The Vale of Lyvennet

Its Picturesque Peeps and Legendary Lore

By John Salkeld Bland

 

EARTHWORKS. - THE SITES OF ANCIENT BRITISH  VILLAGES.

The most important monuments left by the ancient Britons who inhabited this country previous to the Roman invasion are the several remains of villages. Caesar, in describing what the Britons call a town, says:- “It is a tract of woody country surrounded by a vallum and a ditch for the security of themselves and cattle against the incursions of their enemies.” Strabo confirms this, and says further:- “That within the inclosures formed of felled trees they build houses for themselves and hovels for their cattle: these buildings are slight, and not designed for long duration.”  The vallum is expressed in Welsh by caer or dinas, the same with the Gaelic dun. Diodorus Siculus and Strabo tell us that the houses of the Gauls were wretched cottages, being constructed with poles and wattled work in the form of a circle with lofty tapering or pointed roof, and Caesar also says that the houses of the Britons were similar. These it is true were of south Britain, but it is reasonable to infer that with little alteration those of the northern inhabitants would be similar. Some authors suppose the present Welsh pigsty to represent the form of the ancient British house. This is a circular building with a conical roof, and having a large circular enclosure attached.

In the district under consideration there are remains of earthworks which may be considered of this character. They generally consist of ridges of earth and stones varying in height from one to three feet, forming irregular squares, circles, passages, &c., covering a greater or less area of ground. In five of these are to be found small circular enclosures generally six yards in diameter, with a gap or opening on one side; each of the other larger enclosures have also an entrance and in some places a sort of street or passage communicates. The  most extensive and distinct are the remains of Long Dale, which are skirted by the Roman road: in the middle part of these are seven or eight of the small circles. Another though much smaller is on Wickerslack Moor: this has five small circles, with two or three irregular squares and a large circle; a large area is also enclosed on the high side which is not cut up by any earthworks. In two of the small circles was found a rude pavement formed of large slabs of sandstone rudely laid down and fit together with smaller boulders of granite, &c., but no limestone; these stones bear evident marks of having been exposed to fire. The ground chosen for these enclosures without exception are upon the hard limestone rock, covered by a very thin layer of earth; this with the loose rock has been bared off and used to form the earthworks. They are also generally at a considerable distance from water.

Yow Locks, another of these villages, is on the open moor called Slack Randy; here only one or two small circles can be traced; but the ridges are very marked, many of them being formed of large boulders rolled together. These are very plentiful near; there are two peculiar oval enclosures formed solely by large boulders, the longer diameter of each being nine yards. Another village may be seen in a field near Gilts; though very irregular, yet it affords traces of eight or ten of the small circles.

How Arcles, a little above Wood Foot affords a large circle, but only one or two of the small ones; these may have been obliterated by the plough. Bellmouth, probably a corruption of Bermont, is another between Reagill and Sleagill; part of this is quarried away, and about twenty years ago a human skeleton was found behind one of the outer earthworks. Another on Wickerslack Moor has only one small circle attached to a larger one, and enclosed by a large irregular square. The new road cuts through it, and the plough will soon obliterate all trace of it, as it doubtless has done of many others in the now cultivated parts of the country. At Harberwain is another though in a great measure obliterated, yet still exhibits a few squares, &c.; connected with it is a rampart of earth; this seems to have been for some extraordinary defence.

Other entrenchments are still to be found more or less obliterated by the advance of agriculture; some of a strategic character which will be afterwards noticed, and others again that will forever puzzle enquiry for what purpose they were raised and by what people.

To the most ancient inhabitants many authors ascribe the origin of the various stone circles to be found in different parts of the country. There are two remarkable ones in this district, one in Gunnerskeld bottom, and another near Odindale Head. The former is situate on a level area elevated a little above the bed of the stream. It is a circle of large granite boulders eighteen in number, some of which are still standing upright seven feet high, while many have fallen one way or the other. The circle is thirty-eight yards in diameter; and within it is another formed by thirty-one stones much smaller in size and eighteen years in diameter; within this has been apparently a mound, most of which is removed for the sake of the stones and the earth has been thrown into a heap outside; there are still some large stones left and three in the centre are situated as though they may have formed part of a cromlech. There is no record of anything having been found, and the word Gunnerskeld is of too modern a character to throw any light on the matter.

The one near Odindale Head is similar, at first sight inspires a truly Ossianic feeling. It is situated on a hill of “dark brown heath,” it is formed of an outer circle of thirty stones not so large as those at Gunnerskeld, twenty-five yards in diameter, within which is another circle of twenty-one stones closely packed to each other seven yards in diameter; within this are a number of other stones irregularly laid, similar to Gunnerskeld. It was opened in presence of Rev. J. Simpson, but nothing was found excepting a small portion of black carbonaceous matter. A peculiar feature is that there is an upright stone placed outside the inner and within the outer circle on the south-east side. On the north side about seven yards distant is the remains of another circle, fourteen yards in diameter, having another within of four yards, but many of the stones have been removed.

Respecting the origin of these circles authors differ considerably, some considering them to be the temples of the Druids, within whose mystic bounds sacrificial rites were performed; while others attribute them to a later people, the Pagan Saxons, Angles or Danes.

Odindale, like Gunnerskeld, is a name significant of the latter people. Odin was the one great god of the Gothic nations, from whom they all claimed descent, and to whom, of course, their greatest honours were paid.

