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A guest feature by Littlestone.
The Rudston Monolith
To quote Wikipedia, “The Rudston Monolith at over 7.6 metres (25 ft) is the tallest megalith (standing stone) in the United Kingdom. It is situated in the churchyard in the village of Rudston (grid reference TA098678) in the East Riding of Yorkshire.”
So, to mark this year’s St Valentine’s Day, Moss and I decided to make the 30 mile drive over from where we live in North Yorkshire to Rudston village to see for ourselves the ‘real thing’. Nothing quite prepares you for this ‘real thing’. Photos of the monolith we’d seen before but first sight, and first touch, of this towering Neolithic edifice left us both speechless. If there’s ever a stone that puts its neighbouring church into a shadow this is it. And the fact that it’s stood there for some 4,000 years makes it even more awe-inspiring. As ever, the similarity with other subsumed (Christianised) sites in Britain, seems the same. The Rudson Monolith stands close to a water source. A Roman villa once stood close by and there are Roman tiles in the church walls. There are also the remains of a Roman sarcophagus in the graveyard.
Outlier stone and the remains of a Roman sarcophagus behind it
Googling ‘Rudston Monolith’ will throw up all sorts of info but what intrigued me most, being actually there on site, was the smaller outlier stone in one corner of the graveyard. The stone is of the same composition as the monolith itself and evidently was once situated close to it. Could it be the missing top of the Rudsone Monolith? Did it fall away naturally or was it cut off because it offended past norms of acceptability? Who knows, but here’s an interesting comparison from Brittany in France.
A guest feature by Littlestone. This article first appeared on The Modern Antiquarian in November 2008.
One of two trapdoors with sarsens beneath them
Image credit and © 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).
* 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 The Church of St Peter’s, Clyffe Pypard, Wiltshire England.
The hoard has recently been moved and now housed in the museum at La Hougue Bie. Since its discovery, by two metal detectorists, conservators have been removing on average about 500 coins per week out of the estimated total of possibly 50,000! But it’s not only coins making up this most amazing mass, for once coins started being removed, gold torcs and jewellery began to reveal themselves and to date seven torcs have now been exposed! An estimated value of the whole package has been put at over £10m which is a phenomenal amount! Even though they were just recording on the day I was there, you are able to observe the conservators at work as they painstakingly take the hoard apart, cleaning and conserving the contents as they go.
A notice informs you that the coins are made from a mix of silver and copper and why they are now dark green
Also hidden in Jersey’s eastern countryside at La Hougue Bie and within its grounds, lies one of Europe’s finest prehistoric monuments. At the heart of this tranquil site stands a medieval church atop a prehistoric mound under which lies a 6,000-year-old Neolithic Cruciform Armorican Passage Grave. Without a doubt this is the Channel Islands jewel in the crown and an absolute ‘must see’.
Now that the hoard is safely housed in the purposely built lab it is more reason to pay the site a visit. You certainly won’t be disappointed that’s for sure, but do take a torch along with you to view the inside of the passage grave as the lighting is minimal! Alternatively, check out this excellent website that displays the chambered tomb superbly.
Jersey Heritage itself has a very informative website here and here. Within the museum is a fascinating geology and Ice-Age area aside from other coin hoards, axes, swords and spears belonging to Jersey’s Neolithic community.
As a reminder of more recent times, especially to the islanders (not that they need reminding that is) is a command bunker built during the German Occupation of Jersey and turned into a memorial dedicated to the slave-workers brought to the Channel Islands by invading Nazi forces during the Second World War and treated abominably. Personally, I chose not to enter this ‘museum in its own right’ as I find it too depressing and in a way not in keeping with the wonder of the other exhibits. Family memories and all that!
That aside, there is a large picnic area where you can enjoy a day out amongst the beautiful surroundings of this mainly peaceful and spiritual site.
A closer look at the hoard through the glass screen of the purposely built lab
A fantastic aerial view of the church atop the mound. The entrance to the passage grave can be observed to the left of the mound
The wonderfully constructed entrance to the passage grave
Both the grave and the church are orientated east/west, the tomb entrance facing east in common fashion. And just when the excitement of discovering the Celtic hoard at Grouville couldn’t have been more, this was then discovered at Trinity …again by a metal detectorist!
