The Journal Of Antiquities

Ancient Sites In Great Britain & Southern Ireland


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Gop Hill Cairn, Trelawnyd, Flintshire (Sir y Fflint), Wales

Gop Hill Cairn (from the Howard Williams website: Archeodeath).

OS Grid Reference: SJ 08675 80152. A huge oval-shaped prehistoric cairn (tumulus) surrounded by forestry on the south-side of Gop Hill (Y Gop), a ¼ of a mile to the north of Trelawnyd village, about halfway between Holywell and Rhuddlan, Flintshire, northeast Wales. Also known as Garn Gop Cairn or in Welsh – Gop’r Leni. It is thought to date from either the Neolithic or Bronze Age. Gop Cairn is almost certainly the largest cairn in Wales and the second largest man-made mound in the British Isles after Silbury Hill. However, no human burials were found when it was excavated in the late 19th century though there were many animal bones. Two caves below the hill (southwest-side) yielded finds that suggest communal burial grounds. To reach this site from High Street, Trelawnyd: head northwest on the track past the houses which becomes a footpath; follow this but then soon veer off northwards to climb up to Gop Hill, which is 820 feet high, and is now directly in front of you and sandwiched between the forested areas.

Author Richard V. Simcock (1986) gives some interesting information regarding Gop Cairn. He says: “This conspicuous monument on the summit of a hill to the north-west of Trelawnyd (formerly Newmarket) but just within the boundary of the parish of Gwaenysgor, and also with walking distance. It is the largest cairn in Wales, and measures about 335 yards in circumference at the base. It is constructed of limestone pebbles, and probably dates from the bronze age. The cairn has been the site of many explorations by eminent archaeologists, and whilst considerable historic relics and information has been acquired, there is still lack of evidence as to the purpose for which it was originally constructed. Excavations have resulted in the discovery of the bones of several Pleistocene animals, including those of bison, reindeer, Irish elk, hyaenas, woolly rhinoceroses and artic lemming, which probably date from BC 400 TO 3000. A cave on the south side of the hill has revealed evidence of communal Neolithic burial ground.”

Simcock goes on to say that: “Boudicca, the Queen of the Iceni, is often associated in legend with this area, and one writer connects the neighbourhood of the Gop with the battle fought between Sustonious Paulinus and Boudicca in AD 61. Generations of writers have also speculated where the great battle was fought, and where such immense slaughter and carnage was committed; also the site of Boudicca’s grave. The Queen’s restless ghost is often summoned up to reinforce the claims of many sites in England too. These stories may or may not be true, but it is not known where or when. Yet as one strolls high on this tumulus crest, it is not difficult picture this warrior Queen hurtling into battle, as so ably portrayed in the massive Victorian statue on the Thames embankment.”

From Howard Williams website: Archeodeath)

Author Christopher Houlder (1978) says of The Gop Cairn: “This is surely the most imposing mound in Wales, though its apparent size is partly due to its position. The overall height of 12 m and the maximum diameter of 100 m no doubt conceal a natural core formed by the hilltop. A vertical shaft in 1886 and two galleries failed to reveal any central features, disclosing only a few animal bones. The Gop Cairn’s size invites comparison with the Boyne chambered tombs, but it may be in reality the most important of the many Bronze Age burial mounds of the region, indicating wealth or status such as might accrue from participation in the metal trade with Ireland along the north coast.” 

Houlder adds that: “A startling example of such wealth came to light in 1815 in a small quarry at Bryn Sion (SJ 135 719), though it took the keen eye of a gipsy to recognize its value. Used for a while as a gate fastening, it proved in the end to be a gold torc, a twisted rectangular bar of metal bent into a hoop.”

Chris Barber writing in 1987 says of the Gop Hill cairn and nearby cave that: “Professor Boyd Dawkins carried out excavations here in 1886. He sank a central shaft right down to the bedrock, but his efforts were not rewarded with any significant finds. However, further down the hill below this cairn, he excavated a cave and discovered a small sealed chamber cut into the limestone. Inside were fourteen skeletons in crouched positions, with their arms and legs drawn together and folded. Of particular interest is the fact that the shape of their skulls showed two different periods of man, thought to be Neolithic and Early Bronze Age. Fragments of crude pottery and flint tools were also found here.”

