The Devil’s Arrows

The Devil’s Arrows are a row of three prehistoric standing stones located in a field on the outskirts of Boroughbridge.

Devils arrows

The stones exist in a wider, complex, prehistoric landscape, a recent archaeological survey of the surrounding area uncovered a number of features including a double timber post row and an associated ditch, extensive flint scatters and grooved ware pottery.

The tallest stones is 22.5 feet high making it the second tallest prehistoric standing stone in the UK after the Rudston Monolith at 26 feet. Graeme Chappell recently informed me that the Rudston Monolith, 44 miles away, is aligned precisely due East of the Arrows.

The antiquarian John Leland visited the town sometime between 1535 and 1540  and described the row as four upright stones with no mention of a fallen fifth stone

..little without this Towne on the west part of Watiling-Streate stadith 4 great maine stones wrought above in conum by Mannes hand.
They be set in 3 several Feldes at this Tyme.
The first is a 20 foote by estimation in higeth and an 18 foote in cumpace. The stone towards the ground is sumwhat square, and so up to the midle, and then wrought with certen rude boltells in conum. But the very toppe thereof is broken of a 3 or 4 footes. Other 2 of like shap stand in another feld a good But shot of: and the one of them is bigger then the other; and they stand within a 6 or 8 fote one of the other.
The fourth standith in a several feld a good stone cast from the other, and is bigger and higher than any of the other 3. I esteme it to the waite of a 5 Waine Lodes or more.
Inscription could I none find yn these stones; and if there were it might be woren out; for they be sore woren and scalid with wether.
I take to be a trophaea a Romanis posita in the side of Watheling Streat,as yn a place most occupied in Yorneying ad so most yn sighte.

A German traveler, Lupold Von Wedel visited the stones in 1584 and recorded seeing five stones, four upright and one lying on the ground. Thirty years later another antiquarian, William Camden visited the stones but only three were left upright, and again, no mention of a fifth stone..

Neere unto this bridge Westward wee saw in three divers little fields foure huge stones of pyramidall forme, but very rudely wrought, set as it were in a streight and direct line. The two Pyramides in the middest, whereof the one was lately pulled downe by some that hoped, though in vaine, to finde treasure, did almost touch one another. The uttermore stand not far off, yet almost in equall distance from these on both sides.


John Aubrey’s notes in his Monumenta Britannica complied between 1665 and 1693. Aubrey thought that the stones may have been part of a great stone circle. No evidence has ever been found to support his theory.

devils_arrows stukeley

Illustration from Itinerarium Curiosum II by William Stukeley. 1776

The Arrows copy

Illustration from The Strangers Guide: Being a concise history & description of Boroughbridge by Boroughbridge. 1846

The fourth stone, toppled by treasure hunters, is thought to have been broken-up and used as the foundation for the bridge over the nearby River Tutt in 1621. There is an account of the top of the stone being taken and placed into the garden of Aldborough Manor.

If its lower portion was embedded in the bridge it may still be there. A local belief that the upper segment was set up in the grounds of Aldborough Manor (Lukis 1877, 134), has been kindly confirmed by the present owner, Sir Henry Lawson-Tancred (pers. comm.).

The Devil’s Arrows: The Archaeology of a Stone Row by Aubrey Burl. Yorkshire Archaeological Journal. Vol 63. 1991

Graeme and I have recently been discussing the fate of the fourth stone and decided to take a look to see if we could locate any traces of the missing stone.

Devils Arrows

We started at the stones themselves. There is currently a crop of beets in the field so we followed the well worn path around field margin. Whilst we were looking at the possible cupmarks on the northern stone we got chatting to a woman who told us that, whilst walking her dogs in the area, she had once experienced an energy at the stones that was so powerful it had made her feel ill.

I have enhanced this image a little to highlight the cupmarks on the stone.

We also noticed that there were lots of ladybirds on the stones, it turns out that these are Harlequin Ladybirds, an invasive species that are said to be responsible for the decline of our native species.

