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Police are probing the destruction of a Pagan stone circle in Lampeter, South West Wales. The University of Lampeter is well-known for its theological courses and there is speculation that the attack could be religiously motivated.

The site is used as a meeting place for the 75 members of the university’s Pagan Society, whose members have said the damage is “heart-breaking”.  They have called for the vandals to be “caught and punished”….. but not , so far as we know, for them to be burned at the stake.

Which is surely game, set and match to the Pagans!

(See also our previous article, Pope warns against Paganism).

by Littlestone. Heritage Action.

One of two trapdoors with sarsens beneath them
Image credit Littlestone
 

Pulling in to a dead-end bit of road by Alton Priors church* (now closed off by a farm gate) I was about to head across the field towards the church when a herd of cows started ambling by with a few of their calves in tow; I held back behind the gate to let them pass (good thing too because the cows were being gently herded forward by a very handsome and very big black bull). Halfway across the field, and between the gate and the church, I passed someone coming in the opposite direction. The gentleman turned out to be the landowner and he told me, as we stood chatting in his field, that his family had farmed the area for more than a hundred years (and that the big black bull was really a bit of a softie).

I asked the gentleman if the church was open and he assured me that it was. I asked him if he knew anything about the sarsen stones under the church floor and he assured me they were there. We talked a little more and then he casually mentioned that I should also take a look at the 1,700 year-old yew tree in the churchyard and the spring that rose close by. I thanked him for his time and we parted.

The church was indeed open. Hot English summer without, cool sacredness within. Just your regular little country church. But where were the trapdoors leading to another sacredness? I ambled about the church for a bit then spotted a trapdoor that was partly boarded over and couldn’t be lifted.** Disappointed, I was about to leave when I spotted another trapdoor. Kneeling alone there in the silence, slowly pulling the clasp and watching as the trapdoor lifted to reveal a sarsen stone below was… mmm… more than a little magical.

I went outside and spent some time under the ancient yew tree in the churchyard – then tried to find the spring that the farmer had mentioned. I found the stream but everything else was too overgrown and the day too hot to look for more.

Alton Priors is a very, very special place. A little church built upon a sarsen circle set in the Vale of Pewsey. I’ve been to a lot of circles but none have had the sense of continuity that Alton Priors has. Go there and be at home (the church is open during the summer months; at other times the key can be obtained from one of the nearby houses).

* This feature first appeared on The Modern Antiquarian in November 2008.

** Since writing this the larger of the two trapdoors can now be lifted revealing a sarsen beneath. There is also a sarsen under the north-east buttress.

See also https://heritageaction.wordpress.com/2010/04/07/focus-on-st-peters-church-clyffe-pypard/? in our Christianised site series.

A guest article by Colin Coulson

St. Mary’s church at Lastingham, North Yorkshire, is remarkable on a number of counts. The crypt below – said to be the only complete crypt in Britain – was built by St. Stephen between 1078 and 1086. It contains decorated stone fragments which go back to the eighth century.

 

 

The first church here served the monastery founded by St. Cedd in 659, and it is from that early period that we find Lastingham’s greatest enigma. You see, it wasn’t easy to convert the English to Christianity. Pope Gregory the Great issued some very novel instructions in order to make it happen. “Do not destroy pagan temples, but convert them to Christian use so that the people will feel more comfortable coming there.” “If the people insist on sacrificing an animal, let them do it – just so long as they sacrifice it to God.” Both of these are to be found in a letter from Pope Gregory to Abbot Mellitus, who had come to England with St. Augustine. The letter is dated 601 and is quoted extensively in Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica. All sorts of ‘softeners’ were employed to make people more comfortable with Christianity. Pagan deities, such as Brigid, suddenly became Christian saints. Wells, probably the home of pagan water spirits, were maintained but re-named after prominent Christians – St. Helen’s Well, St. Hilda’s Well, and so on. Bede records that even the great Christian Spring festival bears the name of a pagan goddess, Eostre.

In Lastingham crypt, there is a door lintel said to be from St. Cedd’s monastery.

 

 

This lintel is made of oak. Now, what does that mean? Was it a Christian ‘softener’ for local pagan people? Or was oak used simply because it is a strong, durable building material? There’s no way of knowing. But then, at one corner, we find … an acorn! And that is much less ambiguous.

 

 

The Lastingham question doesn’t end there, however. There is neither cross nor any other Christian symbol on this lintel. So was it crafted by St. Cedd’s builders at all? Or is it from a pagan temple which Cedd converted to Christian use?

We’ll probably never know. St. Cedd died of plague here in 664 a.d., and is buried to the right of the crypt altar. Sadly, he took the story of the Lastingham lintel with him.