Also, Barber (1987) adds more information regarding Gop Carn. He says: “Here is the largest carn [cairn] in Wales. It is 300 feet by 200 feet and 36 feet high. The hill on which it stands is known as Bryn-y-Saethau – The Hill of the Arrows. Many flint arrowheads have been found on its slopes and the massive carn is claimed to be the grave of Boudicca (otherwise known as Boadicea, the warrior Queen of the Iceni tribe in the first century AD). It is also said to be the grave of a Roman general. In 1938 a local man was walking from Dyserth to Trelogan when he saw a field full of Roman soldiers, and on Gop Hill he saw the ghost of the Roman general on a white horse with a sword in his hand. A cloud passed over the moon and the apparition vanished.”

Sources and related websites:- 

The two photos (above) are from Prof. Howard M. R. Williams website ‘Archeodeath’ and are displayed here under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. https://howardwilliamsblog.wordpress.com/2015/11/14/the-largest-ancient-mound-in-wales-the-gop-cairn/

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

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

Houlder, Christopher, Wales: An Archaeological Guide, Faber And Faber, London, 1978.

Simcock, Richard V., North Clwyd At Random, Countryside Publications Limited, Brinscall, Chorley, Lancashire, 1986. 

http://www.coflein.gov.uk/en/site/306725/details/gop-cairn-y-gop-gop-hill-cairn

https://www.peoplescollection.wales/items/417521

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Gop

© Ray Spencer, The Journal Of Antiquities, 2017.


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The Blowing Stone, Kingstone Lisle, Berkshire (Oxfordshire)

Blowing Stone at Kingstone Lisle, Berks.

   OS Grid Reference: SU 32408 87078. A strange and curious stone standing inside a fenced-off area next to a row of quaint cottages on Blowingstone Hill, at Kingstone Lisle, formerly in Berkshire, now Oxfordshire, is the so-called ‘Blowing Stone’, a squat-shaped lump of ancient rock with deep holes in it that is ‘said’ to have originated on White Horse Hill nearby, when it was a perforated sarsen stone. It has a number of myths and legends attributed to it from the time that it was known as the King Stone; the village taking its name from this. The stone also figures in a well-known book that was read by many-a school-boy. This apparent ‘curiosity of geology’ is located just to the south of the village itself and the B4507 road, between the towns of Swinden and Wantage. Kingstone Lisle Park is over the road on the opposite side of the lane from where the stone is now a resident ancient monument, though it used to stand in the garden of the cottage close by, which used to be the village inn!

   The Blowing Stone, also known as King Stone, is in fact a sarsen stone that was originally to be found upon White Horse Hill, 3 miles to the southwest, but was moved to its present location in the mid-18th century. It is curious lump of stone with many geologically-formed perforations, maybe the result of fossilized plants or ancient tree branches falling out of the stone leaving holes; some quite large holes or perforations that go all the way through from one side to the other. But it is not a particularly large stone being just 3 feet in height and about the same in width.

   The stone featured in the famous novel of 1857, ‘Tom Brown’s School Days’ by Thomas Hughes (1822-1896) – when it was referred to as the ‘Blawing Stwun’. Local legend has it that by sounding a note through the largest hole, or by blowing and bellowing through the holes, the sound made by doing this is audible as an echo up to 3 miles away – and that King Alfred the Great summoned his Saxon army into battle against the Danes at nearby Ashdown by doing just that, in the form of a trumpet call! It is also claimed that anyone sounding a high-pitched note through the Blowing Stone (that can be heard on White Horse Hill to the southwest), will be, or would be, a future king of England, or so The Legend tells us. Something similar, perhaps, to the legend of King Arthur, although he supposedly pulled a sword out of a rock. 

Sources of information and related websites:-

Reader’s Digest, Folklore Myths and Legends of Britain, Second Edition, The Reader’s Digest Association Limited, 1977.

The AA, The Illustrated Road Book Of England & Wales, The Automobile Association, London, 1961.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blowing_Stone

http://www.berkshirehistory.com/archaeology/blowing_stone.html

http://www.kingstonlisle.net/the-blowing-stone/

http://www.megalithic.co.uk/article.php?sid=6963

                                                                                   © Ray Spencer, The Journal Of Antiquities, 2017.


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The Bridestones, Near Todmorden, West Yorkshire

Bride Stones, west Yorks (Sphinx- like formation).

Bride Stones, west Yorks (Sphinx- like formation).

