The Sunken kirk

To celebrate the Summer Solstice, and my release from self-isolation, Graham Vasey & I took a walk up to the Swinside Stone Circle in Cumbria.

This beautiful circle, one of my favourites, is also known as Sunkenkirk. The folklore of the site tells of how the locals once tried to build a church here, the Devil wasn’t best pleased and cursed the stones causing them to sink into the ground. In common with many other circles, it is said that it is impossible to count the stones.

…that mystic round of Druid frame

Tardily sinking by its proper weight

Deep into patient earth…

William Wordsworth

..this well preserved ring is one of the finest stone circles in western Europe.

A guide to the Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland, & Brittany. Aubrey Burl. Yale University Press. 1995

I have been seeking out prehistoric sites and hoary old stones for most of my life and have come to view these places as benevolent, liminal spaces. I believe that many of these sites mark a period of departure, a time when our ancestors decided to create physical spaces within the landscape, places that allowed them to temporarily separate themselves from the material world and enter the realm of the sacred or the supernatural, essentially a temple or ‘kirk’.

These places are not only the physical remnants of ancient beliefs and associated cosmologies, they are also evidence of the desires of our ancestors to ‘sign the land’ and leave permanent, visible markers of their presence , a practice that has remained unbroken ever since.

It should be acknowledged that not everyone views these ancient sites this way. Many ancient sites, as evidenced in folklore, have been viewed as having malevolent associations . These were dark locations where witches and demons would meet or sites where bloody druidical sacrificial rites were once enacted. These associations still linger in the modern era and may still effect how these sites are viewed. This is an account by Cumbrian poet Norman Nicholson of a boyhood encounter with the Swinside stones on a bleak Cumbrian winters day.

And there at last, I saw the stones, black, huddled and hooded, with the snow mounded against them on the one side. There was no comfort in them, no hint of anything to do with humanity at all. They were as frightening as the moor, yet they were not part of it. They were separate, persisting through the centuries in a dumb, motionless struggle. They were in opposition to the moor, struggling against it, just as I was – but they were not on my side. I turned and went as fast as I could down the snowy track to the main road, and walked home towards the friendly glare of the furnaces purring in the mist.

The Lakes. Norman Nicholson. Hale. 1977

The Old Stones Exhibition March 2022

My friend Tony Galuidi asked me if I’d be interested in a joint exhibition, I agreed and here it is. If you like big old prehistoric stones and you happen to find yourself in Cumbria, pop in and have a look.

Rey Cross ii

OE stan ‘stone, stones’ is a very common pl. el. It is used alone as a pl. n. in STAINES, STEANE, STONE, where a Roman milestone or some prominant stone of another kindmay be referred to.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place Names. Eilert Ekwall. 1959

I recently took a trip over the Pennines to Cumbria. On the way home I stopped on Stainmore to have a look at Rey’s Cross. The Cross is located in a lay-by beside the A66. The A66 crosses the Pennines through the Stainmore Gap, a Pennine pass that was created by the flow of ice sheets during past glacial periods.

Historically, This part of Stainmore has always been important. The moor is rich in late Prehistoric remains. It was also the site of a large Roman marching camp, within the ruins of the camp is a wrecked prehistoric stone circle. Legend has it that the stone cross was raised as a memorial to Eric Bloodaxe, the last king of York, who was slain on the moor in 954.

Eric_Bloodaxe_coin_b

The cross, situated near the highest point of Stainmore, is close to an ancient county boundary, is a weathered shaft set into a substantial stone base and is thought to date to the early anglo saxon period. The name`Rey’ is thought to have been derived from the Old Norse element `hreyrr’ which can be taken to mean a heap of stones forming a boundary.

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One of the earliest references to the stone is from The Chronicle of Lanercost where it is call ” Rer Cros in Staynmor ” The chronicler states that it was set up as a boundary marker. The boundary was between the Westmoringas and the Northumbrians, the Glasgow diocesan border, before that it marked the border between the Cumbrians and the Northumbrians.

map

The antiquarian William Camden tells us ” This stone was set up as a boundary between England and Scotland, when William (the Conqueror) first gave Cumberland to the Scots.”  Camden was incorrect, at the time of the Norman conquest much of Cumberland was already under Scot’s rule. The historic county of Cumberland was not established until 1177, however the stone could still have marked the boundary of the territory.

