The weather was surprisingly good. Normally when we visit this particular site it is freezing cold, driving rain or both, for the last stretch of our journey would take us to Arbor Low, one of the finest ancient sites in Derbyshire and certainly the best known. It is often referred to as the Stonehenge of the north, yet it bears little resemblance to that great circle, on the surface at least. The similarities are more subtle than that and anyone expecting towering pylons of stone are in for a disappointment. On the other hand, it does closely resemble the better known site in other respects. The ritual landscape of which it is a part is potentially enormous. Mysteries abound and yet, unlike Stonehenge, here they have not been thoroughly plotted, excavated or investigated and what little is known is open to renewed interpretation in light of the discoveries and understanding we have gleaned over the past century. Even English Heritage in whose care the site now rests and who provide the information boards for visitors, admit that we know little and understand even less.
We crossed the farmyard which is the only way to access the site, paying our coins in an echo of an age-old rite of passage. Rather than heading for the obvious gate, and knowing the site well, we cut across the fields, following the path that most would take to exit the site. We had always done so before, but on our last visit, in the company of our friend Running Elk, we had kicked ourselves for not realising that here too, as at Barbrook, the accepted, clockwise path around the site runs the wrong way. This time, though, that deduction wasn’t based on some nebulous feeling of rightness alone, but on the layout of the site itself…and it made perfect sense.
We were heading first for Gib Hill. At first glance it looks odd. It is neither a standard shape for a round barrow, nor for a long barrow. If anything, it more closely resembles in shape the type of mound usually dismissed as a ‘castle’… or a diminutive version of Silbury Hill. It stands at some distance from the circle and is thought to be the oldest surviving feature of the site. The strange shape of the mound has an equally strange explanation. It was originally a Neolithic barrow. The Neolithic period in Britain covers the period from around 6000 to around 4,500 years ago and was followed by the Early Bronze Age, which lasted until around 800 BC. During the Early Bronze Age, a second, round barrow, was built on top of one end of the older mound and it is this superimposition that has altered the shape of Gib Hill.
The mound was excavated in 1824 by William Bateman, who seems to have owned the field. Along with flints and a stone axe, he found that the earlier long barrow was made of layers of clay mixed with charcoal and cremated human bones. In 1848 his son, the antiquary Thomas Bateman, who became known as “The Barrow Knight” for his propensity for digging up these ancient mounds, dug a tunnel into the barrow, finding flints and the bones of oxen in the lower layers. Nearing the completion of his tunnel, a stone burial cyst fell through its roof containing a human cremation and an urn. Bateman appropriated the cyst and re-erected it in the grounds of his home at Lomberdale House. It has now been replaced in the mound and its capstone is visible on its summit.
The name, Gib Hill, would normally imply that a gibbet once stood there but there are conflicting opinions on this. Most, including English Heritage, say there is no evidence for a gibbet. Others maintain that one stood there in the 18th century. They were usually placed where they would do most good as a deterrent and although there is an old Roman road close by and the main turnipike road from which Gib Hill can be seen, it does run at quite some distance from the mound and there are other mounds, at least, if not more prominent on the surrounding hills that would have been more visible. Only the antiquity of the site would have made Gib Hill a ‘good’ choice.
Gib Hill, it would appear, has another name locally too and one I did not come across until I started researching for this article. It is known as ‘the serpent’, which, in light of what was to come, was something of a surprise… and another one of those very odd synchronicities that attended the weekend.
The other mounds are curious, topping almost every one of the hills in the area that can be seen from Gib Hill. Whether they are all recognised as ancient tumuli or not, they do seem to form an integral part of the landscape as seen from this point. Considering that Arbor Low has a ‘sister’ site at the Bull Ring in Dove Holes about ten miles away, this scale of work across the landscape cannot be discounted and it is seen in so many other parts of the country, including at Stonehenge; that famous site is more than just the iconic circle and it is accepted that it stretches for many miles across the Wiltshire landscape.
We climbed the mound, explaining our thoughts on the landscape and pointing out the features that could be seen from its summit, including what appears to be the remains of another henge in the field beside it. We showed our companions the mounds that top the surrounding hills and where the earthen embankment runs that seems to form an avenue between Gib Hill and the stone circle. We spoke too of our theories on how these mounds could have been seen by our ancestors as gateways to the Otherworld…and how they could have been used by the shamans or priesthood.
Apart from the mound itself and a few of the stones that surround it, there is little to see of the site, though much to feel. You can see how the avenue leads into this side of the stone circle, rather than following the accepted clockwise route. And it is only from here that you begin to get a true sense of the stone circle that lies invisible behind the high banks of the henge. From here, those banks look like a sleeping female form…and from here we would follow the course of the avenue to enter the circle from the ‘head’, swallowed by the goddess, who would, when we were done, bring us to a symbolic re-birth into the world.