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‘They’ say that our past is all around us, if only we know where to look. Well, out on a Bank Holiday drive earlier this week, I wasn’t looking but stumbled over it anyway.

I knew that there were Roman remains in Harlow, Essex but Roman is not really something I personally search out, being more interested in the older stuff. However, heading home across Essex I spotted a small sign approaching a roundabout; “Ancient Roman Temple Site” and was intrigued, and with time enough to take a slight detour from my chosen path, took the turning. And I’m glad I did, because this small sign was a pointer to one of the most important sites in Essex – a large Roman temple built upon an earlier Celtic one, and an even earlier Bronze Age pond barrow!

The site is incongrously set within an industrial estate. Look on Google Maps satellite view, it’s the estate to the north of the town. There’s a small patch of green amongst the warehouse units, just north of the railway line. The markings look a little like a sports field, but that’s it!

Spot the Roman Temple! Image taken from and © Google Maps

The site is freely accessible on a small hillock raised from the surrounding ground, with the River Stort a short distance to the North (behind the industrial units). Despite the distant roar of traffic, the site was filled with birdsong during my visit, and exudes an air of peace and tranquillity – but then it was a Bank Holiday!

So what can be seen at the site today? Happily the information boards, although slightly water damaged are actually quite useful in visualising what was here. On the ground there’s very little, bar some paving slabs demarking the limits of the outer temple, a raised area showing the inner temple, and what look like a couple of concrete blocks marking the altar stone. Nothing remains of the earlier temple and barrow, but they are marked on the map on the information board, and imagination can fill in the gaps from there.

The temple site from the south. © AlanS

The following timeline is taken from the northern of two information boards that I saw at the site:

5000 BC Mesolithic Hunter Gatherer Encampment
2000 BC Bronze Age Pond Barrow
200 BC Celtic Temple built
AD 80 Roman Temple built
AD 200 Temple rebuilt
AD 375-400 Temple destroyed
AD 500 Saxon Temple built
AD 600 Site finally abandoned

So, with over 5500 years of use this has obviously been a significant site, and the name of the town, Harlow supposedly comes from the Saxon settlers who called it Hearg-Hlaw, or ‘Temple Hill’.

Roman remains were unearthed here in 1764, and the temple was investigated in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Larger scale excavations took place in the 1960’s and 1980’s and finds can apparently be seen in Harlow Museum.

So when you’re next out on a drive, keep an eye open for roadsigns pointing to historic sites, you never know what you might come across!

This henge and stone circle is entirely a reconstruction, improbably situated between a flooded gravel pit and a landfill site just south of the village of Stanton Harcourt to the west of Oxford. But this is far from a ‘Disney’ theme park site. The large circular enclosure is defined by a bank and internal ditch, which has entrances to the east and west. Within lies a circle of 28 local conglomerate stones, the Quoits, with one off-set on the south side.

The nearby village of Stanton Harcourt takes it’s name from the stone circle; Stan-tun, or “farmstead by the stones”. This nomenclature is also seen in other sites, such as Stanton Drew south of Bristol, and Stanton Moor in Derbyshire. The village became known as Stanton Harcourt after Robert de Harcourt of Bosworth, Leicestershire inherited lands of his father-in-law at Stanton in 1191. The manor has remained in the Harcourt family to the present day.

In the Second World War, the two remaining stones at that time were flattened (but recorded) as part of the construction of a wartime airfield, the henge and ditch having disappeared long before as the result of earlier agriculture. Thus the site had all but disappeared from the record with nothing remaining to be seen.

Excavations in the area first started in the 1980’s and have continued for over 3 decades, largely overseen by Oxford Archaeology. A report of findings has been produced, showing that the area has been in extensive use for habitation and ritual since at least the Neolithic, right through to the post Roman era.

With use of the site planned for gravel extraction, in 1996 Time Team recorded a dig here.  In Season 3 episode 2, recorded in April 1995, the team unearthed evidence of remains of mammoths and other prehistoric animals. The conclusion was that the site had been in use since at least the Mesolithic period.

In 1846, the stones at that time were described briefly in “The wanderings of a pen and pencil” by F. P. Palmer and Alfred Henry Forrester:

…we turned our steed to the village, and inquired of the first juvenile upon the road the whereabouts of the stones in the vicinity, usually called the “Devil’s Quoits.”
“It’s over the field,” said the smock-frocked urchin, pointing westward, in the direction of the stream. At our bidding, and with the understanding of a compensation, we wagged his pair of cumbrous heels by the side of our vehicle, and became our guide. The first rude stone lies in a field to the right of the field road, and is of no great size. the second is in another in a “land” further on. The third, and the tallest, beyond that, in another ground.
“Them be the devil’s kites!” said the guide; “a many year ago they carried a bigger than all on ’em away, to make a bridge somewhere.” We alighted, and deliberately inspected them. They are of the sandstone common to the country, veined with a deeper shade.

By 1856, Dicken’s Dictionary of the Thames counts only two of the stones, and gives a brief mention of their possible origin.

Some half-mile from Stanton Harcourt are two large stones called the “Devil’s Quoits”, which are said, on doubtful authority, to have been set up to commemorate a great battle fought in 614 between the Britons and the Saxons under that Cynegil who was subsequently baptized by Birinus at Dorchester.

Lewis’ Topographical Dictionary of England (1835) also mentions this same battle (and may well be source of the quote above), adding that more than 2000 Britons were killed in the battle.

The name of the “Devil’s Quoits” pertains to another legend, outlined in the book ‘Oxfordshire Folklore’, by Christine Bloxham (tempus 2005), it is said that the Devil was playing a game of quoits and was told off by God, because it was a Sunday and there was to be no recreation. In a petulant fit of anger the Devil threw the quoits as far as he could and where they landed became the site we now know.

A different legend suggests the same devil was playing a game of quoits with a beggar, which the beggar lost. The quoit remained to form the henge we see today. One of the stones was reported to have been removed for a bridge over the nearby Black Ditch. However, the stone kept slipping and would not remain in place, so was returned to the circle.

