Rising almost imperceptibly out of the flat East Anglian landscape a few miles to the southeast of Cambridge, the Gog Magog Hills don't, at first, seem quite to live up to their name. It's only when you ascend their slopes, and find surprising views beginning to reveal themselves, that you realise that you are indeed standing on what Daniel Defoe charmingly referred to as ‘mountains'. Considering the billiard-table geography of East Anglia, and the Gogs' relatively dizzying height of 234ft (71m) above sea level, Defoe may well have been right.
Fields sweep away from the Gogs into the surrounding landscape. Corralled down the slopes by hedges, woods, tracks and roads (notably the A1307 connecting Cambridge to Haverhill), they are interrupted by the villages and farms that dot this part of Cambridgeshire. Overall, the Gog Magog Hills – now divided between the Wandlebury Country Park and the Gog Magog Golf Club – present a well managed tranquillity that is certainly worth a few hours of anyone's time. To the fortean traveller they offer a whole lot more – though not at first glance – including the salutary lesson that if you look too hard for what you're searching for, you might just find it.
The origin of the hills' evocative name remains unclear. The first recorded use is by the poet Michael Drayton (1563–1631). In his Poly-olbion, a map appears with the hills clearly marked and referred to as ‘Old Gogmagog, a Hill of long and great renowne'. Gog, the king of Magog, appears in Ezekiel (38:2) as the instigator of a terrible battle, and the names also appear in the Koran. Gog and Magog are identified with giants in Spenser's Faerie Queen, and earlier still in Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain. There is a long-standing legend that the giants still sleep under the hills; in giant form they also play a peripheral role in the history of London, turning up annually in the Lord Mayor's Parade. But why such names were applied to these gentle Cambridge hills is simply not known, though some tantalising possibilities have been suggested.
My last visit to the Gog Magog Hills was on a beautiful, blue-skied autumn day. A refreshing but not uncomfortable chill hung in the air as I drove west along the A14, south on the A11 and west again on the A1307 towards Cambridge. Even though the Hills lie a few miles away from this dual carriageway, the gently undulating landscape surrounding them helps keep the Gogs themselves unnoticed.
Wandlebury Country Park is open to the public all year round. A short walk from the car park takes you up to the hills' quietly crowning glory – the Wandlebury Ring. This Iron Age Hill Fort, its construction believed to have been started around 400 BC, occupies the crest of the hill. Archæologists have unearthed a good deal of evidence in the shape of pottery and stone artefacts that point to Neolithic and Bronze Age settlements predating the hill fort. It is thought that the fort was considerably strengthened in the 1st century AD, possibly by the Iceni, when a second ditch was dug. In the late 1970s, it was claimed by researcher Tim O'Brien, following up a theory put forward by Alfred Watkins, that, prior to the construction of the fort, the site was used as a lunar and solar observatory, an idea that has gained little credence since.
It was the Anglo-Saxons who named the site; Wendlesbiri (or Wændel's Fort) was believed to be an important meeting place, although there is little of Saxon, or indeed mediæval, legacy remaining. In 1685, racing stables (Newmarket is just a few miles away to the east) were built for James II. When these were later acquired by Francis, Earl of Godolphin, a large house (now gone) and gardens were constructed and the stables (still intact) enlarged to house his increasingly successful horses (none more so than the Godolphin Arabian). Sadly, the Earl's enlargements meant that the inner part of the ancient hill fort was sacrificed.
Even though the hill fort has been diminished over the centuries, it's easy to imagine a time when it dominated the surrounding countryside, and it's well worth taking a stroll around Wandlebury Ring; as with the park as a whole, there is a real air of serenity here, enhanced by careful management by the Wandlebury Preservation Society. From the ring, several paths fall away through woods and alongside fields of chalk grassland. The attractions are natural ones, and it's a perfect spot for those who want a walk, a picnic or simply a quiet, contemplative few hours.
And it was just outside the Iron Age fort, on what is now a small meadow sloping away to the south, that the most controversial character associated with the Gog Magogs did much more than contemplate.
In 1955, TC Lethbridge was the director of excavations for the Cambridge Antiquarian Society; as such he was well aware of the various allusions to a hill figure that had once been carved into the slopes of the Gog Magog hills. Lethbridge became obsessed with the lost figure and made it his ambition to rediscover this long-faded giant of the Cambridgeshire landscape. This quest Lethbridge describes with erudition and enthusiasm in his book, Gog Magog: The Buried Gods.
