The drive up into Somerset was good despite the weather and an hour and a half after we set off we were within a mile or so of our destination. Then the fun began. It seemed that, for this last short distance, we were suddenly in an area of Somerset where the locals have a bitter hatred of road signs. The turning we had to take ended up being a matter of guesswork backed up with the knowledge that "it must be around here somewhere". We drove down a country lane and within a half mile started wondering if it was some kind of trick: it certainly looked like a country lane when we turned into it but, very quickly, it was only the hedgerows each side that defined it as such. It was not so much a case of "mud on the road" as "is there a road under this mud?". The unwary travellers would be forgiven for thinking that they had made a wrong turning and were actually driving across a field. Eventually though we came to a sign which read, rather reassuringly, "Stoney Littleton". We had arrived. We started looking for a sign to point us in the direction for the long barrow.
Silly us ! of course there were no signs, but it did not matter because there were equestrians. Having driven right through the village and out the other side we stopped by one of these horsey types and were pointed back to the direction from which we had just come- with the added information of where we had to turn right. Having done this we stopped alongside two more riders who gave us more exact information. Within a couple of minutes we there there- there being a small parking area for the car. From here on we would be mudhopping.
The walk up the hill to the long barrow is worth the drive in itself. With a wooden footbridge across a river, a stream to jump across, stiles and fences, it is the rural and rustic English countryside that many believe is lost in time. The blast of fresh damp air that hit us as soon as we escaped the cocoon of our vehicle lifted our spirits immediately. The hill we had to climb could not be seen as a challenge: ascending it would open up more of this countryside to us. The rain retreated back into the clouds and for the rest of the afternoon we exchanged suspicious looks with them. It was an uneasy truce.
Such is the route that the footpath up to the long barrow leads us we get no glimpse of it until we are practically there. Even then it's full potency is not apparant until you have walked around the mound and found the entrance to the passage leading into it. Then you find yourself fighting any fear of claustrophobia as it's long, low, narrow chambers pull you in. Unlike West Kennet, here you cannot stand upright. It has to be at least a crouch and in places a crawl to negotiate the passage. There are six chambers off this passage, three on each side, and one at the end. It is dark, damp and dramatic.
We spent an hour or so here. Exploring the stones by torchlight was our first priority, the neolithic builders of this tomb having used many stones that contained fossils. The largest of these is an ammonite at the entrance, clearly visible, but the rest have to be searched for in the dark. When not fossil hunting we sat in the chambers and had brief encounters with other folk who like to crawl around in burial chambers on a Sunday afternoon. It is, it has to be said, a somewhat unusual way to encounter strangers. Though they were few (it not being a well known site) the cramped space did make greetings both inevitable and easy. And although we ranged in age and dress we had two things already in common: the first has already been noted, the second is that we were all prepared to get splatted by mud in order to be here. It was our common uniform.
When we did venture outside of the barrow it was to go and stand atop the mound and look over the surrounding countryside. Even through the soggy haze the encircling hills stand out clear and proud. Grassed or wooded by turns they seem to create a barrier around this site: protective in a gentle way, like the warmth of a parents arms around a small child. A short time later, and back inside the barrow, this was echoed by a passing stranger. As we crawled into side chambers to allow him to pass he remarked, simply;
"This is the safest place on earth."We stayed until the light started fading, by which time rain had started falling. This made the descent hazardous but fun: not even a torrential downpour would dampen our spirits in such a place. A hidden jewel, we shall return here one morning to watch the sunrise.