Devils Arrows grooves

I’ve recently read that the grooves on the tops of the stone were caused by The Devil trying to hang his grandmother from the stone.  The tale does not say why he was trying to hang her or whether he was successful. I was just surprised to learn that the prince of darkness had a grandmother

The road beside the field is currently being improved to provide access to a new housing development. It is always a little disturbing to see a development encroaching upon an ancient site.

We took a walk down to the bridge over the River Tutt to see if we could spot any remains of the stone.

Tutt Bridge

The Arrows are made of Millstone Grit and are thought to have been brought to the site from Plumpton Rocks, a distance of over 8 miles. The local building stone is a fairly uniform. fine grained sandstone so the coarser grained gritstone, with it’s large quartz grains is quite easy to identify. We didn’t find any evidence of gritstone in the bridge but Graeme did spot three large dressed gritstone blocks in the kerbing leading from the bridge.

Tutt Bridge kerbs

We decided to head over to nearby Aldborough to see if we could track down the top fragment of the fourth stone.


Aldborough is a small village on the outskirts of Boroughbridge. It is the site of a walled Roman town called Isurium Brigantum. We enquired at the Manor House regarding the whereabouts of the stone, the owner told us that they have looked for evidence of the stone in the manor grounds but not found any trace of it.

In the centre of the village is a large column called the Battle Cross. A nearby plaque states that the cross commemorates the Battle of Boroughbridge in 1322. The plaque also mentions Thomas Earl of Lancaster who was in collusion with the Scots. A Yorkshireman rarely passes up the opportunity to have a pop at his Lancastrian neighbours.

The local church is reputed to be  built on the site of a Roman Temple, there is a carving inside the church which is thought to portray Mercury.

The devil's arrows

Having arrived at a dead end in our search for the fourth stone, we decided to visit the site where, according to legend, the devil stood when he threw the Arrows, How Hill.

How Hill

How Hill is just over 7 miles west of the Arrows. The first written record of the hill is from 1346 and refers to it as the site of a medieval chapel dedicated to Saint Michael, possibly a place of pilgrimage. The site became a ruin after the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539. The tower was rebuilt in 1719 and further domestic buildings were added to it during the 19th century. It is likely that the tower was designed by Sir John Vanbrugh

What surprised both Graeme and I were the views from the hill, although relatively low lying it has a fantastic viewshed, the Pennines in the West, the North York Moors in the east and as far south as Drax power station.

The tower is currently boarded-up, it’s a substantial building, quite singular in design. It has a slight air of malice about it, I’m not sure I’d like to visit it in the dark, as Graeme once did. On checking the BGS website I discovered that the bedrocks around the hill are Plumpton Gritstone, the same stone as the Arrows, perhaps the folklore is right and the Arrows did originate from here.

smith's arrows

The Devil’s Arrows should be viewed as one of a number of prehistoric monuments that align roughly north-south through North Yorkshire. I recently found this lovely pdf booklet which details this alignment. Booklet

I’m not sure if anyone has ever tried to tie-in the Arrows with the Prehistoric  monuments that extend eastwards towards the Yorkshire coast, both Graeme and I believe that it is not unreasonable to think that there may be a connection.

Monument Podcast

Screen ShotMonument 2017-10-01 at 10.33.53 copy

David Parker contacted me a few months ago and asked if we could meet up and have a chat about the Devil’s Arrows for a podcast he was putting together. I met up with David who is a lovely bloke, full of knowledge and enthusiasm. David has now released his podcast, the second in a series.

David’s website is here 

During our chat I said a couple of things that weren’t 100% accurate so here’s a few corrections

  • The paper on the alignment of Henges is by Roy, not Ron, Loveday
  • I was way out on the height of the bank at Mayburgh Henge, 15 feet is probably a more accurate estimate.
  • The Bronze Age monument at Street House was a round barrow not a long cairn. The long cairn was part of the final stage of the Neolithic monument.

