For hundreds of years, New Forest folk believed (and some may still do) in errant pixies that roamed the heathland. These mischievous beings are malevolent, rather than benign, and would be blamed for luring livestock into the boggiest parts of the forest, where the poor animals would succumb to a cold and watery death.
Whilst this might sound a little off topic for a blog about a Second World War airfield, bear with me, there is connection.
The pixies of New Forest folklore are known as “Colt” or “Cold” Pixies. The term colt pixies or cold pixies appear to be interchangeable.
According to local mythology, “Colt” Pixies take the form of a scruffy, pale horse that would lead travellers and other livestock astray. A common local phrase still being used up until the early 1900s was “as ragged as a colt pixie”.
There’s a special place in the New Forest which tips a hat to the New Forest pixies, which happens to be on Beaulieu Airfield.
It’s Cold Pixies Cave, also referred to as Colt Pixies Cave depending on who ask.
Cold Pixies Cave is a Bronze Age bowl barrow (a burial ground) dating from between 2,400 to 1,500 BC. Bowl barrows are characterised by a bowl-shaped appearance, creating a circular hump or mound on the landscape, surrounded by a shallow ditch. They were typically usually used for the burial of individuals with a high social status.
One of the theories I like best about why this barrow was called Cold Pixies Cave, was suggested by The Faery Folklorist blog, who says the following:
“It is believed that the New Forest is home to over 200 ancient burial mounds, spread across hills and fields. Many of these mounds are hidden under layers of gorse and bracken, forgotten over time. In the past, these mounds were sacred places where the dead were honoured.”
“However, as time passed, the original purpose of the mounds was lost, and they became mysterious and strange to the local people. People found unusual artifacts within these mounds, such as buried treasure or arrowheads, which led to beliefs that the mounds were inhabited by a different race of people. Folklore held that these mounds were guarded by fairies who shot arrows at anyone who tried to trespass and steal their hidden treasure.”
Unlike other Bronze Age bowl barrows, it’s not particular uniform and round with the classic bowl mound, instead it’s a large area of irregular mounds of earth with gorse on top. The reason why it’s not like a typical barrow is because it was excavated in 1941, destroying the original shape. If you didn’t know what it was, it would likely escape your attention when walking on the site of RAF Beaulieu.
The reason it was excavated in 1941 is entirely down to the construction of RAF Beaulieu which wasn’t completed until the following year. As you can imagine, having round mounds on an airfield is not conducive to a happy landing so they would need to be flattened.
The Air Ministry gave archaeologists enough warning to let them excavate the barrows before they were dug out and levelled by mechanical diggers. The archaeologist in charge of the excavations of barrows on Beaulieu Airfield was Cecily Margaret Guido aka Peggy Piggott. You might have heard of her, she was a character in The Dig, the Netflix film.
In November 1941, she wrote to a colleague, and the letter included this statement:
“This is to tell you the latest news of the excavations. You may be pleased to hear that we found an amber necklace of Wessex Culture type in the barrow called Coldpixies Cavern near the road – nothing else of particular importance.”
She had found a Bronze Age necklace in the barrow. Of all the barrows excavated as part of the project, I believe this was the only artefact ever to be found.
Did you know? There is another area of the airfield which is often mistaken for a Bronze Age barrow, but was actually created as a shooting butt for aircraft.
As it happens, Cold Pixies Cave needn’t have been excavated and “destroyed”, because it didn’t end up being in the way of the airfield construction. If you are familiar with Hawkhill Inclosure, you might recognise this concrete track that goes into the airfield on the opposite side of the road. The barrow is to the right of this entrance shown below, out of the way.
Despite the name, there is no cave there.
As for Pixies, I will leave that up to your own imagination.
Credits and references
- The National Archives
- Image in header © Copyright E Gammie