On Thursday 21st August I went on a field trip to the long barrows at Uley, known locally as Hetty Pegler’s Tump after Hester Pegler who owned the land in the 17th century, and Nympsfield (Ordnance Survey landranger map 162 ref SO 790000 and SO 794013). Click the names above to read what I learned about the history of the individual barrows from my Heritage Unlocked field guide.
Below is an excerpt about the long barrows of Gloucestershire which I read on my journey:
“Gloucestershire contains one of the most important collections of Neolithic burial monuments in the country. These tombs consist of long stone mounds containing a number of burial chambers, usually entered from passages opening from the sides or the ends of the mounds. Roughly seventy such mounds, or long barrows, are known from the county and these belong to a regional distribution known as the ‘Cotswold Severn’ group which appear to have been constructed between 4000 and 3000 BC. All the long barrows within Gloucestershire are found in the limestone uplands, usually above 394 ft (120m) contour, and there are concentrations around Swell, Bisley and Avening. Although there is variation in the size of these barrows (they can measure between 98ft (30m) and 394ft (120m) in length), they share common architectural features. The majority of Cotswold long barrows face east and consist of carefully constructed trapezoidal mounds over the stone burial chambers, frequently faced by a drystone wall. The eastern end of the mound is generally higher and wider and usually has two projecting ‘horns’ on each side creating an entrance forecourt.
The burial chambers were used to store the remains of the dead which were usually de-fleshed and deposited in a disarticulated condition. Tombs may have been re-entered from time to time and the bones removed and circulated as part of an ancestor worship cult, before being returned to the grave. As many as thirty to forty individuals may have been interred within the chambers and tombs may have remained open for lengthy periods. […] Because the chambers take up such a small area of the mound, it has been suggested that the mounds themselves may have been a focus for ritual activites, or that they acted as territorial markers. Many Cotswold long barrows have dramatic settings with extensive views, and certainly retain their air of mystery.”
From Heritage Unlocked – Guide to Free Sites in Bristol, Gloucestershire and Wiltshire, published by English Heritage, p14-15
Walking to Uley long barrow, past open fields with a big road in the distance, through the villages of Hamshill and Far Green, smelling the smoke from a garden fire, seeing old post boxes, picking elderberries and storing them in my empty takeaway coffee cup. Walking the winding route towards the high ground, the hill on my map emerges in a series of glimpses and grows ever closer and more real. Thinking about the relationship between ancient sites and the landscape around them; there is increasing understanding, in the new approaches to the Stonehenge landscape for example, that ancient sites cannot be see in isolation from their surroundings. There is something about travelling to these barrows – the journey, the anticipation, negotiating the landscape, following ever shrinking roads and paths, seeing the hill draw nearer and rise above you, the effort of climbing a hill to reach them – all this brings a sense of pilgrimage and heightened senses.
Wanting to lean closer into this feeling, I chose the most difficult ascent to the first of the two sites, Uley. I climbed up through trees bent double, gripping the earth, stumbling as rotten wood gave way under my feet (track 2 below). On reaching the top I felt a kind of elated breathless headiness, and when I raised my head at the point where the trees met the field above, there was a strange marker that looked like a boundary point or small grave right in front of me. I don’t know what the stone is, but it made me think of transitional spaces, of where one place meets another, and how places where the dead have been laid can seem to have this quality of ‘in between-ness’.
When I first saw the barrow, the shape alone felt like ‘civilisation’; the fact that this form exists in the landscape makes a very old human presence tangible. I was struck by how long it is. I sat and spent time some time looking at its side view. A man and two children approached and disappeared into the barrow in profile, making it truly seem like a portal. Having heard the children’s chattering voices just seconds before, they suddenly felt very absent.
I felt very good sitting by the barrow. The road nearby didn’t seem to intrude, I felt like I was in a centre, a location, a destination, not just a random field, a place with latent if intangible purpose. I was happy to be there with no sense of time. The family came out and sat at the entrance to the barrow, reading a story aloud (it was Lord of the Rings). The wind grew. I put on my headphones and made some recordings of the wind from nearby – what I would normally hear as ‘disturbance’ on the microphone sounded like a rich drone with layers of sound, and even the voices of the man and girl stirring amongst the layers. I realised I could articulate the volume of this drone by moving my body in and out of its blast, like aural light and shade (track 3 below).
I entered the barrow as the family climbed up to explore its top. I didn’t want to plan what to do with my voice in advance. I had to crouch to enter, and even when inside I have to remain close to the ground, folded up. Again, thoughts of the transition between one place, one state and another came to mind, as the increasing consciousness of my breath, and of breathing, seemed to help me engage with this site as a place connecting the living and the dead.
