I see a lot of amazing sights when I am driving around the country or indeed walking around London and giving tours to foreign visitors through my company, Ye Olde England Tours. No matter where I go or how familiar I am with the sights, it seems there is always something new to notice or mystery to deduce.
Over the last year or two I have noticed the flash of an unusual hill a mile or two from the road I use between Bath and Stonehenge. It is incredibly distinctive to look at but from the roadway you only get to see a few seconds of it and from a distance, probably less when you are driving and keeping your tourists entertained and informed.
It seemed to me that it looked like it had might have been the location of a fortress but I wasn’t sure if it was just my imagination or indeed who might have built it. If it were further east then I’d have gone with a Viking or Danish settlement but they didn’t really get to this part of the country. Besides, I had no idea what the hill was called or really where it was so I couldn’t research it. Every time I drove past it, I tried to make a note to look it up on the internet but of course I either forgot or had no reference point to start with.
When I went past it early in the week, I made a mental note of exactly how many miles it was from a roundabout and from there I was able to deduce what it was I could see. It goes by the name of Cley Hill.
Standing 244 metres / 801 feet tall, it’s modest height is seemingly enhanced not just by its dramatic appearance but because it stands on the edges of the Salisbury Plain. As I thought, I could see the remains of fortifications. In fact they are much older than I had guessed as they are from the Iron Age and the summit of the ill is circled by several lines of defensive earthworks and ramparts.
On top of the hill are two Barrows or prehistoric burial mounds, one of which looks misshapen due to the excavations of 19th Century antiquarians, William Cunningham and Richard Colt Hoare. They dug in deep, looking for buried treasures that may have been left at the time people were buried in its chambers but as they didn’t find any they guessed someone else had beaten them to it, possibly thousands of years earlier.
Further down the hill are medieval lynchets which is an old Anglo-Saxon term for terracing created when people farmed the slopes. It is unknown whether these are a deliberate creation or whether as a result of landslips caused simply by gravity after the soil has been ploughed and subject to erosion.
The hill had formed part of the massive Longleat Estate but the 6th Maquis of Bath kindly donated it to the National Trust who now both open it up to the public and safeguard it. These days it is a special wildlife zone with hundreds of rare species to be found on its steep, grassy slopes.
Cley Hill is also a hotspot for UFO watching as the local area is a famous UFO hotspot and in any case, well away from the cities, affords great views of the night sky and surrounding area.
Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that UFO’s visit the area as the locals have an old legend of how the hill came into creation. Apparently, the Devil was angry that the citizens of the nearby town of Devizes had converted to Christianity, and decided to bury the town under a pile of earth. He put a huge pile of earth in a sack and set off to find the town. On the way he met an old man, and inquired how far it was to Devizes. The locals are clever in these parts and the old man guessed who he speaking to, and cleverly told the Devil that he himself was on the way to Devizes, and had set out as a young man, but now he was old and aged, and had yet to arrive at his destination. The Devil was so discouraged by the tale that he abandoned his journey and simply dumped the pile of earth beside the road. The town of Devizes was saved, and Devil’s pile of earth became Cley Hill.
I will be sure to keep an eye out for the Devil next time I am driving by, hopefully he is hiding low! I’m glad to see my first instincts that there was a lot of history on this dramatic looking hill and that it wasn’t all in my head!