A guest feature by Resonox

Oxted in Surrey is a delightful little village. Yet St. Mary’s church, established long before the Norman invasion, whilst being part of the village now was once over half a mile from the old village centre.

Oxted means “Place of The Oaks” (Ac-stede), but the actual oak grove which the village was named for has long since vanished, perhaps it was originally on the mound where the church now stands? The site is said to have been a pre-christian burial mound, which explains why a church was built on it in 1040 AD, according to local folklore, but not why so far from the village centre. The mound is emphasised these days by having been made an island by a surrounding wall and path. 

There is a separate little mound (a tumulus?) to the south of the main door (north of the lych-gate), where now a yew tree, rumoured to be 600 years old, stands guard. Tucked neatly by the first buttress on the south wall are two slabs lying side by side with carved crosses on them, 

these grave covers were long thought to be memorials to two crusaders (Knights Templar), but have since been dated as late Anglo Saxon and compared with similar stones in situ in Titsey and Tandridge. To the west of Oxted is Barrow Green,

It has often been listed as a motte and bailey site, though no stones are available at all to support this, unlike the motte and bailey remains at nearby Bletchingley. There is however a raised rectangular area north of the mound which might lend provenance to the claim. 

The very name does insinuate that this large artificial hill is an ancient barrow, unfortunately it is fenced and inaccessible (I believe the present owner is Mr Al-Fayed of Harrods fame) so without permission to explore it remains an enigma.

Oddly enough an Oxtedian tells me as a child he was told that it was built as a Victorian viewing platform for Barrow Green Court gardens, a pretty if implausible idea as the house would be named after the area and not vice-versa.

Further west yet, in between Oxted and Godstone, there is a monument known as The Moot Stone indicating the meeting place  (moot is a Saxon word for meeting place) of the Saxon hundreds.

The area is also know as Undersnow which is a corruption of Hundreds Knowe in what is now considered to be the first Saxon “parliament”, where the lands were divided and allocated amongst the Saxon lords, this allocation is almost unchanged to the present day.

Unfortunately the A25 cuts through what would’ve been the mound where the wooden hall would have stood. Though there is a raised copse slightly south which in my opinion would be a likely canditate for the hall – if and only if, the stone was in the wrong place.

Anyone visiting the area would be advised to visit Godstone too, for behind the Hare & Hounds public house (a varied selection of beers and home-cooked foods available for the weary explorer) there is the Godstone tumulus, known affectionately by the locals as “The Grave”.

 It is a popular dog walking area so whilst it is easy to access, just mind your step as not all the dog walkers are as responsible as they ought to be in cleaning up after their pets!  There is another possible tumulus but as it is sited in someone’s garden so it is not readily available for photographing and /or investigating.

a guest feature by Littlestone.
 
It is a little known fact that some of our churches are built on what are probably pre-Christian ‘sacred’ sites; as such any pre-Christian remains still evident on these sites deserve to be recognised as part of our heritage and duly preserved and protected for posterity.
 
The Church of St Mary with St Leonard in Broomfield, Chelmsford, Essex stands on a little knoll a couple of miles from the town centre. It is one of only six churches in the county with a round tower – the reason for constructing round towers in Essex is that large stones are so scarce in the county that using small stones, set in mortar, was an economical way of building larger structures. The Essex RIGS Group on behalf of Essex ( http://www.essexwt.org.uk/Geology/sites2.htm ) has the following entry, “Chelmsford. At Chelmsford Museum a block of puddingstone stands next to the main entrance door.[*] Two sarsen stones can be seen in Broomfield by the church gate.”
 
Following a visit to Alphamstone, which also has sarsens by the church gate and built into its foundations, the mention of two sarsens by the gate of The Church of St Mary with St Leonard was enough to lure me out one afternoon to see for myself. Could there really be more sarsens in the stone-scarce county of Essex? After a couple of wrong turns I finally found the church and saw the two sarsens as I went past the church gate. Deciding to drive a little further I went down a lane and pulled up behind the church. Entering the churchyard from a gate on the west side I started walking clockwise around the church. Nothing to see in the foundations – nothing that is until I turned the south-east corner. There in the foundations of the south wall was this – 
 
 
 
Puddingstone in south wall of The Church of St Mary with St Leonard, Broomfield, Chelmsford
 