Piercebridge Barrow alignment

A while ago I came across a reference to a couple of Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age barrows on the southern bank of the Tees close to Piercebridge. Lowland barrows are rare in the Tees valley so I was keen to find out more about this pair. On further investigation I noticed that there were three barrows, one north of the river and two south. Looking on the map I noticed that the three barrows formed an alignment that crossed the Tees at the point where the Romans had built a bridge. Projecting the alignment south leads to the Iron Age Oppidium of Stanwick.


According to Ray Seton’s Astronomical Significance chart, the barrows are also roughly aligned to the rising sun at the summer solstice 2000 BCE.


This map shows that the ancient crossing point was still being used as a ford in the nineteenth century

I checked through all of the sources but could not find a reference to this barrow alignment, so on a misty morning my friend Martyn and I set out to give the place a looking at.

The two barrows on Betty Watson’s Hill and a cup marked cobble stone with two possibly three cups. In North Yorkshire there is a definite association between cup marked stones and prehistoric funerary monuments.

I suggest that the barrows were not actually aligned on the river crossing but were aligned on a trackway or road that crossed the river at this point. The trackway and crossing point, if regularly used, would probably have been quite visible. There is plenty of evidence in the archaeological record to demonstrate a relationship between prehistoric monuments and trackways.

The Tees at Piercebridge and the remains of the Roman bridge. The bridge is built on a gravel bed which is rich in flint pebbles. Perhaps in prehistory this place was not only significant as a river crossing point but also as a source of raw materials.

This part of the River Tees also had a special significance to the Romans. A substantial amount of votive offerings have been recovered from this small section of the river, leading to the suggestion that there was some form of shrine here during the Roman period. The barrow alignment may suggest that this part of the river also carried a spiritual significance to the people who populated this area long before the arrival of the Romans.

Romans on Teesside

A Roman Villa at the Edge of Empire Excavations at Ingleby Barwick, Stockton-on-Tees, 2003–04

IA cover

Located on the south side of the River Tees, in north-east England, the Roman villa at Ingleby Barwick is one of the most northerly in the Roman Empire. Discovered originally through aerial photography and an extensive programme of evaluation, the site was excavated in 2003-04 in advance of housing development. Unusually for the region, the site demonstrated evidence for occupation from the later prehistoric period through to the Anglo-Saxon. The excavations at Ingleby Barwick are significant not only for their scale but also for being carried out under modern recording conditions, allowing for extensive and detailed analysis of the finds. The villa is also a rare example of a Roman civilian site in the hinterland of Hadrian’s Wall.

The Roman winged corridor villa and its outlying stone structures were surrounded by an extensive layout of rectilinear enclosures. While the main villa building was preserved in situ, excavation of the surrounding area revealed features such as ovens and paved surfaces, as well as rare finds such as a glass tableware vessel probably from Egypt and a large hoard of metalwork. The pottery has allowed a detailed phasing of the site to be proposed, while the environmental evidence reveals the villa to have been a working farm. As the publication of the first modern excavation of a Roman villa in the north of England, this book will be essential reading for all Roman specialists. The continuity of settlement found at the site, from prehistory to the Anglo-Saxon period, will make it of great interest to all those working or researching in North-east England. At the same time, it is a fascinating read for all archaeologists, be they professional, students or interested amateurs.

The Book can be purchased here

Tees Archaeology Quarry Farm page

More details including the project report can be found here

The Old Wife’s Well

The Old Wife’s Well is hidden away in woodland beside the Stape to Egton Bridge road. The well is a spring enclosed within a small stone structure, capped with a large stone slab. The words Nattie Fonten are inscribed across the front of the slab. Despite the remoteness of the site, the numerous rags and ribbons (clooties) hanging from the nearby birch trees are evidence that the site is regularly visited.


The Old Wife’s Well is situated 200 metres from the large prehistoric site known as Mauley Cross. The site was known to flint collectors in the early 20th century, forestry operations and archaeological investigation in the 1950’s & 60’s revealed the extent of the site. Hundreds of flints were recovered from a site measuring 180 x 45m. The flint was described as being mainly Mesolithic in nature but some had Neolithic traits and perhaps even Bronze Age features indicating that the site had a possible occupation period spanning hundreds if not thousands of years. Unlike many Mesolithic occupation sites there is very little running water in the area. However, the Old Wife’s Well is only 200m from the site, it is highly probable that the spring, that feeds the well, may have been the primary source of water for the people living here.