The first published reference to the existence of such a hill figure is by Bishop Joseph Hall in 1605, when he described a "picture the Schollers of Cambridge goe to see at Hogmagog Hills", supposedly of a giant called ‘All Paunch'. In 1640, local historian John Layer commented: "I could never learn how these hills came to be called Gog Magog Hills, unless it were from a high and mighty portraiture of a giant wch the Schollars of Cambridge cut upon the turf…" And later, another historian, William Cole, recalled a "figure of the giant carved on the turf".
To these historical accounts Lethbridge also added a piece of local folklore that he believed was more than just an intriguing ghostly tale. First recorded by Gervase of Tilbury, (who believed that Wandlebury was derived from the tribe of Vandals), the tale tells that Wandlebury was once ruled by a dark knight, untouchable by any mere mortal. Anyone brave – or foolish – enough to try to defeat this legendary figure simply had to ride into the camp on a moonlit night and call out: "Knight to knight, come forth!" The warrior would appear and gladly do combat, in which he would always triumph. That was until Sir Osbert, a Norman knight, heard the tale and tried his luck. Sir Osbert sallied forth, and having offered the cry saw the horseman duly appear. Lances and shields at the ready, the opponents clashed, and this time the dark knight of Wandlebury was unseated. Sir Osbert, as a token of his victory, took the vanquished warrior's horse. But, as he turned to leave, the fallen knight threw what was left of his lance, which pierced Osbert in the thigh. He left the scene, but the following morning the trophy horse had disappeared and thereafter, on the anniversary of the battle, Sir Osbert's lance wound would bleed once more.
Lethbridge believed that this tale represented an explanation and description of the figure that was once visible upon the hill. With a determination any fortean would be proud of, Lethbridge set about re-excavating this long-lost giant with a somewhat unorthodox method.
Pounding a heavy iron sounding-bar into the hillside, he claimed that any soft areas revealed the places where the chalk had been cut many centuries previously. These places he marked with an array of sticks that soon bristled across the meadow he had chosen as his site. With incredible swiftness, a pattern of sorts soon emerged. This was dispatched to Sir Thomas Kendrick of the British Museum, who responded: "Rear quarter of an animal. Walking (not galloping) white horse. May the Lord be with you." Lethbridge admitted surprise at this interpretation, which was not what he had expected. More ‘sounding' ensued, and this time Cyril Fox, an expert on Celtic art, was consulted. His response was quite definite: "Female with two horses, probably Epona. Congratulations." These communications from two eminent personages gave the whole search a credibility that must have pleased Lethbridge, and the surprise he felt at not discovering a typical male giant hill figure was put aside as he continued to excavate what he now believed was a depiction of Epona, the Celtic horse goddess.
As the weeks of excavations continued, the search soon threw up more surprises. It appeared that Lethbridge's three-breasted Goddess not only travelled across the side of Gog Magog with her beaked horse – she also pulled a chariot (which tied in neatly with additional folklore concerning a golden chariot buried beneath the hill). More alarmingly, it soon became apparent that she wasn't alone. Steadily one, then two, additional figures were plotted by Lethbridge. On one side of the goddess emerged a sword- and shield-wielding warrior, and on the other a bizarre cloak-shrouded stalking figure. All three figures were clearly different in artistic terms, leading Lethbridge to conclude that the central figure was the Magog, or Mother God, known as Epona to the Celts, and that, while she had been constructed by the Iceni, the other two figures were added later by the incoming Catuvellauni tribe.
The figures (which, apart from a partial excavation of the Mother Goddess, remained in purely "staked-out" form), with Lethbridge their chief exponent, are extremely seductive in their evocation of a distant, magical past. However, the evidence for their validity is weak. None of the earlier references equates to the unique figures Lethbridge discovered, and the reports themselves clearly contradict each other – two locating the figure within the camp itself, where it would not be visible from the surrounding land. Only one puts it ‘within view from Sawston' – a description that had led Lethbridge to his chosen site. There was once, in all probability, a figure of some description cut into the turf on Gog Magog. However, it is far more likely to be of mediæval origin, with its roots – and certainly its upkeep – in the hands of the nearby students of Cambridge.
