27 February 2015
Building a Long Barrow, a brand new Neolithic chambered tomb in Wiltshire, why? As the press, radio and television have reported on my project this is the question that I’m always getting asked.
I have lived and worked all my life in the middle of Wiltshire surrounded by the immense monuments and subtler earthen shapes of an earlier time, where every field is a palimpsest of forgotten lives. I now work at most famous of them all, Stonehenge and spend much of my time explaining, thinking and talking prehistory.
Our knowledge of life before written histories comes from what they left behind and the dead and their monuments are a large part of that. We identify cultures largely by the way they treated their dead, their changing funereal practices. As they moved from excarnation to cremation to burial and back again we postulate huge cultural changes and shifts.
But we are living through a time of immense change of how we treat our deceased and our grief, and yet our culture and society are only gently changing. Within the reign of our Queen, without invasion or catastrophe, we have changed from the darkly formal funeral to more celebratory cremations as the norm, and we now have a huge variety of funereal practices. I'm not sure what this tells us about how our culture is changing but I think it does provide an opportunity to offer different options to the bereaved.
So it was not completely unexpected that an idle pub conversation, over a pint, lead to; "Wouldn't it be great to be buried in a barrow, just as our forefathers were". And like most such discussions nothing came of it.
But at different times and in different places the problem of what to with our relatives' ashes was raised. Some people have a clear idea of where to catter them, but many don't.
One crisp winter morning I was walking around my farm and I came to the top of a gentle rise and looked across the valley to the sun rising in the distance. The Pewsey Vale was almost silent under a low lying mist, with just tops of trees and a church spire visible. And I thought "I wouldn't mind spending eternity here". By the time I had walked home the idea of a barrow aligned to the winter sunrise, a working barrow, a columbarium for people to use for their ashes had been formed.
But could I build it, would people want to use it, what about planning permission, would it be legal, there were so many questions.
I didn't want the Long Barrow to just be for the romantic pagans of Wessex, I felt there were a lot of more conventional people of my age who weren't strongly religious, but were not completely without a feeling for something mystical and slightly spiritual. People who want to connect with a culture, with our land and nature. People who instinctively choose organic, natural, traditional, restrained, you know the type.
But more importantly people wanted a place to return to, to remember, to commemorate their loved ones. And if the reader will excuse me, for many of us the municipal cremetorium fails as somewhere we feel comfortable, somewhere the deceased would have felt at home.
I used social media, mainly Facebook, to build a community of interested people who provided support and feedback. It also built a relationship with local media companies who could monitor progress.
The idea of providing niches for the public within the barrow seemed to interest a lot of people, the feedback I got was overwhelmingly positive, so I spent a year getting planning permission. I think by consulting widely before applying we had gained community acceptance and we didn't have a single objection to the plans, even though it is a green field site in an AONB. There was a wobble when Building Control mused on the need for fire escapes and hand rails, but with some prompting they decided it was a "structure" not a "building" and so was outside their remit.
The news of the planning permission appeared in The Times where Martin and Geraint from Riverdale Stone saw it. They approached me and told me it had to be built in natural stone using traditional methods and that they were the people to do it. So they built it, we started building it with a ceremonial turf cutting on 20th Dec 2013 and had an official opening on 21st Sept 2014 – nine months the facade is of large local Sarsen boulders with the interior of limestone walls and corbeled roofs. It is stunning. We had articles in all the major newspapers and on local television and radio and the interest has been phenomenal.
There are 340 niches in the Long Barrow, most of them are a standard size which are designed for a pair of urns but will take up to about six. The niches are designed to be sealed with a memorial stone. The rest of the niches are smaller, either suitable for one or two urns; they have all been reserved, in fact nearly three quarters of all the niches have been reserved .
More details are at www.thelongbarrow.com or find us on facebook, https://www.facebook.com/groups/thelongbarrow/