The stone (an amazing black puddingstone) has a similar ‘positioning’ to one of the stones protruding from the foundations at Pewsey Church in Wiltshire – it literally sticks out about two foot from the wall and is about six inches from ground level! I stood there gob-smacked for a while when the vicar happened to walk by. “Interesting stone” said I. The vicar nodded and said he thought it was either a way marker or of pagan origin. He then went on to tell me about Pope Gregory and his edicts concerning the assimilation of pagan practices into early Christianity. Although the church was locked, the vicar took me in (via the tradesman’s entrance as he put it) for a look inside. Some interesting items in there and well worth a visit. On the way out I picked up a copy of the church information pamphlet** which has this to say, “The original Norman church, possibly on the site of a wooden Saxon church was probably built on the incentive of the de Mandeville family of Broomfield Hall, almost a thousand years ago. The south wall of that original small church containing nave and chancel survives today. The windows were small lancets then and the chancel was shorter, as can be seen from Roman bricks that formed the original south east corner. Among the flint and Roman bricks of the South wall is a projecting puddingstone, or mass conglomerate. Some believe that such marker stones are an indication of a pre-Christian site.”
 

The pamphlet goes on to say, “The Roman tiles are a reminder of the story still related fifty years ago. The plan had originally been to build the church at the top of New Barn Lane, called Dragon’s Foot in the tithe maps, there is a depression, now somewhat ploughed out but still deep enough to be a dragon’s footprint. This was the site of a Roman building which still yields numerous hypocaust tiles and bricks, so the story is a delightfully muddled memory of the Saxons trundling cartloads of Roman bricks down to the Green on the orders of their new Norman masters to use as quoins since there were no local stone quarries.”

The Church of St Mary with St Leonard has all the hallmarks of a Christianised site. As at Alphamstone in Essex and Pewsey in Wiltshire it has an unusual stone protruding (and prominently visible) in its foundations. Across the lane from St Mary with St Leonard’s there is a pond (as there is at East Kennet church in Wiltshire). The pond is fed by both a stream and several springs – one of the houses (parts of which are medieval) opposite the church has a rivulet running under the paving stones in its cellar. I was told by the occupant of this house that the two sarsens in front of the church gate were originally in the stream that runs close to the church. The springs and stream, together with evidence of a Roman villa and the unusual black puddingstone in the church foundations, perhaps all indicate that the site was sacred and pre-dates both Christianity and the Roman occupation.

* See http://www.themodernantiquarian.com/img_fullsize/68397.jpg 

** The Church of St Mary with St Leonard by Ann Howard.

by Littlestone, Heritage Action

Sarsen under one of the south-facing butresses of the Church of St Peter, Clyffe Pypard
Image credit Littlestone

John Aubrey (1626-1697) visited Clyffe Pypard in, or around, 1660 – some twelve years after his visit to Avebury where he records being, “…wonderfully surprised at the site of these vast stones, of which I had never heard before, as also the mighty bank and graffe (grass) about it.” At Clyffe Pypard he describes the Church of St Peter as, “Here is a handsome Church, and have been very good windowes.”

While the tower, nave, aisles and porch of the Church of St Peter were built in the 15th century there remains some 14th century stonework in the south porch. Further study may show that the Norman church was built on the foundations of an earlier Saxon one and, as at other Christianised sites, the Saxon church may have been built on a pre-Christian structure. Six of the buttresses have sarsen stones under them, only one of which has been cut to the shape of the buttress. The other five sarsens, one of which is very large, are left protruding as they do under the buttresses of the Church of St James, Avebury; the Church of St Katherine and St Peter, Winterbourne Bassett and the Church of St John the Baptist, Pewsey.

The Church of St Peter is situated at the bottom of a steep escarpment and is set in a well-cared for graveyard surrounded by trees.* There is a distinct air of a ‘grove’ about the place which is reminiscent of the grove, and its disordered sarsens, by the river close to Pewsey Church. The leafy and sarsen-paved footpath that leads east past the church comes out on a secluded meadow with a magnificent tree at its centre. Nearby is a stream and lake. Nikolaus Pevsner, art and architectural historian and author of The Buildings of England, is buried with his wife at a place between the lake and the church – their grave is marked by a headstone of slate.

About a mile from Clyffe Pypard, towards Broad Town and close to Little Town Farmhouse, is the cottage which Pevsner used as a country retreat. The cottage was formerly the home of the poet and literary critic Geoffrey Grigson, whose friends included Paul Nash and John Piper. Nash and Piper between them produced numerous paintings of Avebury, West Kennet Long Barrow, Stonehenge and other megalithic structures.**

* The ‘Clyffe’ of Clyffe Pypard refers to the adjacent escarpment. ‘Pypard’ refers to Richard Pypard who was Lord of the Manor in 1231.

** http://www.colander.org/gallimaufry/Grigson.html Geoffrey Grigson’s 1960s guide to touring the countryside (The Shell Country Alphabet) has been republished (see http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/aug/08/shell-country-alphabet-geoffrey-grigson for a review).

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