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

A Memory – The Major Lunar Standstill 2006

Remembering Margaret Curtis Teacher and Archaeologist, born 7 June 1941; died 26 March 2022

Isle of Lewis

The Old Stones of the North Exhibition

Circumstances have prevented me from visiting our joint exhibition, so this week we took a trip over to Grasmere to have a look. I was impressed with the way that the Heaton Cooper Studio has presented our work. The exhibition runs until the 29th May.

Prehistoric Postcards

A few years ago I bought an album of old french postcards themed around prehistoric monuments and natural rock features.

This sparked a short obsession with prehistoric postcards. I bought most of them from ebay and boot sales, setting myself the challenge of paying no more than a pound or two for each card. The obsession burned itself out after a year or two so and I decided to put the collection online for anyone to use. I uploaded about a third of the cards and then kind of lost interest. I’ll return to it one day and finish the job.

If this sort of thing interests you, the collection can be found here

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.

Wandering in the shadow of the sacred hill

My friend Graeme Chappell and I decided to have a wander around Thompson’s Rigg. We followed the Old Wife’s Way from Horcum, dropping down along Newgate Brow into the valley below.

We crossed the fields to take a look at the standing stones at the foot of Blakey Topping. These stones have been interpreted as a possible ruined stone circle.

After spending some time at the stones we walked onto Thompson’s Rigg. The Rigg is only a mile long. Its flanks slope down into the valleys of the Grain Beck to the East and Crosscliff Beck to the west. The moor is surrounded on three sides by higher ground and gently slopes to the south, where it narrows to form a valley which eventually leads to Langdale End and Howden Hill, a hill very similar in appearance to Blakey Topping.

About a third of the way along the Rigg the trackways bends, at this point, running diagonally to the trackway, is a cross ridge boundary. The boundary is a banked structure that bisects the full width of the moor and is topped, in parts, with large stones. The official scheduling for the area states that, Although this boundary forms part of the post-medieval field boundary system in the area, it is considered to incorporate elements of an earlier construction which had origins in the prehistoric period, contemporary with the cairnfield. source

In his book Early Man in North East Yorkshire Frank Elgee wrote, A wall of upright stones crosses the Rigg between the farm and the barrows, he also includes the boundary on his map of the area

It is curious that despite the earthwork being mentioned in the official scheduling of the area and despite it defining the the northern limit of the cairnfield and barrows and its close resemblance to other moorland cross ridge boundaries, this significant structure does not appear in either Don Spratt’s 1993 or Blaise Vyner’s 1995 inventories of the cross ridge boundaries of the North York Moors.

South of the large boundary earthwork we started to encounter many cairns, most are in deep heather and difficult to define, at least one of this group appears to be a large ruined barrow.

We continued south, traipsing through the deep heather to a grassy area containing a beautiful Platform Cairn. Platform Cairns are rare on the North York Moors, they are defined as, A roughly circular monument featuring a low, more or less level platform of stones surrounded or retained by a low stone kerb. Some may feature a small central open area, thus resembling a ring cairn. Source.

There is a large stone and hollow in the middle of the cairn implying a possible ruined cist, it is evident that this cairn had been excavated in the past. Graeme reminded me that we were only seven miles from Pickering, once home to James Ruddock.

James Ruddock was a nineteenth century commercial barrow digger. Between 1849 and his death in 1859 he opened many of our moorland mounds in search of finds to sell to the gentleman collectors of his time. His main client was the antiquary Thomas Bateman, he also opened barrows for Samuel Anderson of Whitby.

Unfortunately Ruddock did not always keep precise notes regarding the locations of his diggings, many of his finds have ended up in our museums with vague labels such as, from a mound 6 miles north of Pickering.

Moving further south we encountered this lovely, fairly well-defined ring cairn.

On the south eastern flanks of the Rigg is a group of hollow ways, these are not considered to be prehistoric.