Bridestones, near Todmorden, west Yorks (OS trig point no: S4501)

Bridestones, near Todmorden, west Yorks (OS trig point no: S4501)

    OS grid reference: SD 9334 26750. Close to the Long Causeway and just east of Todmorden, West Yorkshire, are the Bridestones, outcrops of millstone grit rocks and boulders which are ½ a mile long. Amongst these rocky outcrops are a number of odd-shaped formations that have been caused by weather-related erosion over thousands, if not millions of years.  One huge boulder in particular, known as ‘The Great Bridestone’ is fantastically shaped at its base, looking like an up-turned bottle, as if it might topple over at any moment. There are a number of myths and legends associated with The Bridestones, many of these going back to the mists of time. More recently, perhaps, there are a number of local traditions that have become connected to the place and its many, strange-shaped rocks and boulders. The Bridestones are located about ½ a mile north-east of Eastwood Road – where a footpath runs across the often boggy moor to the outcrops. Another path connects the north-side of the outcrops from Kebs Road, and from just opposite Orchan House Farm at Fast Ends – it runs in a southerly direction across Bridestones Moor.

Bridestones (human face rock formation).

Bridestones (human face rock formation).

Bridestones, west Yorkshire (the anvil-shaped rock)

Bridestones, west Yorkshire (the anvil-shaped rock)

    At over 1,400 feet above sea-level the Bride-stones on the windswept moors to the east of Todmorden and the Calder Valley, there is a ½ mile long escarpment of Millstone Grit outcrops that stand like rocky sentinels keeping watch over the Pennine moorland. These rock forma-tions have been made by the ‘ravages of time’ – wind and rain over thousands of years weathering away the soft grit-stone into strange and curious shapes, and there are indeed some strange-shaped rocks – some looking like human heads and faces (the sphinx), while others look like prehistoric birds, a giant tortoise, and a bear, and there’s even a huge anvil-shaped rock.

Bridestones, west Yorkshire (the rock-house).

Bridestones, west Yorkshire (the rock-house).

Bridestones, (a "possible" cup-marked rock).

Bridestones, (a “possible” cup-marked rock).

    There is even a ‘rock-house’ at Fast Ends above Bridestones Farm at (OS grid ref: SD 9277 2690). Local legend says that Nan Moor and Jack Stone lived at the rock-house a few hundred years ago as ‘guardians of the stones’, and they were proba-bly married there, too. They are said to have lived in a wooden structure or homestead that was connected between the two large rocks; one of the oblong-shaped rocks having square-shaped openings in its side, which must have taken a great deal of time to carve out. This wooden structure was dismantled in recent times. Just above the rock-house there are some large, flat rocks which look to have ancient cup-marks but there are also larger, circular depressions that are naturally-formed by rainwater – although it’s sometimes difficult to tell which are natural and which are man-made! And there are many interesting rock basins to be seen.

Great Bride Stone stands like an up-turned bottle.

Great Bride Stone stands like an up-turned bottle.

Great Bride Stone (from a different sideways angle).

Great Bride Stone (from a different sideways angle).

    The name ‘Bridestones’ might be derived from Bridia, Brighid, or Briga, the pre-Roman (Iron Age) diety who is more often known from history as ‘Brigantia’, goddess of the Brigantes tribe of northern England – just prior to, and up to, the Roman Conquest. Or they “might” perhaps take their name from bride as in ‘bride and groom’ at a wedding ceremony, which harks back to times, long ago, when weddings supposedly took place on the moor where the outcrops of rocks now known as ‘Bridestones’ are located. Indeed there is a 15 foot high oval-shaped, weathered rock called ‘Great Bride Stone’ and beside it a smaller rounded rock called ‘the groom stone’. But undoubtedly the Bridestones was a sacred, magical place, and no-doubt a few thousand years ago it was the abode of druids who worshipped heathen gods and also officiated in ritualistic and sacrificial ceremonies, but aside from that they were also poets, historians, magicians, physicians and astronomers.

    Local author John Billingsley in his work ‘Folk Tales from Calderdale’ – Volume 1, says that: “The Bridestones are first mentioned in local documents in 1491, and Smith in his ‘Place-names of the West Riding’ does not quibble with the derivation from ‘bryd’, a bride….. John Stansfeld, however, in 1885, suggested that Danish ‘bred’ and Icelandic ‘bryddr’ married well with Gaelic ‘braidh’ and modern ‘bride’ in meaning ‘edge of the top of the hill’; whether today’s etymologists feel this explanation is defensible or not, the descriptive does fit this location rather well.”

    Billingsley goes on to point out that: “Taylor [Ian Taylor, 1993], has suggested an identification of Bride with ‘the Old Wife’ or Gaelic Cailleach, a traditional spiritual denizen of wild places more usually associated with the Irish goddess Danu; a local appearance of this hag figure may well be the Old Woman.

    “The Bride has also been locally known as the Bottle Neck. Other rocks have been given names, too, arising from one perception or another. Modern climbers have named rocks themselves, like the Indian’s Head and Spy Hole Pinnacle, as well as giving equally vivid names, like the Obscene Cleft, to specific routes. F.A Leyland cites names known in the nineteenth century, like Table Rock and Toad Rock.