But what of the monument today? Completely reconstructed, some would now dismiss it as a fake. Certainly, the ground inside the henge is strewn with litter and bones (and the smell!) from the nearby landfill, and the makeup of the soil being largely uncompacted suggest that it’s a relatively new addition. True, rabbits (a largely Norman import) have devastated the banks of the ditch despite all efforts to control them. And yet, standing on the raised bank of the henge, looking across at the altered landscape, this site has a certain something evocative of the past.

Links:

We continue the story of Scubi’s ‘trip of a lifetime’ around the Scottish Highlands and islands, with details of his last day on Orkney…

This is my final full day on Orkney and I will be sorry to go. I thought today I would check out the main town of Kirkwall which I have not yet looked around but I would also round it up by a visit to one of Orkney’s iconic monuments.

Compared to the rest of the islands towns and villages, Orkney is a positive metropolis. It is the only place on the islands that I have got caught up in anything that could be called a traffic jam. Parking in the town can be difficult but I managed to find a space fairly central.

The high street is quite modest and as you would expect, normal shops interspersed with those targeting the tourists. Most are quite tame though and it was quite pleasant to walk up and down. I wanted to get a t-shirt or two and/or a nice ornament that would remind me of the place but I must admit to not buying anything. The t’s were either not to my taste or very clichéd and most of the really nice ornamental stuff was very much out of my price range. The craft shop I was hoping to visit near the harbour was unfortunately closed so I came away with nothing which was a bit of a shame.

Earl's Palace © C Brooks

Kirkwall has three main attractions, the Bishop and Earl’s Palaces and also the C12th St Magnus Cathedral which are all worth a good look around, although I just walked around the grounds. Set in a pleasantly kept cemetery, the cathedral with its reddy-brown brickwork looks a modern structure but at the same time there is an air of ancient times about it. It must certainly be the one of the biggest if not the biggest brick building on the islands. The palaces seem to consist mainly of ruins but have enough of their old structures to give you an idea of just how majestic they once were such as the great turrets and gateways. The walls in some places are many feet thick and the interlaced stonework construction reminded me of the many burial chambers I have visited on the island.

St Magnus © C Brooks

I may have said things like this aren’t always my cup of tea but I did get a number of nice photographs. Overall Kirkwall is a pleasing enough town with all that you could want without having been turned into some ghastly ‘kiss-me-quick’ seaside monstrosity. Also geographically it is fairly central to the island complex and is where the majority of the ferries can be accessed, but I think Finstown is more my sort of place with its quiet outlook and being within walking distances of many of the most interesting places (not that I actually walked to any of them).

Having stopped for lunch, it was time to visit my final ancient site on this trip to Orkney.

You have to pre-book at least a day or two in advance, places are limited and it is unlikely that should you just turn up on the spur of the moment that there would be any left. In the warmer months it is likely that you would need to book much earlier, possibly before you even travel.

Maes Howe has a pleasant little museum and sells the normal trinkets prior to your guided tour. I purchased an official Heritage Scotland booklet and was also given a small piece of paper showing similar burial sites in the area… all of which I had already visited on my trip.

The tour guide started the tour by saying photography is not permitted within the structure. But on being asked why (and knowing full well the real reason) they just said cards showing the interior were available to purchase in the shop, and (funny enough….or not!) therefore avoiding answering my question directly but at the same time explaining exactly why.

From the museum car park you need to negotiate the main road that separates the building from Maes Howe tomb. While you are advised about the road there is no proper crossing system (light controlled or otherwise) so if you are not very able bodied you may want to be a little careful here as some vehicles are obviously travelling quite fast.

Access to the mound is by a paved walkway and therefore normal footwear is suitable. The mound itself is surrounded by an impressive ditch but much less impressive wire fence.

If you look around from here you can see the Neolithic landscape all around you. Stenness, Brodgar, Barnhouse, and most certainly more hidden yet to be found. The importance of this area in Neolithic times cannot be doubted and this area is easily the same if not more important than Avebury or Stonehenge.

Maes Howe approach © C Brooks

You cross the ditch to the ‘side’ of the mound rather than directly towards the entrance. The lovely stone facade entrance is also surrounded by an ugly metal gated fence and yet another metal gate guards the passageway to the tomb itself.

Maes Howe entrance © C Brooks

This passageway aligns with midwinter sunset marking the end of dark months and the beginning of the new year and the sun can be seen to shine along the passageway directly into the inner chamber during this time.

Once you have negotiated all these you are advised of the need to keep your head down along the low passageway into the inner chamber and also again reminded that photography is not allowed inside.

A number of dim lights guide your way to the softly lit interior. Huge stone slabs are used along the passageway and must weigh many tons. A metal rail surrounds you in the centre, stopping you from going near the inner walls as you are herded into the middle. Like many of the chambers I have visited before, the roof rises up and in above you – this one forming a sort of cross above your head. This passage tomb is probably the largest I have been in on the islands. The upper part of the roof is painted with a distracting white to distinguish its modern renovation from the original structure. Personally I don’t think the whole of it needed painting as a simple line of marked stones would have done the same job and would not have the same detrimental effect. Huge buttresses, again made from giant slabs of stones, support the walls in the corners.

There are three large side chambers which I could probably lean into but unfortunately you couldn’t get near them to look inside.

The tour guide was quite young and obviously reasonably new to the role and the talk could have flowed a little better but this wasn’t to the detriment of what was being said which overall was very informative.

I was probably at an advantage in that I already knew a little about the mound and the surrounding area beforehand and probably a little more than the guide themselves.

A good description was given about the geographic source of the stones used to build the chamber, the tomb’s use and purpose but most statements were finished with the line “but we don’t really know” which made me smile to myself.

What struck me as the most interesting thing about this tomb are not just its size and structure but the number of ancient Norse runes carved on the stones. I believe these Futhark runes are a form of Ogham or at least they look something similar. They were carved in the 12th century, much later after the tomb’s construction. The runes are not all written in the same way and many have been encrypted by their authors. They provide a great deal of history about who and when the tomb was accessed during the time period and is very fascinating indeed.

