Monday, 18 March 2019

Lady’s Well, Holystone

This holy well in the village of Holystone in Northumberland has been venerated since at least Roman times, and possibly long before. It was situated by a Roman road running from the fort of Bremenium to the coast, and it was probably the Romans who built the stone walls which contain the waters today.  The spring-fed well never freezes or runs dry, and as well as a practical function in providing water to travellers and their animals, it was likely venerated as a sacred place. Springs are venerated in many cultures and the Romans commonly built shrines around them.

It was later dedicated to the Anglo-Saxon Saint Ninian, who performed baptisms here in the 5th century, and also St Paulinus, who reputedly baptised 3000 Northumbrians at the well in AD627. This is almost certainly legend rather than history. A 15th century statue of St Paulinus stands beside the well today. The Celtic-style cross is a Victorian addition.

The well was dedicated to the Virgin Mary in the 12th century when an Augustinian Priory was built in the village, and this dedication remains today.

It’s a powerful and peaceful place today, reflecting the wild nature of the Northumberland countryside and the number of people who have paid their respects to the place over two thousand or more years. The number of coins in its waters are testament to the number of people who still respect its vitality. It was recently announced one of the top ten historic spiritual sites in England.

A second ancient well is found in the village, dedicated to St Mungo, the 6th century founder of Glasgow. It’s possible this was once a ‘mugger’s’ (tinker’s) well, the saintly dedication a Victorian addition.

Monday, 11 March 2019

Yeavering Bell

Yeavering Bell is one of the northern-most Cheviot Hills in Northumberland, and is the site of the largest hill fort in the area. It overlooks the flat and fertile Milfield Plain, cultivated since the early Neolithic period. Mass clearance of the Cheviot uplands began around 2500BC, the end of the Neolithic period, and numerous settlements, henges, stone circles and rock art panels appear from this time. Many of the prominent and brooding hills overlooking these sites are forts.

Yeavering Bell fort, reached by a punishing but relatively endurable climb – many of the Cheviots are brutal and harbour treacherous and sometimes deadly peat bogs –  extends for 12 acres and is surrounded by a 950m stone wall, originally 3m thick and 2.5m high. It contained 130 roundhouses, suggesting a residential purpose. Little excavation has been done but pottery dating from the Iron Age and Romano-British periods has been found.

Like many Iron Age hill forts, it is focused on much older features. Some hill forts in the area enclose ancient rock art or tombs, and it’s been suggested that their function is at least partly ceremonial or ritual rather than defensive. The southern entrance to Yeavering Bell aligns on the distinctive Hedgehope Hill, suggesting a function in a larger landscape network. There is a sense of a vast, spiritual web linking these important sites.

The site was significant long after the Iron Age. In the valley beneath it, the remains of the capital of the Anglo-Saxon King Edwin can still be seen. This was built with respect to a Bronze Age cemetery, comprising a number of cairns and barrows by this time around 2000 years old.

‘Yeavering’ derives from the Celtic ‘Din Gefron’, which means ‘hill of the goat’. Today it is the home of the Cheviot goats, some of the only wild goats in Britain. They are descended from the livestock the Neolithic farmers brought with them from the Middle East. The hill is also linked to the goat-headed God Pan, who reflects the wilds of the natural world and is linked to the Celtic Cernunnos. Perhaps this site was once a centre for his reverence. It’s certainly appropriate.

Walking this area involves struggling through sodden heather and bracken, which disguises deep peaty holes and ankle-turning rocks, with wind gusting strong enough to knock a person over. And then the wind whips the clouds away to reveal a vast and beautiful landscape dazzling in the sunlight, before the rain closes in again. This is a land where nature tolerates its human intruders.

And when I was climbing down the steep hillside, I saw what I thought was a horned statue sitting by a stream. When it turned to look at me, I nearly fell off the mountain! I never did identify what I’d seen, but perhaps it was a manifestation of Pan or Cernunnos who has such a long connection with this place. When I wrote my novel The Story of Light, in which Yeavering Bell is a key place, I put that in the story for posterity.

Monday, 4 March 2019

The Rollright Stones

The King’s Men stone circle.

The Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire consist a stone circle called the King’s Men, a Neolithic burial chamber called the Whispering Knights, and a lone standing stone called the King Stone.

The Whispering Knights, dating to c3800BC is the earliest of these. It is a portal dolmen, a tomb consisting of several upright stones with a capstone. There were probably originally more stones. A fragment of human bone was found inside it.

          The Whispering Knights.