    “John Watson knew of the Bride and Groom in 1789, but does not give details of the legend, other than saying the Groom had been “thrown down by the country people”. In keeping with the spirit of the time, however, he saw the rocks as the natural haunt of “a large settlement” of Druids – “a vast variety of rocks and stones so scattered about the common, that at first view the whole looked something like a temple of the serpentine kind”.

    And another local author, Geoff Boswell, in his book ‘On The Tops – around Todmorden’, says: “We know that the early Britons lived in Todmorden. We have the exhibition of objects dug from the bronze age barrow in the library. Perhaps the name Bride is very old and derives from the early British Breiad, the Gaelic Braidh, the Icelandic Bryddir and the Danish Bred. All of which have similar meanings of “the edge , or margin, at the top of a mountain”. It is a sobering thought that the names  of our prominent rocks can derive from very early times and are far older than any written records we have.”

    Author Paul Bennett in his work ‘The Old Stones of Elmet’, says of the Bridestones that it is: “A beautiful, remarkable and powerful site of obvious veneration. First described in local deeds as early as 1491, there are a great number of severely weathered boulders all round, many like frozen giants haunting a magickal landscape.

    “Dedicated to Bride, goddess of the Brigantine people, like her triple-aspect we find a triple-aspect to the outcrops here: to the west are the Bride Stones; to the east, the Little Bride Stones; with the Great Bride Stones as the central group, surveying everything around here. The goddess’ divine qualities were those of healing, smithcraft, poetry, and mother-hood. There is no attendant lore here that relates to any of these elements.

    “Although local history records are silent over the ritual nature of these outcrops, tradition and folklore tell them as a place of pagan worship. People were said to have married here, although whether such lore evolved from a misrepre-sentation of the title, Bride, is unsure. In the present day though there have been a number of people who have married here in recent years.

    “If the Brigantian goddess was venerated here, the date of the most active festivities would have been February 1-2, or Old Wive’s Feast day as it was known in the north.”

Sources and related websites:-

Bennett, Paul, The Old Stones of Elmet, Capall Bann Publishing, Milverton, Somerset, 2001.

Billingsley, John, Folk Tales From Calderdale, Volume 1, Northern Earth, Mytholmroyd, Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire, 2008.

Boswell, Geoff, On The Tops – around Todmorden, (Revised Edition), Delta G, Hollinroyd Farm, Todmorden, 1988.

http://www.hebdenbridgehistory.org.uk/folklore/bridestones.html

https://megalithix.wordpress.com/2011/03/10/great-bride-stones/

http://www.mypennines.co.uk/south-pennines/walks/301113.html#sthash.AKhGBLJg.dpbs

                                            © Ray Spencer, The Journal Of Antiquities.


Les Causeurs Menhirs, I’le de Sein, Finistere, (Bretagne) Brittany

Les Causeurs Menhirs (photo credit: portalix - Wikimedia).

Les Causeurs(photo credit: portalix – Wikimedia).

    Latitude: 48.038149. Longitude: 4.851246. On a grassy mound at the south-west side of St Guénolé’s church on the I’le de Sein (Sein Island) – five miles off the Finistere coast at Pointe du Raz (Bretagne), Brittany, are two tall granite standing stones (menhirs) that are said to date from the Neolithic. These two standing stones may originally have been part of a stone circle. There are a number of myths and legends associated with these menhirs, and also the surrounding area in which they stand. The island, known as Enez Sun in Breton, is also steeped in pre-Christian myths and legends associated with druidic ritual. The standing stones can be seen on a low, grassy mound at the south-western side of St Guénolé’s Church (Eglise Saint-Guénolé) on the Place Francois-Le-Sud – just to the west of Port du Men-Briel.

    The two menhirs (long stones) are also known in the Breton language as Ar Brigourien – the Talkers, and Ar Fistillerian – the Orators or Gossipers, and sometimes Ar Predicateurs – the preachers. The smaller stone seems to lean toward the taller one – hence the name “The Talkers”. They stand on a low grassy mound which long ago may have supported a circle of standing stones – these two are all that remain of that, but where the other stones went to is not known. Or maybe they originally formed part of a stone row or sacred way. It is thought they were erected here in the Neolithic period of prehistory (6,000-2,500 BC). Les Causeurs menhirs stand respectively at 2.8m (9 ft 3′) and 2.3m (7 ft 6′) in height. The church of Saint Guenole (alias St Winwaloe) was obviously built close to the stones to Christianise what was, long ago in the island’s dark past, a pagan ritualistic site associated with the druids and, mysterious pagan priestesses called “The Senes” – the island taking its name from them