I realise that Maes Howe is now in the money making business in a similar fashion to Stonehenge and that they need to preserve the monument for the future, but like Stonehenge it suffers that ‘look but don’t touch’ feel. And I guess this is necessary as leaving the mound open for free access to all would probably also leave it open to damage or even theft from the same. I had tried to contact the museum to see if they did a Stonehenge style ‘out of hours’ access programme but unless you were from a formal interested party then this wasn’t possible. This is a shame as I think it would be popular for people such as myself willing to pay extra for this facility and have a few minutes to absorb the feel of the place. The fact you are not allowed even to take photo’s inside is annoying as a few minutes to take a few personal pictures at the end of the tour would be harmless.

Maes Howe © C Brooks

I liked Maes Howe and its importance in the landscape can not be denied and for that fact alone it is a must see, but overall I can quite honestly say it is not the number one on my list… by a very long way.

After leaving I spent a little more time walking around Brodgar and Stenness for the last time taking in the atmosphere of the stones, the weather and the island itself before returning back to my cottage to pack for the rest of my tour.

For those wishing to catch up on the story of Scubi’s travels to date, a list of previous episodes is as follows:

  • Part 1 – Travelling
  • Part 2 – Clava Cairns
  • Part 3 – Banks Tomb
  • Part 4 – Tomb of the Eagles
  • Part 5– Crantit and Grain Souterrains, Rennibister Earth House etc
  • Part 6 – Stenness and Brodgar
  • Part 7a – Stenness and Brodgar
  • Part 7b – Skara Brae
  • Part 8 – Broch of Gurness and Cuween tomb
  • Part 9 – The Isle of Eday
  • Part 10 – Isle of Rousay

Herewith, the latest segment in the serialisation of Scubi’s trip of a lifetime to Scotland’s highlands and islands last year.

For those wishing to catch up on the story so far, a list of previous episodes is as follows:

  • Part 1 – Travelling
  • Part 2 – Clava Cairns
  • Part 3 – Banks Tomb
  • Part 4 – Tomb of the Eagles
  • Part 5– Crantit and Grain Souterrains, Rennibister Earth House etc
  • Part 6 – Stenness and Brodgar
  • Part 7a – Stenness and Brodgar
  • Part 7b – Skara Brae
  • Part 8 – Broch of Gurness and Cuween tomb
  • Part 9 – The Isle of Eday

and now, the story continues…

Today starts with yet another ferry trip this time to the much closer Isle of Rousay. This is just a short ferry ride from Tingwall harbour on the mainland which in turn was not that far from Finstown where I was renting my cottage.

After the previous days early start and late finish I was still feeling a little tired but nonetheless I set off early and was greeted with the water in Finstown bay perfectly still and like a mirror. Living in landlocked Wiltshire you don’t often get to see this sort of thing so I parked up to get a few shots of the blue-black water. I had the feeling this was going to be another lovely day in Orkney.

Finstown Bay © C Brooks

Arriving at Tingwall I parked up where I was told when I purchased the ticket and took a stroll around. The clarity of the water in this part of the world constantly amazes me so much so I could have donned my scuba kit and walked right into the sea there and then.

The ferry was arranged so that we had to drive on in reverse which was a little disconcerting but as it was quite small I took my seat on the open deck and we were away very quickly.

As we drifted along the very still water one of the deck hands pointed across to the Rousay coastline. There on the shore was a small group of seals basking in the ever warming sunshine. Just at that point my mobile started ringing… much to the displeasure of others on the deck. I hastily grabbed the phone from my pocket and answered it gruffly telling the person on the end I was busy. Unfortunately by the time I got back to the seals they were a distant image in my camera.

We arrived at the small ferry terminal on Rousay which lies in the Wyre Sound opposite the small island of Wyre. The ferry does stop on Wyre and other islands on its route so if you have time you could visit these also. Reversing onto the ferry meant that the drive off was so much easier and this time I knew where I was heading and it was probably less than a kilometre away.

I reversed into the small quarried out parking area which was actually about a minutes drive from leaving the ferry. You walk along a path up the hill for a very short distance before being directed to Taversoe Tuick. The cairn is surrounded by a wire fence and at first glance this cairn looks very similar to others I have seen so far on my trip. But a quick look at the information board revealed I would be in for a real treat… and I wasn’t to be disappointed.

Taversoe Tuick © C Brooks

For the want of a better description this cairn is a ‘double decker’ in that there are two main chambers one built upon the other. The information board says that these chambers were both part of the original structure and built at the same time but had independent entrances. One entrance is blocked off by a metal railing. There is also another third chamber a couple of metres away from the main mound and accessed by a rather heavy wooden door on the ground. This itself has a sort of vertically split entrance but both lead into the same single chamber. The chamber itself is quite small about 1.5m square with a number of upright stone pillars infilled with small flat stones very similar in construction to that of the main chamber at the Rennibister Earth House I saw on day 3.

Entering the cairn by the modern entrance door and wire gate, which faces away from the coast line and along the short low passage, you immediately know there is something very different going on here. However, but before I go into detail the only disappointment is this yet another concrete dome roof with the light hole in the top… but this soon fades into insignificance and on this occasion shows the interior off very well.

Standing there looking and trying to work out what is going on, I thought to myself of all the barrows and cairns I have visited (and I have visited many) this is probably… no, this is definitely the best and most fascinating.

In front of you is a rough chamber which is ‘D’ shaped plan view and you are facing into the ‘D’ so the far side metre high dry stone walling sort of arches around to either side of you. A sectioned off smaller side chamber comes off the ‘D’ immediately to the left measuring about a metre square. A much more open layout side chamber exists on the right and this measure about 1.5m by 1m or so. Then in front of you is very small chamber measuring about 0.5m high and wide and about a meter deep. This small chamber has a small cap stone still in situ.

Taversoe Tuick © C Brooks

As it stands this is a little bit strange but what surprises you most is the large square entrance to a lower chamber dead in front of the entrance passageway. This entrance, large enough for me to get into (for a change) is formed in the large flagstone style floor with a somewhat unstable ladder providing access. The lower main chamber is perhaps 1.5m to 1.6m in height (or depth) and as you decent into it you immediately see in front of you the long entrance passage leading into the tomb from the blocked entrance I saw earlier outside. Again the lower level forms a sort of ‘D’ shape similar to the level above and directly beneath it. To the left and to the right are a pair of two tier side chambers raised above the floor level. The upper tier of each being similar to the side chambers directly above on the upper level. The lower tiers of each of these chamber are about 0.3m high. Behind you under the entrance of the upper level are yet another pair of two tier side chambers of similar dimensions to the others on this level.

