Continuing my quest to visit every site featured in the 2017 temporary exhibition, ‘British Art: Ancient Landcapes’, last week my wife and I visited the Devil’s Den, near Marlborough. This is a neolithic passage tomb, thought to be about 5000 years old, and featured in at least two of the artworks in the exhibition. One was John Piper’s 1981 cartoon for the stained glass window in Wiltshire Museum, Devizes (Fig. 1) and the other was in a cabinet in Gallery 1 which, if I recall correctly, was A.C. Smith’s ‘Cromlech in Clatford Bottom – The Devil’s Den’, (Fig. 2).
The Devil’s Den was first recorded in 1723 by the antiquarian, William Stukeley, whose illustrations show a long barrow of considerable length with several large sarsen stones, of which only three remain today, arranged similarly to a Welsh cromlech.
As pointed out by various commentators on ‘Trip Adviser’, the Devil’s Den is not easy to find and it’s difficult to get to as it’s on private land, albeit with permissive access, and with no convenient parking. Not having an appropriate Ordance Survey map to hand, I had to rely on an aged Readers Digest/AA Book of the Road, on which the Devil’s Den wasn’t marked. Hence I downloaded the route from the AA Classic Routefinder, which instructed us to leave Salisbury on the A345, turn right onto the A4 towards Marlborough and then take the first left towards Fyfield Farm.
This particular lane was marked ‘No Public Vehicular Access’, so we parked on the verge at the start of the lane. I walked back to a finger post to check that it directed us to the Devil’s Den, but it was just a ‘bald’ sign with no directions to anywhere marked!
We walked up the incline to the end (Fyfield Farm). En route we met a delivery van coming the other way and stopped him to ask if the lane led to the Devil’s Den and were surprised to hear he’d never heard of it. This was another experience shared with commentators to ‘Trip Adviser’! At Fyfield Farm we again asked directions and this time were directed along a u-shaped track between hedges. The lady confirmed that there were no signposts to the Devil’s Den, and further assured us that we would be the only people there!
At the end of the track was a gate into a field warning us to ‘Beware of the bull’ (Fig. 3) … but the cromlech was nowhere in sight!
Climbing a hillock, I was relieved to see the cromlech, still some distance away across a field. This field was dotted with large boulders (Fig. 4) of which we’d seen several more on the approach lane and track – a classic glacial boulder field, and presumably the source of the Stonehenge sarsen stones. As noted by others on ‘Trip Adviser’ the paths leading to the cromlech/dolmen1 are not well worn and, in fact, are very indistinct, indicating that the monument is not frequently visited.
On arrival we found an impressive structure consisting of two standing stones, a capstone and two fallen stones (Fig. 5) , these being all that remain of what was the entrance to a long mound thought to have been about 230 feet long. The capstone is believed to weigh in excess of 17 tons.
As might be expected with an ancient tomb, there is much folklore associated with the Devil’s Den. Indeed, the Devil himself, is said to yoke up four white oxen in an attempt to dislodge the capstone. Another local tradition says that if water is poured into hollows in the capstone (Fig. 6), the water mysteriously vanishes during the night having been consumed by the demon who haunts it. Yet another tale concerns the eerie baying of a hound at night.
When we visited, these hollows contained evidence of substances having been burned in them, as I’ve witnessed still happens at Stonehenge during the solstices.
Having spent a good half hour at the Devil’s Den we made our way back, lingering to harvest a good 2lb of blackberries in the lane, which we’d spotted earlier, and later that evening made into a delicious blackberry crumble.
Also on the way home we stopped to take photographs of the White Horse at Alton Barnes, another site which featured in British Art: Ancient Landscapes.
- The word ‘dolmen’, is thought to be a derivative of ‘dillion’, meaning boundary mound.