Say what you like about metal detectorists but without a doubt they have been responsible for re-writing much of our history by the finds they have made. In many cases it has been in areas not even considered by archaeologists so unlikely to have ever been discovered without their help. Such a shame that they are not given the credit due to them because of a small minority not playing by the rules and getting more attention than they deserve in certain quarters.
One of the ‘subsumed’ stones under the south-east buttress of St John the Baptist Church, Pewsey, Wiltshire England. Did this stone once form part of a stone circle?
The Heritage Trust
Solace in Stone
Seek them out, search out the Ancient Ones. Stones of Salutation. Solstice and Symmetry
Stones of Mystery. Millenniums and Magnetism. Stones of Ancients. Augurs and Alignments
Stones of Loneliness. Lunar and Leys. Stones of Ghosts. Gnomic and Geometry
Stones of Destiny. Druids and Direction. Stones of Elementals. Equinox and Equations
Stones of Ceremony. Celts and Chronology. Stones of Hypocrisy. Hedonists and Harmonics
Find their Sanctuary, find their Solace. Pitted with time, grey and ochre patched
Yet smooth as silk where hands have rubbed. In fields, woods, valleys, bog, bracken and bramble
Standing, fallen, broken, smashed by the Church. No matter their magic felt through centuries and time
For they have seen death, life and the stars. Sit in their majesty, turn and look back
See the horizons. Mothers, mapped out. Look on in wonder, best all alone
For then you will find Solace in Stone
T J Ackley
A guest feature by Littlestone.
One of two sarsens at the entrance to Fryerning Lane on Ingatestone Highstreet, Ingatestone, Essex
The Heritage Trust
And the stones in the road shone like diamonds in the dust.
And then a voice called to us to make our way back home.
Mary Chapin Carpenter.
No, this isn’t about that stirring song, Stones In The Road, by Mary Chapin Carpenter (though it could be) on her 1994 album of the same name, but about the megaliths that lay scattered along our highways, byways, high streets and lanes which, depending on your point of view, can certainly be either, ‘A thousand points of light or shame’.
Two stones (above) in Ingatestone High Street, Essex, almost certainly once formed a stone circle but, sadly, are still there and still vulnerable to damage now as when this was first written. The stones in Ingatestone’s High Street are not the only examples of megaliths used as buffers, pushed onto verges or just left where they are, awaiting their fate to be damaged or deliberately broken up. William Stukeley’s 1724 Groundplot of Avebury shows no less than nine stones in the roads there, all now long gone but once part of the proud Avebury Henge.
Stone on Flowergate (road) in Whitby, north-east Yorkshire
The Heritage Trust
On Flowergate (road) in Whitby, north-east Yorkshire, there is a stone outside the Little Angel pub. It’s not clear that this is originally from a megalithic structure but, as British History Online records, “The monoliths which exist in the parish possibly mark ancient British interments.” so there is a possible connection between this stone and a megalithic site. British History Online again records that, “A diligence commenced in 1788 to run twice a week from the ‘Turk’s Head’ and ‘White Horse and Griffin’ at Whitby to York and another to Scarborough began in 1793. The mail-coach started in 1795 and ran three times a week. A Sunderland coach commenced in 1796. All the coaches ran from the Angel Inn.”* The stone now has steps cut into it and was perhaps used to assist passengers in and out of their carriage, or riders on and off their horses.
Stones on the verges outside The Church of St Barnabus at Alphamstone in Essex
The Heritage Trust
Turning south again there are stones on the verges outside The Church of St Barnabus at Alphamstone in Essex and outside the lichgate of The Church of St Mary with St Leonard, Broomfield also in Essex – both almost certainly pre-Christian sites.
Stones outside the lichgate of The Church of St Mary with St Leonard, Broomfield also in Essex
The Heritage Trust
The examples above of ‘stones in the road’ are just a few of perhaps many more scattered through the country – some with possibly intriguing histories. It’s been suggested, for example, that the stones in the little village of Berwick St James, Wiltshire may have originally been part of the Stonehenge complex (see Dennis Price’s Inigo Jones’ lost Altar Stone from Stonehenge and somewhere called “St James” article.
