Arrivals & Departures Follow the footsteps of the legionnaires to Wayland's Smithy

The copse of trees around Wayland's Smithy, Berkshire, UK
Photo of Andy Tyndall

With slightly shrouded origins, Wayland's Smithy is obscure compared to famous neighbours The White Horse and Uffington Castle

I am visiting Wayland’s Smithy on a day made spectacular by weak light and threatening cloud. It’s a serene spot, easily forgotten by visitors to its nearby, more famous neighbours: Uffington Castle (constructed 7-8 BC but a toddler compared to the Smithy) and The White Horse (crafted around 1000 BC, a hipster youth) are a short stroll away.

It’s the tall trees encircling the 50m-long barrow tomb of Wayland’s Smithy which set the mood whatever the weather of the day: I remember, as a boy, it lying still and hushed in cosy shade on a drowsy summer afternoon and yet, somehow, even on a bitter winter’s day, when the wind whips up the bare downland from the north, it retains, as it has done for 5000 years, a sense of peace and restfulness.

You can drive close to it, but sooner or later you will need to walk in the footsteps of legionnaires, for Wayland’s Smithy is set back off the Ridgeway, part of Britain´s oldest road. Roman legionnaires once marched along here between Salisbury Plain and East Anglia. At this point, high on the Berkshire Downs, chalk downloads sweep away south, west and east. The Smithy’s trees provide a landmark to people in the Vale of the White Horse to the north for there are few trees on the windswept ´scarp, but acres of crops and grassland.

The Smithy is like a grassy embankment, its entrance marked by rock slabs, its flanks by intermittent, solitary rocks. Of course, the entrance is sealed, the tomb having been excavated, dated, preserved and retained long ago.

No ancient site in Britain would be complete without its lore. The Smithy, according to an account written in 1738, was a place where a traveller whose horse had cast a shoe could leave the nag and some money and return a short while later to find the money gone but the horse shod - both deeds done by an invisible smith. As a child I remember a TV series involving kids, ghosts and witchcraft (well, The Devil’s Kneading Trough also lies nearby!) set around the Smithy.

A short drive from a pub lunch in Uffington, followed by a gentle walk up the the slope reveals spectacular views both to the south over rolling downland and to the north over the Vale of the White Horse from the Castle’s double ramparts, reduced now to embankments. The White Horse is too large to be well viewed from up here: take a drive into the Vale instead.

The Smithy, however, is utterly peaceful, a microcosm of serenity, a near-reverence felt when treading where people lived, worked and roamed thousands of years before. The sounds of a light breeze through the bare branches of the trees is all that breaks a stillness so apt for an ancient burial site.


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