I once went to Wandlebury. I was a student at Cambridge. It was a terrific day for a student excursion. We got there by bus and footpath. On the way back, the supposed Roman road we were following was more a less a swamp. One of us tried to walk through the edge of a sodden ploughed field and sank thigh-deep in Cambridgeshire loam. How we laughed. And there was a pub, where only the one with the cleanest shoes was allowed in to order, and another bus. Such fun.
It had been my idea to go to Wandlebury. It is the only bit of Cambridgeshire which threatens to rise above sea level, and moreover it is an Iron Age site. Iron Age sites, in the days when I could still walk uphill, were places I needed to be. I risked my life on two hideous descents – one on the cliff side of Pen Dinas, Aberystwyth; the side which doesn’t show in this free picture, but where a sidelong wind tries to peel you off the gorse-infested slope, illustrating why the intelligent Iron Agers didn’t bother with defences on that side. Stephanie Jennison dared that descent with me. (The thing which looks like a chimney is a botched monument to Wellington, which, for no good reason, dominates Aberystwyth.)
The other descent was of Caer Caradoc above Church Stretton, and who cares who dared it with me. Suffice it to say that I would have done better to do the map-reading for myself.
Wandlebury is fascinating enough without Gervase. I haven’t personally infested it since the 1980’s, but the clue is in the name. This is a pre-Roman hill-fort, a major Iron Age settlement, which survived to become a Saxon burh – a defensive point where troops could gather. The location is also called Wandlebury Rings in reference to the ditch and bank fortifications, of Iron Age origin, which surround it. It is today a country park, adequately described in the Wikipedia entry.
But the Wikipedia entry omits a more contentious side to the location, discussed separately here. When I visited, I knew that 1954 excavations by T.C. Lethbridge had led to claims that the hillside had once sported chalk carvings of Iron Age gods. If this were true, the site would be of exceptional interest. At any rate, when I visited, there was nothing of Lethbridge’s imaginings to be seen. The most notable feature was the four-square stable block, which is all that survives of a mansion on the site, dating back to the 17th century, demolished in the 1950’s. The incongruous stable block is liminal enough, all by itself. This is a site where the essential persists, obscured by the accretions of time.
So what does Gervase have to say about it? I translate to save us copyright problems, though you really do need to own the edition by Banks and Binns. In Otia Imperialia III 59, de Wandlebiria, he says:
In England, on the edges of the Diocese of Ely, is the town named Cambridge, and nearby, within its territories, is a place which people call Wandlebury, for the reason that the ‘Wandali’ [Vandals] pitched camp there, when they ravaged Britain, savagely slaying the Christians.
Gervase understands that bury means some sort of fort. The idea that Vandals ravaged Britain is sheer fiction, derived from the name current in his day, whatever it was, Latinized as ‘Wandalebiria’. He continues
Where they pitched camp at the top of a hill, a circular plateau is surrounded by earthworks, with entrance by a kind of gate.
Gervase means that there is a gap in the earthworks – the usual entrance into an Iron Age fort, which, in its day, may have been accompanied by a wooden gateway.
There is a story, widely attested, going back far into antiquity that if any knight , after the silence of night has fallen, enter this plateau by moonlight, and shout. ‘Let a knight meet a knight!’ then a knight will come to meet him, ready for conflict; their horses come together and he either overthrows his opponent or is overthrown. But I should tell you of a pre-condition; the knight has to enter the enclosure alone through the entrance, though his companions are not prevented from watching from outside.
In support of this, Gervase tells the story of Osbert Fitz Hugh, who, not long ago (paucis exactis diebus) met the mysterious knight under the specified conditions, and was wounded in the thigh but won the contest. It was an empty victory. The wound broke out each year on the anniversary of the fight, and the remarkable black horse, black caparisoned, which was Osbert’s trophy, escaped at cock crow. Osbert died on the Crusades – saving his soul.
All of which goes to suggest that Gervase spent time in Cambridgeshire, where he heard the story from the locals (ab incolis et indigenis). Perhaps he was visiting the University, supposedly founded in 1209, but in being as a scholarly community some time earlier. By 1209, Gervase was probably established in Arles. So if you want a liminal destination, I recommend Wandlebury. Take sandwiches, because there isn’t a tearoom.