The London Stone. Source Wikimedia. Image credit Lonpicman
But perhaps the most famous ‘stone in the road’ of them all is the London Stone in Cannon Street, east London. Both the stone, with its receptacle and iron grille, were designated a Grade II listed structure on 5 June 1972. It’s recorded that the, “London Stone was for many hundreds of years recognized as the symbolic authority and heart of the City of London. It was the place where deals were forged and oaths were sworn. It was also the point from which official proclamations were made.” Legend has it that, “So long as the stone of Brutus is safe, so long shall London flourish.” Let’s hope so, and as one of the longest surviving, and most respected ‘stones in the road’, this stone might, perhaps, have lent itself to the 2012 Olympic Games – for what better symbolizes the history and continuity of the City of London, and a place to swear the Olympic Oath, than this stone that lies at its very heart.
And the stones in the road leave a mark from whence they came.
A thousand points of light or shame.
Mary Chapin Carpenter
* From: ‘Parishes: Whitby’, A History of the County of York North Riding: Volume 2 (1923), pp. 506-528.
St Cornély: Patron Saint of Carnac with paintings of bulls surrounded by menhirs and dolmens on either side. Source Wikipedia
Carnac’s patron saint is St Cornély, who is also the patron saint of cattle, and a bull cult still lingers in the parish church on tumulus St. Michel, which displays an image of the saint blessing two paintings of bulls surrounded by menhirs and dolmens. The roots of this cult can be traced back to the earliest finds in the Carnac region at 6,850 BC, which coincidentally come from beneath the very same church.
While the Sacred Sites website records that –
The legend of Carnac which explains these avenues of monoliths bears a resemblance to the Cornish story of ‘the Hurlers,’ who were turned into stone for playing at hurling on the Lord’s Day, or to that other English example from Cumberland of ‘Long Meg’ and her daughters. St Cornely, we are told, pursued by an army of pagans, fled toward the sea. Finding no boat at hand, and on the point of being taken, he transformed his pursuers into stones, the present monoliths. The Saint had made his flight to the coast in a bullock-cart, and perhaps for this reason he is now regarded as the patron of cattle. Should a bullock fall sick, his owner purchases an image of St Cornely and hangs it up in the stable until the animal recovers. The church at Carnac contains a series of fresco paintings which outline events in the life of the Saint, and in the churchyard there is a representation of the holy man between two bullocks. The head of St Cornely is said to be preserved within the edifice as a relic. On the 13th of September is held at Carnac the festival of the ‘Benediction of the Beasts,’ which is celebrated in honour of St Cornely. The cattle of the district are brought to the vicinity of the church and blessed by the priests-should sufficient monetary encouragement be forthcoming.
A guest feature by Littlestone.
The Church of St Peter, Clyffe Pypard
Image © 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 subsumed (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.
Sarsen under one of the south-facing buttresses of the Church of St Peter, Clyffe Pypard
Image © Littlestone
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.
Nikolaus and Lola Pevsner’s headstone
Image © Littlestone
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.
** Geoffrey Grigson’s 1960s guide to touring the countryside (The Shell Country Alphabet) has been republished (see The Guardian article here).
What are subsumed sites and artistic works?
In the West, and in the ‘New Worlds’ of the Americas, Australia, New Zealand etc, these are sites and artistic works (sacred or otherwise) of pre-Christian origin which have been subsumed by a later culture or religion. The most notable examples in Europe are stone circles, temples, wells etc which predate Christian and Roman influences and which have been subsumed into the cultural (architectural or artistic) fabric of those later systems. Elsewhere, in Africa and Asia, other influences have subsumed an earlier culture, or belief system, along with its material manifestations. Often however much still remains of these earlier cultures, in architecture, crafts, painting and sculpture, and it is those remains (often unoticed and possibly in need of protection) that we will be highlighting in features on the subject.
In our first feature, by Heritage Trust member Littlestone, we look at a single, curious stone (known as a puddingstone) embedded in one of the walls of the little church of St Mary with St Leonard, in Chelmsford, Essex England.
Littlestone writes –
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 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 the south wall of The Church of St Mary with St Leonard, Chelmsford, Essex England
Image credit Littlestone
The Heritage Trust
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 subsumed (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 The Modern Antiquarian entry.
**The Church of St Mary with St Leonard by Ann Howard.