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Before the days of English Heritage, Cadw and the like, many scheduled ancient monuments across the UK came under the remit and protection of ‘the man from the ministry’ – the Ministry of Works.
In an early version of today’s ubiquitous information boards, signs were erected at many sites, giving often very brief information, but warning that the site was under protection, and that any damage would be punishable by law. These signs were often made of long-lasting cast iron, and many can still be seen today around the country.
In a celebration of these old signs, Sue Greaney, an English Heritage Historian, has recently launched a new Facebook Group, the “Ministry of Works Signage Appreciation Society“, with a view to collecting as many photos of the surviving signs, and their latter day replacements as possible.
The group is open for anyone to join and contribute photos or reminicenses. We would encourage all those interested in the history of our ancient scheduled monuments to join in.
by Katharine Range
Castlerigg Stone Circle, near Keswick in Cumbria, is one of the most beautiful stone circles in Britain. It stands on a superb natural plateau commanding a panoramic 360 degree view over the surrounding fells. The slightly oval-shaped ring is among the earliest raised in Britain; about 3000 BC during the Neolithic period. To give a bit of context, this was slightly after the construction date of Newgrange in Ireland, thought to be about 3200 BC and about the same time as the earliest phase of Stonehenge; several hundred years prior to the structure we know today. Cumbria is rich in the stone circle department, having some 50 in number which range from the dramatic, large circles, such as Castlerigg at just over 32 metres, to the diminutive Castlehowe Scar at just 7 metres. There are 38 stones in a circle approximately 30 metres in diameter. Within the ring is a rectangle of a further 10 standing stones. The tallest stone is 2.3 metres high. They are all un-hewn boulders, although some have fallen in the 5000 years since they were raised. It has been estimated there were originally around 41 stones, so Castlerigg is relatively well preserved when compared with other circles in the British Isles.
Castlerigg Stone Circle was one of the first sites to be covered under the Ancient Monuments Protection Act in 1888 and in 1913 it was acquired by the National Trust through the efforts of Canon Rawnsley. The circle was first brought to public notice in 1725 by the antiquarian William Stukeley, who recorded that the circle was “very entire, consisting of 50 stones, some very large.” But in 1849, in his Guide To The Lakes, Jonathan Otley reported the current 38 stones. The original purpose of the site is unknown. It could have been used as a trading post. Three stone axes have been discovered inside the circle. In the Neolithic period axes were made from volcanic stone quarried in the fells. Current thinking has linked Castlerigg with the Neolithic Langdale Axe industry in the nearby Langdale fells: the circle may have been a meeting place where these axes were traded or exchanged. Ritually deposited stone axes have been found all over Britain, suggesting that their uses went far beyond their practical capabilities. Exchange or trading of stone axes may not have been possible without first taking part in a ritual or ceremony.
Other possible uses include a meeting place for tribal gatherings, a site for religious ceremonies and rituals or even an astronomical observatory. It is important to archaeo astronomers who have noted that the sunrise during the Autumn equinox appears over the top of Threlkeld Knott, a hill 3.5 km to the east. Some stones in the circle have been aligned with the midwinter sunrise and various lunar positions.
Excavations in the inner ring in 1882 provided very little in the way of archaeological finds, although quantities of charcoal were discovered. What subsequently happened to the samples of charcoal is unknown, other than they are now likely to be lost or, if not, too contaminated to be worth modern scientific analysis. Nevertheless, Dover’s excavation is the only one to have been carried out at Castlerigg. A wide space to the Northern end of the circle, framed by two large stones may have served as an entrance to the site. In the early 20th century, a single outlying stone was erected by a farmer approximately 90m to the south west of Castlerigg. This stone has many linear ‘scars’ along its side from being repeatedly struck by a plough, suggesting that it was once buried below the surface and also why the farmer dug it up. It is not possible to say whether this stone was originally part of the circle, or just a naturally deposited boulder.
There is a legend that it is impossible to count the stones of Castlerigg; that each attempt will result in a different answer. However as with most legends, there is a small kernel of truth here. Over the years, smaller stones have “appeared” next to the larger ones.This is due to erosion of the soil around the stones through time and visitation by we humans. These stones seem to be “packing” stones, used to support the large stones when the circle was erected and would have been buried originally.
