The Marlborough Mound’s past is suddenly longer – will its future be longer too?

Written by Tony Millett on .

The Marlborough mound – now known to have been built at about the same time as Silbury Hill – is at the moment covered with trees and voracious ground cover, mainly ivy.  It lies right at the heart of the College buildings.

As befits a scheduled monument, it has long been strictly out of bounds to college students. Although there’s some hearsay evidence that those trees did in days gone by provide cover for the occasional illicit smoker – so much better than ‘behind the bike sheds’.

Eventually the trees – some near the summit are 32 metres tall - and the ivy will be removed from the mound.  But, as Peter Carey of the architects Donald Insall Associates who are overseeing the conservation, explained to Marlborough News Online, this must be done very slowly and carefully.

Although the vegetation is degrading the mound, too sudden removal would destabilise the whole structure and might lead to an even worse situation - making collapses of part of the mound a real possibility.  That is the lesson from conservation works at other ancient ‘castle mounds’ at Totnes and Oxford.

The conservation and restoration process could take several decades.  But completion of the work has been guaranteed by the Marlborough Mound Trust set up and most generously funded by Eric Elstob who was a student at Marlborough College from 1956 to 1960, and who died of cancer in 2003 aged sixty.

See also our companion story: “Marlborough’s Mound is now proved even older and more mysterious than Merlin himself.”

While at the College Elstob captained the college boxing team and won an exhibition to Queen’s College, Oxford.

He was a remarkable man – a great linguist, he spent all his working in the City of London and living in Spitalfields.  When he died, the Daily Telegraph’s City diarist, Simon Goodley, wrote of him:

“Elstob was one of the City's most decent and upright people, although he would kill me if he heard me saying it, since he never quite lost his sense of fun at the absurdity of City life. He spent his entire career at fund managers Foreign & Colonial, making it a good deal more foreign and a good deal less colonial.”

He was an enthusiastic conservationist, loved Hawksmoor’s churches and was instrumental in the restoration of Christ Church, Spitalfields complete with a refuge for homeless men in its crypt.

Peter Carey says that Elstob would be “completely delighted, exonerated - just so pleased” at the news that the mound’s birthdate had been confirmed as being in prehistoric times – and was thus such a very significant part of the country’s heritage.

Work to investigate, conserve and restore the mound began ten years ago.

Already the very twentieth century metal water tank has been removed from the mound’s summit where it had replaced first Lady Hertford’s water feature and later a reservoir for gardeners and local fire wardens.

Renovation of the shell grotto has begun.  This was originally worked on some years ago by the Diana Reynell who taught art at the college. She has become an expert on the eighteenth century craze for grottoes – especially those decorated with shells. 

This grotto was dug into the side of the mound for Lady Hertford who was a lady-of-the-bedchamber to George II’s wife Queen Caroline. Ms Reynell has said it was once used by college boys as a bike shed – see above!

Later this year work will start to re-establish a section of Lady Hertford’s unique spiral ramp. This will be a test to see whether it will eventually be possible restore the whole feature right around the cone of the mound.

As Peter Carey puts it this would put “the jelly mould back on the jelly.”  The idea is not to change the mound’s structure but to consolidate it.

The Master of Marlborough College has greeted the news of the dating of the mound to prehistoric times enthusiastically. Nicholas Sampson said: “We are thrilled at this discovery, which confirms the long and dramatic history of this beautiful site and offers opportunity for tremendous educational enrichment.”

However, the mound is on the college’s private property and access to the general public is not possible.  So it cannot automatically become a new tourist attraction for Marlborough.

The trustees of the Marlborough Mound Trust have a difficult job on their hands.  Their main aims as a charity are to ‘restore, conserve, preserve and maintain the mound’. But they are also pledged to ‘educate the public about the archaeological and historic significance and merits of the mound.’

And at some point in the future, when the restoration is much further on, access for the public will surely have to become possible - even if only on specific ‘open days’ during college holidays.

But it’s most unlikely people will ever be allowed to walk up the mound.  Just as tourists must admire Silbury Hill from ground level, so it would be too risky to subject such an ancient structure as the Marlborough mound to the tramp of thousands of twenty-first century feet.