The Journal of Antiquities

Ancient Sites In Great Britain & Southern Ireland


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Mary Hoyle Well, Hyndburn Moor, Lancashire

May Road Well, Hyndburn (Photo Credit: Peter Worrell - Geograph)

May Road Well, Hyndburn (Photo Credit: Peter Worrell – Geograph)

Os grid reference: approx. SD 792 283. On Hyndburn Moor between Huncoat and Dunnockshaw, Lancashire, is the now rather forgotten Mary Hoyle Well, a natural spring and former healing well named for St Mary the Virgin. It is also called ‘May Road Well’ on the Ordnance Survey map and ‘May Hole Well’ and, perhaps more locally ‘Mere Royde Well’. Today there is not much to see, apart from a thick stone-slab which has an inscription carved onto it that by all accounts is probably a recent addition. In the past pilgrimages and fairs took place here, usually on the first Sunday of May, but were also associated with the feast-days of the Blessed Virgin Mary in February, March, May, July and September, which the local Roman Catholic community held in great reverence. The well is located at the south-western side of Hameldon Hill, some 400 metres east of the King’s Highway, an ancient moorland road that links Huncoat with Haslingden; it stands beside a junction of moorland tracks, one of which leads to the east in the direction of Dunnockshaw, Clowbridge, Goodshaw and Loveclough. Mitchell’s Reservoir is just a little to the north-west of the well.

Back in the 17th and 18th centuries the well was visited by pilgrims on the ‘feast-days’ associated with the Blessed Virgin Mary – at which time fairs were “also” held here at the beginning of May but, by the 19th century the fairs had stopped and veneration of the well was in decline. There were numerous reports of healings casused by the well water, which was quite deep down in the ground beneath the slab and was never known to dry up, even in times of drought. At some point in the 1970s the large stone-slab, recorded as being over 90 inches long, 50 inches wide, and 7 inches thick, was badly damaged and cracked in two; today this slab is only half its original size. The faint carved inscription on the stone says ‘Mary Hoyle Well’ and a cross has been carved onto it by some devotee – but these inscriptions are from fairly recent times – again probably the 1970s.

The Accrington author Rowland Joynson in his book ‘Join Joynson’ published in conjunction with ‘Accrington Observer & Times’ tells us quite a bit about Mary Hoyle’s Well. Mr Joynson say that: “The water cannot be seen. It is piped from somewhere down beneath the erstwhile flagstone and emerges somewhere near the dam of Mitchell’s Reservoir. It is reputed never to run dry”. “Certainly around 1957 there was a great drought and much worry about reserves at Mitchell’s, but Mary Hoyle’s kept on trickling”. “There are all sorts of speculations about the origin of the name. It is generally assumed to have been the Mere Royd Well, but many ancient wells are associated with the Virgin, and Mary Hoyle does leave you thinking”. The author also speculates that the well is the original source of the Hynd burn “as the spring rising at the greatest altitude”. At one time, long ago, the well was the ‘most important’ source of the drinking water for the higher part of Accrington, according to Joynson.  It now, apparently, flows underground into the nearby Mitchell’s Reservoir.

Mary Hoyle Well is one of the places included in the book ‘The Holy Wells and Mineral Springs of N.E. Lancashire’ by Clifford Byrne, where he mentions similar customs happening at Calf Hey Well at Cockden, Briercliffe, near Burnley, but there are many other wells and springs dotted about the area, many of them now largerly forgotten. Henry Taylor in his great antiquarian work of 1902‘The Ancient Crosses of Lancashire’ also mentions Mary Hoyle Well.

Sources:

Byrne, Clifford., The Holy Wells and Mineral Springs of N.E. Lancashire, Marsden Antiquarians, Nelson, 1982.

http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/767569     © Copyright Peter Worrell and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Joynson, Rowland., Join Joynson, Clough & Son, Great Harwood, Lancs, England, 1975.

Taylor, Henry., The Ancient Crosses of Lancashire, Richard Gill, Manchester, 1902.