Another story involves one well-documented sighting of a strange light phenomena. In 1919, a Mr. T. Singleton and a companion watched as white orbs travelled slowly over the stones. Strange lights are a recurring theme at many ancient sites all over the world and may well have been one of the reasons our ancestors built monuments in specific places. Although there is plenty of speculation, it is thought to be most probable that they are caused by natural processes related to fault lines.
It has been noted that many of the stones of Castlerigg seem to reflect features in the surrounding hills, as though the landscape site is an interplay between the sacred space and the landscape beyond. Although open to criticism, it seems as though there are many features at Castlerigg that still have to be examined in the context of how ancient man would have experienced the site.
I have to remind myself, somewhat enviously, that ancient man was so much more in tune and aware of what was around him in nature. Even though he could master it, he was still part of it. Today most of us have no concept of that, caught up as we are as to whether we remembered to “check in” on Facebook while visiting Starbucks or Castlerigg. When I visit somewhere as breathtaking as Castlerigg, I am humbled. And this for me, is the heart of why these sites should be protected and cared for as most precious.
We recently praised plans for a new Heritage Trail in Didcot. Well, its appears that we were too quick off the mark, and all is not quite what it seems when it comes to preserving Didcot’s heritage.
According to a report on the BBC web site, planning permission has been granted for a new road which will cut through the site of a Bronze Age pond barrow – one of the features to be included in the planned trail. A spokeperson for the developers Taylor Wimpey said that “archaeology has already been cleared from the area”, with no apparent understanding that the site itself may have significance whether the archaeology is removed or not – and how exactly do you ‘remove’ a pond barrow? Where has it been removed to? For ‘cleared’, should we read ‘destroyed’?
Local campaigner Karen Waggot pointed out the hypocrisy of the developers, stating “Just a few weeks after saying they support the history trail, developers are building over historic sites”. Campaigners and a local District Councillor are hoping that revised plans may be submitted by the developers, providing a green space to indicate the barrow’s l;ocation, but given that permission for the road has already been granted, it seems these hopes are somewhat slim.
Concerning the proposed Heritage Trail, Taylor Wimpey said “The artefacts and records from the site are now being analysed. When this process is completed a synopsis of the results will be displayed on an information board… which will form part of a history trail for the benefit of the whole community.”
Sadly, we doubt that a board which effectively says ‘look what we ripped up and took away!’ is going be of much benefit to future generations…
The latest in our A-Z series once again comes from Katherine Range, with our thanks.
Bleasdale Circle, located near the small village of Bleasdale in North Lancashire, is an early Bronze Age (2200-1700 B.C.) timber henge. It is, no doubt intentionally, located in the center of Edmarsh, a peat moss area which is situated between two headstreams of the River Brock. These streams in turn are situated at the feet of Fair Snape Fell to the northwest and Bleasdale Fell to the southwest. There is evidence of an early tribal community that lived and died here on the fells of Bleasdale as indicated by the recent discovery of other prehistoric sites nearby. And this is too precise a location not to indicate purposeful placement by the peoples that built the henge. Bleasdale is a name which is derived from the Old Norse for ‘blesa’ which means blaze or light spot, according to W.R.Mitchell in his book “Bowland and Pendle Hill”
Discovered in 1898 and extensively excavated in the 1930s, the henge site covers an area of about 50m by 40m enclosed by a penannular ditch which was lined with birch poles laid flat in the bottom. Inside is a smaller, inner circle about 17m by 20m. This was made up of 11 timber posts, the locations of which are now denoted by squat concrete posts. A causeway to the east was marked by further timbered posts and led to the edge of the larger, ditched enclosure. In the center of the henge is a small burial mound about 3 feet high at its center. Inside a small, stone-lined cist were found two highly decorated pottery urns of the Pennine type which would have held the ashes of the dead. One of the urns also had a smaller pottery cup inside of it. According to John and Philip Dixon in “Journeys Through Brigantia”, these urns could be among the oldest of this type found in Britain. The post circle and barrow seem to be of similar age, while the larger enclosure could be of a later date.
