting for a medieval themed history festival, though a little early. The actual beast heads there are probably 9th century, and thus very rare. Nearly as rare as dragons, these days… The Fairy Horn, set in the heart of the Forest, is a classic fairies’ revenge story, and encourages you to show respect for the forces beyond your ken … like nature, like the spirit realm. The third story is a Gloucestershire Bluebeard tale, a fable to encourage young girls not to trust strangers, something we still sadly feel we must do to this day, but this tale also shows how powerful you can be in extremis – and has an unexpected long barrow with unusual and grisly inhabitants too. Dark tales…

The Inkies music was incredible – I was captivated from beginning to end. I didn’t want it to end. Candia and the band had invited fiddler Nick Gibbs from Folklaw and cellist Abigail Blackman to play with them, and I loved the acoustic sound they created together. Particular favourites were Woman to Hare (and the cat, don’t forget the cat!), the Witch of Berkeley, the title song Barrow Wake (tho’ it makes me smile when I think about the lovers in question!), and the beautiful song about the love spell that made me think, moist-eyed, about my far away love. Go to the Inkubus Sukkubus facebook page to see some clips from the night – I hope to pop some up here soon, too. I’d love to see this combination again – and in fact Candia is going to be guesting at the upcoming Folklaw gig at the Sub Rooms in Stroud 24 September. I shall be there!

20160909_195320-cropAnd all of this in the most amazing venue, Gloucester Blackfriars. Hard to believe the difference in the site from when I worked in Gloucester 10 or so years ago. I worked in the Docks, a bare hop (not even a skip and a jump) away, and although I knew it was there, of course I never went in. Now it’s a fantastic venue, perfect for storytelling and music. So atmospheric … the courtyard magical with little lights and the sound of the superb Gwilym Davies on pipe and tabor ushering in the guests with music, and the thrill of being in the building with all its layers – the great fireplace hanging above us as we performed, that strange combination of church and home. A friend and I were wondering what ghosts marched above our heads, pacing out an afterlife on lost floors… The Inkies had made it beautiful, too, and I particularly loved the film of the Forest with fairies playing above me – what could have been more fitting for the Fairy Horn?

Image credits:

  1. Me in full flow at Blackfriars, Friday 9 September 2016. Picture © Mick Roberts
  2. Inkubus Sukkubus at Blackfriars, Friday 9 September 2016. Picture © Jack ‘Pyromancer’ Howard
  3. Gwilym Davies piping in the hordes! Picture © Kirsty Hartsiotis


Rolling, rolling, rolling … a Gloucestershire Midsummer’s tale – Kirsty Hartsiotis

800px-Castle_an_Dinas_midsummer_bonfire_2009It’s midsummer, and, typically for Britain, the sun’s gone in, the rain’s coming down. Flash floods abound and friends have had both their houses and their workplaces inundated. Today, this is obviously a major inconvenience for those concerned, but for the rest of us we just note it on the news and move on. After all, there are more important things to worry about than a spot of rain at midsummer, aren’t there?

But can you imagine a time when you approached the middle of summer with a nervous eye on the weather, and noted the downturn from sun to rain with looming dread in your heart? Well, any farmers reading this probably know exactly that feeling, but in today’s globalised society that’s their problem, isn’t it? If one farmer loses his crop, then, well, hard cheese, bad luck – there’ll always be a job at the local Aldi, won’t there, if it all goes belly up? After all, the food just keeps flowing in whether British fields are bathed in sunshine from June to August or whether the rain comes down in stair rods. We all know – head knowledge – that this wasn’t always the case. We might even think that this insistent globalisation is a bad thing and try to eat seasonally. But buying your asparagus in May and your strawberries in June doesn’t impact on the fact that there will be bread on the supermarket shelves every day of the year, a bad harvest or no.

If it rained after midsummer – rained substantially, as it often does in our green and damp land – then the crops could be in danger. And if the crops were in danger – the wheat and the barley: the meat of bread and beer, staples of peasant life for many centuries – then you and your family might not have enough to get through the winter. You might starve.


So it’s no surprise that midsummer has long been celebrated – the sun shines the longest, the hay harvest is in, the wheat and barley ripening in the fields, the year stands in the balance… Much has been written about the many customs. I’m just going to focus on a couple, both of which took place in medieval Gloucestershire.

The first probably relates to an existing, vibrant custom that now takes place on the Spring Bank Holiday (which I, erroneously, still call the Whit bank holiday…) on Cooper’s Hill not far from Stroud. This is, of course, the cheese rolling. Once, it used to happen at midsummer. A quaint English custom, you might say. Well, maybe quaint isn’t the right word for people racing down a 1:1 hill in pursuit of a cheese – but unequivocally English. But people right across Europe have been rolling things down hills at midsummer for a long, long time.

