Wandlebury has long provided a rich vein of legend and lore, usually focussing upon the gods of Gog and Magog from whom the hills take their name.
In the early 1900s local children were told that the gods themselves were buried nearby. Somewhere on Fleam Dyke, or even at Wandlebury itself, a golden chariot is supposed to lie. One theory has it that Wandlebury is a far-flung outpost of Helen of Troy; another that it was one of King Arthur’s domains – a kind of Cambridge Camelot!
One ghostly tale comes from Gervase of Tilbury who, in 1219, told that Wandlebury was once ruled by a dark nightrider who no mortal could defeat. Anyone brave enough to test his prowess had to ride up into the camp on a moonlit night and cry ‘knight to knight, come forth!’ The warrior would appear on horseback, ready to fight until he or his opponent was dismounted.
One day a brave Norman knight called Osbert took up the challenge. He rode alone into the camp in full armour, shouting out loud the required defiance. As predicted the warrior appeared. Shields and levelled lances clashed and blows were parried, and eventually Osbert managed to unseat his opponent.
In triumph, Osbert seized the steed of the stricken knight, a token of victory. But as he led his prize away the fallen warrior picked up a lance and with an almighty effort hurled it at Osbert, piercing his thigh. Hardly noticing his wound, and with his adversary now defeated, Osbert returned to his friends and family, to display his prize and receive his applause. However, the following morning the horse broke free from its reins and vanished without trace… and upon each anniversary of the moonlight tournament, Osbert’s thigh wound, though apparently cured, would open up again!
In more modern times other legends have been created. In 1955 the archaeologist TC Lethbridge became convinced that at one time there had been an ancient hill-figure at Wandlebury, cut into the chalk, which he went in search of. Tales of a giant having been cut into the chalk had existed for some time.
In 1605 Bishop Joseph Hall described a ‘picture the Schollers of Cambridge goe to see at Hogmagog Hills’, of a giant called ‘All Paunch’. In 1640 historian John Layer wrote of a giant ‘within the trench of Wandlebury Camp’, cut there by students at the University. And in the 1720s a Dr Dale found a gigantic figure ‘cut on the turf in middle camp’ and William Cole, the antiquary, remembered seeing ‘the figure of a giant carved on the turf at Wandlebury’.
Lethbridge set to work and soon made his ‘discovery’. His technique was to drive a heavy bar into the ground, attempting to find areas of disturbed chalk; soft patches indicating the trench formerly outlining the giant. A curious pattern gradually emerged, showing a three-breasted female astride two horses pulling a chariot, a gigantic sword-wielding warrior, and a sun-god, all three of distinctly Celtic style. Lethbridge offered a date for their construction of around 200 BC and from his findings built a new explanation of the foundations of Celtic Art, reported in his book ‘Gogmagog: the buried gods’ published in 1957.
Lethbridge’s findings have subsequently fallen out of favour and are now much chided and criticised by archaeologists and historians. Lethbridge may have been led astray by plough marks, water gullies, pits caused by fallen trees and geological features that really created the pattern of chalk trenches he found. What Lethbridge discovered was more likely to have been the product of a fertile imagination and a desperate wish to unearth what he wanted to find, than the result of firm evidence and sound scientific investigation. But like all legends… perhaps there is an element of truth in what he said?