Looking east from the internal ring, we can see an alignment with a notch on the horizon. Folklore holds that this is where the mid-winter sun rises though no proof apparently exists at this current time. Within the larger enclosure, between the two circles, there is evidence of 3 or 4 small dwellings. At some stage though, these were destroyed by fire and have left virtually nothing except burnt patches in the soil. These would have been earthen structures likely of earth and dung. In my mind, this gives a lot of credence to the theory that ancestors’ dwellings were converted into ritual structures and revered by their descendants. It’s an intriguing thought that the ancestors would “live” among their clan through successive generations.
In the latest installment of our series looking at ancient monuments around the UK, Katherine (Cait) Range takes us to the wilds of the Peak District, Derbyshire, to look at the enigmatic site of Arbor Low.
Arbor Low, near Bakewell in Derbyshire, is often referred to as the “Stonehenge of the North”, and like that famous monument, Arbor Low has been a place of reverence for many generations. Situated on a hill with magnificent views over the Derbyshire countryside, the site cannot fail to impart some of the power and mysticism our ancestors must have felt when looking out from where we stand. And people looking up at the limestone ridge upon which the henge sits, couldn’t fail to be awed by the place of the gods, looking down on them.
Dating from the Neolithic/Bronze Age, the oval bank and ditch, with causewayed entrances at both the northwest and southeast, were constructed first, during the 3rd millennium B.C. The stones being added later, by about 2000 B.C. There are 46 large stones of locally quarried limestone, within the bank and ditch, along with 13 smaller stones arranged as a grouping in the middle (a feature called a “cove” and found only in major sacred sites). But the most striking and unexpected feature is that all of the stones are recumbent and there is no evidence to tell whether the site had been constructed with the stones laid flat or whether they had all been toppled at a later date. Archaeologists have not, as yet, found any evidence of post holes to provide a solid conclusion. One theory suggests that the stones were knocked down by early Christians, in order to drive out the sacred nature of the site. But there is no archaeological evidence whatsoever for this.
The Bronze Age long barrow of Gib Hill lays a mere 200 meters from Arbor Low. Gib Hill’s original construction was roughly contemporary with Arbor Low. It is thought to be a Neolithic oval barrow with an Early Bronze Age round barrow superimposed at one end, and was most likely the original worship focus, with the later, 1st phase of Arbor Low being the “new” ritual site for the surrounding community. There is some evidence that the 2 sites might have once been connected by an earthen bank. However, this may be a much later and more mundane field boundary. Around Arbor Low are dozens of barrows constructed in the Late Bronze age, about 1000 years after the Arbor Low circle. One of these was even built into the bank near the southeast entrance. It was excavated by Thomas Bateman in 1845 and found to contain several burials. Bateman also found a large burial cist at Gib Hill in 1848. In 1901-02, a human burial was found near the “cove” of stones in the middle of the henge.
To take a more mystical view, Arbor Low is purported to have many ley lines running through it. This is a nice, romantic thought but a line can be drawn between pretty much anything, depending on the angle. And while there may very well be fissures of energy around the site, the area is too dense with archaeological features and too many lines would be pure chance. This huge complex of burial and worship sites was in use for at least 1000 years. Clearly the successive generations saw and felt the power of their ancestors and their original choice of the site. To build these massive and magnificent structures, these had to be a people who lived with a great sense of community, co-operation, and spirituality.
For more information about Arbor Low, see the Arbor Low Environs Project website.
Check back soon for the next site in our A-Z.
The Welsh Government is holding a public consultation on whether the “ignorance defence” for damaging an ancient monument (saying the accused was unaware of its status or location) should be restricted.
Successful prosecutions are very rare. Between 2006 and 2012, Cadw received reports of 119 cases of unlawful damage to scheduled ancient monuments in Wales but there has only been one successful prosecution under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 in the last 25 years. That is surely a ridiculous state of affairs? Over the years hundreds of the most important sites have been damaged and only once has a culprit been punished! What do YOU think? Responses have been invited from any individuals or groups with an interest in the historic environment of Wales. You can submit your views here.