The Mysterious Disappearing Boulders, Moeraki Beach, Otago, South Island, New Zealand

Moeraki Boulders, South Island, New Zealand (Photo credit: Karsten Sperling) (Wikipedia)

Moeraki Boulders, South Island, New Zealand (Photo credit: Karsten Sperling) (Wikipedia)

Latitude: -45.348199. Longitude: 170.827305. Strewn along the Moeraki beach, Koekohe Beach and Shag Point, in the Otago region, at the far south-eastern side of South Island, New Zealand, are many strange oval and spherical-shaped boulders – resembling, perhaps, giant potatoes – indeed the very name ‘Moeraki’ means “potatoes” in the Maori language of New Zealand. There is an interesting legend, to say the least, which attests to this strange curiosity. Many of these boulders are often half submerged in the sand and bed-rock, but when the tide comes in they mysteriously disappear, obviously, (or do they) and, after the tide goes back out they are seen to be not submerged ie ‘completely whole’ or fully uncovered of sand. These large boulders probably date back 60-65 million years. They are located in the south-eastern part of the South Island, in New Zealand, some 35 km (22 miles) south of Oamaru, between Moeraki and Hampden, and 80 km (67 miles) north of Dunedin. Access to the boulders is from highway 1 (Hampden-Palmerston road), just half a mile south of Hampden town, to the Moeraki Boulders Visitor Centre and car-park.

Broken boulder at Moeraki (Photo credit: William M. Connolley for Wikipedia)

Broken boulder at Moeraki (Photo credit: William M. Connolley for Wikipedia)

These curious grey boulders are literally strewn along the beach, often in clusters, and some in smaller groups of two or so. They vary in size but generally they are somewhere between 1 foot 7 inches and 7 foot 2 inches in circumference and in height between 2-8 feet; some are damaged and broken up due to constant erosion from the pounding waves, many others are wonderfully smooth-shaped and ‘naturally patterned’ with unusual circular, diamond and oblong shapes, said to be somewhat similar to ‘the eyes in potatoes’, but with connecting lines. The boulders are made of hardened mud, silt and clay, and they are cemented together with calcite which is often quite weak at the core and hard at the outer rim, which might account for some of the boulders cracking apart! Seamus P. Cahill writing in ‘Ireland’s Own’ magazine says that these “Huge stones appear on the sand at Otago, New Zealand, and then disappear – only to be replaced mysteriously by new ones!”.

In the colourful and informative book ‘The Beauty of New Zealand’ by Errol Brathwaite  we are informed that: “Moeraki Beach is named after the potato which ancient Polynesian voyagers brought with them in their double-hulled, ocean-going canoe. The canoe, so the olden legend goes, capsized near Shag Point, at the end of the beach, and the moeraki potatoes and some gourds which she was carrying were strewn by the tide along the beach, and were later transformed into boulders. Today, these septarian stones lie half buried in sand, a geological oddity, rusty-red or yellow inside, with crystalline cores”.

But we know that in geological terms they date back 60-65 million years and apparently lay on the sea bottom for much of that time, until the sea-levels began to fall some 15 million years ago. But the fact that “they” disappear and then reappear is simply an over-active (vivid) imagination from more recent times. The boulders are now something of a tourist attraction, and visitors (and geologists!) come here from all over the world to see these strange and curious rock formations. The boulders are sometimes called Araiteuru after the legendary Polynesian voyager sailing canoe which was said to have brought them here hundreds of years ago when they were apparently, and with much imagination – large potatoes! It is recorded that the Araiteuru also carried a cargo of calabashes, barracudas and eel baskets, and so I am minded to say that it must have been a very, very large canoe to carry such a large amount of items!

Sources:

Brathwaite, Errol., The Beauty of New Zealand, Golden Press Pty Ltd., Avondale, Auckland, New Zealand, 1982.

Cahill, Seamus P., (Just Imagine), Island’s Own, Wexford, Ireland, (various dates).

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moeraki_Boulders

http://www.kuriositas.com/2010/09/mysterious-moeraki-boulders.html

http://www.leeduguid.com.au/blog/new-zealand-south-island/


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St Candida’s Church, Whitchurch Canonicorum, Dorset

Shrine of St Candida at Whitchurch Canonicorum. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Shrine of St Candida at Whitchurch Canonicorum. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Os grid reference: SY 3967 5432. At the north-side of Whitchurch Canonicorum village, in Marshwood Vale, along Lower Street stands St Candida’s Church (St Candida and Holy Cross), an ancient parish church on an equally ancient site, probably Saxon. The building houses the quite rare 13th century shrine of  a Saxon saint who was apparently martyred hereabouts by Vikings; the church then became a place of pilgrimage during the Middle Ages. St Candida is also known as St Whyte, St Wite, St Wita and St Gwen, though very little is actually known about her, and the date of her death not known with any real certainty – although it was, according to legend, somewhere between the 7th-9th centuries AD. The church tower of St Candida’s has some carved stones built into it which depict the martyrdom of the saint. The village of Whitchurch Canonicorum lies in the far south-west of Dorset – a few miles north of the A35 on country lanes – some 6 miles north-east of Lyme Regis and 2 miles north-east of Charmouth.