Taversoe Tuick © C Brooks

My photos did not do this place justice, this is a complex, interesting and very exiting tomb and definitely worth the visit to Rousey if not Orkney, alone… just one thing to be careful of when using the metal ladder, though strong it is not fixed and is quite unstable due to the uneven surfaces.

Leaving the site I spotted those seals laying on the beach I had seen from the ferry so I got a couple of snaps from the hillside. Moving on along the island ‘ring-road’ a short distance of less than a kilometer westward to Blackhammer Chambers Cairn. Accessed by a short but steep walk up the hill there is an information board giving you the usual insight into its construction. Although there is not much to see externally there is a plastic observation window allowing you to see part of the external wall construction. However the plastic had deteriorated and steamed up and in the strong sunlight it was difficult to see much. Mostly destroyed, the entrance passageway faces out towards the sea and the inside of the tomb is gained via a sliding door arrangement and a short metal ladder with a drop of about a metre.

Like the Tomb of the Eagles you enter the cairn at the centre point and the chamber extends out to the left and right of you by about 8m each. The width is a good 2m if not a little wider. The chamber is divided into seven stalls separated by pairs of vertical stones or wall constructions about half a metre apart so that you can walk right down the centre line.

Blackhammer © C Brooks

Apparently remains of only two individuals were found during excavations and a wall has been built later separating the left of the chamber off and restricting access. In this wall is a small side chamber. Opposite the entrance there is a worked stone with some strange shapes cut into it (a sort of deep ‘V’ or ‘L’ with a square hole next to it) which may well be modern but looked interesting anyway. After Taversoe Tuick it is difficult to be blown away by this one but taking it purely on its own merit this is a great tomb to visit.

Right, driving a little further down the coast road the next tomb for me to visit on this trip is Knowe of Yarso. You have to park (if you are driving) in the small car park area by the road and walk up the hill along a private access road. Keeping left wherever the road diverge,s it’s a bit of a slog up the hill. There are sign posts and after crossing a concrete slab bridge and then a wooden bride the route is marked by some black and white poles. After this the route flattens out and you can see the cairn a little way in front of you.

Again there isn’t much to see on the outside apart from the lovely view of the sea. The cairn in surrounded by a wire fence which on the seaward side is very much needed as the tomb is very close to the edge of a steep drop. The entrance faces along the coastline in the direction you have just walked but now has a sturdy wooden door instead of a long passageway. Like many cairns on Orkney this had two layers of walling with the outer layer being a sort of herringbone effect. Twenty-nine individuals were excavated from this site with seventeen of those being represented by skulls only and it is thought the tomb was in use for up to a thousand years.

The entrance takes you into the tomb at the eastern end and inside it is similar to Blackhammer with the inner chamber split into stalls but this time there are only four. Most of the bones found during excavation were located in the furthest chamber from the entrance. Again about 2m wide and about 9 or 10m long most of the stones are covered in an algae giving the tomb a strange green glow as the light from the glass covered holes above bounces around. I think I prefer this cairn to that of Blackhammer as it has a more aged feeling about it and again well worth a visit.

Knowe of Yarso © C Brooks

There is plenty of parking for Mid Howe tomb but it is a fair old walk down to the coastline to the tomb itself. I wasn’t sure what to expect but it wasn’t quite as grand as this. A huge stalled burial cairn (the biggest known) housed within an even bigger stone built building complete with roof for total weather protection. I know this greatly detracts from the environmental context of the tomb in the landscape but if you are going to preserve something this big I don’t think you can do it any better than this. You are requested to refrain from walking into the cairn itself (which I did) but a fantastic walkway has been constructed around the tomb to allow you to look down into the chambers.

Midhowe Tomb © C Brooks

Only natural light floods in giving a good feel to the place and the floor of the tomb has that green alge again making it look a little surreal. The are 12 pairs of very large stall sections, many having bed like arrangements similar to the single stalls found at Skara Brae and originally the inner walls would have leaned and been capped by large slabs of stone some three or four meters above. The outer wall was decoratively built with the interwoven slabs of stone leaning in one direction for a meter or so and then leaning the other way towards the top creating the now familiar herringbone pattern seen elsewhere on the island. From the walkway you can also see how the infill material between the inner and outer walls were sectioned off with upright stones placed deliberately to stabilise the material and reduce the weight on the inner walls.

Midhowe Tomb stalls © C Brooks

This place really is fantastic and as I was left alone for the majority of the time. I was able to totally photograph and take in the place without hindrance – a definite must see for the Orkney visitor.

While you’re here you must also walk along the coast a little further and take a look at Midhowe Broch. As the information board explains this broch and 8 others (including Gurness) stand like sentinels guarding the waters of Eynhallow Sound. In use between 2300 and 1900bce these huge structures and the smaller ‘village’ that surround them were self sufficient communities consisting mainly of farmers and fishermen. Many of the comments I made about Gurness on day 5 also apply to this broch. This broch differs really only that it is located bedrock being sited on a raised crag but again was probably built by a powerful local family and provided a degree of protection from invaders.

Midhowe Broch © C Brooks

The stonework is impressive with a self supporting double skinned wall wide enough to walk through and provide access to the upper floors. Also impressive are the great slabs of stone which formed the internal walls to the broch and some of the outer buildings. Many have crumbled over time and are held together using modern metal bracketry but you still have to wonder how they were able to take such large slices of solid rock. A new(ish) sea wall has been built to protect the coastline from erosion but the structure adds quite well to the broch itself and resembles some of the middle earth buildings described in the Tolkein books… well it did to me anyway. What can I say, take a butchers yourself.

Midhowe Broch © C Brooks

The only draw back with the Midhowe tomb and broch is the long slog back up that hill to the car… boy, that had me wheezing even with the wind and rain to cool me down.

Well, that was my final site visit while on Rousay and for the remainder of the day I took a slow drive around the island and spent a little time just wandering around before rejoining the ferry back to the mainland.

I would say it would be much cheaper and nicer to bring a bike over from the mainland rather than a car. There are a few hills but you can cycle to all the main monuments easily and probably take in the island a little better.

