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by Nigel Swift, Heritage Action
They say gambling is an attempt to reduce a chaotic and unpredictable world to a finite and manageable size. There’s a lot of it going on at Cheltenham races this week but how many of those refugees from remedial maths classes will bother to glance up at Cleeve Hill? They say (don’t they say a lot?) that religion is the ultimate gamble and there, close to the summit, broods the visible evidence of a six thousand year old gamble – a bet that there’s a beyond. Try getting a price on that from the bookies!
Be warned though, it’s a hard slog to get up there unless you’re fit, which I’m not, and the signposts and locals seem to be anxious to make the Irish invaders feel at home – a mile or two means rather more than it sounds. Wikipedia says it takes ten minutes. Wikipedia should ruddy try it.
Still, it’s so worth it. Belas Knap (which could mean beautiful hill or lots of other things) is one of the Cotswold Severn cairns, a type that is plentiful in this area, particularly in Gloucestershire. They vary greatly but all tend to have a defining feature – a regular trapezium shape – in fact the shape of a coffin, which is spooky for a burial mound!
In truth, a lot of it is a bit of a cheat. It was left devastated by nineteenth century excavators and radically reconstructed by the Ministry of Works in the 1920s. And yet, not all of its essence has been lost -because, perhaps, its location hasn’t been restored. There is a sense of wildness and open sky and huge views that can hardly have changed – and one can fancy that the experience of being there is close to what the builders would have seen and felt. Who needs a Tardis when you can travel back in time just by climbing a hill?
Despite the fact much of it has been rebuilt (and sometimes badly – did the ceilings of the side chambers really have to be constructed of moulded concrete reminiscent of the ceiling of Wolverhampton’s multi story car park?) parts are admirable and the dry Cotswold stone walling framing the false entrance is particularly fine (and part is original). This area, spacious and well sheltered from the wind and incorporating a large blocking stone is surely more than a mere false entrance (why construct a lie that could be easily discovered?). It is hard to avoid thinking important ceremonies were held within those sheltering arms.
Who knows? Although, we can probably assume one thing about the original use of Belas Knap – people didn’t squat in the side chambers playing guitars and watching their tealights staining the stones. (“How do you know, maan?” Just a guess, oh youthful substance-befuddled poseur!). Damaging this place can’t possibly be revering the past – or indeed the present or future. I’m comfortably pro-Pagan me, but I’m pretty anti-prat. It wouldn’t do any harm if the heritage organisations and the rest of us were more actively the latter without worrying it might make us anti the former. It won’t.
Tell-tale marks indicating a visitation by Faux Neo-Pagans