    The Breton author Henri Queffelec in his work ‘Un Recteur De L’ile De Sein’, tells us more about the island’s dark past. He says that: “In early times, the île de Sein was thought to be the haunt of supernatural beings. In the first recorded mention of the island in 43 A.D., in the work of the Roman geographer, Pomponius Mela, we are told that the Insula Sena possessed an oracle which was served by nine vestal virgins who had the capacity to control the elements and cure the apparently incurable. This tradition is later exploited by Chateaubriand in book IX of Les Martyrs (1809) in his description of the sacrificial activities of the Celtic druidess Velleda some of which take place on the “île de Sayne, île venerable et sacrée”. In the Middle Ages, the île de Sein is caught up in the Arthurian legends and according to some storytellers, is the birthplace of two of the most accom-plished magicians, the wizard Merlin, and Morgan La Fée.”

    Queffelec goes on to inform us about the legendary ville d’ Ys, which was the kingdom of King Gradlon: “the ville d’ Ys, according to legend, was once the kingdom of King Gradlon in the sixth century A.D. situated somewhere between the Point du Raz and the île de Sein, and protected from the sea  by a system of dykes. King Gradlon’s daughter, Dahut or Ahès, was captivated by the charms of a handsome young man who was really the devil in disguise; as a proof of her love for him, he ordered her to get the keys of the dykes from Gradlon, her father. Once in possession of the keys, the devil opened the dykes and the town of Ys was submerged for ever. Gradlon managed to escape and went to Quimper where his statue can be seen on the cathedral; Ahès was changed into a siren, the Marie Morgane who lures unsuspecting sailors to their end. The story of the submerging of the ville d’ Ys is related by Queffelec in his novel, Tempête sur la ville d’ Ys, published in 1962.”

    The Insight Guide ‘Brittany’, says of: “the fabled, drowned city of Is, [it was] the legendary capital of the kingdom of Cornouaille (echoes of Cornwall here).” It goes on to say that: I’le de Sein was the: “last refuge for the druids in Brittany.”

Sources and related websites:-

Insight Guide, Brittany, (First Edition), APA Publications (HK) Ltd., 1994.

Queffelec, Henri, Un Recteur De L’ile De Sein, George G. Harrap & Co. Ltd., London, 1972.

https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Les_Causeurs                                                                                                                                      (Photo displayed under the Licence Creative Commons 3.0).

http://www.megalithic.co.uk/article.php?sid=8863

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winwaloe

http://www.lafermedekerscuntec.fr/peninsulas-islands-brittany.htm

http://www.brittanytourism.com/discover-our-destinations/quimper-cornouaille/unmissable-sites/sein

The Ile de Sein

 


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Robin Hood’s Stone, Near Riddlesden, West Yorkshire

Robin Hood's Stone at Holden Gate, near East Riddlesden.

Robin Hood’s Stone at Holden Gate, near  Riddlesden.

    OS grid reference SE 0620 4446. A large pointed stone shaped like the head of a dinosaur, or maybe a dragon, stands below a rocky outcrop on Pinfold Hill, close to Holden Lane at Holden Gate, near Riddlesden, West Yorkshire. It is locally called ‘Robin Hood’s Stone’ but whether the legendary outlaw of Sherwood Forest ever visited it we don’t know, although there is also a Robin Hood’s Wood about ¼ a mile to the north-east of the stone. To make the stone look more interesting some bright-spark has painted eyes and teeth on it! It can be reached by travelling north along Holden Lane to the north-west of Riddlesden, and is about 450m further along the road from Holden Gate, and just after the footpath on the right. You can’t really miss it!

Robin Hood's Stone (with possible cup-marks).

Robin Hood’s Stone (with possible cup-marks).

    A curious stone this is mainly because of its strange shape. It looks as if it has, at some point, slid down the hillside from the rocky outcrop above on Pinfold Hill, when there was a perhaps a Geological earth movement here. Or could it be a glacial erratic boulder? But it doesn’t look like an erratic boulder to me because it seems to be very well embedded into the ground. It stands at a crazy, precarious angle and because of that it looks as if it could slither down the hillside at any moment! The large pointed stone has taken on the look of a dinosaur’s head, or could it be a dragon’s head, or a bird’s head! Some bright-spark has painted eyes and teeth on the stone to make it look like that maybe. On the flat, sloping side of the stone there are some “possible” prehistoric cup-marks, or were a few of these round holes made by climbers who often practice on the rock?