The King’s Men is a 30m diameter stone circle consisting around seventy irregular-shaped stones – legend claims them uncountable – gathered from the nearby area. It was probably built c2500BC, the start of the Bronze Age. Originally there were around 105 stones, set in a continuous circle with an entrance on the southeast flanked by two portal stones. The tallest stone in the circle is directly opposite it.

The circle is slightly off the top of the hill and focuses the eye on the wide valley to the south; all along this, it is clearly prominent on the skyline. The Whispering Knights the same. The location of the circle was probably chosen because of this now ancient and dramatic tomb, from which it seems to be set at a polite distance.

The south-facing valley is possibly the best farmland in the immediate area and has been cultivated continuously since the Neolithic period when early farmers, perhaps those who raised the Whispering Knights, cleared woodland and rocks and began to work the soil. The circle was a gathering point, and celebrations which overlooked the valley and vice versa would have sealed the inhabitants’ lives and stories into the collective memory of the area. It may also have been a trade point. Similar stone circles are found in the Lake District, and Lake District stone axes are found right across Britain.

The King Stone. Its unusual shape is a result of 19th century drovers chipping talismans from it.

The King Stone is set a few metres from the top of the hill, by a rise which seems artificial. This no doubt gave rise to the legend of its origin.

The Danish warlord Rollo had invaded England with his army and a witch told him:

Seven long strides shalt thou take,

If Long Compton thou canst see,

King of England thou shalt be.

Rollo strode forward, sure of victory, shouting: Stick, stock, stone! As King of England I shall be known!

The witch caused a hill to rise in front of him, obscuring his view, and proclaimed,

As Long Compton thou canst not see, King of England thou shalt not be.

Rise up stick and stand still stone, for King of England thou shalt be none.

Thou and thy men hoar stones shall be, and myself an eldern tree.

Incidentally, Rollright derives from ‘Land of Rollo’. In the 19th century it was said there were enough witches in Long Compton to draw a load of hay up Long Compton Hill.

The King Stone is associated with a series of Bronze Age burials dating to c1800BC. It’s unclear whether the burials were positioned in relation to the stone or whether the stone was raised as a marker for them.

The view of Long Compton which Rollo was a few strides from seeing.

The stones are rife with folklore. The Whispering Knights, in common with megaliths across Britain, are said to go to the brook to drink at New Year or when they hear the church bells. Local girls ran naked around the stones on Midsummer’s Eve to see the face of the man they would marry. When a local farmer dragged the King Stone away to make a bridge, it took eight horses to draw it. After a plague of ill-luck, he returned it. Only one horse was needed for the uphill return journey.

Monday, 25 February 2019

Meon Hill Iron Age Fort

The wide-ranging view from Meon Hill.

Meon Hill, a prominent hill in south Warwickshire, is the location of an Iron Age hill fort, likely built on an earlier Bronze Age site. The hill is formidably steep with a wide, flat top, and the surrounding ditches and banks, positioned to make full use of the topology, are still several metres deep in places. Little modern excavation work has been done but quantities of Bronze Age, Iron Age and Romano-British finds including pottery and worked stones have been found.

Meon Hill dominates the surrounding landscape and offers commanding views for several miles in almost every direction. Similar to other hill sites, it was designed to be seen. The nearby Ilmington Hill, which is much larger and much more sprawling, has no such eye-catching dominance and although it harbours several ancient features, there is nothing of such dramatic presence.

             The still prominent ramparts

Meon has a powerful atmosphere. A deep sense of magic infuses the hill, and it’s unsurprising that Meon Hill is prominent in local folklore.

Tradition states that the Devil lives beneath it, and rides out on dark nights with his pack of infernal hounds. This is almost certainly a Christianised version of the much older Gwyn ap Nudd, the Celtic ruler of the underworld who was associated with prominent hills and was master of the Cwn Annwfn, a pack of spectral hounds. Gwyn was later synonymised with the Devil.

This story may have arisen due to the spectacular remains of the now long-forgotten site, or perhaps it originated when the site was in occupation and Gwyn was still commonly revered. Perhaps powerful Druids commanded this site.

A more sinister story comes from the 1940s. A farm worker called Charles Walton was found dead on the hill with a pitchfork through his neck. The story was quickly linked to witchcraft. Charles was said to have been murdered because of his link to the Devil. Spectral black dogs were also associated with the crime.

Despite a lengthy police investigation, the murder was never solved, but the story adds to the powerful sense of magic many people feel here.

Monday, 18 February 2019


Eynhallow is a small island in Orkney, a short way from the larger island of Rousay. With treacherous tides and currents seething through the narrow straits, access is difficult even in calm seas.