Within the parish church stands a rare 13th century stone shrine with three large oval-shaped apertures and, inside this there is a lead reliquary which is said to contain the bones of a local Saxon saint called Candida or Wite who was martyred at nearby Charmouth, probably at the beginning of the 8th century AD or, possibly in the 9th century? Some historians ‘consider’ her to be a saint from south Wales called Gwen Tebrion, but this seems most unlikely as St Gwen lived at an earlier date, the 6th century, but she shares the same feast-day 1st June.  Gwen means ‘White’ in the Welsh language form. The assumption was that King Athelstan gave the ‘so-called’ relics of St Gwen to the church at Whitchurch Canonicorum back in the 10th century AD.

A reference in the Reader’s Digest book ‘Folklore Myths and Legends of Britain’ says of the apertures in the medieval shrine “pilgrims thrust diseased limbs or bandages in the hope of miraculous cures”. Indeed numerous miracles of healing the sick and infirm have been recorded here over the centuries. An early miracle recorded at the shrine was the restoration of sight (Rodney Castleden, 1986).

In an article by Rodney Castleden ‘Saints, Shrines & Miracles’ for ‘Exploring The Supernatural’ magazine in 1986 we are given some interesting information about St Candida’s tomb [shrine]. The author says: “At the turn of the century a crack appeared in the stonework of St Candida’s tomb. It was then possible to examine the leaden reliquary inside… which carried the inscription HIC REQUEST RELIQE SCE WITE (Here lie the remains of Saint Wita? Wita was an alternative name for Candida. The lead box was opened up and inside were found the bones of a small woman who was about forty years old at the time of her death”. Castleden goes on to say that: “Very little is known about St Candida. Indeed, it may be her obscurity that ensured that she attracted no attention at the time of the Dissolution. All that we know about her, apart from the evidence of her shrine, rests on local tradition, which may or may not be reliable. The local tradition says that St Wita, or Candida, was a Saxon woman killed by the Danes on one of their raids when they landed at Charmouth. Part of this tradition is preserved in carvings on the church tower; they show a Viking axe and a Viking longship, the agencies of Candida’s death”.

Parish Church of St Candida at Whitchurch Canonicorum (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Parish Church of St Candida at Whitchurch Canonicorum (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The parish church of St Candida and Holy Cross stands on a Saxon foundation, but the present-day building is architecturally Early English (late Norman) to Perpendicular – 12th to 14th century. The font is Norman and the pulpit Jacobean, and it is noted for its nave arcades and tombs, according to The Illustrated AA Road Book of England & Wales. Authors Jones & Tricker ‘County Guide To English Churches’ say that: St Candida’s is “nearly all EE. The south doorway is however Norman and the S porch Perp. The arcades are EE with stiff-leaf foliage and trumpet-scallop capitals. The fine tower has eight pinnacles and is Perp. Norman font with intersecting arches, 16th C stalls (French) and Jac pulpit”.

It is of interest here to mention that just 1 mile to the south of Whitchurch is the village of Morecombelake and a healing well dedicated to St Candida (Wite). The well has long been able to cure eye troubles. Indeed author Rodney Castleden says: “Dorset children still call the pale blue flowers of the periwinkle ‘St Candida’s Eyes’, which again links the saint with eyesight. The well and its magic properties seem likely to form part of a much older tradition, from long before the Christian era”.

Sources

Castleden, Rodney., Saints, Shrines & Miracles, The Supernatural Magazine, November 1986.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church_of_St_Candida_and_Holy_Cross

Jones, Lawrence E. & Tricker, Roy., County Guide To English Churches, Countryside Books, Newbury, Berks, 1992.

Pepin, David., Discovering Shrines And Holy Places, Shire Publications Ltd., Princes Risborough, Aylesbury, Bucks, 1980.

