Culverswell Barrow


Culverswell Barrow

Culverswell Barrow ditch with mound on right side viewed from the south before the felling.

Plan of Culverswell Barrow


On 25 July 1979, I finally proved to my own satisfaction that at least one of the alignments was laid out intentionally by prehistoric peoples.  I had always realised that my case would be greatly enhanced by the discovery of a previously unrecorded barrow in a precise location predetermined by myself prior to a site visit. 

It had seemed logical that one would be more likely to find a prehistoric site on the highest point of an alignment, and so profiles were produced using the contours shown on the Ordnance Survey six-inch to the mile maps.  These proved very useful for the demonstration of sightlines and showed several high points where no ancient site was recorded.  One of the most prominent of these was at Culverswell Hill on Crooksbury Common at the southwestern end of the CROOKSBURY LINE. The alignment was followed on a compass bearing from the well-preserved bowl barrows about 300m to the south-west.  After negotiating some dense rhododendron bushes, I emerged onto the pine-covered plateau to the north-west of the bluff to be confronted by a large mound surrounded by a shallow ditch.  It was so obviously a barrow that it was quite beyond me that it was unknown to the Surrey Archaeological Society.  The top was deeply cut by a badly eroded cross- trench, indicating that it had been dug into at some time in the distant past but had remained unrecorded.  The following weekend a tachymetric traverse was carried out from Littleworth Cross to the mound through the nearby Crooksbury barrows and back to the road, thus establishing a grid reference for my survey pegs by the barrow to one metre of accuracy. When plotted onto the 1-1250 Ordnance Survey sheet it would seem to be in alignment as predicted.

The barrow has since been visited by the County Archaeologist who requested the county’s foremost expert on the Bronze Age, Mr Stuart Needham, to give his opinion.  Mr Needham ruled out the alternatives, such as a windmill-stead or a landscaping feature, and concluded his report by expressing great surprise that such a fine prehistoric monument had remained unrecorded in an area well known for its earthworks.  I suspect that one reason is that most people walking in this area of pine-covered sandy hills would use the established paths.  The path that crosses below the bluff affords a view up to the barrow, but as no ditch is visible from the south side due to the erosion of the slope, the earthwork appears to be merely the top of the small hill.  The ditch and mound were only obvious when viewed from the north, the least accessible direction.

Letter to Dr D G Bird, County Archaeological Officer, from Stuart Needham.

‘Dear David


Thank you for notifying me of this earthwork;   I have recently had the opportunity of visiting the site.   I found a sizeable round mound approximately 24.8m diameter and perhaps approaching 2m in height.

The top of the mound has been mutilated in the past by the digging of a cross-shaped trench, now much silted.   Around roughly half of the mound’s base may be detected traces of a ditch 2.8m across and at present barely 0.2m deep.   The mound is sited on the end of an eastward facing spur with steep slopes on three sides.   The ditch peters out here, perhaps there having been no necessity for it, or otherwise it has been removed or concealed by a greater degree of erosion down the slopes.   Inspection of the side of a foxhole suggested a possible composite mound structure, but as usual, such evidence is ambiguous.   The ground to the west rises gently and evenly with no indications of undulations frequent in this sort of sandy terrain resulting from natural agencies or extractive disturbance.   There are some rhododendron clumps immediately to the west of the mound, but no sign of any associated landscaping.

In my opinion, the extant features – the size, circular plan, evidence for a ditch, and its siting – are strongly in favour of it being a genuine ditched bowl barrow, which would of course normally be referable to the earlier Bronze Age.   Other possibilities such as a natural mound, a feature of relatively recent landscaping, or the base of a post windmill, can I think be reasonably dismissed for the present.

It really is astonishing that such a fine upstanding monument should have escaped notice for so long in view of the proximity of the triple (sic) bell barrow on Crooksbury Common!

Best wishes

Stuart Needham’

In the summer of 2015, I visited the site to carry out a GPS survey and the resultant coordinates were added to the AutoCAD database.  This showed that the original survey was accurate and that the barrow was indeed perfectly on the alignment.

Exploring potential sites had ground to a halt whilst the summer growth of 2017 was most prolific.  With lack of outdoor research to do but with the urge to get out on a beautiful September day, I thought it would be good to see how Culverswell Barrow was looking – what a delight it was to see that it was now revealed in all its glory by recent forestry work.

I have previously described my interest in the possibilities of using LIDAR contours and have downloaded the Crooksbury area.  The picture below shows the barrow located within the LIDAR contours and moved slightly to coincide with the landform.  This brings it more perfectly onto the alignment and a few metres nearer to the 12 Druid Miles position.  My early theodolite research, before the growth of silver birch obscured the view, suggested that the line from Whitmoor Barrow, through Hog’s Back Barrow, was aligned to the mid-winter sunset.

Clicking on the PDF link below will show that the diameter is 26.5 metres (87 feet) and that the altitude is 110.25 metres.

Culverswell revised with LIDAR

There is a small car park about half a kilometre south of Littleworth Cross on the west side of the road, and from here a forestry track goes past the barrow on the south side.  Since my previous visit, the site has been extensively cleared of pines and for the first time the barrow is clearly visible.  In the picture below, taken from the forestry track, the barrow can be seen on the horizon in the centre of the photograph.

Barrow at the centre of horizon seen from the forestry road

The picture below shows how the ground is ravaged by the extraction works. Still, happily the barrow itself does not appear to have been much affected by the tracking of large machinery, possibly because it is dry as opposed to the more boggy ground below it where some deep tyre tracks are visible in the sandy surface.

Barrow as seen from the west showing typical damage to terrain

Below is the best view I could get of the barrow showing how prominent is its position in the landscape with uninterrupted views to the South Downs.

Barrow as seen from the north

Standing on the highest point, it can be seen that the bracken is obscuring the surface, and a return visit in the spring, once this has died back, is anticipated.

From the top of the barrow looking south-east down to forestry road on the right.

CULVERS WELL.  A Sacred Site?

Now that this land has been cleared of pine trees, this feature is at last exposed to view.  It is some two hundred metres to the south-east and downhill of the barrow on Culverswell Hill.  On the above photograph it can be seen as a black shape just below where the forest road disappears from view.

The water’s main body is a shallow pond separated by an earth dam from a smaller upper pond.  The water level in the upper pond is higher than the main pond and is presumably the spring source.  In the photograph below, the spring is not visible to the top left of the water.

Culvers Well with the barrow in the centre of the horizon

In the centre of the photograph below the dam can be seen, and my first thoughts were that the larger pond was constructed as a cattle pond at some unknown time in the distant past, fed by the overflow from the spring.  Probing with a ranging rod gave a depth of about half a metre around the edge, but as I was on my own, I was reluctant to try and wade in despite wearing wellingtons.

Culvers Well looking west towards the car park

I have been intrigued by the name of this spring; why give a name to something so obscure in a landscape devoid of habitation or occupation?  The oldest Ordnance Survey map I can find is the 1-2500 scale edition of 1871.  The title ‘Culvers Well’ is clearly shown and is seen in every edition since.  Presumably, it had some significance in the past.

When the nearby barrows were constructed there would have been peoples settled in the area, and this spring would have had great importance as their only source of fresh water.  It seems logical that it would have been venerated and protected, and it surely warrants being classed as a sacred spring.


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