What are the Six Hills?
Driving through Stevenage today, it would be easy to miss the six ancient tumuli that stand a little forlornly in the centre of the town. Over the last fifty years they have been swallowed up by development and are now surrounded to the very edge of their protected area by roads, office blocks and shopping units. The only real acknowledgment of their existence is the name of the main road leading to them, Six Hills Way.
Prior to the construction of the new town in the 1950s and 60s, the hills would have been a prominent landscape feature along the old Great North Road. As early as 1586, William Camden wrote:
Betweene Stevenhaugh and Knebworth (…) I saw certaine round hils cast up and raised by mans hands, such as the old Romans were wont to reare for souldiers slaine in the wars (…) Unlesse some man would rather say they had a reference to the bounds. (1)
Camden’s Britania, 1610 translation
Two eighteenth century reports state that the “six hillocks” were “regularly pointed out by coachmen” (2) and that near Stevenage there are, “some Roman butts” (3). In 1728, Nathaniel Salmon questions both their origin and purpose:
They may have been British or Saxon as the mounds of some dominion. They may have been Danish barrows for victory and terror. They might serve as monuments of the dead and the division of the county too. (4)
The History of Hertfordshire, 1728
In 1741 Dr Andrew Ducarel attempts to end the origin debate by digging into one of the barrows. He found scraps of wood and iron, but nothing that he considered significant. Unfortunately, none of the finds were kept, and no written reports remain. The tumuli do bear traces of other investigations, but again, there are no written records. He reaches no conclusion.
By the nineteenth century, the few writings that can be found suggest the hills to be of Danish origin. As late as 1880, ‘A Guide to Hertfordshire’ reaches this conclusion due to a ‘Danesfield’ being nearby. However, in 1891, Reverend Henry Fowler of St Albans Archaeological Society conducts the first documented academic investigation. He compared them to other local tumuli, looked at the site in the context of them running alongside an old section of Roman road and concluded that they were burial mounds of the Roman era, from around 100AD. Today, Historic England calls them, “impressive earthwork features [which] form the largest surviving group of burial mounds dating to the Roman period in England”. (5)
Although the Six Hills were a prominent landscape feature for nearly two thousand years, they have never been fully investigated, and have therefore retained an air of mystery. Their unknown origin and purpose makes space for the emergence of folkloric tales as people attempt to explain their presence. In the next post two pieces of folklore from the nineteenth century will be explored.
References and Further Reading
(1) William Camden, Britannia, London, F. Collins, for A. Swalle, (1695)
(2) and (3) Malcolm Tomkins, So That Was Hertfordshire: Travellers’ Jottings 1322-1887, Hertfordshire Publications, (1998)
(4) Nathaniel Salmon, The History of Hertfordshire, London, (1728)
(5) Historic England, The Six Hills Roman barrows, https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1015579
An Old Inhabitant, A Guide to Hertfordshire, Hertford, Simson and Co., (1880)
Margaret Ashby, Stevenage, Buckingham, Barracuda Books Ltd., (1982)
Margaret Ashby, Stevenage History & Guide, Stroud, Tempus Publishing Ltd., (2002)
Margaret Ashby, Stevenage Past, Chichester, Phillimore & Co., (1995)
East Herts Archaeological Society, ‘Stevenage and Little Wymondley district excursion : Six Hills, Guild of Literature and Art; Sishes, Chells, St Nicholas Church, Little Wymondley and Wymondley Bury’, Hertfordshire Mercury, 08 September 1906, p. 6
Henry Fowler, ‘The Six Hills, Stevenage : Paper read at archaeological meeting’, Herts Advertiser, 15 August 1891, p. 6
Papers of Henry Fowler, Hertfordshire Archive and Local Studies Library
Hugh Madgin, Stevenage A History and Celebration, Hertford, Stephen Austin & Sons, (2012)
E. V. Methold, Notes on Stevenage, St Albans, Gibbs and Bamforth, (1902)
Robert Trow-Smith, The History of Stevenage, Stevenage, The Stevenage Society, (1958)
Six Hills Folklore – Devils and Black Dogs
As discussed in ‘What Are the Six Hills?’, the origin and purpose of the tumuli has long been questioned. In many such cases, where facts are lacking, local people start to form their own stories, and the Six Hills do not disappoint. The earliest folklore emerges from John Emslie, who says that his father, in 1835, was told by a Mr. Williams that:
In an adjoining wood are seven pits and one barrow. The devil, having dug out six spadefuls of earth, emptied them beside the road, thus making the six barrows. He then returned to the wood, dug another spadeful (…) and, walking along with this spadeful, dropped it and thus made the solitary barrow. (1)