Reader’s Digest., Folklore Myths & Legends of Britain, (Second Edition), The Reader’s Digest Association Limited, London, 1977.

The AA, The Illustrated Road Book of England & Wales, (Second Post – War Edition), The Automobile Association, London WC2, 1962. 


Mossy Well, Muswell Hill, Haringey, London

Os grid reference:  TQ 288 899. A few miles to the north of the city of London, in Haringey district, is the London suburb of Muswell Hill (NW10), which takes its name from an ancient healing well (long ago) called Mossy Well or Moss Well and, later in the 12th century it was “perhaps” re-named by some local Augustinian nuns who built their chapel there – calling it St Mary’s Well at Muswell. Or could the name actually be derived from the river Moselle, locally called  ‘the Mose’, which ‘springs to life’ in Hornsey (on Moss Hill), just to the south-east of Muswell Hill, and which was long known for its medicinal qualities, though it is in fact a brook. But are the two actually one and the same, probably not. The healing well (known as St Mary’s Well) has long since been capped under the ground, with only the place-name still there to remind us of this once holy, pilgrimage site. Today a private house (no 10 Muswell road) stands on the ‘presumed’ site halfway along the road. Muswell road is located just west of Alexandra Park and the famous Alexandra Palace, while to the north is Muswell Hill Golf Course, and a mile to the south Highgate Cemetery.

Mossy Well is described as being a natural spring, but undoubtedly in early Christian times it was used by the local community which would, at that time, have been just a settlement, though it must have had healing and beneficial qualities, maybe this was attributed to the ‘moss that grew in it’ or around it? Then, later in Saxon times it would have become a proper healing spring with people coming to visit it from farther afield. And in the 12th century some nuns came to the area and built a dairy farm; they saw the holy well, built a chapel beside it, and re-named both after St Mary the Virgin. After this time, in the medieval period, the well became a place of pilgrimage with healing occurring at the well, and votive offerings being made in the chapel, to Our Lady.

There is a legend that was told back in Tudor times which stated that: A Scottish king came to the Mossy Well and was cured of a disease there by drinking of the water, but there is no date given. The only other more recent record comes from a book called ‘Old London, Spas, Baths and Wells’, by Septimus Sunderland. What is known is that the Bishop of London gave some land to the Augustinian nuns of St Mary’s priory at Clerkenwell on which to found a chapel beside a healing well at Muswell – the place then became a Roman Catholic pilgrimage site with numerous cures being wrought there. The chapel was destroyed in the 16th century under the orders of King Henry VIII.

Sources:

http://www.londonslostrivers.com/muswell-stream.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muswell_Hill

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/River_Moselle_(London)

http://www.muswell-hill.com/n10biz/info/history.html

Sunderland, Septimus., Old London, Spas, Baths and Wells, John Bale, sons & Danielsson, London, 1915.


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Grave of St Nicholas, Newtown Jerpoint, Co. Kilkenny, Southern Ireland

Tomb of St Nicholas (Santa Claus). Photo Credit: Wikipedia.

Tomb of St Nicholas (Santa Claus). Photo Credit: Wikipedia.

Irish grid reference: S 5679 4042. In the old churchyard at the west-side of the ruined medieval church of St Nicholas at Newtown Jerpoint, Co. Kilkenny, stands the medieval carved gravestone, reputed to be where the remains of St Nicholas of Myra (yes, the original Santy, St Nick, Santa Claus or Klaus), were laid to rest here back in the year 1300 and, a beautifully carved graveslab was placed over the saintly bishop’s remains. The legend says that St Nicholas’ remains were brought back to Ireland from Bari in Italy by two knight-crusaders of Irish/Norman birth, although [the] church dedicated to the saint was already established at Newtown Jerpoint at that time. There is also a holy well named after the saint. St Nicholas’ ruined church with its famous medieval gravestone is located (on private land) 2 miles south-west of Thomastown, just west of the Little Arrigle river and the N9 (R448) road, at Jerpoint Park. The monastic ruins of Jerpoint Abbey are about half a mile to the east; while sadly the village of Newtown Jerpoint was abandoned in the 1680s and the church left to fall in to ruin and decay. Kilkenny town is 13 miles to the north-east.