At the southern end of the Rigg is this orthostatic wall which contains many large stones, some of which appear to be buried into the ground. If the wall contained unburied stones it would be classed as a boulder wall. The walling is definitely not prehistoric but may contain stones from an earlier feature.

Not far from the walling is this three foot high standing stone, located within an area of low banks and cairns at the southern end of the Rigg.

Blakey Topping and Thompson’s Rigg are well worth a visit, There is a wealth of prehistoric remains to be seen within a relatively small area. The area is owned by the National Trust and is not managed for grouse so has a mixture of habitats, we saw plenty of birds including Skylarks, Snipes and what I think were a large flock of Fieldfares.

If you visit this lovely place, what you’ll undoubtably notice is that wherever you are on the moor, Blakey Topping is the dominant landscape feature. Graeme and I agreed that this beautiful hill probably had a deep significance to the original inhabitants of this area. A sacred hill? perhaps even a sacred landscape?

Resources

Early Man in North East Yorkshire. Frank Elgee. 1930

Orthostatic Field Walls on the North York Moors. D A Spratt. YAJ Vol. 60. 1988

Linear Earthworks of the Tabular Hills, Northeast Yorkshire. D A Spratt. 1989

Prehistoric and Roman Archaeology of North-East Yorkshire edited by D A Spratt. 1993

CBA Research Report 101: Moorland Monuments’ in The Brides Of Place: Cross-Ridge Boundaries Reviewed, B Vyner. 1995

OS Map – The National Library of Scotland

Postscript

To illustrate Graeme’s comments

Northumberland Rings

We took a drive up to Northumberland to visit the most northerly English Stone Circle, Duddo aka The Singing Stones aka The Women.

Whilst in the area we dropped in at a couple of Prehistoric Rock Art sites. First stop was Roughting Linn where ate our lunch down besides the lovely waterfall. We then walked through the bluebell-clad ramparts of the ancient promontory fort to the large outcrop in the woods. The Fell Sandstone outcrop is covered in Prehistoric rock carvings and is the largest carved rock in Britain. The most of the carvings have been placed around the edges of the outcrop and have been likened to Irish Passage Grave Art.

This part of Northumberland is littered with Prehistoric Rock Art sites, most have wonderful views over the nearby fertile valleys. Many sites are intervisible with each other, quite a few also have nearby earthworks which have been interpreted as Iron Age in date. The carvings themselves are thought to be Neolithic/Early Bronze Age in date, the relationship between the carvings and the earthworks is not fully understood but it does indicate that these sites had a degree of continuity lasting for a considerable period of time.

We headed over to Weetwood Moor to check-out the carvings on the outcrops there before moving on to Chattonpark hill and the wonderful Ketley Crags, a Prehistoric Rock Shelter, its floor covered in deep cup and ring carvings.

Solstice: Duddo

On such a night the hills dissolved

And re-assembled in a shifting mist,

Numb with moonlight’s touch.

We learnt that silence was not hostile,

Took upon ourselves its deepest strength

Waiting for dawn’s layered sun.

A moon that placed

As crow’s shout cracked the sky

Fled from the triggered bird-song

Hesitant, then loud.

Before our eyes, a second birth,

A new-created universe,

Green and blue and gold.

—————————–

Fluted stones whose shape had shifted

With emitted heat

From bearded barley heads,

Buried to the hips,

Reclaimed their circle and identity,

Introspective, Janus-headed,

Guarding and inviting

As the sun’s diurnal course

Played a slow game

With shadow shapes

Time and time and time again.

—————————–

Solstice: Duddo by Stan Beckensall from Northumberland Power of Place. 2001

Map and Lidar images by permission of the National Library of Scotland

Cups & Rings in the northern dales

On a beautiful clear day, Graham and I took a wander up to the Stone Circle on Barningham Moor. We stopped at the Frankinshaw How cairn to drink in the views to the distant Cleveland Hills and Teesside. The cairn, with its cup-marked kerb stones, doesn’t appear to have any statutory protection, this is a worry as it is close to an estate road that has recently been used by heavy vehicles and not too far from a road stone quarry. There are also signs that turf has been stripped close to the cairn, presumably to top the nearby shooting butts.

