Belas Knap is a neolithic long barrow situated on Cleeve Hill near Cheltenham in Gloucestershire, England. Orientated on a north-south axis the barrow is about 178 feet (54m) long and about 60 feet (18m) wide; it stands almost 14 feet (4.3m) in height. Its name is said to derive from the Latin bellus meaning beautiful and from the Old English knap for the crest or summit of a hill.
The sun was at its highest when we reached Belas Knap after walking over Cleeve Hill, the highest point in the Cotswolds and the highest point in all of Glocestershire. We caught exciting glimpses of this place through gaps in the hedgerow before turning down a footpath that ran alongside a field of scrubby crops, only at this point did Belas Knap fully reveal itself. A magnificent great green mound laying squat to the ground that grew in size and impresiveness as we walked towards it.
We inspected first what appeared to be the main entrance to the barrow at the north end; between two huge horns that create a 'U' shaped forcourt formed of intricate dry-stone walling with large limestone lintels and jambs. This forcourt, a false entrance and is said to resemble the truncated form of a squatting woman, her legs, her sex and huge pregnant belly above our heads. The actual buriel chambers on Belas Knap are down the long East and West sides of the barrow and at its Southern foot. In total there are four burial chambers, two on opposite sides near the middle, one at the South-East angle and one at the South end. These are formed of upright stone slabs, linked by dry-stone walling and originally had corbelled roofs.
In the 1863-1865 excavations, the skeletal remains of five children, aged between 6 months and 8 years, the skull of a young adult male, horse and pig bones and fragments of pottery and serrated flint blade were found among the rubble blocking the 'false entrance'. The passages leading to the chambers were roughly blocked with stones and clay. The lintels and much of the dry walling were rebuilt on the original lines in 1863-65, when the barrow was first explored. After the 1928-1931 work, the walling was secured, three of the chambers were covered and the contour of the mound was restored. Excavations in 1963 found the remains of 38 human skeletons, together with animal bones, flint implements and pottery of the end of the Neolithic (New Stone Age), circa 2000 BC. These burials, however, occurred over a long period of time and it may be that none date to the time when the mound was built. All of the finds are in the Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum.
With Belas Knap walked around, photographed and explored we climbed to the top of the mound. Laying in the long grass above the western buriel chamber we relaxed in the afternoon sun and ate a picnic of homemade ginger cake and water. Picnic's on Belas Knap have not however always been quite so idilic as Bob Meredith in 'The Haunted Cotswolds' wrote: "One warm summer afternoon a family from the Midlands, visiting the mound decided to picnic on top of it to enjoy the view. They laid a large table cloth on the mound and loaded it well with food and crockery.The day was still and warm without a breath of air about. During the course of the meal the table cloth suddenly leapt into the air, scattering food and the people.The family were so upset by the incident that they quickly packed everything away and hurriedly left."
Another tale with a similar theme to that above was reported by Paul Devereux in issue 153 of the Fortean Times: "Paula C climbed to the top of the ancient mound. From that height she saw a group of hooded figures walking briskly across an adjacent field towards the monument. She couldn't see their lower limbs and assumed they were walking through tall grass. The hooded and apparently robed figures never seemed to get any closer despite their energetic gait. Concerned that they were about to be disturbed by strangers, Paula climbed down to where her family waited. When no newcomers appeared, she returned to the top of the mound. No one was in sight, but the field looked different – there were fewer trees around it, the path was in a slightly different location, and what had seemed to be a deep dip in the ground was barely apparent."
Notes made at Belas Knap, the last day of May 2009: Perhaps the warmest day of the year. It is a warm comfortable place to be, quiet though people come and go - some read the information board and go, some walk around then leave without comment and some, with backpacks and trekking poles, simply walk through one gate and then out the other. The place is low, it hugs mother earth, it IS mother earth - pregnant and fecund. The buriel chambers are squat and cool, I resist the temptation to crawl in to the most narrow of them and so stare into its cold darkness.
It seems we got the best of it walking in from the long track to the north, those arriving from the more popular southern direction should walk along this track for a better more 'holistic' view!