We have just received this report from Heritage Action member Alan S:

Following the recent gorse fire which got out of control, I visited Mulfra Quoit yesterday to see for myself the extent of the damage. The road to the east of the hill provides the shortest approach to the quoit, and the fire damage extended all the way to the road on this side, halfway along the hill, continuing to the north.

As I climbed the hill, approaching the quoit from the east, the extent of the fire could easily be seen., not having touched the southeast of the hill. Although the fire did not appear to have damaged any roots, much of the above ground growth was burnt and blackened, and there was still a smell of soot in the air. Here and there were small islands of green, where for some reason the fire had not taken hold. And among the blackened plants, spots of brilliant white, fresh bird droppings showing that some had escaped the carnage and returned to start anew.

After a few minutes I reached the brow of the hill, and saw the quoit to the west, sitting within a patch of unburnt grass, seemingly unharmed. The nearest scorch marks came within ten feet or so of the quoit, which obviously had a close call.

I walked south for a few minutes, but did not reach the extent of the burning. I returned to the quoit and took the path west for a similar distance, with similar results. I returned again, and finally headed north, back toward the car. Some ten minutes later, I was still well within the burnt area, showing how vast an area of heathland had been damaged. And yet some plants already had signs of new growth, indicating that although the habitat of countless animals, insects and birds had been destroyed, the landscape will somehow recover.

So how and why did the fire happen? Newspaper reports suggest that a controlled burn, originally ordered by Natural England(NE) had got out of control due to ‘high winds’ – a fairly constant factor on the hill. The Save Penwith Moors campaign (SPM) have a long running argument with NE, not just over this fire, but over various aspects of management of the moor, which SPM claim has been managed successfully without intervention from NE for generations. The new suggestions for moors management are objected to by local people, who feel they no longer have a voice in their own area – so much for localism!

But what of the archaeology? There’s no doubt that there is an opportunity after an incident such as this to identify previously hidden structures, and there is already a lot of known archaeology on the hill, but SPW are taking the stance that any archaeology is now at risk of erosion from the elements.

NE say they are ‘investigating’ the cause of the fire, SPM say that NE are the main factor as they don’t understand the local situation. This one could run and run.

There are many ways to enjoy a visit to any one of the thousands of ancient monuments in the UK. This article outlines some ideas about ways to enhance your visit and experience of the site, wherever it may be.

Equipment
When visiting any ancient site, it’s as well to be prepared for your experience. Clothing, food and drink suitable to the terrain and weather is an essential, as is a good (OS 1:25000 or better) map of the area. To get the most out of your visit though, some additional items will be needed.

  • Sketchbook and /or notebook and writing materials – for taking on the spot notes of observations and experiences.
  • GPS Unit and Compass – Most Smart phones have these included as standard these days, and free apps are usually available to make best use of them.
  • Camera – again at a basic level, most smartphones have decent (5mp or greater) cameras these days. Compact cameras are light and easy to pack, some SLRs need a bit more muscle power, particularly if a long trek is involved!
  • Binoculars – can aid with intervisibility – is that a tumulus, or just a bump on the horizon?
  • Torch – useful if examining chambered tombs.
  • Spare batteries for cameras and other electronic equipment.
  • Rubbish bags to remove any tat and rubbish left at the site by less-respectful previous visitors.

Make sure you take everything you'll need!

So, being fully equipped, what should you look for when you arrive?

The View
Consider why the monument was placed where it is in the landscape – why here? Remember that the landscape changes considerably over time – tree cover may be totally different to when the site was built, field boundaries in the main are relatively recent compared to most sites, modern roads may follow much older trackways, but many have been damagingly carved through pre-existing landscape features (eg, the M3 at Winchester, the A34 at Newbury etc)

Nearby sites
Are there any other sites in the vicinity? Signs of ancient settlement nearby, hut circles, cairns, barrows etc? What about further away? Is the site within easy distance of e.g., a hill fort or other defensive postion? What about water sources? Many prehistoric sites (from standing stones to hillforts) have a relationship with water either in the form of springs, streams, rivers or coastlines.

Alignments
Having considered the placement of the site, and looked at possible nearby related sites, are there any obvious alignments that could be of significance? This is an exercise that may be better performed as part of the pre-trip research, or indeed, after the visit is over and measurements such as compass bearings, GPS readings etc have been taken (you did remember to take your notebook and pen on the visit, didn’t you?) Don’t forget that later religious buildings such as churches and abbeys may have been built on sites of earlier significance, so consider those too when looking for alignments which may show ancient pathways – Alfred Watkins’ book, the The Old Straight Track was actually based on the reasonable assumption that the shortest way between two points is a straight line.

There may also be alignments to celestial markers, such as the well known solstice shafts of sunlight at Maes Howe and Newgrange. Often, to find these accurately, a computer software program may be required to ‘turn back the clock’ to a given date/time and direction. There are several free ones out there (e.g. Stellarium) which can help with this exercise.

Restoration
Has what you see today been tinkered with in any way by restorers? There are lots of examples of this, where work is obvious – the skylights in West Kennet Long Barrow (Wiltshire), the brick supports at Tinkinswood (Glamorgan) or Bodowyr (Anglesey) are good examples. Other restoration work may be less obvious – Waylands Smithy (Oxfordshire) has been largely reconstructed, as has the Merry Maidens circle (West Penwith). Consider what the site may have looked like when originally built.

…and finally
Remember to leave the site as you would hope to find it. Clear up any litter, and do not damage the site in any way – ‘take only photographs and memories, leave only footprints’ is a tenet espoused by many groups. We would suggest not even leaving footprints if it can be at all helped!

These are just some simple ideas to get ‘more’ out of a visit to a heritage site. If you have your own ideas, please tell us about them in the comments.

It’s been a while, (Part 8 was published back in September last year) but at last we can continue the serialisation of Scubi’s trip of a lifetime to Scotland’s highlands and islands.