Scraps of Folkore
The creation of landscape features by the devil can be found in many folk tales throughout England. There are Devil’s Dykes and ditches dotted around the land as well as hills, such as the Devil’s Shovelful in Herefordshire and the Devil’s Spadeful in Worcestershire. In Victorian popular belief, the devil was often portrayed not as the biblical Satan, but as more of a trickster, appearing in folk stories in the same way giants or fairies might. The Victorian folklore collectors saw themselves as preservers of ancient traditions and tended to assume an intellectual divide between themselves and rural, lower class informants. This could lead to attitudes of intellectual superiority, as can be seen in the following account:
With the illiterate, the Devil must always have a hand in these ancient earthworks and here they tell you that they are six shovels full which his black majesty was pleased to throw up, and in a wood about a mile distant ignorant credulity has found six pits for the spot from whence he was pleased to remove the soil, but they give no account why such a frolic came into Satan’s head. (2)
A Guide to Hertfordshire, 1880
In 1906 we hear the story repeated in the transactions of the East Herts Archaeological Society and now the reason for the Devil’s mud flinging is given, which fits well with the playful “trickster” image of the time:
Seated one day on the edge of Whomerley Wood (…) the Devil was on the watch for a victim among the people who passed backwards and forwards along the road below. After a time, (…) he picked up a spadeful of earth and threw it at the passers-by. This was followed by another and another until there were six holes in the wood and six spadesful of earth taken from them, lying in a row alongside the road. (3)
East Herts Archaeological Society Transactions, 1906
In these transactions we also hear our next piece of folklore, that of a spectral black dog, said to haunt the neighbourhood of the Six Hills. The story re-appears in 1911 in W.B. Gerish’s ‘Folk-Lore of Hertfordshire’ after he received a letter from a lady who reported that while walking near the hills she saw a shadow appearing out of the earth. She wrote that it was a large black dog, as big as a donkey, head bent towards the ground and its tail curled over its back, it then disappeared as it passed them. The letter also tells of a gamekeeper who had seen the same apparition in a similar place, the dog first rushed at him, then as he turned, followed him, before disappearing in the direction of the hills.
Spectral black dog sightings have been reported all over the United Kingdom, and for hundreds of years. As in the above report, they are seen as being unusually large and often disappear in to thin air. The dogs are said to frequent both roadsides and ancient tumuli, so the Six Hills site appears to be a perfect location. The dogs are sometimes seen as omens of death, which would also fit with local knowledge that the hills were probably burial mounds.
The black dog is also linked in folk tales to the devil, and this is reflected in the Herts Express in November 1911:
The Stevenage ghost dog, which frequents (…) the Six Hills (…) may reasonably be identified with the devil, who according to (…) legend, threw shovelsful of earth from the wood to make the Six Hills. (4)
Herts Express, 11th November, 1911
It can be seen here that folklore about the Six Hills is regarded more positively than in ‘A Guide to Hertfordshire’ published thirty-one years earlier. The author appears to write ‘for’ the general public, rather than looking down on them. In the following post, we will continue to investigate folklore about the Six Hills as we move through the twentieth century and in to the twenty-first.
References and Further Reading
(1) C. S. Burne, ‘Scraps of Folklore Collected by John Philipps Emslie’, Folklore, Vol. 26, No. 2 (Jun. 30, 1915), 153-170, https://www.jstor.org/stable/1255036
(2) An Old Inhabitant, A Guide to Hertfordshire, Hertford, Simson and Co., (1880)
(3) H. C. Andrews, ‘Six Hills, Stevenage’, East Herts Archaeological Society Transactions, vol 3 part 2, (1906), 178-185
(4) The Ghosts Of Hertfordshire, Herts Express, 11 November 1911
‘A Terrific Ogre’: The Role of the Devil in Victorian Popular Belief’, Folklore, 128:3, (2017), 271-291, DOI: 10.1080/0015587X.2017.1327639
T. Brown, ‘The Black Dog’, Folklore, vol. 69, no. 3, (1958), 175-192.
W. B. Gerish, A Tour Through Hertfordshire, Watford, C. H. Peacock Ltd., (1921)
W.B. Gerish, Hertfordshire folk lore, 1st republish edn, S.R. Publishers, Wakefield, (1970)
Mark Norman, Black Dogs and the Wild Hunt, podcast, The Folklore Podcast, 31 August 2016, http://www.thefolklorepodcast.com