Robin Hood's Stone (looking up at the stone).

Robin Hood’s Stone (looking up at the stone).

    Legend says that Robin Hood the outlaw of Sherwood Forest came here and took shelter beneath the stone; well he wouldn’t have had too far to travel from Kirkless, near Leeds. And Robin was maybe born in Wakefield! And just up the hill to the north-east of the stone we have a Robin Hood Wood. Paul Bennett of ‘The Northern Antiquarian’ has suggested that the stone was moved here in the Victorian period from near Barden Tower (Bolton Abbey way), and he goes on to say that Robin Hood’s Stone was once nearly broken up and taken away for building material – had it not been for local people who objected to its removal. He also thinks the stone “was” a meeting place at the pagan festival of Beltane (1st May). Check out TNA website (below).

Sources and related websites:-

https://megalithix.wordpress.com/2009/06/14/robin-hoods-stone-riddlesden/

http://www.bbc.co.uk/bradford/content/articles/2006/09/20/robin_hood_wakefield_feature.shtml


St Chad’s Church, Rochdale, Greater Manchester

St Chad's Church at Rochdale, Greater Manchester.

St Chad’s Church at Rochdale, Greater Manchester.

    OS grid reference: SD 8964 1313. St Chad’s parish church stands upon a lofty ridge overlooking the River Roch and the town of Rochdale, Greater Manchester. The church is a very imposing edifice standing high above the equally imposing Victorian town-hall and its famous clock tower. There was a church here in either the late Saxon period, or more likely just after the Norman conquest – the mid 11th to early 12th centuries – although that is open to question. There is a well-known legend that says there were problems with the siting of the first church which was being built on lower ground on the other side of the river, and that it had to be re-sited to the higher position that we see it today. The church can be reached from opposite the Town Hall carpark and by climbing the steep 124 steps up to Sparrow Hill.

    Author Dennis Ball in his interesting book ‘Lancashire Pastimes’, says that: “A Saxon thane, Gamel, Lord of Rochdale, decided to build a church to St Chad on the banks of the river Roche. The foundations were dug and all the materials taken to the site. All the materials mysteriously disappeared and reappeared at the summit of the steep hill on the opposite side of the river. Gamel was very annoyed and blamed his workmen. He made them take all the materials back to the original site. This took the whole of the next day. That night they were again moved back to the top of the hill. But this time the culprits were seen by some of the workmen. They were goblins.”

    Another, more lengthier interpretation of the legend, from the 19th century is given by J. Harland & T. T. Wilkinson in ‘Lancashire Legends’, which is published in ‘The Secret Country’ by Janet & Colin Bord. They say: “Towards the close of the reign of William the Conqueror, Gamel, the Saxon thane, Lord of Recedham or Rochdale, being left in the quiet possession of his lands and privileges, was ‘minded, for the fear of God and the salvation of his immortal soul, to build a chapel unto St Chadde’, nigh to the banks of the Rache or Roach. According to Mr Roby, in his ‘Traditions’, a place was set apart on the north bank of the river, in a low and sheltered spot now called ‘The Newgate’. Piles of timber and huge stones were gathered in profusion; the foundations were laid; stakes having been driven, and several courses of rubble stone  laid ready to receive the grouting or cement. In one night, the whole mass was conveyed, without the loss of a single stone, to the summit of a steep hill on the opposite bank, and apparently without any visible signs of the mode of removal. The Saxon thane was greatly incensed at what he supposed to be a trick of some of his own vassals, and threatened punishment; to obviate which, a number of the villeins and bordarii with great difficulty and labour con-veyed the building materials back to the site for the church; but again were they all removed in the night to the top of the hill. Gamel having learned the truth, sought counsel from Holy Church, and it was thereon resolved that the chapel should be built on the hill-top, as the unknown persons would not permit it to be erected on the site originally selected. This explains the chapel or church of St Chadde, still standing on a hill so high that one hundred and twenty-four steps were cut to accomplish the ascent, and enable the good people to go to prayers.”

Statue of St Chad on Rochdale Parish church.

St Chad’s statue, Rochdale Parish church.

    St Chad to whom Rochdale parish church is dedicated was a 7th century northern churchman who became abbot of Lastingham in Yorkshire, and for a while he was bishop of York until St Wilfrid returned from France. Later, he was made bishop of the Mercians at Lichfield. He died in 672 AD and his feast-day is held on 2nd March (Colin Waters ‘A Dictionary Of Saints Days, Fasts, Feasts And Festivals’). The town of Chadderton near Rochdale is probably named after St Chad.