The well is also situated a few metres away from a Roman road that ran from Amotherby near Malton via Cawthorn to the Esk valley and possibly Whitby, this route may be prehistoric in origin. The section of the road across the moors is commonly known as Wade’s Causeway but has also been known as Wade’s Wife’s Causey, the Auld Wife’s Trod, Skivik and Gateskichewic.

The inscription on the well Nattie Fonten has been puzzled over by many people.  Raymond Hayes wrote that “Funta” is a loan word from the latin Fontana, Natley or Nattie could derive from Nantile – a Welsh lake name also given to a Celtic water spirit

Mauley Cross

Mauley Cross

The Old Wife?
There are a number of sites on the North York Moors whose names include an element of the Old Wife, all are either prehistoric in origin or landscape features e.g. Old Wife’s Stones at Danby and Bilsdale, Old Wife’s Neck (standing stones) on John Cross Rigg, Old Wife’s Howe at Ravenscar, Old Wife’s Hill at Cundall, the Old Wife’s Way leads to the possible ruined stone circle at Blakey Topping. Many who have studied the archaeology and folklore of the moors have speculated that The Old Wife may be a memory of an Indo-European prehistoric Mother Goddess, a Magna Mata.


The Old Wife’s Neck. John Cross Rigg

The etymology of the word wife can be traced to the proto-Germanic word Wiban and the middle English Wif which simply means Woman, this can be seen in the modern English words midwife and fishwife. Therefore the Old Wife simply means the old woman. If we look to Scotland and Ireland we find a primal deity called The Cailleach meaning , the old woman or Hag.

The tradition of the Cailleach is that of a cosmic figure with geotectonic powers, a supernatural female elder whose power and activities have resulted in the shape of the landscape. Dr Anne Ross described the Cailleach as at once mother, warrior, hag, virgin, conveyor of fertility, of strong sexual appetite which led to her seeking mates amongst mankind equally with the gods, giver of prosperity to the land, protectoress of the flocks and herds. More static and more archaic than the gods.

The Cailleach’s name is not unknown in Yorkshire. At Rudston, home to Britiains tallest standing stone, that tale is told of the annual death of the Goddess. The Cailleach represents winter, her death heralds the start of spring when the Goddesses youthful form, Bride, arrives.

Rudston Monolith sml

The Rudston Monolith

Bride, Brid, Brig, is well represented on the North York Moors. There are several clusters of standing stones on the moors called the Bride Stones. There is speculation as to whether Bride was the Mother Goddess of the Brigantes, an Iron Age tribe whose lands stretched from the Humber to the Cheviots and have left Brides name in such towns as Bridlington, Briggswath, Brigg, Brigham and Brighouse. Bride was later accepted into the Christian calendar as St Brigit. Her feast day called Imbolc is the 1st of February.


The Bridestones. Tripsdale

I would urge you to keep the tradition alive and seek out this beautiful old well. The Clooties hanging from the trees testify to our primitive urge to make votive offerings acknowledging the genius loci of the well but please don’t leave any tat, many sites have been ruined this way.
The Golden Rule – Take only pictures, leave only footprints.

There the faints signs are left,

Coins of time and water

Debris, celestial ash…

Pablo Neruda, Extravagaria


Wade’s Causeway. A Roman Road in NE Yorkshire. R H Hayes & J G Rutter 1964

Early Man In NE Yorkshire. Frank Elgee 1930

NE Yorkshire Studies: Archaeological Papers. R H Hayes 1988

Pagan Celtic Britain. A Ross 1967

The Book of the Cailleach. Gearoid O Crualaoich 2003

Echoes of the Goddess. S Brighton & T Welbourn 2010

A Passage of Arms. R Bradley 1990

The Modern Antiquarian. J Cope 1998