There are also other circles much smaller in size and each on elevated ground, one near Threaplands is formed of seven granite boulders, and is five yards in diameter; some of the stones are six feet in length. Another on Harbyrn Rigg is six yards in diameter and formed of eight stones and another outside. On Wicker Street is another formed by eleven stones five yards in diameter, and near to it is a small one of four stones, three yards in diameter. Another on Harkeld is formed by ten stones, and is six yards in diameter; in digging in this one, a few inches deep was found a stratum of charred bones. The one on Harbyrn Rigg has three stones in the centre, but no trace of ashes: some of the stones are six or seven feet long, and have all originally been placed upright. These we may also attribute to the ancient Britons, probably the monuments erected around the funeral pile of important personages whose names and fame they have failed to record, but yet, in the words of the poet, “have spoken to other years.”

The Druids in their temples had generally a spring or stream of water near. This is the case with the one at Gunnerskeld, but not so with the other, unless we can associate Anna’s Keld with it; which is, however, half a mile distant. This well is mentioned by Camden, who says that like Euripus of old it ebbs and flows with the tide.*  However it may have been then, it is not the case now; but devoid of this interest its position is one of dreary grandeur, being situated in the midst of the dark brown heath. To what people we may attribute the saintly name of Anna is doubtful, but it has at some time been an important spot, from the fact that it is the source of Crook Syke, whose waters have run through the gigantic temple at Shap, now known as Carl Lofts; a temple like Avebury in the south dedicated to the dread worship of the serpent.# It is now almost destroyed, but it is considered to have been one of the most important monuments of antiquity in the north of England.

As Mr. Bland arouses our curiosity as to the origin of remains of this kind, it may interest readers to have a short account of the various opinions which have been expressed on the subject. These have been based mainly upon researches in Wiltshire, more particularly at Stonehenge and Avebury; and if these relics prove their founders to have possessed much knowledge and ingenuity, it can hardly have been more marvellous than that embodied in some of the theories formed about them. The first scientific report on Stonehenge was made by Inigo Jones, at the wish of James I.; he thought it was a temple erected by the Romans, after the Tuscan order. Charleton, physician to Charles II., held that it was a monument of the Danish period. Aubrey, about the same time, attributed it to the Druids. Next came Stukeley’s famous theory. Stukeley, a man of great learning, had read of the Druids, and had seen the circles; then he found a grotesque story in Pliny about an egg, miraculously produced from the saliva of serpents, and regarded as a charm by the Druids. So, he reasoned, the Druids made the circles for serpent worship; and, according to his argument, the complete temple consisted of a diagram of a snake, miles long, done in boulders, the circles being the reptile’s coils! To demonstrate this, Stukeley made a plan of the Avebury remains. The result was not very convincing; essential parts of the creature’s anatomy were wanting; and a snake is nothing if not continuous. But he sketched in these missing parts out of his own head, and the thing was done. Somewhat similar results were got from a hurried survey of Shap, about 1725. Such is the groundwork of the popular belief in “Druids’ Circles,” and yet, at the time, it was received almost as a revelation. John Wood, of Bath, about 1747, introduced the idea that the numbers of the stones corresponded to certain astronomical cycles or periods of time. Rev. Edward Duke, writing in 1846, saw in the Wiltshire remains a vast plan of the solar system as known to the ancients; the small circles at Avebury were the sun and moon at the summer solstice; the avenue of stones on either side was the northern portion of the ecliptic; Silbury Hill, a mile south, the Earth. Four miles north of Silbury, Winterbourne Basset circle stood for the planet Venus; south of it were Mercury; Mars; Jupiter, represented by Casterly Camp, nine miles from Silbury; and Saturn by Stonehenge, sixteen miles off. The vastness of the scheme will be appreciated by saying that an equivalent of this in Westmorland would place Saturn at Tebay, Jupiter at Shap, and the Earth at Eamont Bridge; or, following the railway, the viaduct crossing the Eamont. Mr. Duke notices that all the points are in almost exact line due north and south; and that Stonehenge points directly towards the sunrise at the summer solstice. About twenty years later, a good deal was made of practically the same fact, that from the so-called Altar Stone within Stonehenge, the sun on Midsummer Day appears to rise immediately over a distant stone called the Friar’s Heel; hence it is argued that Stonehenge was an observatory. This is the modern popular theory, possibly because of its simplicity. Fergusson, about 1870, published a most interesting argument that these circles were set up after the Romans left; his conclusion is not generally accepted, though his views are treated with respect. Those who think that archaeology must be dull, should read his racy satire at the expense of poor Stukeley. One of his suggestions is that Long Meg, or perhaps the Grey Yauds circle, may be a memorial of King Arthur’s battle in the Caledonian Forest. The best opinion is that of Mr. W. C. Lukis, who thinks that the object, in the first instance, was that of burial-places; that they were formed before the Roman invasion; while Mr. Arthur Evans assigned to Stonehenge an approximate date of 450 B.C.

 

*The exact wording is:- “Near the head of which (the Lowther) is a well which, like Euripus, ebbs and flows several times in a day,” a much less remarkable thing. Apparently Mr. Bland’s informant has misquoted in conversation. The second edition of Camden’s Britannia (1723) comments that this phenomenon is not infrequent in rocky country, and not usually lasting; and that there was then no ebbing fountain to be heard of near Shap.


# This idea is that of Stukeley; it had, at the time, a very large following, but is now rejected.

 

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The Vale of Lyvennet, Its Picturesque Peeps and Legendary Lore, By John Salkeld Bland, 1910.
Originally transcribed by Diane Coppard and Kate Burns, and reproduced here with their permission.


19 June 2015.

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