Butser Ancient Farm, on the Hampshire Sussex border, was set up by experimental archaeologists to test their theories of life and construction in Iron Age Britain. Home to many different types of ancient housing, the farm also hosts a multitude of traditional events over the year, including the Celtic festivals of Beltain, Lammas and Samhain. This May, Sarah took her family to experience their biggest festival of Beltain, the Celtic festival to welcome the arrival of Summer, with the spectacular finale of a giant Wicker Man being burnt at the end.
Butser Ancient Farm began in 1970 when the Council for British Archaeology made the decision to develop a working ancient farm, where archaeologists could experiment to test their theories on how people lived in the Iron Age. The farm started small and has moved locations several times but is now a world renowned centre for carrying out pioneering experiments to understand how the Ancient Britons lived.
The farm is home to several round houses, all built to match the original footprints of excavated sites, including post size and spacing. Materials used in the construction are sourced to match those from the local landscape at the time the original house was built. They have moved beyond the original roundhouses and also have a Saxon Longhouse and have recently built a Roman villa.
The farm hosts to multitudes of school groups learning about traditional ways, as well as running events and workshops for all ages such as archaeology walks, flint tools, bronze casting and even overnight stays in the roundhouses. Butser holds events to celebrate the Celtic festivals of Lammas and Samhain, but by far the biggest is its Beltain Festival, held at the start of May each year and which acts as a fundraiser for this non-profit educational farm.
Beltain festival is the Celtic May Day festival, usually held around the 1st of the month. The earliest written records show it practised in Ireland in 908AD, with several references over subsequent years up until the 19th century. The Gaelic year was divided into two significant parts, summer (from around the 1st May) and winter (1st November), with the Eve before each being a crossover time when the boundaries between human and supernatural were removed, witches and faeries roamed freely and rituals were required to remove their enchantments as well as augur growth for the coming season. At Beltain, cattle were often driven between two fires as they were led out, to protect them from disease, with the fires built by druids and deemed to have protective properties. People would rekindle their home fires with embers from the Beltain bonfires and a huge feast would be held. The practice died out by the end of the 19th century, but was revived in the mid-20th century by Neopagans and Wiccans who have adapted the festival and merged it with other May Day celebrations.
There is a Beltain festival in Edinburgh each year, held since 1988, although it has been turned into a diverse multi-cultural arts festival, and several smaller ones around the UK. Butser Farm is one of these smaller and more traditional events, although with so much mythology and variety surrounding the festival, it is impossible for any of them to be considered as entirely accurate.
Thatched roofs of the roundhouses in the beautiful bucolic Butser Farm. Photograph © Sea and Spud
We arrived at the festival not really knowing quite where to go or what to expect. Fortunately it had been really easy to find as it was well signposted from the main road, and there were stewards to guide us to a parking spot. We joined the throng of people all heading down to the farm on stony paths through fields of brilliant yellow oilseed and joined the good natured queue at the bottom. After having our tickets checked, we were in the farm. The first thing that struck me was a just how beautiful the location is – at the bottom of a valley with a steep hill on one side that shelters the buildings, opening up to fields and woodland as far as the eye can see on the other. Dotted around are assorted roundhouses with their thatched roofs glowing in the sunshine, the smell of wood smoke in the air and the sound of birds chirping above the chatter of the crowd. We watched as a pheasant peacefully pecked around in a nearby field.
The Wicker Man at the start of the festival, and a close up of the wishes that were tied to his legs during the course of the evening.
Our first port of call was to see the Wicker Man before it was reduced to ashes. The farm makes a different style each year, having had a Roman and a Saxon warrior amongst others, but this year was intended to be a mysterious hooded figure to represent a traveller on a journey which also intentionally resembled a Star Wars character, with their Beltain festival falling on the 4th May (May the 4th be with you…). It was started three months earlier when two 50ft cedar trees were felled to make the main structure. Dragged by hand and bound with sisal rope, these were winched upright, placed into 3ft deep holes and then with a combination of scaffolding and a lot of courage, the 35 foot Wicker Man was assembled, taking over 600 hours to build in total. It was very impressive, my children couldn’t believe how tall and imposing it was, I think they had been expecting something life size. Over the next few hours, people would arrive with their wishes written on little scraps of paper, bound with red or blue string, and tie them to the legs of the Wicker Man.