In the 14th century an irate monk from Winchcombe condemns the practice. Earlier yet, in the 4th century AD, St Vincent in his Acts describes the pagans of Aquitaine doing it. They were doing it in Devon, at Buckfastleigh in the 19th century, and in the Vale of Glamorgan, too.[i] They’re still doing it (though at Easter!) in Lügde in Germany – and my stepdad even saw it, back in c. 1970. But rolling what, precisely?

A flaming wheel, of course! Here’s a clip from Lügde:

Traditions vary, of course, but the standard across Europe seems to go like this: the people would take a cartwheel and cover it in straw, then insert a long pole through the middle, so as to guide it. In the semi-darkness of the shortest night they would light the wheel and set it rolling downhill. Bad luck if it went out, but if it blazed right down to the bottom, then, well, the sun would shine and the rain would come when they were needed and there would be a good harvest! In some places, it was luckier still if it hit water – Buckfastleigh, for one, and also Konz on the Moselle. The practice died out in Britain after a revival in Buckfastleigh in the 1950s failed, but it’s possible that the cheese rolling is an echo of this even more dangerous practice! I would also note that it’s another indication of our European shared culture to all the Leave sayers…

I heard about the second custom at a little conference in Wiltshire last year – a scholar talking about rights and the commons mentioned a thing that made my Gloucestershire ears prick up.[ii] There survives a document from c. 1300 that charts the duties of over 150 families, tenants of the Lady of Minchinhampton in the various hamlets and villages atop the hill. Now the Lady was in fact the Abbess of Caen in France, unlikely to have ever come to Minch, but the manor was highly organised nonetheless. Alongside the duties of paying the penny tithe to Rome, haylone (reaping hay), bederipe (reaping and mowing) etc., some households were expected to be watchers on St John’s Eve.[iii]

Watchers? Watching for what? Today we expect the veil to be thin at Halloween, but in the medieval calendar St John’s Eve (23 June, and the midsummer festival) was one of several times that the dead might return to the places of the living, and that you might be able to predict the future. It was a time to light the fires and keep what scant darkness there was away. In Shropshire in the 14th century, ‘men waken at even, and maken three manner of fires: one is clean bones, and is called a bonfire; another is of clean wood, and is called a wakefire, for the men sitteth and wake by it; the third is made of bones and wood, and is called St John’s Fire’[iv] – the stench of the bones also kept dragons (and maybe spirits?) away. It was a sanctioned Christian feast – among all the other stuff going on, the fires also signified the light of St John the Baptist, whose feast it was in the morning, who ‘pointed out Christ in this world of darkness.’[v] It must have been a fun occasion – the writer of the article on the Minchinhampton custumal, CE Watson, describes it thus: ‘Wild orgies often marked the night, drunkenness and worked up excitement being the reaction to many superstitious fears.’[vi]

But waiting for the light in a time of darkness arouses fears in all of us. Imagine the people of Minch, up on the common, no doubt as much then as now the haunt of ghosts and creatures of the wilds, huddling around the wakefire telling tales – of the fairies; of how tonight was the night that dragons mated, roiling in a writhing ball and creating the powerfully magical ‘serpent’s egg’; of how if you went to the church on midsummer’s eve you’d see who was to die that year (and you might just see yourself!) – and reeling a bit from the beer provided by the richer folks, giddy from the dancing and the release from the toil of the summer’s work and one can easily imagine how things might get a little crazy … especially if the fairies were indeed about that night!

And why not? It’s midsummer! In the light of the night why not go crazy? Gloucestershire’s a good place to do it! Or, if you are really bold, why not hop over the border to Somerset, Warwickshire or Wiltshire where the stone circles lie and spend the night alone in a circle … you’ll come out a bard – or mad. Happy midsummer!

Images and videos:

  1. Traditional Cornish Hilltop bonfire. Midsummer’s eve 2009 © Talskiddy
  2. Haymaking & harvesting, from a French 15th cent. ms., Keble College, Oxford (ID 1623) © Oxford University
  3. © Dennis Zimmerman


[i] Find out more in Ronald Hutton’s Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain (OUP, 1996)

[ii] Graham Bathe ‘Commons and Communities’, 2012:

[iii] Find out more in CE Watson’s ‘The Minchinhampton Custumal and its place in the Story of the Manor’, from the Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society, 1932, Vol. 54, 203–384

[iv] Quoted from Hutton, p. 312

[v] ‘Catholic Activity: St. John’s Eve Bonfire’

[vi] Watson, p. 257