May Hill is the most familiar landmark for many miles around, with its near
circular mound and the crowning clump of trees, and at 275 metres (969 feet)
it is the highest point around. On a clear day you can see up to 12 other counties.
May Hill has a circular trench (right), 100 metres in diameter, and is said to be an
old earthwork from the Iron Age. Within this area is a mound that is said to
be a round barrow.
The hill was enclosed by an act of parliament in 1873 and passed into the care of the National Trust in 1935.
All in a Name
Joan Bleau (1596-1673) was a Dutch cartographer who published many maps throughout his lifetime. His map of
Gloucestershire in 1646 clearly shows Longhope and Yattleton Hill. Other maps show the name as being
either Yartleton and Iarkeldon, the former being a corruption of the latter. It has been suggested that both
names come from Ergyng, a region of Wales not far from here. Yartleton Hill and its variations have
similarities with the Celtic name Iarkledune meaning a round-topped hill. However, none of this goes any way
to explain where the current name comes from. The name May Hill does not appear until 1703.
It was said that it came from the Admiral May, who had trees planted on the summit as a visual aid for ships
navigating the River Severn. There is, however, no mention of Admiral May. It has been noted that there was
once an Anglo-Saxon tribe called Magesoetan who lived on or around May Hill and that the syllable mag
evolved to become may  .
In Samuel Rudder's New History of Gloucestershire published in 1779 he refers to the hill as
Yartleton Hill but notes that the association of May Hill comes from the hill's involvement with the May
Day games [2,3] .
The trees atop May Hill date back to ancient times and have been recorded several
times throughout history. A local story says that Prince Rupert and some of his
Cavaliers took shelter from the trees for a short time during the siege of
Gloucestershire in 1643. A clergyman writing 60 years prior to the Golden
Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1887 writes: "May Hill, a conspicuous
round-topped hill distinguished by a plantation on the summit". A painting
from 1780, around the same time as the clergyman, also shows a clump of trees
present on the summit. May Hill was often used as a beacon to ships navigating the
River Severn and, consequently, the trees were used for these beacons.
Dwindling numbers meant that the hill was beginning to lose its landmark clump
of trees. Eventually, money was raised to fund new trees to accompany those that remained to
commemorate the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1887. A plaque was erected to record
this event. It has been said
that from some angles the trees look like a ploughman and his team. John Masefield
describes it in his poem "The Everlasting Mercy".
Whilst still under the name of Yartleton Hill, the neighbouring parishes met
on the hill to decide who should have the rights to the land - as after all it
was common land. Another old custom was that groups of young people from the
district of Newent would gather on top of the hill on May Day (the beginning
of summer according to the Celtic calender) and pretend to have a battle. One
side would fight for winter to stay, whilst the other would fight for summer
and the final score was always Summer 5, Winter 0. Afterwards everyone would
all retire to Newent carrying flowers and green branches  .
Gloucestershire has several references to hidden treasure in underground chambers. Naturally,
May Hill is one of these such places. One chamber is said to exist on the
east side of the hill, near Yartleton Wood. Several people have tried to find
it without much success, one of these was a disbanded soldier named Fairfax,
who travelled all the way from London in 1665 to explore the hole. He didn't
find anything. Crockett's Hole, it is called, is mentioned in Chancellor Parsons'
notes on the diocese of Gloucester from about 1700. He says that the hole is supposedly
full of riches and was a place of safety in times of persecution under Queen Mary  .
A cavern in a field belonging to Great Cugley Farm, two miles due east from the summit of May Hill
has been recorded several times throughout history. The most detailed description
of the cavern was written by the engineer Stephen Ballard in 1834: "It
is not known when this [cavern] was cut or for what purpose. It extends under
the earth a great way... There is plenty of room just within the entrance, a
sort of apartment 10 or 12 feet wide out of which a small passage leads... I
have no doubt it is an artificial passage for the tool marks are now plainly
to be seen". Fifty years after Ballard's discovery, some horses caused the
roof of the cavern to collapse, although the passageway at the back of the cavern
remained intact  .
In Easter 2005 we went in search of the cavern and the entrance to the tunnel on top of May
Hill and at Great Cugley Farm. The picture on the left shows that the woods on top of
May Hill are overgrown and covered with bracken. Hence, finding the tunnel entrance would
be extremely difficult. The cavern at Great Cugley Farm looked more promising when we found
a hole in the ground surrounded by trees. On closer inspection
it is probably just the exit of an underground stream only present in Winter months, as the
shape of the land suggests it had been cut by a stream. All that now remains of the cavern
is a small depression in the ground next to a telegraph pole.
Fletcher, C., "Ottakar's Local History Series: Gloucestershire", Tempus, 2001.
Rudder, S., "A New History of Gloucestershire", Printed by Samuel Rudder, Cirencester, 1779.
Rudge, T., "The History of the County of Gloucestershire brough down to the year 1803", Volume 2, printed for the author by G. F. Harris, Herald Newspaper Office, 1803.
T. A. Ryder, "A Portrait of Gloucestershire", Robert Hale, London, 1976.
Fendley, J., "Chancellor Parsons' Notes on the Diocese of Gloucester c. 1700" TBGAS, GRS 19.