The story goes that in the 13th century two Irish knights (both known as De Fraine) on their ‘retreat’ back from the crusades in the Holy Land stopped off at Bari in Italy and managed to secure some of St Nicholas’ holy remains; these remains were brought back to Ireland (by way of Normandy) and then buried in the churchyard adjoining the church of St Nicholas of Myra in Newtown Jerpoint; the two knights thought this to be a safe place for which to bury such a saintly personage. The family of De Fraine had a beautifully carved gravestone placed over the grave of the saint – the date being either 1200 or more likely in 1300 as the church had been established for some time already (1172), being built by William Marshall, earl of Pembroke and ancestor of the De Fraines’ family. Marshall, the son-in-law of Strongbow (Richard Fitzgilbert de Clare) also established the “new town” of Nova Villa Juxta Jeripons situated opposite the mid-12th century Cistercian abbey of Jerpoint, in 1200, at which time he also built the little church dedicated to his favourite and esteemed patron saint, Nicholas of Myra.

The grave of St Nicholas and the adjoining church became a place of pilgrimage from the 13th/14th century onwards, as was the saint’s holy well close by the churchyard; however, in c1680 the village of Newtown was abandoned and   the little church with its famous grave left to fall in to steady decay and ruin – its ruined tower, walls and gallery now almost obliterated by trees and foliage – the gravestone of St Nicholas cracked across the middle. But its beautiful carvings survive. The bishop or cleric on the large, cracked gravestone wears a robe that is shaped like a crusader shield, while at the top two carved heads at either side of the saint’s head are thought to be the knights who brought the remains from Italy to Ireland. At the upper left-side a carving of a boat and at the opposite (upper right-side) a sun carving; there is also a carved cross with more intricate stuff around it and what may be a French fleur de lis. A Latin inscription can also be seen on the stone.

The age-old legend of St Nicholas (Santa Claus) is known to most people. He was bishop of Myra (Mugla) in Lycia, Turkey, during the 4th century AD, and was well-known for his charitableness to the poor and the under-privileged, especially towards children; so much so that he came to be regarded as a “miracle-worker”. He is said to have died in 320, 342 or 350 AD, and his relics later (1084) translated to Bari on the Italian coast. According to the legend, Nicholas “reputedly gave three bags of gold to three girls for their marriage dowries” (Farmer, 2004). These dowries were tossed through an open window, or maybe down a chimney! and that is, perhaps, where the idea of Santa Claus putting gifts down a chimney comes in to its own. Another legend says that he ‘raised to life’ three boys who had been drowned in a brine-tub by a butcher” (Farmer, 2004).

The author Colin Waters in his work ‘A Dictionary Of Saints Days, Fasts, Feasts And Festivals’ says of St Nicholas: “In early Europe it was traditional for people to leave gifts for others without saying who they were from on St Nicholas’ Eve (5th December). This was said to have been started by St Nicholas (also Klaus, Klass etc) when he was bishop of Myra in Lycia.” Waters goes on to say: “He is also patron saint of all prisoners and of all travellers, merchants and those overtaken by sudden distress or danger. His emblem is three balls, indicative of the gold he so freely gave away as a rich man. Panbrokers adopted his symbol. He is represented by three children in a tub.” St Nicholas is patron St of Russia and of Galway city. There are many churches dedicated to him in Ireland, including the medieval collegiate church of St Nicholas in Galway city which dates from c1320 – said to be the largest parish church in Ireland.

The grave of St Nicholas at Newtown Jerpoint, Co. Kilkenny, has been mentioned by many Irish antiquarians and historians, including Canon Carrigan and Owen O’Kelly in his esteemed work ‘A History of County Kilkenny’. And interestingly, this tale has appeared regularly in the ‘Ireland’s Own’ magazine, being authored by Gerry Moran.

Sources:

Farmer, David., Oxford Dictionary Of Saints, Oxford University Press, New York, USA, 2004 

Moran, Gerry., ‘Santa Claus is buried in Kilkenny’, Ireland’s Own, Wexford, Ireland, (various dates).

http://omniumsanctorumhiberniae.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/saint-nicholas-irish-connection.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Newtown_Jerpoint

O’Kelly, Owen., A History of County Kilkenny, Kilkenny Archaeological Society, Kilkenny, Ireland, 1969-70.

Waters, Colin.,  A Dictionary Of Saints Days, Fasts, Feasts And Festivals, Countryside Books, Newbury, Berks, 2003.