The A99 was widened in the early 1990’s so in 1990 the stone was moved from the south side of the road to its present site on the north side. An archaeological survey and excavation was undertaken as part of a wider archaeological project, sadly no burial was found beneath or around the stone.

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What fascinates me about this stone is that it marks a place that has been significant to the people of our islands for thousands of years. The people of the Neolithic period used this as route way between the east and west coasts. Later, the people bronze age erected a stone circle close to the site. Later still, the Romans heavily fortified road to guard the legions marching between Catterick and Penrith and it has remained the primary northern trans-pennine link ever since.  A hundred or so metres west of the stone is the modern east/west boundary between Cumbria and Durham and the route was also once the medieval border between Scotland and England. East meets west, north meets south all within sight of the weather-beaten old stone.

Gunnerkeld Stone Circle

Gunnerkeld – Sportsman’s Spring

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This beautiful concentric stone circle is situated a mile and a half north of Shap in Cumbria, an area rich in prehistoric monuments.

It is thought that the outer circle was erected during the Neolithic period. The circle is the same diameter as the famous stone circle at Castlerigg. Another similarity is the two large portal stones, a feature that can also be found at the Castlerigg circle. This leads to speculation that perhaps the two circles were erected by the same prehistoric architect.

The inner circle and a central cist were added during the Bronze Age, perhaps changing the use of the site from a place of ceremony and ritual to a sepulchral function, a place of the dead.

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Another remarkable aspect of this lovely stone ring is it’s proximity to the M6 southbound carriageway, which is just a stones throw away.  The soundtrack here is one of speeding traffic.

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Access to the site is via Gunnerwell Farm, this is private land, if you visit be sure to ask at the farmhouse, the farmer is very friendly. Also you need to cross a stream to access the field where the stones are located, wellies are advisable.

Sources

The Stone Circles of Cumbria – John Waterhouse 1985

Prehistoric Monuments of the Lake District – Tom Clare 2007

A Guide to the Stone Circles of Cumbria – Robert W.E. Farrah 2008

Croglin – A Cumbrian Vampire Tale

I read this tale on Bob Fischer’s BBC Tees show last night

croglin vampire

There was a house in the village called Croglin Low Hall, the house belonged to a family called Fisher.  For reasons of business the Fishers moved to Essex and let the house out to two brothers and a sister. The new tenants got on well with the villagers and were well liked.  There stay at the hall was uneventful until the second summer of their tenancy.

One particular evening the brother and their sister had sat outside and watched the sun set and the moon rise and had then retired to bed. The sister sat in bed looking out into the Cumbrian summer night. As she looked she became aware of two lights in the graveyard next to the house. As she gazed at the lights she became aware that they we attached to a figure that was gradually making its way towards the house.

A feeling of uncontrollable horror seized the sister. As the figure got closer she longed to scream for help but the voice was paralysed as if her tongue had been glued to the roof of her mouth.  She jumped out of bed and tried to unlock her bedroom door, as she was fumbling with the lock she heard a scratch noise upon the window followed by a pecking noise as the figure picked away at the lead of the window. A pane of glass fell from the window then a long bony finger turned the handle of the window, opening it.  A tall, thin hideous creature then climbed into the room through the window. The woman was so terrified that she could not scream, the creature twisted its bony fingers around he hair and dragged her head down to the side of the bed and then bit her violently in the throat.

As the creature bit her she found her voice and screamed. Her brothers rushed to her room but found a door locked, y the time they had broken the door down the creature had escaped. One brother attended to his sister’s wounds while the other pursued the creature into the night. The creature appeared to take giant strides and eventually seemed to disappear over the wall into the churchyard.

The next day the doctor attended the sister and the attacker was thought to have been an inmate who had escaped from an asylum. Over the next few weeks the sister seemed to be recovering well but the doctor thought that a change of scenery might be good for her so her brothers took her to Switzerland.

After a few weeks the sister said that she would like to return to Croglin and carry on with her life so her brothers took her home.The winter passed peacefully until one night at the end of march the sister heard the a familiar scratch sound at her window, looking at the window she saw the same hideous shrivelled face and glaring eyes that she had seem on that terrible night during the previous summer.This time she screamed as loud as she could and her brothers rushed into the room, pistols drawn.

The creature scuttled across the lawn with the bothers in pursuit. A shot was fired and the creature was hit in the leg but still it ran. When it got to the churchyard in vanished into a vault, which belonged to a family who were no longer living in the area.