We moved on to the slowly-sinking, messy Stone Circle at the head of Osmonds Gill, the viewshed here is to the north across the upper Tees valley towards the Durham plain.

Walking over to Eel Hill, we cross a low, dry valley and encounter the best fairy ring that I have ever seen.

Eel Hill, I have visited this beautiful carved stone many times and have never once been able to walk straight to it. I’m convinced that it moves around the hilltop.

We head off to explore Holgate passing these lovely shooting butts. I’m no fan of driven grouse shooting and wouldn’t care if another butt was ever built, but I do love these earth and stone built structures. With their construction and alignments, they have a prehistoric soul. These butts won’t be seeing much service this year. Later we hear a different sort of gunfire, the pom pom of artillery from the nearby military ranges.

At Holgate, we search for carved rocks amongst the boulders that litter the terraces below Holgate Howe. After four thousand years of upland Yorkshire weather and the acid rains of the industrial era, it amazes me how any of these carvings have survived, I also wonder about what has been lost.

Some of the boulders, including some with carvings on them, have been quarried by local stonemasons. The method of removing a stone, suitable for use as a gatepost or lintel, is to cut a series of linear holes across the stone, it is then left to allow nature to assist with the work. The process of freeze/thaw will eventually weaken and fracture the stone along the line, the stone can then be more easily cut. There are a number of quarried stones laying around that have not been used.

This large flat boulder has been quarried along one edge. The stone has a number of weathered cups on its surface. The cups have been joined up with a thin, sharp, incised line. Perhaps this was the work of a bored stonemason who noticed the ancient cups and spent his tea break trying to make some sense of them.

We finish the day at this lovely earth-fast boulder which was thankfully spared from the attention of the stonecutter.

Aubrey Burl

Last week I learned that Harry Aubrey Woodruff Burl had passed away at the age of 93.

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Sometime in the mid 1980’s I discovered a book in a second hand bookshop called The Stone Circles of the British Isles by Aubrey Burl. I bought it, read it and re-read it, it changed my world.

burl stone circles

Prior to finding Burl’s book, I had an interest in all things ancient and had visited quite a few prehistoric sites. My views were shaped by the writings of Janet & Colin Bord, John Michell and other writers of the alternative archaeology community. Burl’s book propelled me into the world of Prehistoric Archaeology and set me on a path that I am still happily travelling.

Burl’s field guide, A Guide to the Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany, is a must for anyone interested in the subject. My dog-eared copy has travelled the length and breadth of Britain with me. It has led me over fields, across bogs and empty moors, walking in his steps, seeking out the megalithic remains of our islands.

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Burl was my entry into the world of prehistory, once discovered my bookshelves soon started to fill not only with his works but books by Daniels, Hawkes, Bradley, Waterhouse, Thom, Barnatt and Piggott to name a few.

Daniels

Burl also taught me to look back to the work of the early antiquarians such as Aubrey, Stukeley, Camden, Ferguson and Borlase. I also sought out the work of more recent researchers, people who marked the transition from Antiquarianism into modern Archaeology such as Fred Cole, Sir James Simpson, Canon Greenwell, Collingwood Bruce and Frank Elgee.

Easter_Aquhorthies_stone_circle,_Fred._Coles_1900

When travelling to a previously unvisited area, I always consult Burl and mark my maps accordingly. I’ve explored Brittany using his Megalithic Brittany book as my guide, on my first trip to Avebury I used his itinerary to discover the stones, he has never let me down. Aubrey Burl was my teacher and my guide and I am sad that he is no longer with us.

It has been hard pleasure to see so many fine circles in Western Europe. They are one family, now dispersed, a megalithic confusion of parents, children, nieces and nephews, in-laws, second cousins, even some dubious offspring at the furthest edge of acceptability…They fascinate and perplex. Enjoy them.

A Guide to the Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Britanny. A Burl 1995

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.