Entering, the sound of the wind dimmed and the contrast was remarkable – a totally different sound space to outside where the open air is such a feature. Making sounds, the air is pushed out of my lungs by my compressed body, making it hard to hold notes for long. Since this is a tomb, it seems fitting to feel an awareness of breath, through the effort of breathing, to be so increased – it makes me aware of my transitory and fragile ‘aliveness’. Any tones seem to get absorbed into the barrow – it’s literally a dead space. There’s virtually no echo, and the sounds I make feel that they never get very far from me – everything around me is close, and the thought of the heavy wet earth above me makes me feel even more compressed. I get increasingly aware of the effort of making sustained sounds, I have to stop sometimes and catch my breath, feeling tired. Some sounds, particularly the low and high, seem to have some resonance, but making high notes is hard, so my voice gradually gets more and more grounded, textured. Whistling, and allowing harmonics to sneak through, somewhere between blowing air and making a note, feels satisfying, and evokes the memory of the wind outside.
I moved from chamber to chamber as I sang, allowing the recorder to pick up my voice from different distances. Time seemed to stand still inside, as the audible signs of passing time, like the wind in trees, were not present. It took a while to visually adjust, but I felt comfortable, and lingered until two local girls arrive. They brought a candle to place in the barrow.
I saw a total of seven other people of various ages in the time I was there, and when I entered there was evidence of other candles, as well as a bundle of wild flowers in the far chamber. This made me reflect that although the people who made or first passed on this barrow cannot directly speak to us, and its origins are shrouded in mystery, the site itself ‘speaks’ through its physical presence and the sensory experience it offers. I think it could be considered to still actively function as a form of shrine, although of a more individual nature, with each person able to form their own meaning.
Leaving Uley, I walked alongside the main road to Nympsfield, which was near a view point of the severn valley (I don’t recommend this as such, the verge gets very narrow). The interpretation board at Nympsfield mentioned how evidence of fires and potential ceremonial activity have been found between the outstretched ‘horns’ here. Although Uley is part reconstructed, it being roofed maintains an acoustic aspect that Nympsfield, being unroofed, can only be imagined. For this reason, this site has less scope for me as an individual site for making an audio work. But this gave me the idea that I could make a work that could in some way apply to all of the Cotswold Severn barrows (see text below).
I decided to walk to Nympsfield village and get a taxi to the station. On the way I noticed the drystone walls by the road and in the fields use the same technique as the infill between the large stones at the barrows, an echo of the barrow in the wider landscape.
These were done in my notebook on the train back. The top image is inspired by the appearance of Uley on the OS map, and the lower image is based on the memory of my breathing while inside the barrow.
So far I am really enjoying breathing the air and feeling the rain, coming home with muddy knees. I am freeing my voice from any kind of formality or expectation – its more about sound that music at this stage. I am open to music evolving but its nice to just be listening anew – to myself and to the sites and their surroundings.
Note: these tracks are panned to use both left and right, so for the best experience use headphones or stereo speakers.
These tracks are are composite arrangements (CA) of field recordings, or as I term them, ‘sound sketches’. Tracks labelled FR are straightforward field recordings (FR).
Track 1: (3.42 min) CA
This track was created from the recordings made on entering and while inside Uley long barrow. I spliced up the recordings so that each individual sound, and the intake of breath preceding it, could be arranged to form a sonic ‘shape’. This was an experiment in sculpting the individual sounds into the architectural shape of a specific place, in this case, the barrow as seen lengthwise, so that the listener has a kind of spatial experience of the site (see screen grab below of how this looks in the editing software). The idea to form the track this way came from having drawn the barrow in profile, and a half remembered notion that English composers Tallis (1505-1585) and Byrd (1540-1623) wrote vocal polyphony in the shape of, for example, an arch under which the piece would be sung. I tried to find confirmation of this, and am still researching it. To do this, I took the initial lower pitches, and layered them ascending pitches, then completed the form with descending and low pitches. When I was recording in the barrow, I did not have this in mind yet, I was intiutivley just trying out different sounds and textures and listening to the space this way. Because I was moving around inside the barrow, this track ends up having voices from different distances, creating a combination of different dynamics. I consciously left in moments where I had to pause for breath, due to my body being compressed.
Track 2: (dur 0.48 min) FR
I climbed up through trees bent double, gripping the earth, stumbling as rotten wood gave way under my feet.
Track 3: (1.26 min) FR
I realised I could articulate the volume of this drone by moving my body in and out of its blast, like aural light and shade. The voices of a parent and child can just be heard in the background.