The next day the brothers summoned the villagers and in their presence the vault was opened. On looking in a horrible scene revealed itself, the vault was full of coffins which had been broken open, their contents mangled and scattered all over the floor. A single coffin remained intact however its lid was loose. On raising the lid they found the same hideous withered, shrivelled, mummified figure that they had seen the previous night, the creature also had a bullet wound on it s leg. The brothers then did they only thing you can do to lay a vampire, they burnt it

Leaving Eden – Moor Divock

 I’ve been exploring this moor for many years.

MD

The Kopstone, gatekeeper of the moor. Looking towards Shap with the Howgills in the distance. The low escarpment on the upper left of the picture is Knipe Scar with its  limestone stone circle, part of a chain of at least a dozen intervisible prehistoric monuments in the Lowther valley from Oddendale in the south to the Leacet circle in the north.

 

There is a loose alignment of monuments running across the moor, walking between this large pair of stones leads you towards the cairn circle known as Moor Divock 4

Map

MD4

MD

Stan Beckensall believes that the roughly circular area, below the arrow in the picture, is an eroded cup and ring motif. I have stared at this stone many times and in many lights, the eye of faith is required.

MD

Moving west, this embanked alignment of  large upright stones has previously been interpreted as the remains of a circle.

Autumnal colour

Continuing west, an avenue of small, paired stones leads you across the moor towards the White Raise Cairn

MD Arriving at White Raise the western landscape opens out,  the builders of the mound chose well when they selected this spot. The large white limestone block in the centre of the picture is thought to have served as a cover for the cist.

MD

The cist

White Raise illust

Onwards across the moor following the route of the Roman Road which deviates towards the circle indicating that this route existed long before the Romans arrived on our shores

OS Map Pub 1920

 When the Bronze Age people erected the monuments on the moor, the Cockpit may have already been regarded as an ancient monument.

 

MDThe Cockpit was probably the first stone circle I ever visited.

Cockpit

MD

Looking west across the moor from the Cockpit to White Raise and the Pennines beyond. Thinking about the journey home.

Sources

The Prehistoric Remains on Moordivock near Ullswater by M. Waistell Taylor. TCWAAS 001. 1886

The Stone Circles of Cumbria by John Waterhouse. Phillimore & Co. 1985

Map extract Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

Into Eden – Dacre

Skirsgill

Heading west from Great Salkeld towartds Dacre, I called in on an old friend, the Skirsgill standing stone. Tucked away on an industrial estate, the huge stone is almost lost in foliage, not a bad thing perhaps. I took this picture of the stone in 2004

Plaque

St Andrew’s Church, Dacre. A Norman church built on a pre-conquest Christian site.

Dacre

A beautiful 9th century cross shaft.

Cross Shaft

Description

The slab-like shaft is complete, as is clear from the presence of both upper and lower border mouldings to the panels on sides D and E. The edge of the head on face A and all faces of the shaft were bordered laterally by a roll moulding.

A (broad): At the top and bottom of the shaft is a border formed by a single incised line; two wavering parallel lines divide the two panels on the shaft. On the head are remains of interlace of unidentifiable type. At the top of the shaft is a backward-turning contoured quadruped with a small scooped ear; the ground around the animal has not been cut back. Below are two human figures, the larger to the right, whose hands are joined over a rectangular object with two pellet-like legs. Between their heads is a cluster of three pellets. The ground to the right of the figures has not been cleared completely but sprouts curling or circular branches.

Below the left-hand figure is an uncarved area shaped like a boat, which partially separates this scene from the one below which contains a horned quadruped on whose back is a crouching wolf/dog with curling tail. The ground in front of the horned animal and between its legs has not been cut back.

Below the incised border the lower panel contains a Fall scene. The female figure to the left is clothed in a short kirtle and reaches to pluck a fruit pellet from the tree. The right-hand figure, who is not clearly clothed, grasps a branch. A snake coils to the left of the tree. The ground around this scene has not been completely cleared.

Source – The Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture 

 

The Dacre Bears

The bears are a genuine mystery, no one really knows their origin or meaning. This is from the St Andrew’s church website

The Dacre Bears are a special feature at St. Andrew’s. There are four stone statues located within the churchyard. A recently expressed archaeological opinion is that they are pre-Saxon and may originally have marked the boundaries of some pagan sacred site, however, the origin of the Bears is unknown and has been a puzzle for centuries.