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

Upas Tree

‘Mr. Wilkie assures us, that, like the mountain-ash, the yew is a very upas tree to the witches, possibly because of its constant proximity to churches. They hate the holly, too, and with good reason: its name is but another form of the word holy, and its thorny foliage and blood-red berries are suggestive of the most sacred Christian associations. The bracken also they detest, because it bears on its root the letter C, the initial of the holy name Christ, which (says Mr. Wilkie) may plainly be seen on cutting the root horizontally. A friend suggests, however, that the letter intended is not the English C, but the Greek Χ, the initial letter of the word Χριστός, which really resembles very closely the marks in the root of the bracken, or Pteris aquilina. These marks have, however, been interpreted in many ways. Some say they resemble the Austrian double-headed eagle, and derive from hence the Latin name for the plant : others see in them Adam and Eve standing on either side of the tree of knowledge, or King Charles in the oak ; or, again, they try to discover the initials of their future husband or wife.’

Notes on the folk-lore of the northern counties of England and the borders by Henderson, William, 1813-1891

Summoning Satan

‘One Tom Cummins of Aiskew, when he would have speech and advice on matters from the Evil One, did then at midnight spit upon the Bible, tear out a leaf, cast it upon the fire, gather up the black ash and bury it under a hearth stone, when Satan would spring up.’

Tom Cummins died in Bedale in 1782.

Marvels, Magic & Witchcraft in the North Riding of Yorkshire. David Naitby’s Bedale Treasury. David Kirkby. Summerfield Press 2005

Verjuice Press

I recently spotted this stone leaning against the wall at Tocketts Mill. It puzzled me for a while, I had seen a picture of a similar stone but couldn’t remember where. Eventually I remembered, the wonderful Hidden Teesside website

The stone is the base of a Verjuice or Beam Press. Elizabeth Ogilvie writes

..Verjuice or Beam Presses which were used to produce a kind of acid apple vinegar known as verjuice made mostly from crab apples and used in cooking and medicine. The method of crushing the apples was simple. Crab apples were placed on the base stone, a weight was positioned on top and pressed down by means of a wooden beam wedged at one end into a hollow of a tree stump or groove cut into a stone wall.

An Illustrated Guide to Stone Antiquities on the North Yorkshire Moors. E Ogilvie. 1996

The Crab Tree

Another Cleveland usage is, when a mare foals to hang up ‘the cleansings ’ (the placenta) in a tree, preferably in a thorn or failing that a crab tree; the motive assigned being to secure ‘luck with the foal.’ Should the birth take place in the fields, this suspension is most carefully attended to, while as for the requirements of such events at the homestead, in not a few instances there is a certain tree not far from the farm-buildings still specially marked out for the reception of these peculiar pendants. In one instance lately, I heard of a larch tree so devoted, but admittedly in default of the thorn; the old thorn-tree long employed for the purpose having died out.

Again, a lamb that is dropped dead, or that dies while still very young, is customarily hung up in a tree—properly in a thorn, though any fruit or berry-bearing tree will do. In the last case under my notice, the tree was a rowan-tree or mountain-ash. In all these cases the same principle is, I think, beyond question involved. Certainly in the case of the mare the offering would originally have been to Odin; probably in all cases of suspension on a berry-bearing tree the same may be true.

J. C. Atkinson, N. & Q., 4th S., vol ii., pp. 556, 557.

Kettleness

A coastal walk with Graeme Chappell

Kettleness – Cat Beck – Randy Bell End – Hob Holes – Runswick Sands – White Stones – Redscar Hole – Hill Stones – Kettleness Sand – Kettleness Scar – Wind Hole – Long Sand – White Shoot – Maiden Wyke – Lucky Dogs Hole – Kettleness Alum Works

The Fairies long gone, the sound of Claymoor battledores no long ring over Runswick shores.

Hob has flit, kink coughs go untreated.

A whale lays headless and rotting on the rocks at White Stones. The stench of death and decay is all around, even the gulls avoid this place. We push on, scrambling over rocks, mouth breathing.

17th of December 1829. The village and Alum Works of Kettleness slid down the cliff to the sea. No lives were lost. The village and works were swiftly rebuilt.

Ore was gathered from these beaches when Teesside furnaces were still an idle dream.

Iron returns to its source, the sea reclaims its own

Shap Granite, batholith born, ice borne.

The sun is shining, we are bold.

We wade through whin following a cliff-top path to the Alum Works, we watch Gannets. A very good day.

Witches and Fairies

Ingratitude is worse than witchcraft.

Never talk of witches on a Friday.

Friday is the witches’ sabbath.

Witches are most apt to confess on a Friday.

Fairies comb goats’ beards every Friday.

To hug one as the devil hugs a witch.

A favourite cry of the fairies, waters locked! waters locked!!

Wednesday is the fairies’ sabbath.

A witch is afraid of her own blood.

A witch cannot weep.

To be fairy struck (paralysis).

A hairy man’s a geary man, but a hairy wife’s a witch.

You’re like a witch, you say your prayers backwards.

You’re half a witch (cunning).

Turn your cloaks for fairy folks are in old oaks.

The Smell of Water Part 3: Danby Rigg

The Smell of Water Part 2. Hob Hole and the Giants Lapstone

The Smell Of Water Part One: St. Hilda’s Church, Danby, North Yorkshire

Part One of a short series of films made by Bob Fischer and Andrew T Smith for Local History Month.

Each episode also features an original soundtrack written and performed by Oli Heffernan aka Ivan the Tolerable.