The festival started at 4pm, and the Wicker Man didn’t get lit until about 9pm, so we had a few hours in which to visit the rest of the site. There was a lot on offer with live music and demonstrations and activities, but we spent quite a while just people watching. There was a fascinating and eclectic mix of festival goers. Many were in period dress, with a lot of Saxon capes, Celtic dresses, pagans, Steampunk outfits, Morris dancers, and Romans, all mixed with people in their sensible walking boots and waterproof hats (we went through every type of weather that night from bright sunshine, heavy rain and even hail on our way there). There were many faces painted blue, in homage to the Celtic tradition of warriors painting their faces with blue woad before going into battle, and even though there are academic doubts about the veracity of this, it is still a popularly held belief and lent an air of festivity to the event.
Inside the Danebury CS1 showing how life would have been lived circa 550 – 100 B.C.
We explored each and every roundhouse and I was amazed at how good they were. Each one is a different type, from a different era and location, and many were kitted out as accurately as archaeologists can know. My particular favourite was the Danebury CS1. Chosen for reconstruction because of its unusual walls, which were made with oak planks rather than the traditional wattle and daub, this roundhouse has 60 planks joined with handmade nails and stuffed with sheep fleece to prevent the wind coming in. It is based on an excavation by the eminent archaeologist Barry Cunliffe at Danebury hill fort and is circa 550 – 100 B.C. I particularly liked the way it had been furnished inside, with a small bed covered in animal skins, a metal pot over an open fire and baskets and pots around the place, making it look really lived in.
Skeins of dyed wool inside the Welsh Roundhouse.
My son inspecting an Iron Age loo.
The Welsh roundhouse, circa 400-1200BC and based on an excavation at Llanfair, was full of samples of wool of all types and colours, dyed with natural products and producing a surprising array of vivid colours. The nearby Glastonbury M59, made with Somerset willow and originally found on the Somerset Levels, circa 250 B.C contained a loom that shows how clothing would have been made from dyed wool. There was also an Iron Age loo, a wooden plank with a hole, covered on three sides with a small shelter, a small wicker basket to hold moss and dry leaves, and a pot for wood ash which would have been used to help disguise the smell.
Playing the Celtic harp inside the Little Woodbury Roundhouse, circa 400 – 200 B.C.
We visited the Great Roundhouse, called the Little Woodbury and originally found in an Iron Age farm enclosure around Salisbury, circa 400-200 B.C.; it was the discovery of this which changed how archaeologists thought about the Ancient Britons. Before the discovery, only smaller areas had been excavated and post holes and storage pits were assumed to be dwellings in themselves, rather than part of a larger structure. This roundhouse has a 50 foot diameter and a ceiling height of 30 feet, with the house made of oak, ash, alder and hazel, and a floor made of crushed chalk. We watched a Celtic harp demonstration taking place here, people sitting in large circles around the open fire in the semi darkness, with the only light coming in from the door and the fire. It was really interesting and a very peaceful experience to sit there listening to ancient music in front of the fire of such an impressive archaeological reconstruction.
The fantastic Pentacle Drummers keeping the crowds entertained.
Outside, there was a small stage set up and several different types of music over the evening for people sitting on the grass enjoying food and drink. There was an excellent folk band playing ‘Olde’ English songs but my particular favourite was the drumming group, the Pentacle Drummers. Earlier in the festival I had popped in to look at their drumming workshop coming from one of the Iron Age houses, and had walked into that small mud bricked room to be amazed by the sheer volume and intensity as drummers and visitors all crammed together and pounded out a beat that echoed through the rafters. Now in their performance in front of the stage, I could see them more clearly, all dressed in a livery of red and green tatter coats with painted faces, hats adorned with antlers, feathers, flowers and more, they kept the audience spellbound for some time as they pounded out rhythms in perfect time. It was loud, mesmerising and kept me utterly captivated.
Saxons relaxing outside their longhouse before their battle.
There is an Anglo-Saxon longhouse at the farm, an immaculate recreation based on excavations from the nearby village of Charlton. Made from oak, chestnut and hazel from local woodlands, the roof panelled with wattle hurdles and thatched and with everything hewn by hand rather than machine, it was a very beautiful building. We visited the house, walking through Saxon warriors milling around outside and with several sitting around the open fire inside chatting. The hut was lit by a huge shaft of sunlight coming in from a gap at the top of the roof, and the smoke drifted lazily through it. It was quite a surreal experience, sitting unobtrusively in a Saxon longhouse surrounded by Saxons just going about their day.
Saxons fighting it out.
We later watched the Saxons fighting in one of the fields. As their leader said at the start, they knew that Beltain was a Celtic festival, and the Saxons came along much later, but they thought they’d come along for a fight anyway. It was highly entertaining; with the Saxons taking it in turns to have a jolly good battle as the crowds lined the edges and cheered them on.
