Wayland's Smithy, Oxfordshire


★★★★★

Rear of the four upright stones
Stones lining the entrance passageway

Well preserved, partially reconstructed long barrow (burial chamber) dating from around 3650 BC, in a relatively remote, tree-lined setting on the high ground of the Lambourn Downs
Management
Location
Along the Ridgeway near Knighton Hill, off the B4507; SN6 8BZ
Wayland's Smithy, formerly known as Wayland Smith's Cave, is a well-preserved (and partially reconstructed) long barrow, or chambered tomb, a Neolithic burial chamber in use from around 3550 to 3400 BC. The site has a relatively remote location, away from vehicular roads, set on high ground near the north edge of the Lambourn Downs, a range of chalk hills east of Swindon.

The place is quite evocative due to its isolation, and scenic, since the barrow is enclosed by a thin belt of mature trees, and surrounded on all sides by open farmland, with distant views northwards. The name derives from a much later belief that the stone chamber was used as a forge by the mythical figure Wayland, a Saxon deity.

The long barrow, a Scheduled Monument, is reached via the Ridgeway, an ancient, cross-country route linking Salisbury Plain to East Anglia, later partially incorporated into the Roman-era Icknield Way. The section near the monument is closed to vehicles; the nearest parking place is a quarter of a mile northeast alongside a narrow track (Knighton Hill), though the suggested start point for visitors is a mile further, at the larger parking area for the Uffington White Horse, free (only) for English Heritage members. Both parking places are reached by short side roads south of the B4507, climbing the northern slopes of the Downs. The long barrow is a compact site and all can be seen in just a quarter of an hour or so.




History


The first burial chamber at this hilltop location was built around 3950 BC; this was a relatively small structure, an oval-shaped, stone-floored, wood-lined enclosure in which at least 14 people were buried, in several wooden coffins, as revealed by excavations in 1963. The coffins were covered by earth and chalk sometime after the final burial, and the site was left undisturbed for the next hundred years, until being incorporated into a much larger barrow, the structure seen today. This consisted of a long (185 feet) and relatively narrow earthwork extending northwards from a stone-clad tunnel, and embellished by a low wall and six larger, decorative stones, three either side of the entrance. This was in use for a longer period, of up to 100 years, after which the site seems to have been abandoned, left undisturbed for many centuries until the Roman occupation, and then again subsequently, up to the recent restorations, which included repositioning the fallen entrance stones and rebuilding the wall between them. The design of the (later) long barrow is similar to those in use several centuries earlier, such as at West Kennet near Avebury; it is unclear why a more contemporary design was not employed here.



The Site


The long barrow is entered from the southeast corner via a short connecting path from the Ridgeway, leading to the stone frontage at the south end. The opening to the chamber is flanked by the low stone wall which incorporates the four surviving sarsen stones, up to 8 feet high, all differently shaped. The chamber just beyond is 18 feet long and has two small side recesses in which several skeletons were found during excavations, though the site was almost certainly disturbed during Roman times, accompanied by removal of most of the original contents. From the chamber a low mound extends northwards, edged by much smaller stones, and adjoining flat land that conceals the buried remains of the two embankments that once partially enclosed the original barrow. The protected area of the scheduled monument also contains two ditches, one Iron Age, the other Roman, but again these are not evident above ground.



Clump of trees enclosing the burial chamber
Clump of trees enclosing the burial chamber, surrounded by farm fields