Of course, there are certain measures that could be taken to discourage heritage crime, certainly at the Nine Ladies. You’re welcome to suggest some of your own!
Welcome to our occasional series, looking through an A-Z of ancient sites in the UK. Some will be well-known, others much less so, but we hope that each site featured will show an aspect of our ancient heritage that inspires people to get out and visit.
Katherine (Cait) Range has once again provided us with an interesting article, this time looking at a well known site in Wiltshire, Adam’s Grave.
High up on the summit of Walker’s Hill, near the Wiltshire town of Alton Barnes, Old Adam, the sarsen stone, looks out upon the surrounding countryside of Pewsey Vale.
Old Adam and his companion sarsen, Little Eve, once flanked the entrance to the massive Neolithic chambered long barrow called Adam’s Grave. The chamber system inside, was most likely similar to that seen at West Kennet Long Barrow. And Adam’s Grave is also part of the greater prehistoric, ritual landscape surrounding the Avebury/Silbury/Windmill hill complex. Even in its collapsed state, it commands panoramic views and in turn can it be seen from miles around. The prominence of this barrow was surely to honor its occupants.
This long barrow is quite substantial in size being 60m long and 6m high. The ditches on either side are still 6m wide and .09m deep. At one end there appears to be a sarsen stone burial chamber in which, in 1860, were found 3 or 4 incomplete skeletons and a leaf-shaped arrowhead. There is evidence that originally, there was a retaining wall of sarsens and dry stone around the barrow.
Adam’s Grave is one of those places that feel like a “thin place” in the veil between our reality and the supernatural. It isn’t too difficult to imagine faeries, goblins and heroes in this beautiful place. As one would expect, there are several legends attached to the place. One such is that Adam’s Grave is thought to be the final resting place of a giant and if you dare to run seven times around this huge tumulus, then you will risk waking him. To date, no one has disturbed him and when one looks at the size if the place, it’s easy to see why.
There is an account also, of a Miss Cobern who, sometime in the mid-1960’s, had a very disturbing experience there. She states that she was walking back from the barrow to where she had parked her car. All of a sudden, she felt very anxious and uneasy. It was cold and cloudy and there was no other person there from what she could see. She began to hear the sound of many horses coming at a full gallop. So many that it seemed as if an army were near, but of course there was nothing, certainly no horses. Once she walked fully past the barrow, the sound of horses stopped abruptly. There are plenty of other accounts of the sound of galloping horses, animals taking fright for no apparent reason, ghostly shades, and many reports of baying hounds said to be the guardians of the barrow. True or not, the story does bring to mind the two very real battles that occurred in this place, both of which are recorded in the “Anglo-Saxon Chronicles”.
In the 6th century, the place was known as Wodnesbeorg, and in AD592 a battle was fought here. The Chronicle states “Her micel wælfill wæs æt Woddes beorge, 7 Ceawlin wæs ut adrifen. (There was great slaughter at Woden’s Hill, and Ceawlin was driven out).” Caewlin was king of Anglo-Saxon Wessex but in most versions of the Chronicle, the name of his opponent is not listed. It is assumed they were British. However, in one or two versions of the Chronicle, the opponent is listed as Coel. Could this be the “Old King Cole” of nursery rhyme? A romantic and intriguing thought.
The other battle fought here and recorded in the Chronicle, occurred in AD715. “Her Ine 7 Ceolred fuhton æt Woddes beorge. (There Ine and Ceolred fought at Woden’s Hill).” Ine was king of Anglo-Saxon Wessex and Ceolred was king of Anglo-Saxon Mercia. Several Anglo-Saxon battles took place near Adam’s Grave as the area was of strategic importance and is near to the passage of Wansdyke where the ancient Ridgeway interconnects. This passage was named “read geat” (red gate or gap), and the Saxons most likely considered it worth defending.
Adam’s Grave and the surrounding area contain enough history and legend to fill a book, never mind this small article. And as part of the greater Avebury/Silsbury ritual landscape, it has clearly been a place of mystery, reverence and legend to people, our ancestors, since before recorded history.
Many thanks once again to Katharine for an interesting and informative article. If you have a favourite site and you’d like to submit an article for this series, please contact us.