For those wishing to catch up on the story so far, a list of previous episodes is as follows:

  • Part 1 – Travelling
  • Part 2 – Clava Cairns
  • Part 3 – Banks Tomb
  • Part 4 – Tomb of the Eagles
  • Part 5– Crantit and Grain Souterrains, Rennibister Earth House etc
  • Part 6 – Stenness and Brodgar
  • Part 7a – Stenness and Brodgar
  • Part 7b – Skara Brae
  • Part 8 – Broch of Gurness and Cuween tomb

and now, the story continues…

It was early but I had to get up to ensure I caught my ferry to Eday from Kirkwall. This island lies in the centre of the Orkney Archipeligo but still takes over two hours to get there. Once there you are marooned as there is only one ferry back to Kirkwall leaving later that day. As the ferry plodded through the clear water leaving Kirkwall behind in the distance the weather started to improve and it all started to come together. During the crossing you get a chance to see many sea birds and the other islands. Most seem quite low lying and fairly unpopulated. WWII gun emplacements can be seen at a few key points along their coastlines.

Eday Ferry © C Brooks

The ferry docked at the Bay of Backaland terminal at the very south of Eday, and I drove my car off the ramp. Eday could be described as a badly blown ‘hour glass’ shaped island running north to southish with a single ‘main’ road running along its length and smaller roads running off either side. You can fly here from Kirkwall but I think (like with the ferry) that time here is limited if you wish to do a day trip. Anyway, I had with me my list of places to see and so headed to the northern end of the island. I hadn’t checked out where my first site was properly and instead used my satnav to followed the coordinates given in my printouts from The Modern Antiquarian (TMA) web site.

I drove past London airport and on to the end of the main road and took a right as  instructed. It then took me down a track to a small group of houses… something was telling me that this wasn’t quite right. I looked around a bit and at the notes I had printed and I definitely wasn’t right. I then looked at the OS map and there was no mention of what I was looking for. A quick scan of the map soon pointed me in the right direction and I reversed the car back up the track and turned back to the main road. Eday is small, about 12km long, so it wasn’t long before I was heading the right way. On this occasion I think TMA needs to be updated and the correct coordinates given.

As I trundled past the small loch (Mill Loch) on the left of the small side road I glanced to the right and could immediately see the hand-like standing stone a short distance away. There was an area of parking by the side of the road into which I pulled over.

As you open the car door the noise from the loch suddenly hits you as the sound of  thousands of water birds penetrates your ears. I am no twitcher so I can’t tell you what they were only that there were a lot of them. I turned to the small gate and made my way up the gentle slope. Other than going in the general direction of the stone it was not exactly clear which side of the fence lines you should follow so it soon became obvious that I was on the incorrect side. This resulted in me trying to negotiate the barbed wire fence with all my kit as I couldn’t be bothered to walk back down the hill.

You enter the fenced off area via a stile (if you are in the right field in the first place) and are greeted with this very large and unusual standing stone. Known as the Stone of Setter (or Setter Stone if you prefer) it is heavily eroded and now stands like a giant hand saying ‘hi’ to all visitors to this small island. It is deceptively tall when you stand next to it,with the moss and lichens covering its sides. There is another feature a little way away which I am not sure is contemporary with the standing stone. To me it looks like a small hut circle or possibly a tomb but could just as easily be a broken down sheep pen.

Stone of Setter © C Brooks

There is a small picnic table which didn’t intrude at all and allows one to sit for a while looking at the beautiful green landscape of this island. I pondered my map and printouts and decided to visit a couple of sites to the north west. The land here rises up towards Vinquoy Hill and being a bit lazy I thought I would drive and park further up rather than walk it, so I walked back down and returned to the car. As I drove about it was plain that I  couldn’t get to the top and nor could I find anywhere to easily park the car without blocking the road or annoying a farmer or indeed trespassing, so I decided to return to where I had previously parked. I wasn’t sure about the weather as although it was very warm and sunny where I was there were many patches of cloud full of very heavy rain making their way past the island and I just knew I would get caught under one of them sooner or later.

Everything packed, I began my march up the hill. It should be easy to follow and indeed it was. There was even a wooden walkway over a very marshy part of the Eday Heritage Walk route. Obviously a great deal has been spent here to encourage the visitor. You don’t have to walk far before you come to the next site but it is one that is difficult to see. Beside the old school house surrounded by rolling green fields and hills, you can just about make out the form of a large oval of semi buried stone called the Fold of Setter and is thought it may be the site of a bronze age settlement.

Fold of Setter © C Brooks

Not much further on is a lovely but destroyed tomb called Braeside Stalled Cairn of which can still be seen part of the mound and a few of the upright stones which formed the stalls. What is peculiar about this tomb is that the stalls inside it are offset to the axis of the long mound itself and in fact align with the Stone of Setter in the distance.

Braeside Stalled Cairn © C Brooks

It is a pleasure to walk this route as there are so many sites to see in such a short distance and a few of a type you won’t see outside Orkney. Next up was Huntersquoy, this is a double entrance tomb with one entrance above the other. Unfortunately the top entrance is virtually destroyed and the lower one submerged in water (but it looks fairly intact). Still this was a new one on me and so was well worth spending a few minutes having a look and poking about. There are a number of large structures on the route that look vaguely like they could be something interesting but they are more likely to be the remains of previous quarrying as much as anything. As you walk on further up the hill the island and surrounding islands stretch out behind you like green and brown gems floating in a sea of fantastically deep blue and then you can then see how it all fits in.

Huntersquoy © C Brooks

The Calf of Eday lies to the northeast and was somewhere I wanted to visit but unfortunately not this time. The brilliant white bellowing spring clouds were separated by heavy, deep and very dark storms that could be seen to drench what ever lay beneath. The landscape although not mountainous is as breathtaking as it is mechanically silent but as I made my way further up the hill the wind picked up and I approached my target.

As I got closer I decided to take the obligatory photo of the burial chamber in its natural surroundings. Just as I was setting up the camera a large brown bird appeared from behind it and swooped very close to me. In the excitement I juggled with the camera as it continued to circle me on the second pass I managed to get a shot off which came out very well. I thought it was some sort of bird of prey as it looked quite huge but turned out later that the bird was a Great Skua but still quite impressive… to me anyway.

Skua © brooks

Vinquoy like many burial mounds also sits proudly just shy of the summit and looking out over the island. A single dark entrance way almost sunk into the mound and ‘protected’ by an unlocked and open gate bids you welcome. The entrance is quite small and you step down into it before needing to get on your hands and knees to shuffle along the narrow passageway. A piece of wooden board has been placed on the ground just at the entrance to the central chamber.