Lethbridge was staking his career when he announced the discovery of his ancient figure. Soon, his reputation as a serious antiquarian came under the academic spotlight. An inquiry carried out for the Council of British Archæology in 1956 came to the conclusion that the ‘hollows' in the turf were the result of natural geological processes common in the area. Academia's loss was forteana's gain, as Lethbridge went on to devote the rest of his working life to studying, and theorising about, a number of strange phenomena, from dowsing to ghosts. More latterly, further examinations of the site have been carried out using advanced technology; these produced no evidence that would support the presence of Lethbridge's figures.
There is, though, an interesting, recently revealed twist to the story. A few miles south, near the village of Whittlesford, there is the intriguing possibility that there does exist a chalk figure – a horse, akin to the famous Uffington figure – that may well have been discovered via aerial photography. The figure is not without its critics, but perhaps Cambridgeshire will one day have the ancient figure it seems to have been denied (FT191:18).
Today, the meadow where Lethbridge carried out his arduous task gives no hint of the controversy that raged back in the Fifties… and it certainly offers no clues to any figure that was carved centuries, or even millennia, ago.
Leaving the meadow and the memory of Celtic Gods behind, I paid a visit to the Cambridge Preservation Society office within its admirably converted stable buildings. Collecting a number of useful pamphlets and stopping to admire the tranquil scene of sheep happily grazing within the Wandlebury ring, I followed the paths down towards the Roman Road, the Via Devana.
It is at this point that the fusion between the two most controversial theories concerning the hills occurs. There is a very old legend surrounding Brutus, Britain's supposed founder and namesake, that provides a neat mythological dovetail.
The earliest record of this legend was by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain, written in the early 12th century. This legend tells of Brutus, the great-grandson of Æneas (who fled defeated Troy and established a kingdom in Italy).
Brutus and his retinue of gathered Trojan exiles are advised to travel to ‘an island beyond France'. Having landed on the south coast, at what is now Totnes in Devon, Brutus and his men hold a celebratory banquet. This, however, comes to a sudden halt when they are attacked by the island's current inhabitants – a race of giants led by the fierce Goemagot. Brutus's chief warrior, Cornineus (later King of Cornwall), engages Goemagot in a wrestling bout. Finally, Cornineus triumphs, sending the giant over the cliffs where he is dashed onto the rocks below.
Goemagot, or Gogmagog, was immortalised on the south coast by the cutting of a giant on the hills looking out to sea. Sadly, this hill figure was destroyed when a fortress was built in 1655, and the vanished giant seems to have walked off into the history books alongside Lethbridge's figures. However, both leave behind them a tantalising connection to a place of great antiquity at the very heart of western myth – Troy.
It's challenging, as you wander through the serenity of Wandlebury, to imagine the bloody scenes that certainly occurred around this hill fort, but these ancient woods and fields have borne witness to a variety of warriors down the centuries: Celts and Romans, Saxons and Vikings, all drawn to this high point in the landscape.
It's harder still, as you head northwards, downhill towards the Roman road, to visualise tens of thousands of troops advancing for the final time, having endured a 10-year war. Before them, in the night, dragged from the shore 25 miles (40km) to the north, has gone a hollow wooden horse of incredible proportions. The attackers stealthily advance over the dykes they have constructed during their decade-long struggle, and which still stand today. Finally, they wait in silence, until a signal goes up – the gates are opened, the plan has worked. In they pour, years of anger and desperation unleashed as they eradicate the once-great city and its inhabitants. By the end of the night, one of the greatest kingdoms is in ruins as Troy burns, lighting the landscape of Eastern Albion.
The most forceful advocate of this scenario in recent times has been the Dutch writer Iman Wilkens. Setting out his scholarly theory in his book Where Troy Once Stood, Wilkens relocates the entire history of Troy and its associated kingdoms to northern Europe. However, this seemingly fantastical case of teleportation is not without its earlier adherents, and in this Mr Wilkens finds himself in good company. Plato was convinced that the Trojan sagas had no place in Greece and, perhaps more convincingly, Thucydides, the fifth-century Greek historian, believed that "nothing in Greece reached great proportions, the wars no more than anything else". He posited that at the time of the Trojan wars Greece had neither the technology nor skills, and indeed lacked the political stability, to wage such an awesome war against the Trojans.