    There are no antiquities of great age within St Chad’s, although the Tudor pews are of some notable interest and parts of the church tower are ‘thought’ to date back to the late Saxon age, or more likely the early Norman period. The statue of St Chad high up on the outer south wall is particularly fine. The Lancashire poet John Collier (Tim Bobbin) 1708-86 is buried in the churchyard.

Sources:

Ball, Dennis, Lancashire Pastimes, Burnedge Press Limited, Royton, Greater Manchester, 1987.

Bord, Janet & Colin, The Secret Country, Granada Publishing Limited, St Albans, Herts, 1980.

The Automobile Association, The Illustrated Road Book Of England & Wales, London WC2, 1961.

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


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Wookey Hole Caves, Mendip Hills, Somerset

Wookey Hole Cave River Axe (photo credit: Pierre Terre (Wikipedia)

Wookey Hole Cave River Axe (photo credit: Pierre Terre (Wikipedia)

    OS grid reference: ST 5320 4796. The Somerset village of Wookey Hole, 1 mile west of Lower Milton, at the southern side of the Mendip Hills has become famous for its deep caves which have, over the past two-hundred years, yielded up many archaeological finds from prehistoric times, but  the caves here at Wookey have been a tourist attraction from as far back as the 15th century. It is here that the River Axe emerges from beneath the caves and then flows southwards towards Haybridge. An interesting Wookey Hole Caves Museum is located at the site.

    Twenty-five underground chambers have been discovered by archaeologists and cave explorers, the most famous having names such as: ‘the kitchen’, ‘the Parlour’, ‘the Oast Office’ and the Great Cave itself, which has the eerie, calcified figure of a woman called ‘Witch of Wookey’, and in the entrance an image of a man called ‘the Porter’ – (Dunning, 1980). Adjoining the caves is a rock shelter called ‘Hyena Den’ and it is here that most of the finds from prehistoric times have been excavated, many artefacts in fact dating back ‘many’ thousands of years to the Palaeolithic Age. And above ‘Hyena Den’ there is yet another famous cave known as ‘the Badger Hole’, whose inhabitants were indeed “badgers”! 

    The caves of Wookey Hole are located just to the north of the village beyond a number of mills and workings from the industrial age, along a footpath up to the southern escarpment of the Mendip Hills and the ravine where the caves are to be found. The town of Shepton Mallet lies some 3 miles to the south-east and the city of Wells is just under 3 miles in the same direction.

    The first phase of archaeological excavations was carried out in 1859-74 by William Boyd Dawkins and, later continued by Herbert E. Balch between 1904-14; the work continued between the years 1938-54, then again 1946-9, and then 1954-57 and, more recently in 1972.

Wookey Hole Cave Entrance (illustration).

Wookey Hole Cave Entrance (illustration).

The limestone caves at Wookey Hole were occupied roughly between 250 BC and 450 AD, before that there would perhaps have been habitation by wild animals along with ‘some’ human company, but more likely the animal bones that have been found were simply thrown into the caverns, or placed inside as a form of ‘offering’, or brought inside by other wild animals. Hyena Den was very likely the home of local hermits, and others, up until more recent times – at least the Middle Ages. Archaeologists in the 19th and 20th centuries have excavated the “bones of lion, mammoth, bear, woolly rhinoceros, wild horse, dear, fox and hare, nearly all chewed by hyenas who occasionally had to share their home with Palaeolithic men, who left behind them some flint tools and broken marrow bones” (Dunning, 1980). From more recent times 250 BC-450 AD “pottery, weaving equipment, coins, part of a horse’s bridle, and evidence of   the use of coal and of storage of grain show how the caves were home to generations; but evidence of human sacrifice suggests not only an origin  for the Witch Legend but also points to the abrupt end of the Great Cave as a dwelling in the 4th century”, according to Robert Dunning, ‘Somerset & Avon’. But, says Dunning:-

“even all this evidence is small compared to the bones found in an adjoining rock shelter, called Hynena Den; bones of animals dating back to the Palaeolithic age, perhaps 5,0000 B.C.”

