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The Hills Have Eyes

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Excavation of the Taplow burial mound, Nineteenth century © The Trustees of the British Museum.

You may’t plan a journey prior to now, or so the practice app instructed me. That was its well mannered manner of informing me that (as occurs fairly usually) I’d by accident put in yesterday’s date when attempting to examine the time of a practice. Concerning trains, I’m ready to simply accept that the app has a degree. However in fact you’ll be able to plan a journey prior to now, and on this specific day that wasn’t a nasty description of what I used to be attempting to do.

I wasn’t planning a journey very far – 20 miles and 1,400 years again in time. My vacation spot was the village of Taplow, beside the Thames on the southernmost fringe of Buckinghamshire. To medievalists it’s important as the placement of an vital Anglo-Saxon ‘princely burial’ which gave its title to the village itself, since Tæppas hlæw means ‘the barrow-mound of Tæppa’. We don’t know who Tæppa was, however his mound yielded extraordinary riches. Excavated in 1883, it was at the moment – whereas the treasures of Sutton Hoo nonetheless lay hidden within the earth – probably the most splendid Anglo-Saxon burial ever discovered. The person within the mound had been buried in a picket chamber and outfitted with a powerful assortment of grave-goods, fantastically crafted and evocative of Anglo-Saxon aristocratic life. He had spears and shields, but in addition consuming horns and glass beakers, recreation items and a lyre – the whole lot a warrior would possibly want for a feast.

If all this was meant to accompany Tæppa into the afterlife, he has needed to do with out it, as a result of the objects are actually within the British Museum. So why go to Taplow? Planning a journey to go to any Anglo-Saxon website is a little bit of a chance, since you by no means actually know if there will likely be a lot to see; generally little survives above floor, after centuries of constructing and rebuilding. However nonetheless nothing can substitute for seeing the place itself, so I discovered myself in Taplow.

It’s a particular place. The barrow, restored after excavation, stands grass-covered on the slope of a steep hill above the river. Looking from the mound, on the horizon I might see far westwards over the Thames, to the place the downlands of Wessex met wintry skies. When Tæppa was buried right here within the early seventh century, it was most likely border-country – maybe, it’s thought, the very fringe of a area underneath the facility of the kings of Kent. Was this warrior buried right here in order that he might hold watch over the border, gazing boldly out into enemy territory? We all know that Anglo-Saxon barrows have been meant to be extremely seen and generally imagined as having a protecting operate, as if the warrior buried inside retained a posthumous sway over the panorama dominated by his mound. His memorial was meant to be seen, but in addition maybe to see, to look at over the river and the Wessex hills.

That’s not all that makes this place particular, as a result of there are lots of layers of historical past right here. Lengthy earlier than the barrow-mound was raised, this was already the location of an Iron Age hill fort. Lengthy afterwards, a grand home was constructed simply yards away: Taplow Court docket, a Victorian imitation of an Elizabethan red-brick manor. The barrow can also be within the graveyard of a now-vanished medieval church, demolished within the Nineteenth century. Tæppa’s individuals would have been among the many final generations of pagan Anglo-Saxons on this area; when Christianity arrived, they constructed their church on the hillside spot already hallowed by a strong ancestral presence. Maybe they have been by some means absorbing their late chieftain, their guardian spirit, into the brand new religion.

Many later generations did the identical. Although the church is gone, the graves of the churchyard stay, so Tæppa’s mound is surrounded by a lot later memorials. There, the slanting afternoon mild falls on elaborate Nineteenth-century tomb chests and gravestones carved with skulls. All by way of the centuries as these individuals have been being buried there, the warrior was mendacity in his mound together with his weapons and drinking-horns round him. How lengthy did they go on considering of him as a presence in that mound, watching over them?

It was unusual to enter that churchyard and be transported in creativeness from the tame commuter belt of southern England right into a wild border-country guarded by a prince’s ghost. To plan a journey prior to now right here might by no means imply simply being carried again to 1 second in historical past, however travelling by way of many collected layers of time, receding away into the space just like the shimmering haze on the Wessex hills.

Eleanor Parker is Lecturer in Medieval English Literature at Brasenose Faculty, Oxford and the creator of Conquered: The Final Youngsters of Anglo-Saxon England (Bloomsbury, 2022).

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