Bredon Hill doth clear appear
A ramble where ghosts are said to haunt the ancient hill forts
You definitely know Bredon Hill is a hill. It’s an outlier of the main Cotswolds escarpment, the only one in Worcestershire, and successive peoples have looked at it and named it ‘hill’. That’s right: ‘bre’ comes from the British ‘briga’, meaning ‘hill’, but ‘don’ means ‘hill’, too – in Anglo-saxon – so ‘ Bredon Hill’ is ‘Hill Hill Hill’! It’s a distinctive landmark for the Vale of Evesham below, giving rise to this weather rhyme:
When Bredon Hill puts on its hat Ye men of the vale beware of that. When Bredon Hill doth clear appear Ye men of the vale hath nought to fear.
Now a place for rambling, Bredon Hill was once home to many peoples. Back in the Iron Age, many hill forts were built to protect people in times of war. Bredon Hill has no less than three hill forts: Kemerton Camp (the highest point), Conderton Camp, and Elmsey Camp. There’s evidence that people lived on the hill until the tenth century, but it didn’t always afford the shelter the people sought. In around ad 33, it seems, Kemerton Camp was overrun. The women and children were taken as slaves. The men were killed. Their bodies have been found inside the fortifications, along with many weapons, and six severed skulls on the edge of the fort may have once been mounted on poles as – a warning, perhaps, to other tribes. Unsurprisingly, it’s said that these men still haunt the hilltop.
Why was Kemerton Camp placed there? In part because it allowed the people to keep a watch on the vale. They could communicate by watch fires with British Camp on the Malvern Hills. But was it more than that? When you go into the fort today, in a low dip in the ground there lies an enormous stone – variously known as the Banbury, Bambury, or Elephant Stone. It’s a natural feature, once a whole stone, now split, but surely it had sacred significance to the people who lived thereabouts. Was it dedicated to the sun by the ancient Britons? The name ‘Bambury’ has been said to suggest this from ‘ambrosie petrie’ or ‘anointed stone’. Sadly, however, the name comes from ‘Baenintesburg’, the name of the eighth-century fort nearby on the hilltop.
Note that it’s bad luck to kiss the Banbury Stone on Good Friday – something we might not consider doing in these social-distancing days, anyway! The stone does, however, do that thing that so many stones do: it runs down the hill to the Avon every midnight; so if you’re up there then, that’s your chance to grab the treasure said to be buried underneath it.
The other stones on our walk perhaps offer a greater treasure – healing. The King and Queen Stones, another natural rock formation, hide in woodland near Aldwick Wood. People would crawl through the passage between them for healing, and pass children through, especially to cure rickets. That wasn’t all, though. If you felt yourself to be under malign enchantment, the stones could counter it; and pregnant women would go and sit on the stone to help with safe pregnancy and birth.
Until about 1870, the King and Queen Stones had another, ceremonial, purpose. The stones were whitewashed, and the Court Leet of the Manor of Bredon was held before them. These leets were
private courts originally for the trying of small crimes, and where a tithing – a group of10 men over the age of 12 in the medieval feudal system – would swear an oath to be responsible for each other’s behaviour. By the 19th century these Court Leets were mainly ceremonial celebrations. After the leet, and after bowing to the stones, everyone would march down to the more convivial atmosphere of the Royal Oak in Bredon!
This month’s walk will take us up just a small part of Bredon Hill, starting in the hamlet of Bredons Norton. Walking out of the village past Norton’s Park, follow the footpath up the hill through sheep pastures. Make sure you look back to see the wonderful views of the Malverns to the west. You then follow the path through a wood until you come to a T-junction on the wood’s far edge. Turn left, then go right, up the hill, skirting along a wood until you meet the Wychavon Way. If you wish, you can go left down the path to find St Katherine’s Well, where the remains of a wall are set into the hill. It’s not on the path, but some way to the right, directly under Parson’s Tower by the edge of a wood. Good luck!
After this detour, go back up the Wychavon Way to where you joined it. Then take the right fork, continuing along the Wychavon Way towards the top of the hill. Continue along the ridge to the top of the hill. You will find yourself in Kemerton Camp with the Bambury Stone in the middle of it. The small tower now smothered in electrical equipment is Parson’s Folly, built by Parsons, the local MP, as a summer house in the mid-18th century – and to raise the height of the hill, from 981 to over 1000 feet.
Follow the Wychavon Way around the hill fort until you come to a footpath on your right. Follow this through four fields and then take the farm track on your left, proceeding past Sundial Farm, downhill across the fields, and through a small wood until you come to a lane. Turn right on to the lane and follow the bridleway to another wood. Near the bottom of the wood, not far from the path at grid reference SO946386, are the King and Queen Stones. Follow the bridleway along the edge of the wood up to where the path forks. Taking the left-hand path, retrace your steps to Bredons Norton.
There are no eateries in Bredons Norton, so we drove round to the hamlet of Beckford on the southern slopes of Bredon Hill, to visit both the Conderton Pottery, run by renowned potter Toff Milway, and the Eatery at the Silk Mill.
A strange tale is recounted by local farmer turned writer Fred Archer about a spot near here: Benedict’s Pool by Grafton Farm. Fred says, ‘ Few villagers fish from the dark pond, nor will they visit it on moonlit nights, for it is said to be haunted by a mysterious lady in white.’ Does anyone else haunt the hill? Archer says that the pond was part of a monastery, hence the name ‘Benedict’s’. But could the pool have instead been named after a blackguard by that name? Tales were told up to the beginning of the 20th century of a dastardly robber monk from Beckford, his fit of conscience that led him to throw himself and his ill-gotten gains into the pond, and how his restless spirit then walked. The pool grew clogged and dank with weeds, but no matter how many times the locals tried to clean it, they failed. In the end the church was brought in: 12 priests came to lay the ghost – and then retrieve the treasure and restore it to its owners! Maybe the White Lady was one of Benedict’s victims?
Route: gb.mapometer.com/walking/ route_5096787.html
Links: bredonhillview.co.uk/local-history/ a-short-history-of-bredon-hill
Kirsty Hartsiotis is a Stroud-based storyteller and writer. Her books include Wiltshire Folk Tales, Gloucestershire Ghost Tales, and (forthcoming) Gloucestershire Folk Tales for Children. She is also the curator of decorative and fine art at The Wilson Art Gallery and Museum, Cheltenham.
Ordnance Survey maps are available from all good booksellers and outdoor stores or visit our online shop www.ordnancesurvey.co.uk/al