 

 

 

                 

 

 


Blackstone Edge Roman Road, Littleborough, Lancs-Yorks Border

Blackstone Edge Roman Road.

Blackstone Edge Roman Road.

Os grid reference: SD 9617 1680. Blackstone Edge Roman Road is located 2 miles east of the town of Littleborough – running almost parallel to the A58 Littleborough to Halifax road. Blackstone Edge ‘Roman Road’ is a cobbled ‘road’ surface traversing the bleak moorland for about 2 miles or so along Blackstone Edge on the Lancashire-West Yorkshire border. The road has a deep groove running down the centre. It is a Scheduled monument initially thought to be of Roman Origin. This road is still marked on Ordnance Survey maps as a Roman Road but nowadays the most widely accepted theory is that it is an early turnpike road from circa 1735.

Until recently popular opinion had it that before the Romans there were no roads in the British Isles. This is not a correct interpretation of the situation. Ancient routes such as the Ickneld Way existed long before AD43. The Romans did build roads and this was one of the reasons for their great success. Roads aided administration as the Empire became ever larger. Roads aided the quick movement of troops to deal with insurgencies and incursions, and they helped to facilitate trade. However the evidence shows that similar structures usually of timber existed from Neolithic Times. More sophisticated structures existed in the Bronze Age using stone and Timber. The Iron Age saw the introduction of gravelled streets as at Danbury and Silchester.

Roman Roads typically consist of a consolidated embanked and cambered core of earth, chalk or stones (the agger), which was then surfaced with compacted stone or gravel. The wider zone was then often defined by boundary ditches, and sometimes further drainage ditches, or trenches from which material for the agger was dug.

Blackstone Edge ‘Roman Road’ (at almost 6 metres in width) does not conform strictly to this approach and the other problem with Blackstone Edge ‘Roman Road’ is that the groove running down the centre is unusual, and has therefore led to other theories about its origin, though similar grooved drainage ditches are known from Roman sites around the country.

It has been suggested that this channel may once have accommodated a cable that was used to winch vehicles up the incline. In keeping with this theory a circular foundation block can still be seen at the top of the incline this solution to the problem being hinted at in the Turnpike Act of 1734. On the other hand, some experts believe that the central channel was used to help vehicles brake as they descended the steep incline down towards Littleborough and others propose that it was merely a drainage duct.

Excavations first took place in 1923/24 under Ian Richmond. In 1965 James L Maxim ‘A Lancashire Lion’ proposed that it was a turnpike road dating from 1735 – immediately following the Turnpike Act of 1734. Possibly built on or next to an earlier, probably Medieval Packhorse Route. Maxim proposed that the central groove was for cables assisting cables to negotiate the steep incline with the circular “foundation” acting as a pulley. However, a further survey in 2012, which involved fieldwork and reviewing the evidence, questioned some of these assumptions. Why was work undertaken to create deep and wide cuttings, and what appears to be a terrace on one side? Further the packhorse way closely follows the road using one of the cuttings. The survey came to the conclusion that it might have to be reconsidered as a Roman Road. Another possibility is that none of these apply and it is, in fact, a more modern, perhaps 19th century moorland track that has long been associated with the quarrying of stone.

Roman Road on Blackstone Edge by Raymond Knapman (Geograph)

Roman Road on Blackstone Edge by Raymond Knapman (Geograph)

The Roman road that runs over Blackstone Edge linked the large Roman legionary fortress of MAMVCIVM (Manchester) to the smaller fort of VERBEIA (Ilkley) and is some 36 miles long. Some historians have, perhaps, wrongly called the fort at Ilkley (OLICANA).

About a mile up the moorland path from the A58 (where the Roman road officially begins) stands Aiggin Stone, a boundary-stone that is inscribed with some Latin letters and a cross; its name is perhaps a derivation of “agger” the material from which the Roman road was constructed.

Photo credit: http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/2325611  © Copyright Raymond Knapman and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

 


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Bedd Branwen, Glanalaw, Treffynon, Anglesey

The site of Bedd Branwen by Eric Jones (Geograph).

The site of Bedd Branwen by Eric Jones (Geograph).

