A couple of years ago, we took a Heritage Drive through Herts, Cambs and Essex, on the way passing the Leper Stone at Newport, a short distance south from Saffron Walden in Essex. We recently had an opportunity to revisit the area and take a closer look at the Newport Stone.
The stone, which is the largest standing sarsen in Essex, is situated on a grass verge on the east side of the B1383, just north of the village of Newport. The River Cam flows just a few metres further to the east. I’ll admit up front that the origin and age of the stone is in some doubt – was it raised in prehistoric times, or is it medieval? The St Mary and St Leonard’s Hospital was a lay establishment founded nearby by Richard de Newporte during the reign of King John (1199-1216) and was thought to have been a leper hospital, but no definite proof of this exists. Nevertheless, the stone is said to have been used as a ‘trading point’ for the hospital, where goods or alms would be left for the victims. There is a small depression on top of the stone where money may have been left washed in water or vinegar as payment, though it has to be said that many similar ‘plague’ stones with depressions in the top have identical stories behind them, many without any basis in fact. In this case, the hospital did exist, and stones from part of the old hospital can still be seen built in to the modern wall by the footpath.
Newport Stone from the south, showing the older blocks in the wall alongside.
There is of course no surefire way of dating the stone and its current setting, but the fact it is set upright (an unusual position for glacial erratics to come to rest) points to it’s having been purposefully placed. I can find no record of any excavation though it is likely that the stone has been disturbed, and possibly moved, not least when the modern road was laid. Perhaps it was originally placed as a marker stone for an easy crossing across the Cam? Unfortunately there is no mention of the stone on O.S. maps from the mid 1800’s up until at least 1923, though the site of the hospital is marked. So either it’s a comparatively recent placing, or the O.S. ignored/missed the stone and concentrated on the hospital site.
An interesting item in the Essex Field Club Journal from 1884 (v4 p95) suggests that the area exhibited signs of habitation, in the form of worked tools, from before the last Glacial period i.e. before the stone would have been deposited by the glaciers:
Mr. Greenhill thought, with those who had taken up the study, that there was no longer any question as to the comparative age of these implementiferous deposits compared with the Glacial period. During the winter he had travelled down by road to Saffron Walden, to examine all possible sections in the Lea and Stort Valleys with this object only in view, and at Newport, in Essex, he had found an implement which equalled in elegance of form anything that was upon the table that evening. It was now in the possession of the Head Master of Newport Grammar School. He (Mr. Greenhill) immediately went to the spot where this implement was obtained*, and satisfied himself that it had come from a position under what was there known as the Chalky Boulder Drift. There was plenty of proof that the men who used these implements were living, at least, in inter-glacial times, and, indeed, in pre-glacial times. The implements which he had brought to the meeting were entirely pre-glacial—that was to say, they dated before the last Glacial period.
I wonder whether the implement in question is still held at the school?
Newport Stone from the north.
Speaking of marker stones, the village has another stone of note slightly further south near to the train station. In this case the stone is puddingstone, a conglomerate stone which was often used to mark crossing points at rivers. indeed there is the theory of a prehistoric ‘Puddingstone Trail’, set forth by Dr Rudge and his wife based upon their research into puddingstones in the 1950’s. They suggested that a “Puddingstone Trail” predating the Romans may have been waymarked stretching from Grimes Graves in Norfolk to Stonehenge in Wiltshire. More information on the Puddingstone Trail may be found on the Megalithic Portal web site.