An ancient church, later converted into houses, indicates the presence of a Christian monastic settlement. In the 1850s, the houses were evacuated and torn down. The island has been uninhabited ever since.

The name, from the Norse Eyin Helga, means ‘Holy Island’, and the island holds a special place in Orkney lore. Among other traditions, it was believed cats could not survive on the island. They would die of convulsions within a day.

Eynhallow was a home of the Finfolk, a strange and feared people who could control storms, shapeshift as seals and whales, had phenomenal sailing skills, and also routinely abducted local people.

Thanks to the Finfolk’s enchantment, Eynhallow routinely appeared and disappeared into the sea as its inhabitants wished. It was one of two ‘vanishing islands’ in Orkney, the other being Hether Blether. The latter’s enchantment has never been broken and is said to still rise from the mists occasionally.

Eynhallow’s enchantment was broken by a farmer. His wife had been abducted by a Finman and when the island rose from the sea, he rowed towards it, never taking his eyes off it else the enchantment would break and the island vanish, and in revenge he sowed salt around the island, destroying its magical power. He didn’t get his wife back but the island has remained in place ever since.

The Finfolk have been linked to shamanic people of Finland and Norway such as the Saami people, a short distance away by sea.

Orkney was home to a powerful Neolithic culture which abruptly came to an end around 2500BC, with the deliberate and ritual abandonment of the hitherto important sites. Orkney then became a backwater throughout the Bronze Age and Iron Age, with little impact on national culture.

Perhaps the Finfolk were the survivors of a powerful shamanic tradition which still survives in Scandinavia, settled on an inaccessible island and feared by the newer inhabitants for their magical powers. Over time, history turned into legend.

Monday, 11 February 2019

The Ridgeway

The Ridgeway is a prehistoric trackway, perhaps Britain’s oldest road, which ran from the River Thames to East Anglia. A great deal of it runs along the chalk ridge of the Berkshire Downs, close to the ancient sites of Uffington, Avebury and Wayland’s Smithy, before crossing Salisbury Plain. It’s linked to Grimes Graves in Norfolk, a Neolithic flint mine of national importance.

Dating is difficult and relies on nearby prehistoric sites which seem to have been built in association with it. It’s believed to date from the Neolithic period, c3000BC.

It was used as a secure and passable all-year-round trade route, especially so in the Iron Age period, and forts were built nearby to control the route. Later armies took advantage of it, as did drovers taking livestock to distant markets.

The sarsen fields of the Marlborough Downs

Today it forms part of a long-distance footpath which runs for 87 miles across the downs, where people can walk in the footsteps of five thousand years of history. It’s a beautiful route. It offers views of Avebury and other ancient sites, the sarsen fields where stone was gathered for these ancient monuments and woodlands with unusual trees and plants. With little in the way of modern buildings or roads, it’s possible to imagine it’s a literal walk in history.

Bronze Age burial mounds alongside the Ridgeway

Monday, 4 February 2019

Uffington Castle

This is an Iron Age hill fort in Oxfordshire, close to the prehistoric Uffington White Horse, and built around 600-700BC on the foundations of an earlier Bronze Age site. This is very common. The ‘Age’ may have changed but the same people and their descendants remained.

The term of ‘hill fort’ is something of a misnomer: it was applied by 18th century antiquaries to almost any construction on a hill and there is little evidence that many were indeed forts.

View from Uffington Castle

Its prominent location on a hillside, with far-reaching views across the surrounding vales, shows its purpose. It was intended to be seen. Even today, 2500 years after it was constructed, the embankments and ditches stand proud from the hill and proclaim to every passer-by for miles: this place is ours.

The surrounding ditches, dug by hand with basic tools, are several metres deep. Look at the people in the background of the photo for a size comparison. This would need a workforce of hundreds for several months. The soil was used to construct banks on either side and the innermost bank had a stone parapet. A stunning display of might from a distance; even more so close up. It is far more work than necessary for simple defence: it’s a symbol of power and control, intended to impress.

Uffington Castle’s impressive ditches.

The ditches may be reminiscent of the older henges and enclosures – Avebury is only a few miles away – which had impressively deep ditches and would have been well known to the Iron Age people as ancient and magical sites. In the earlier cases, the surrounding water had spiritual significance; whether this was understood by the Iron Age builders or whether it was simply a display of mundane power, is unclear.

The site was occupied for several centuries and also had significance in the Roman and Anglo-Saxon periods. Graves and a shrine from these periods have been found. By this point, the impressive and now long-unoccupied site had probably acquired mythic or magical status, and was treated as such.