Finding Belas Knap

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My husband Rob and I arrived in Winchcombe hoping to find two things: the ancient well of St. Kenelm and the Neolithic long barrow called Belas Knap. We had exactly twenty-four hours to do so--and to see the gardens and chapel of Sudeley Castle (Katherine Parr’s final resting place) and St. Peter’s Church, which boasts some of the most flamboyant gargoyles ever made (just ask Lewis Carroll)--before catching a bus to Canterbury.  

Winchcombe itself sits in the Cotswold Valley and traces of its Anglo-Saxon past remain, including bits of Winchcombe Abbey, which contained the remains of members of the royal house of Mercia and was demolished by Henry VIII’s command.  It’s a little town with typical English cottages (complete with thatched roofs) and several inns.  But then there’s the gem of St. Peter’s, the little castle, Belas Knap, the ruins of Hailes Abbey—and Kenelm’s Well.

St Peter's Gargoyles

St Peter's Gargoyles

St. Kenelm’s Well is really a spring that miraculously burst from the ground where the child-saint’s body had lain on its journey to his tomb.  It lay somewhere on the boundaries of Sudeley Castle, but we didn’t have an exact location.  An old man keeping watch at St. Peter’s promised to take us there in his car—if only we’d guard the church while he picked up his dry cleaning.  It sounded like a good deal to us, but after a terrifying short ride, it was clear that even the locals had no idea.

Sudeley Castle's Tithe-barn

Sudeley Castle's Tithe-barn

That left us Belas Knap.  We had no map or any real directions to help us locate the site.  Instead, Rob and I set off from the town center with only the English Heritage signs leading us up and up through the countryside.  We climbed through someone’s fields, past some unimpressed sheep suffocating in their unshorn wool.  As an American, I felt immensely uncomfortable “trespassing” on private farmland—something that could very well get you shot in the U.S.  The ominous chomping of the sheep seemed to confirm my discomfort.  We didn’t realize that trampers’ rights were paramount on the walking routes of England.

Pretty soon we were high over the town, looking down on those cottages and their thatched roofs and even on the spire of St. Peter’s.  We could see the valley spread out below us: the simmering sheep in their green fields, the gardens of Sudeley Castle with the ruins of its roofless medieval tithe-barn, filled, for some reason, with translucent white balloons.

But we still hadn’t found the barrow—and the clock was ticking.  With one bare hour before we had to catch our bus, we pressed on through a forest dappled in summer sunlight and emerged into an open field that slanted ever upwards like the path before it. There was a sign with an arrow on the fencepost in front of us: “Belas Knap.”  But a few yards beyond that arrow was another sign for the barrow with another arrow—pointing in the opposite direction.

We were sweaty and crestfallen and just a bit mystified.  Was the field itself the barrow?  Neither Rob nor I had ever seen a burial mound. For all we knew, this could be it. Grass. Fenceposts.  A great joke on the part of the English Heritage fellows.  I cursed our bad luck.  But just then, Rob called from a few yards ahead of me.  He’d found the Cotswold Way Trail and there—right in front of us—was a BARROW. There was no mistaking it for a grassy field.

I felt a bit idiotic, but I let it pass.  The structure was magnificent. There was a false entrance and side chambers, artfully bricked in with limestone.  Empty votive candles, placed by modern devotees, littered the side chambers.  It was a quiet and sacred space. To crouch down in those chambers and know that just beyond, encased in the dirt behind me, was the portal to another civilization, filled me with awe and silence and a little bit of dread.

This reverence didn’t stop us from climbing the mound to get a panoramic view of the Cotswold Way stretching before us.  It kindled in my heart a great desire to return and make my way down the entire path, all 102 miles of it.

In the end, we made the bus to Canterbury.  We had to pelt down hills, past perplexed sheep and through the village like our heels were on fire.  We never found Kenelm’s Well, and had to forego seeing the ruins of nearby Hailes Abbey.  This is the traveler’s conundrum: so much to see, so little time. But with good luck, I intend to fulfill my promise to return, GPS coordinates in hand, to experience the rest.

Found Belas Knap Barrow, Cotswold, England

Belas Knap Barrow, Cotswold England

Medieval Scholar & the Author of "Finding Belas Knap"