Just behind the Druid Inn and across the narrow lane from Thomas’ Eyre’s church of St Michael, is the strange landscape of Rowtor Rocks. We have visited the place on many occasions, but it needed only one visit to realise that there was more going on here than meets the eye. That the natural, rocky outcrop was a sacred place to our ancestors, five thousand years and more ago, is evidenced by the number of prehistoric rock carvings that have survived. That it was used as a hidden temple by our far more recent ancestors is mere speculation… until you start looking at the evidence.
The Rocks were substantially meddled with by Reverend Thomas Eyre in the 1700s. Odd flights of steps were put in, shelves and seats carved, fonts cut into rocks and a Broken Column erected at the highest point. There are natural caves amid the tumble of boulders and new ones were cut. We do not know if these were completely new, or whether they enlarged natural features.
What was the good vicar up to? You could simply accept the whole thing as a rather elaborate garden feature and think no more about it. There are tales that Eyre sat on the carved seats to write his sermons. There are also reports that he entertained guests on the rocks… but in what manner, no report survives. Tales of hauntings would certainly keep the idly curious away once darkness fell and the pale glow of candles from dark caverns would reinforce the fear.
One could make a case for his masons having created a three-dimensional ‘Stations of the Cross’…and certainly, there are sockets that could have held crosses, either side of the Broken Column on the summit. Had the Bishop questioned the works, that would have been a perfectly good explanation. You could even argue that he was Christianising an erstwhile pagan site. The Broken Column is often used as a grave marker to symbolise a life cut short. In Christian symbolism, it represents Christ. It does have other meanings though, and particularly within the Masonic tradition.
While a number of Papal edicts have threatened excommunication to Catholics who become Freemasons, the Anglican Church has a more lenient history. Many churchmen have been Freemasons and many others have been members of satellite associations, not officially Masons, but Masonic in origin. Like the landscape of Rowtor itself, it is all rather ambivalent.
One of our early impressions was that it reminded us of the landscape created by Sir Francis Dashwood and the notorious Hellfire Club at around the same time. We were gratified to find that there was at least a tenuous a connection, via John Wilkes, a journalist, politician, member of the Oddfellows and one of the early members of the Hellfire Club. But perhaps it was no more than a folly…though anything to do with the Fool may also point to initiation and the result certainly appears to be an initiatory landscape. We resolved to put it to the test…