Vinquoy © C Brooks

A central hole above allows a little light and moisture to enter, just enough in fact to give life to a miriad of ferns that have taken a footing in the drystone ceiling and which now dangle down into the chamber below. There are four secondary chambers, all of which were far too small to get myself into. One of them is completely flooded, something I hadn’t noticed until I almost plunged my camera into the water as I stretched my arm in to take a photo.

Vinquoy ferns © C Brooks

Not being able to get into these side chambers is a little frustrating and sometimes it makes me wish I was still that skinny 17 year old doing archaology for the first time. It is certainly worth the plod up here, not that it is that difficult at all and indeed on a day like this with so much to see, it makes it all the more special.

Vinquoy chambers © C Brooks

I walked back down the hill and took in the landscape one again. The peace here is so remarkable. Only the sounds of nature to hear, it gives you a taste of the isolation here. To live and prosper you must have to plan ahead, especially in the winter months when a trip to the supermarket must be only a dream. How did those early settlers manage? The cold bitter north wind must just drive its way through everything. Their endurance must have been beyond belief…. or did they simply leave the island during those cold dark months for more hospitable lands inland?

I got a few more shots of Braeside and of the Setter Stone before getting back into the car. There are a number of less spectacular and much ruined cairns on the island and I had wanted to see if it was possible to find them. The first one was called Eday Church. Now this was shown on TMA Google Earth as near the end of the runway at London airport but the OS map had shown it near a small side road south of the airport. I was easily able to park and find the cairn but access was another matter. There is a tendency to surround fields on Eday with a bog for rain drainage and then put a barbed fence around the field to ensure sheep do not fall into it. This means it is also difficult to jump the bog before immediately hitting the barbed fence. Unfortunately this is what happened to me and I slid down the bank into the very muddy ditch as I tried to grab a post without spiking my hands. It was then more difficult to try and climb back up with large clods of muck stuck to your boots. After a couple of more attempts I decided it would be better to admire the cairn from the roadside (call me defeatist if you like).

The cairn is a little overgrown and a few of the stones can be seen poking out from the centre and although tantalising I think it was wise to stay by the road rather than risk injury trying to negotiate the ditch and fence.

Eday Church © C Brooks

I managed a couple of decent photos for the album before starting to return to the car. It was at this point that I noticed within the nearby compound a white albino rabbit running around with other normal bunnies, which was unusual to say the least… I took a couple of pictures just to make sure I wasn’t dreaming but at least this one wasn’t 6 foot high and called Harvey. Can’t see it lasting long around here though.

The next couple of places were a couple of burial cairns somewhere on the western coast line just off the ‘main’ road that runs through the centre of the island. Although the island is very unpopulated, the main road does get used quite often. I reckon a car, tractor or van passes along at least every 30 minutes and its not the widest of roads so I didn’t want to be holding anybody up by just parking the car anywhere I fancied. I drove up and down the road trying to spot either of the cairns and also somewhere to park when the Satnav said I was close. Unfortunately the only place was by an old converted church, which seemed a little way from where I wanted to be (I am so lazy).

As I parked up I noticed the church was now the Eday Heritage Centre so I took a quick look around inside. Whilst walking around somebody came up to me and asked if I was local. Replying to the lady in my broadest Wiltshire accent that I wasn’t, she told me she was part of the Orkney Marine Research unit and was looking for places where mussels would be in abundance as they wanted to carry out some marine pollution research. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to help. I just find it remarkable the people you sometimes meet in the middle of nowhere.

Walking back along the road it was very difficult to find an access point into the field other than by jumping another very deep ditch and straight into a gorsey hedge…oh and of course climbing a small barbed wire fence. There were no signs pointing to a clear entry to the cairns. I managed to get in the field and at the same time risking future bodily functions from both the gorse and the fence. The gorse being quite thick it was difficult to see anything on the ground and after about half an hour of searching I gave in (defeatism strikes again).

The next site, called Eday Manse, was situated high up on quite a steep hill that occupies the southern half of the ‘hour glass’ island. Another old abandoned church is sited near to the cairn and this can be seen from the road below so I was very hopeful of finding this one. According to the OS map there should be an old track leading up to the church but again I couldn’t find it anywhere. Eventually I spotted what could be a footpath and decided to go for that. The footpath eventually became less clear further on and the walk up the hill became a bit of a struggle as I made my way through the mixture of tufted grass and gorse. I decided to try to make a sort of zigzag route up but which seem to take ages and, as is common when climbing hills, you think you have just got to the top when another peak appears further ahead. But eventually the ruins of the old church came into view and I was able to make my way to the cairn as the land flattened out.

To be honest there isn’t a great deal to see here. The cairn is sited within the the grounds of the old church with a dilapidated dry stone wall all around. There remains a mound but it has been extensively damaged and dug into making it difficult to work out the orientation. There are a small number of largish stones distributed about the site that were obviously part of the cairn. Some of these had been deliberately shaped and one that also showed signs of possible markings but as I am no expert these could be just natural. The view from the cairn is still quite impressive but not as much as the one on Vinquoy Hill. There are barely a couple of walls left of the church so not really much to see here.

Eday Manse © C Brooks

Time was getting on, I had seen (or attempted to see) most of what I wanted prehistory wise and now I wanted to drive around and take in the island a bit more. I found the more direct route back down the hill which turned out to be more of a gully than a track but which was mostly dry.

Eday has a whole range of sea birds and mammals but you have to look around a bit. I decided to see if there were any seals on the west coastline, a place called Seal Skerry. Unfortunately a mooch around here did not reveal any seals but I did discover a wonderfully secluded cove with perfect white sand and crystal clear water lapping against the shore. The sun was warm and the distant cloud bursts gave this place such a magical feeling that I decided to just walk around a while collecting the odd shell or stone as is my thing. Before long though time was getting on and I needed to get back down to the ferry jetty to ensure I caught the last ferry back to Kirkwall.

I was able to take in more of the island on the slowish drive back. I parked up by the jetty and waited for the ferry only to have my peace disturbed by white van man and his very loud stereo blasting away radio one. Isn’t it marvellous how you can be in the middle of nowhere and have your tranquillity shattered. But it was not all bad, on the ferry back I bumped into the Marine Biologist again and she gave me some good pointers about where to go in Kirkwall if I get a chance to walk around there.