   The author Jacquetta Hawkes in her work ‘A Guide To The Prehistoric And Roman Monuments In England And Wales’, gives us a somewhat different but very informative view of Wookey Hole Caves. She says:-

“We are concerned with three caves in the ravine, all of them occupied by troglodytes though at very different periods. The first is the Hyaena Den, a small cave in the right-hand side of the ravine approached across a rustic bridge. The Hyena Den was first discovered in the middle of the nineteenth century and digging was begun there, almost in the year of the publication of the Origin of Species, under the direction of Sir William Boyd Dawkins, who was himself so much concerned in the struggle which led to recognition of the hitherto undreamt-of antiquity of man. It proved to contain vast masses of animal bones which had been lying there between twenty and a hundred thousand years. There in the heart of Somerset, Victorian gentlemen unearthed the remains of cave lion, cave and grizzly bears, mammoth, woolly rhinoceros, bison, Irish elk, and many other species including great numbers of hyaenas. These last unpleasant beasts had been responsible for dragging in many of the other species, either as prey or carrion: but not all of them, for the ashes of camp fires, burnt bones and implements of flint and chert told of the use of the cave by Old Stone Age hunters. Whether the human families had actually to expel the hyaenas before they could claim the shelter of the cave who shall say, but the place must have been foul and fetid enough with the rank smell of the dogs and their  putrifying mid-dens. On the other hand, any cave was welcome in glacial winters and at Wookey the water supply was excellent. Certainly hunting parties returned to  the place from time to time over a great span of years, though all within the last phase of the Old Stone Age when the glaciers having ground their way southward for the last time, alternately melted back during a slightly warmer spell or advanced again with the intensifying cold—the minor oscillations which preceded the end of the Ice Age.

“Wookey Hole itself is a high, narrow entrance just above the spot at which the Axe glides out from under the precipice at the head of the ravine. It is far more spacious than the other caves, with three open chambers hung with stalactites through which the Axe flows and widens to a lake. It is now flood-lit and makes a pretty spectacle for those who like such places. More caves stretch deep into the rock below the water, and divers have already discovered seven of them—dangerous exploration which has had its fatalities.

“Here in Wookey there was no Stone Age occupation, but the chambers made a home for Celtic Britons of the Late Iron Age, poor cousins of the villagers of Glastonbury and Meare. It remained the home of their descendants long after the Roman conquest. There is a tradition that in the Middle Ages Wookey Hole was the lair of a troublesome witch, and her body, turned to stone by an exorcizing monk, now stands in the cave as a large stalagmite. It seems not altogether impossible that this represents the vague memory of a tragedy which in fact overtook its British occupants. Excavators found that the outer part of the cave had been used as a stable for goats—it contained their dung, and charred stump of a tethering-post, a pot probably used for milking and the bones of two goats.”

    The author Robbert Dunning ‘Somerset & Avon’ goes on to tell us more about the recent industrial past of Wookey Hole and the surrounding area. He says:-

The industrial buildings at Wookey Hole may be something of a surprise; and their contents even more so. At least since the early 17th century the emergent Axe has been harnessed to make paper, and the present buildings were put up by Hodgkinson family from the mid 19th century. High-quality hand-made paper was made here until 1972, and the whole property was sold in 1973 to Madame Tussaud’s. Since that time there have been notable changes: part of the mill houses Lady Bangor’s famous collection of fairground objects, themselves made between 1870 and 1939, including organs, gallopers from roundabouts, cars from scenic railways, and many other pieces of now almost vanished culture, resplendent in the colours and detail that could hardly be studied when the fairground was at work at night, and often at high speed.

“Another part of the mill has become the working store-room and studio for Madame Tussaud’s exhibition. Heads, bodies and limbs of those whose fame has faded, and costumes and crowns, ready to take their place again in Baker Street, are there arranged neatly on shelves, together with the plaster negative moulds of those of current fame.

“Paper is again made on the premises by hand, bringing industry back to this remarkable site which offers such a range of the evidence of man’s activity in so small a compass ………..the flint tools in the Hyena Den are at least a comfort to ordinary mortals.”

    William Worcester, the highly acclaimed 15th century antiquarian, visited the Somerset caves and as usual had something to say about the place:-

“…….a certain narrow entry where to begin with is the image of a man called the Porter. One must ask leave from the Porter to enter the hall of Wookey, and the people carry with them ….. sheaves of reed sedge to light the hall. It is as big as Westminster Hall and stalactites hang from the vault which is wondrously arched over with stone……. the passage through which one enters the hall is about half a furlong in length ……. between the passage and the hall is a broad lake crossed by 500 stone steps …….. and if a man goes off the steps he falls into the water.”

Sources and websites used:-

Dunning, Robert., Somerset & Avon, John Bartholomew & Sons Limited, Edinburgh, Scotland, 1980.

Hawkes, Jacquetta., A Guide To The Prehistoric And Roman Monuments in England And Wales, (Published for Cardinal by Sphere Books Ltd., London, 1975.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wookey_Hole_Caves

Worcester, William., (ed. Harvey, J. H.) Itineraries (1969).