Thucydides further highlighted a number of discrepancies in Homer's writings that suggest a location for the story beyond Greece and Asia Minor, most importantly mentioning the Taulentians, who were of Celtic ancestry, as being present in Greece. Wilkens claims that this is the link between Troy, Greece and Asia Minor – Celtic peoples, migrating south, took their history with them, and in time it became entwined with that of the Greeks themselves, eventually surfacing in Homer's enduring epics the Iliad and the Odyssey. And, in more recent times, several other writers have had their doubts about Troy's Mediterranean location. In 1790, Wernsdorf identified the Cimmerians mentioned by Homer as Celtic. H Vosz, in 1804, concluded that the Odyssey was partly set in the British Isles, due to geographical features. Most relevant is the work of Theophile Callieux, who posits the theory that Odysseus's travels began in a Troy placed somewhere near Cambridge.
Callieux's book was published a mere six years after Heinrich Schliemann located what he believed to be the ruins of Troy at Hissarlik in northwest Turkey. This has, of course, become the accepted site of "Troy" – as, indeed, it was in the classical era (Alexander the Great visiting the ‘tomb of Achilles' on first landing in Asia Minor, and the Romans building their New Troy in the surrounding area). However, Wilkens and many others have rightly questioned the validity of Schliemann's claims.
Clearly, there are many difficulties in treating Homer's works as factual history (if he existed, Homer's poetry evoked events that occurred half a millennium before his time), but it's certainly hard to square his account with Schliemann's discoveries. In terms of numbers, Schliemann's Troy (by his own admittance) could never have contained the 50,000 troops plus civilians that Homer's did. The attacking army (identified as a Greek alliance) was of at least 65,000 men, who sailed in 1,200 ships that also transported the massive support an army this size would need. There is no location near Schliemann's Troy where such a vast force could have landed and encamped for a decade – there simply isn't enough space.
The sea plays a vital part in Homer's ‘histories' and in Wilken's theory. Vitally, Homer is explicit about the colour and nature of the sea that the attackers cross. None of these references would seem to describe the Mediterranean, and, most importantly, the sea that Homer describes is tidal. The tides of the Mediterranean are at best insignificant.
Wilkens goes on to detail descriptions of food, art, fauna and flora which would all appear to be more pertinent to northern Europe than to Mediterranean climes. All of these are, of course, present around Wandlebury – as are the geographical features necessary for us to transplant Troy to Cambridgeshire. The landing site and encampment for the ‘Greeks' is identified as being at the Wash. There is clearly enough space between the city and the sea to accommodate the battles Homer describes, and we can also find the numerous towns, villages and rivers Homer describes – all of which are mysteriously absent from the Turkish Troy.
Scouring East Anglia and beyond, Wilkens identifies Homer's geography with that of East Anglia, and, to a certain degree, he does seem to highlight some startling similarities. Not only is Troy identified as the Gog Magog hills, but the Hellespont becomes the North Sea, Mycenæ is placed in northern France, the kingdoms of Menelaus and Nestor in Spain and the point of embarkation for the ‘Greeks' in Denmark. And of course, Homer never referred to the attackers of Troy as ‘Greeks', mostly as Argives, Danaans or Achæans; for Wilkens these were descriptions of Celts.
So what of the hills themselves? What have they offered in terms of evidence to support Wilkens's ideas? Sadly, very little. Archæologists have unearthed nothing that would support such a titanic Bronze Age clash, either in terms of human remains or items such as weapons, pottery or jewellery. There is absolutely no tangible evidence that there has ever been a settlement larger than the obvious hill fort on the Gog Magog hills, and it is not wholly credible that a city the size of Homer's Troy could ever have stood on them. There is certainly nothing to support the idea that for 10 years over 65,000 people camped on the shores of the Wash. The objections to Wilkens's Troy are similar to those we might level at Schliemann's: there is simply no cultural precedent for the wars and the city itself being present, and there is no evidence from folklore or mythology that even hints at these devastating events ever having taken place in northern Europe.
Iman Wilkens, and others who preceded him, are clearly asking pertinent questions. Whether Troy was located in northwest Turkey is doubtful; whether it existed at all outside the timeless locale of myth is something we may never know for sure. But, like Lethbridge before him, Wilkens may have fallen into a trap that can bedevil all manner of fortean enquiries: having asked all the right questions, one can try just a little too hard to find the answers one needs to settle them.
As for the Gog Magog Hills and Wandlebury Ring, there are still plenty of reasons to visit them. And it's good to know that, beneath your feet, giants continue to sleep.