Os grid reference: SH 3611 8498. In a farmer’s field close to the west bank of Afan Alaw (river Alaw) near the hamlet of Glanalaw, Treffynon, Anglesey, stands the Bronze-Age ring-cairn known as Bedd Branwen, which is said to date back 4,000 years. It is named after the legendary princess Branwen or Bronwen, the daughter of King Llyr, and sister of Bran the Blessed (Bendigeidfran) from the Mabinogian. She was related to King Arthur. The cairn site is located on private farmland to the south-west of Bod Deiniol farm, close to the west bank of Afon Alaw – roughly half a mile south of Glanalaw, although a track/footpath runs past Hafan to Glanalaw hamlet and reasonable viewing looking south across the fields can be had from [here] with good zoom photography. However, you can probably walk across the fields to the cairn as long as the farmer doesn’t mind! The village of Treffynon is 1 mile to the east of Bedd Branwen, while Llanbabo and its ancient church are about one-and-a-half miles to the north-east.

Described as a ring-cairn or round barrow approx 24 metres by 28 metres – the kerb of which is still visible at the outer limit of the circle with a large, chunky standing stone (cist grave) at the centre which is now, sadly, cracked down the middle. The monument was apparently damaged back in 1813 by a local farmer who needed some stones for his house; at this time an urn was also dug up which was ‘said’ to have contained the ashes of a female – could these ashes have been those belonging to Branwen, the fairest and most beautiful woman in all Wales, if not the whole of Britain. Or, according to another account: she is one of the three most beautiful women in Wales!

But in reality the cairn pre-dates the legendary princess Branwen by a few thousand years or more, and other urns with grave-goods have been excavated here in more recent times – the early 1960s in fact. These urns almost certainly date from the Bronze-Age at around 2,000 BC. So, perhaps the discovery of the ashes of a female purporting to be those of the princess were ‘just a coincidence’. Today nothing is left of the earthern mound that once covered the cist grave, only the outline of this being still visible and some stones around the edge, though there are a few other curious stones in this field which ‘might’ well be associated with the monument. In the early 1960s excavation some more cremation urns were dug up along with pottery, grave-goods, and also a necklace made of jet. These antiquities are housed in Bangor Museum in north Wales. In the work ‘The Ancient Stones of Wales’, author Chris Barber describes the monument as a “dolmen” and also referrs to it by another name: Bod-Deiniol.

Branwen is a legendary and mythical character who figures strongly in the Mabinogian along with her father King Llyr (Lear) and her brother Bran the Blessed, who is known as Bendigeidfran in Wales, but it is a very sad tale. Princess Branwen is given in marriage by her brother to the Irish king, Matholwch, but after an insult to the Irishman by her half-brother, Efnisien, they soon begin to quarel and then fall out, and poor Branwen is treated badly by being put to work as his cook. Bran then makes war on Matholwch but is killed in the battle (MacKillop, 1998). Later, she manages to escape back to the Isle of Anglesey where ‘she dies of a broken heart’, and is allegedly buried beneath the mound and cairn that now bears her name (Bedd Branwen).

According to The Mabinogian (second branch) Bran the Blessed is credited as going on a voyage across the Atlantic Ocean, but life ends badly for him; his severed head is buried on Tower Hill in London which then acts as a sort of talisman for the city against foreign invasion on the grounds that Britain should not rely on magic, according to the author Geoffrey Ashe in his work ‘The Quest for Arthur’s Britain’. Traditionally Bran is recorded as being the son of Belinus (Gruffudd, 1980). If that is the case, then he and his sister Branwen are descended through Manogan, King of Britain, with the Blessed Virgin Mary? And Belinus or Beli has sometimes been identified with the Celtic sun god of that name. But as we know the Mabinogian gives the father of Branwen and Bran as King Llyr, who has sometimes been identified with the legendary King Lear of Shakespearean fame.

Sources:

Ashe, Geoffrey., The Quest for Arthur’s Britain,  Paladin, St Albans, Herts, 1976.

Barber, Chris., Mysterious Wales, Paladin, London W1X, 1987.

Barber, Chris & Williams, John Godfrey., The Ancient Stones of Wales, Blorenge Books, Abergavenny, Gwent, 1989.

Gruffudd, H., Enwau Cymraeg I Blant – Welsh Names For Children, Y Lolfa, Talybont, Dyfed, 1980. 

MacKillop, James., Dictionary Of Celtic Mythology, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1998.

Photo Credit: http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/1358949  © Copyright Eric Jones and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

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