Subject: A walk on the Barrow-Downs
Posted on: 2020-03-13 18:37:38 UTC

((This week's Friday Blog is cross-posted to Dreamwidth and Livejournal, and for one week only, the Barrow-Downs.))

On the southern limits of the Shire (Oxfordshire, specifically) lie the Berkshire Downs, part of the greater North Wessex Downs. It is stated in various sources that J.R.R. Tolkien visited this area - once on a hiking trip in 1912, and later with his family while working on either The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings - and that it inspired the haunted Barrow Downs of LotR. This week, I got a chance to visit the area, and let me tell you, I am entirely convinced.

Image: Google Street View

The Downs are a world without a horizon. The landscape is all gently rolling hills, and other than the trees which stud them there's no indication of how far away any given green mound is. If it weren't for the road, it would be shockingly easy to become lost, wandering the hills until darkness took them.

Their way wound along the floor of the hollow, and round the green feet of a steep hill into another deeper and broader valley, and then over the shoulder of further hills, and down their long limbs, and up their smooth sides again, up on to new hill-tops and down into new valleys. There was no tree nor any visible water: it was a country of grass and short springy turf, silent except for the whisper of the air over the edges of the land, and high lonely cries of strange birds. - J.R.R. Tolkien, Fog on the Barrow-Downs

And not all the hills are natural. The seven barrows of, uh, Seven Barrows lie right alongside the road, and I'm certain I saw others crowning distant hills. I can imagine mist rolling between them, a silver carpet studded with green featureless mounds.

One thing Tolkien did not mention is the shocking suddenness with which the Downs fall away. From where we eventually parked, the south view was the gentle hills of the Downs; the north was flat countryside, stretching for more miles than I can count.

We turned out backs on that green country, heading up into the wild lands. Specifically, we took the ancient Ridgeway, following it down a shallow dip and back up the far side. A line of trees marked the roadway ahead of us, but our course took us beyond it: to the top of a shallow rise, where the Great Barrow waited.

Suddenly he saw, towering ominous before him and leaning slightly towards one another like the pillars of a headless door, two huge standing stones.. - J.R.R. Tolkien, Fog on the Barrow-Downs

Image: Own work

This is Wayland's Smithy, a burial mound dating back eight thousand years. At one time it was revered among the Saxons as the forge of the gods; later it was overgrown, a cave in the woods. But at all times it has been a place of power - tucked away on its hillside, like something out of another world.

And you can picture Tolkien coming up here with his children, and them playing around the 60 foot grassy mound. You can picture them clambering into the small chambers between the great leaning stones, and calling out "help, help, the monster has got us!". And then along comes Tolkien and peeks the head of a raggy Dutch doll over the stones: "Fear not - Tom Bombadil is here to rescue you!" You can see it, when you stand by the barrow.

When you leave the Barrow, the Middle-earth connections become if anything even stronger. Ahead of you, as you walk east along the ancient road of the Ridgeway, lies Uffington Castle - a great Iron Age hill-fort, with its entrance facing you: two great earthen banks, and a cut between them like a grand gateway.

Certainly the distances had now all become hazy and deceptive, but there could be no doubt that the Downs were coming to an end. A long valley lay below them winding away northwards, until it came to an opening between two steep shoulders. Beyond, there seemed to be no more hills. - J.R.R. Tolkien, Fog on the Barrow-Downs

And beyond that? Beyond that lies the Uffington White Horse, a chalk-carved figure of a galloping or rearing horse. A sign of a prancing pony, if you will, though there is no inn on the hilltop. Beyond that, on the very edge of the Downs, stands Dragon Hill - a flat-topped hill set apart from the rest of the uplands. It is said that Christopher Tolkien believed the area of White Horse Hill inspired Weathertop, and Dragon Hill certainly looks the part (even if it is a little small).

Image: Own work

The correlations aren't exact. Tolkien wasn't one to transpose our world directly into Middle-earth. But driving and walking through this ancient landscape, it's hard not to feel like one has at least one foot on the Barrow-Downs.


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