Welcome to the first in an occasional series, looking through an A-Z of ancient sites in the UK. Some will be well-known, others much less so, but we hope that each site featured will show an aspect of our ancient heritage that inspires people to get out and visit.
This first article has been submitted by a new contributor to the Heritage Journal, Katherine (Cait) Range. Katherine lives in Texas, USA but has frequently visited the UK to satisfy her passion for our heritage, of which prehistoric sites form a large part. We look forward to further articles from Katherine in the coming months.
Apron Full of Stones
This intriguingly named site is a large ring cairn, located on the eastern edge of Kingsdale Beck, east of Kirkby Lonsdale near Ingleton, in the Yorkshire Dales. (map link)
Excavated in 1972, the cairn was built within a single period, most likely Bronze Age (as suggested by a small collection of flints), and its kerb is formed of boulders. A cremation burial was found during the excavation but there were no grave goods in accompaniment. An interesting fact is that the stones are gritstone and sandstone which seems strange in an area that is largely limestone. One suggestion for this is that the stones represent glacial deposits which had been scattered over a wider area. Those stones were then gathered, possibly as a precursor to farming activity, and then used to construct the cairn. It has also been suggested that this is not a cairn at all but may be a small henge. This idea, however, has not been pursued beyond a suppostion.
The locals in times past tended to devise fantastic tales that would explain the reasons for the existence of many of these sites. And such is the case with this one. Legend has it that the Devil was collecting stones in his apron in order to build a bridge over the Lune at Kirkby Lonsdale when his apron string broke and the stones fell out on the edge of Kingsdale Beck. The tale goes on to tell that the Devil was building this bridge at the request of an old woman who wanted to cross the Lune to search for a stray cow. The Devil, not being one to do a good deed for nothing in return, had extracted the price to be the soul the first creature to cross the bridge (assuming it would be the old woman). But the old woman was as cunning as he and as she came along to the bridge the next day, she threw a bun across first and a dog leapt out in front of her to get it. The Devil was thus cheated of his payment of a soul.
1. “The Yorkshire Dales: South and West” by Dennis Kelsall and Jan Kelsall (Cicerone Press Limited, Feb 15, 2012)
Following on from our recent forays into the world of music, looking at pieces entitled ‘Stonehenge’, comes a timely piece from the BBC, concerning acoustic research by London’s Royal College of Art upon the stones in the Preseli Hills, the source of the Stonehenge bluestones.
With this study, thousands of stones along the Carn Menyn ridge were tested and a high proportion of them were found to “ring” when they were struck.
“The percentage of the rocks on the Carn Menyn ridge are ringing rocks, they ring just like a bell,” said Mr Devereux, the principal investigator on the Landscape and Perception Project.
“And there’s lots of different tones, you could play a tune. In fact, we have had percussionists who have played proper percussion pieces off the rocks.”
A musical instrument where stones are used as an acoustic device is known as a ‘lithophone‘, or sometimes as a ‘stone marimba’. Though we’re not entirely sure that something of the size of Stonehenge could quite qualify for that name!
And a brief message for all our Cornish readers: Gool Peran Lowen! Happy St Piran’s Day!
The English Heritage Commissioners have just joined the chorus of scepticism over the proposal to split up the organisation. They have said they can’t commit to supporting it until “unacceptable financial risk” is mitigated. The plan is for a one-off £85 million grant for a new organisation to both manage and improve the National Heritage Collection of more than 400 properties and then to become self-financing within eight years.
It is based on the Government’s projected figures of an 86% increase in membership and a 31% increase in visitor numbers. Nice growth if you can get it but clearly the Commissioners have doubts. They “welcomed the proposed model” (how polite!) but have warned that its success is “critically dependent” upon having “financial certainty” (or “enough money” as most people say!)
The Heritage Alliance have similar doubts: “Visitor figures are notoriously volatile as events such as the outbreak of foot and mouth disease have shown…..it would only take one or two significant events to derail this model” (like unprecedented bad weather and flooding for instance?). They also recommend the money is paid in one lump sum to avoid a change of heart by the Government! The National Trust has also suggested that after eight years when the money is gone the model may become “unsustainable”.