One of the many demonstrations to watch, meat drying over an open fire.
There were demonstrations of flint napping done by an archaeologist in Neolithic clothing (well, except for the walking boots), stalls selling jewellery, pottery and more all made by traditional methods, enough to entice anyone archaeologically minded. There was axe throwing, which we didn’t try, and learning to fight like warriors for kids, there was even Star Wars battles for kids once dusk started creeping in, their glowing lightsabers luminous in the dark. We watched authentic cookery over an outdoor fire with strips of meat drying in the smoke. There were demonstrations of metalwork, leather-work, weaving and spinning, with stalls where you could make May Day garlands which soon many people were wearing around their heads.
The blue sky was interrupted by a huge rain shower and so we took shelter in the Great Roundhouse with crowds of us around the open fire just chatting and drinking mead and ale (or fizzy drinks in the case of my kids). The wood smoke writhed through the crowd leaving trails as more wet people came in to join the throng. It was rather lovely to join this crowd of cloak clad strangers chatting around the fire of a Neolithic gathering house while we all waited out the rain.
The sun eventually reappeared and after grabbing a hot chocolate and something to eat from one of the food stalls, we joined the people slowly started making their way towards the Wickerman enclosure. Dark was rapidly approaching and people were choosing the best spots to watch the showpiece. A path was cleared through the crowd for the assorted warriors and Pentacle Drummers to make their way into the enclosure, drums beating in time as they lined the small hill either side of the Wickerman.
There had been a raffle earlier in the evening to win the chance to light the fire, and the lucky winner approached with a flaming staff to light it up. It took him two goes but eventually the Wicker Man was alight and went up with astonishing speed as the crowd cheered, the drums beat louder and louder and we all stood engrossed watching the flames leap higher and higher up the giant burning spectacle in front of us. It was pitch black by now and very cold, but we were all suffused in the light and heat from the Wicker Man, listening to the rhythm, watching the silhouettes of the drummers and Saxons against the bright light of the fire. It was a wonderful spectacle and one I will never forget, a truly intense and primal experience
As the flames slowly died down, the crowds gently drifted away, back through the quiet fields listening to the hooting of owls and scuttling of nocturnal animals to find their cars and join the usual slow exit from the car park. There were cries in the air of ‘See you next Beltain,’ as people packed away their cloaks and swords into car boots and drove off into the dark night, the wood smoke lingering for hours on our clothes long after the Wicker Man was gone.
Top Tips for taking kids to Beltain
The festival is very child friendly, with plenty of activities for them to do, particularly for younger children. My teenager wasn’t hugely impressed with anything other than the burning of the Wicker Man, but then that’s teenagers for you…
Be prepared for inclement weather. Apparently last year it was boiling hot and people could sit outside enjoying the sun, but this year it was incredibly cold, and even though the sun was out for some of it, we froze. Take the whole range of clothing with you, and expect it to come home smelling of wood smoke. Sensible shoes are essential.
The whole venue is pushchair friendly. The walk to the farm is about a third of a mile downhill through fields from the car park, off road pushchairs are probably best.
There are several places to buy food and drinks with vegetarian options available.
There are plenty of loos available, both portaloos and indoor ones.
Be prepared for a wait to get out of the car park at the end.
Warrior Academy for kids.
Visiting Butser Ancient Farm
The farm is a unique family day out where you can travel back to Ancient Britain and experience it with all your senses to gain a real sense of the past, from the Stone Age, through the Iron Age, Romans and Anglo-Saxons. Set in a beautiful landscape it has plenty of farm animals, activities, kids trails and much more. They have an extensive events calendar and run Warrior Academies for kids and families, have their own Roman Legion and run an Archaeology Club.
It is open all year round.
April – September
Monday to Sunday 09h00 – 17h00
October – March
Monday – Friday 10h00 – 16h00
Tickets for Beltain go on sale in the Autumn. Watch their website or sign up the their mailing list for the exact date.
Children aged 3-16 £5
Under 3’s visit for free
Concessions and family tickets available
How to Get There
The farm is on the Hampshire/West Sussex/Surrey border and is just off the A3, about 5 miles south of Petersfield in the village of Chalton. The nearest train station is Petersfield with bus services running to within half a mile. There is nearby overnight accommodation with hotels and glamping sites on offer.
Good to Know
The farm runs many events and workshops throughout the year for all ages. Details available on their events page.