S. J. Sherwood, ‘Black Dogs of England’, Australian Folklore, 21, (2006) 16-29.
Philip Wadner, Whomerley Wood Moat Stevenage, Stevenage, Cade Books, (2015)
Westwood, J. & Simpson, J., The lore of the land: a guide to England’s legends, from Spring-Heeled Jack to the Witches of Warboys, London, Penguin Books Ltd., (2005)
The Folklore Podcast, Episode 4, Black Dogs and the Wild Hunt, http://www.thefolklorepodcast.com
As we move in to the twentieth century in our look at the Six Hills of Stevenage, we find that there is very little written in books on either the hills or their folklore. Some Stevenage guides or history books briefly mention the devil story but very few tell of the black dog sightings. Is the former seen as a quaint folk tale, embedded in the history of the town, and the latter too near the paranormal to be mentioned in a history book? Even a local newspaper article from 2016 on the “mystery” of the Six Hills fails to mention their spectral canine association. However, as we will see, this does not stop there being modern day stories of the “haunted” hills.
The black dog sightings are mentioned in ‘Haunted Stevenage’, with the addition of a sighting in the 1960s, but frustratingly no further details are given. I did, however, find a post on Facebook stating that they had seen a black dog late at night in the 1970s in the area of the hills. There is also a report of a 2012 sighting of a bloodied spectral man in the area. However, it seems that with the envelopment of the hills by the new town any published materials on folklore about them has disappeared, so I decided to head to Facebook to see what I could discover.
Many people knew the hills to be Roman, however sometimes the stories got muddled. One informant mixes the Roman origin with the devilish earth throwing tale. Another idea was that they have moved. This may come from an oral report of the northernmost mound being dug in to in the 1830s for road widening. If this is the case, it is fascinating that this shred of information has been passed on through time.
Another appearance of the earth throwing story turns up in a different form, as a tale of fighting giants. Giants are, like the devil, common in tales of landscape feature creation but it is unknown if this giant folklore has been passed on orally through time, and I was unable to find any published accounts.
Some thought the burial mounds to be those of monks. The presence of monks can be explained by a Monks Wood being situated near the hills, which has its own, well documented, hooded ghost.
Whether there are monks, Romans or Vikings buried in them, another common theme was one of hidden treasure. With no investigation of what the Six Hills contain, treasure seems an obvious thing to fill the knowledge gap with, especially when other ancient sites, such as Sutton Hoo, have been discovered to hold priceless grave goods. The modern urban legend that misfortune will come to anybody who disturbs or digs in to the Six Hills could be seen as a measure to ensure the ancient site is not disturbed by treasure seekers. There was certainly evidence from Facebook posts that people knew you were not supposed to dig in to them.
Many accounts speak of the hills being “spooky” or haunted. Barrows have long been associated with the supernatural, whether because they are linked with death or maybe simply because people could not explain their presence in the landscape. Most barrows are in open spaces, maybe poorly lit at night, and so one could start to explain their spookiness but the Six Hills are in the middle of a well lit, busy town centre. That they retain their eeriness is an interesting feature of the contemporary folklore around them.
A final aspect of interest to me as a folklorist are the modern stories that make the hills seem unimportant. There are several accounts of the hills being made of rubbish or debris and of them being modern constructions. A question to ask might be, will these types of stories about the hills increase as we move further in time from published ‘facts’ on them? The way in which folklore changes through time as people interpret the Six Hills in new ways would make a fascinating future study.
The ‘mystery’ of the Six Hills may never be solved, but it appears that people’s stories about them will continue for many years yet. Perhaps, after all, it is more interesting to not know what is inside those hills.
One final word from Facebook…
References and Further Reading
A Guide to Stevenage, Gloucester, The British Publishing Company Ltd., 1996
Stevenage Official Guide, Edwin Morgan, ed., London and Hitchin, Wm. Carling & Co. Ltd. (1961)
The Borough of Stevenage Official Handbook, Gloucester, The British Publishing Company Ltd., (1982)
Martin Elvery, ‘The Mystery of the Six Hills’, Stevenage Comet, 2 May 2016, https://www.thecomet.net/news/the-mystery-of-the-stevenage-six-hills-rare-historical-monument-or-the-handiwork-of-the-devil-1-4517383
Paul Adams, Haunted Stevenage, Stroud, The History Press, (2015)
Ruth Stratton & Nicholas Connell, Haunted Hertfordshire, A Ghostly Gazetteer, The Book Castle, (2015)