We’ve raved in the past about the DVD/Book combination that is ‘Standing With Stones’, and the book made our recent Winter Gift Giving list of recommendations.

Back in 2009 at the conclusion of the project, Rupert Soskin gave us an interesting insight into his personal journey whilst making the film.

Stocks of the original DVD have now run low, but in an attempt to satisfy demand whilst replenishment takes place, the entire DVD is now downloadable from their web site, either as a single file, or in geographic sections at a reasonable cost per section.

If you’ve not yet seen the film, it’s not to be missed.

by Chris Brooks, Heritage Action.

Many of us harbour a dream of visiting far away places on a ‘trip of a lifetime’, whether that be to the other side of the country, or to the other side of the world. One Heritage Action member recently did exactly that, and fulfilled his dream. This is his account of his journey to the far reaches of… Scotland!
 
Getting There:

I had always wanted to satisfy my longing to see the ancient prehistoric sites of Orkney having viewed many of the beautiful images on TV programmes and in my ever extending collection of books. It had always seemed such a mystical place to me, sparsely populated and with the added bonus of getting some really good atmospheric pictures into the bargain too.

The journey to visit the islands of northern Scotland from the south of England is not to be taken lightly and deciding the method(s) of travel is certainly not an easy one to make. Shortening the time it takes to get there (i.e. by plane) is offset by the increasingly proportional costs of the method of transport used… often to the point where it can be prohibitive for non-wealthy types (me).

But with the ever increasing possibility of redundancy and my son’s ‘kick-up the backside’ statement of, “If you don’t do it now you will never go” I set myself on the road for my latest venture. Whilst mulling over the best travel and accommodation options it occurred to me that if this was going to be a one shot occasion, (which it probably would be) why not try to get over to the isle of Lewis also. After all everybody has told me I need to go and see the mighty Callanish at least once in my life. As mentioned before, the various options of getting there all have their good and not so good points but after even much deliberation, I finally had a plan. This plan involved almost all forms of public transport, but would allow me the freedom I required to visit both Orkney and Lewis… but obviously with some compromises.

I would catch a train to Bristol from sunny Wiltshire, catch the Bristol Flyer (bus) to the airport, fly a certain cheap airline to Inverness and hire a car there for the duration. I would then drive to Orkney via the Pentland ferry at Gills Bay and stay in a holiday cottage for the week I was there. I would then return to the Scottish mainland and drive to Lewis via the CalMac ferry from Ullapool. I would stay on Lewis for a few nights in a B&B to see Callanish and and other sites and would then return to Inverness to catch my plane back to Bristol and then onward to home.

Doing it this way would avoid having to drive almost 700 miles to Gills Bay which would likely take a minimum of 12 hours, and also likely need overnight stays en-route. But by using this method my main compromise would be in what I would be able to carry on the plane to Inverness. As a keen photographer I have a range of equipment but there is no way I would be able to take much of the heavy stuff such as my uni-loc tripods. However, I would still have the opportunity to visit a some good prehistoric sites after arriving at Inverness airport just over an hour after leaving Bristol.

The cost of buses, planes, trains, automobiles and the ferries as well as accommodation and fuel… you don’t want to know… OK you do… all in and including most things it would turn out to be about £1400 for the trip for just me (the price of a good holiday in guaranteed sunshine). Now obviously if there are more of you or you live within reasonable driving distances of northern Scotland then the proportional cost per person would be very much less as you could save on such things as flights and car hire as well apportioning costs of fuel (12p/litre more expensive on the islands) and ferry costs.

The following blogs are a short summary of my trip which I hope you will enjoy…

 

OK, so here we are a short time on from the HA Cornwall Minimeet. What did we learn from the event?

  1. Make sure you have some form of identification (even if it’s only a megalithic themed book in plain sight. Apologies to Mike for not spotting him earlier…) and ensure you’ve met at least one person previously – or at a pinch have seen a photo of someone before the meet.
  2. If possible, make the meeting somewhere known, that’s easy to find – we struggled to get enough seats in what was actually quite a small bar.
  3. Try to ensure a good mix of people, so that discussion is as varied as possible.
  4. Make sure there is enough to see locally. We only covered the Hurlers, the Pipers and Rillaton Barrow during the meet, but Trethevy Quoit and a host of other sites were all available locally if time had permitted.

So how did it go? All in all, the meet was successful. Several of us (plus my partner and two doggy companions) met on the day, and conversation ranged from discussion of why the sites were built, how they could have been used and whether they’ve changed significantly in layout and construction since first being built. Conservation and neglect were also discussed and ideas were exchanged on how to find some of the more obscure local sites, for later use. A small book swap was negotiated, and a draft of a possible future book about Trethevy Quoit was passed around for comment. Although I was on holiday, I’m fairly certain that those people local to the meet will be arranging to get together again to continue the discussions, and to visit some of the sites together again, forging new friendships.

Some Minimeet attendees at the Hurlers © Alan S.

If Cornwall is too far for you, why not try to organise a meet in your local area, or an area you’re holidaying in? It’s much simpler to arrange than you’d think, and Heritage Action would be happy to help publicise it for you. All it takes at a basic level is to decide where and when your meeting will be held. The Cornwall meeting location and date was arranged on some of the ‘stoney’ internet forums. Once you’ve decided when and where, advertise the Minimeet on the various forums (see the Links menu on the left), and let us know about it so we can mention it here too.

The meetings can be any format of course, but our most successful meets have been held in pubs close to a cluster of ancient heritage sites. After a drink or two, walks can then be taken (weather permitting) to actually see some of the sites that may have been discussed. If you have a local archaeological/history society, try contacting them in good time before the date. They may be willing to send someone along to give a short 5-10 minute talk on a relevant topic, or just to offer local advice within the discussions. We were lucky enough to have Mark, a Blue Badge Guide and HA member, attend and give us the benefit of his experience and knowledge of the area when asked.

Although our annual Megameet attendance increases in numbers each year, a Minimeet really has no minimum number below 3 people. So why not give it a go, and let us know how you get on?

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