Riddles of the Night: Unconventional methods…

A labyrinthine path leads to a summit that ends abruptly in a sheer and unforgiving cliff. From this side, the settlement on Cratcliffe Tor would have been impregnable. Yet, there seems little space or evidence for a group of homes in this place. There are other sites nearby where ancient settlements have been found and, although Cratcliffe, Robin Hood’s Stride and the stone circle below them may have been at the heart of a community, we do not think it was here that they lived. They were important for another reason. The rocks, the confusing pathway and uneven landscape seem rather to lend themselves to a minimal population and reminds me of other sites that we suspect may have been ritual landscapes, places where the births and deaths of a clan would have been marked. Certainly the summit, with its great beds of stone, would have been a perfect place for air burial.

One stone bed in particular seems designed for this purpose. A low, pillowed couch that slopes down to a trough… that got me into trouble when I suggested it could have been ‘for the juices’. For some reason, the phrase did not go down well with my companions.

This is not pure speculation. We know that air burial was an efficient way to clean the bones of the dead and it would seem that our forefathers held a belief that the process of dying was not complete until the bones were clean. We know, from archaeological evidence, that many different methods were used to hasten this process. Perhaps the dead could not become ancestors, guarding and promoting the wellbeing of the clan in the otherworld, until their bones were properly prepared.

The presence of a stone circle and other ritual sites close by would suggest that this was a place where the human journey, from birth into death, and from death into the otherworld was ritually marked. One of our companions felt strongly that a tranquil glade had been a place where the healers worked. At another spot, where a stark cut in the high cliffs drops to the valley below, has a ‘feel’ of a place of judgment, where one guilty of the most heinous crimes against his people would be cast down the sheer drop to his death. Dowsing seemed to confirm this.

Much of what we suspect about the way in which these sites were used in prehistoric times cannot be substantiated by any means that the scientific mind would accept, but in many ways, this does not matter. It is alternative archaeology. When the land whispers stories to the inner ear, there is no way of knowing whether what we hear is fact or fiction. What we do know is that such promptings make sense of the landscape, bring it to life for us, and allow us to see it with a new understanding, possibly one that brings us closer to the vision of our most distant ancestors.

On the plain below, forming a triangle with the Tor and the Stride, is a stone circle known as Nine Stones Close. Only four of these stones now remain… ‘squaring the circle’… though at least one other remains close by, reused in a stone wall. The circle used to be called the Grey Ladies and legends told of maidens who danced on the sabbath and were turned to stone for their impiety. I wonder if the story originated with the hermit of the crag, for certainly it is a Christian gloss on the story of the stones.

Another story tells of a farmhand who, resting from his labours against one of the stones, found a pipe. Lighting the pipe, he watched as the stones became transparent and through their surface he could see into the fairy realms. This tale may have its origins in an older memory, perhaps, of a time when sacred herbs were used to enhance vision and allow the priesthood of the stones a glimpse into the otherworld.

The Bronze Age circle would have been over forty feet in diameter, with the stones standing over seven feet tall. It is from the centre of this circle that the major southern moon can be observed between the pinnacles of the Stride. The stones are the tallest standing stones of any circle in Derbyshire… but our next visit would take us to a place where these stones would be dwarfed. As the light faded, we left the fields and headed for the warmth of an old inn to await the coming of darkness…

Riddles of the Night: Guardians of the Way II

 

 

Cratcliffe Tor is a rocky crag, prized these days by rock climbers, and a treacherous twin of Robin Hood’s Stride. It was once the site of an ancient settlement and vestiges of prehistoric earthen ramparts remain. Cross the Portway, and a gentle slope leads to an intriguing jumble of stones, bracken and trees. It takes some imagination to make any sense of the landscape here.

Our first point of interest was the hermit’s cave, nestled under a rocky overhang and guarded by two great yews, a tree held sacred in these isles from time immemorial. We do not know for how long this open shelter was used, or when it was first occupied. We do know that it is situated close to the ancient track called the Portway and that was in use from prehistoric times, through the Roman occupation and right through the Middle Ages.

A fourteenth century Rule of Hermits states, “Let it suffice thee to have on thine altar and image of the Saviour hanging upon the Cross, which represents to thee His Passion, which thou shalt imitate, inviting thee with outspread arms to himself.” The hermit’s shelter contains only a stone ledge upon which a man could sleep and a crucifix and candle niche carved into the wall. The carving, which may have graced the wall for seven hundred years, is a curious depiction of Christ of the Cross. The figure seems to have His arms raised in both triumph and welcome, rather than in agony and the Cross is portrayed as a living tree, not an instrument of execution. Does this Tree of Life carry the Christ to Heaven? Or do the arms invite heaven to Earth? The hermit who knelt before this image of eternity every day may have touched upon something his staid brethren in their cathedrals and abbeys may have missed.

We know nothing of the men who occupied this cave, except for an entry in the accounts of Haddon Hall for the 23rd December 1549, when a payment was made to ‘ye harmytt’ for supplying rabbits to the Hall and for guiding travellers thither.

The hermits were not simply reclusive men with a vision of solitude; a thirteenth century decree by Pope Innocent IV had bound the hermits, who had to be properly authorised by senior churchmen, to live by the Rule of St Augustine. It was their task to serve the road, giving aid to travellers, guiding them over difficult ground and offering all help needed. One of their tasks was to guide travellers to fords and river crossings, thus embodying the stories of the Good Samaritan and St Christopher.

 

St Christopher, the patron saint of travellers, was particularly important to pilgrims and those medieval churches on pilgrim routes often had a large wall painting of the saint opposite their door, so that he would be the first thing a pilgrim saw upon arrival and would gain, thereby, a special blessing.

This particular area is so rich in stone circles and Neolithic monuments that it is easy to find possible leys and intriguing alignments in the landscape. When you walk such pathways, you cannot help but ask questions. Did the builders of these routes know something we have forgotten? Or were they simply practical routes for travellers and traders, with recognisable landmarks? But if so, why choose some of the most difficult and inhospitable terrain for such tracks to run, when there are sheltered valleys with food and sources of water so close to hand? Why struggle over hilltops when a river valley follows the same path far below?

Whatever modern beliefs and opinions about such things may be, that these alignments were significant to our ancestors seems indisputable. The leys, the ancient trackways and the pilgrim routes have much in common, running across the land and ‘joining the dots’ between sacred or significant sites, earth and stone, both natural and constructed, but always, it would appear, tended. First, by those who made them, and who raised great earthworks, stone circles and burial mounds and cairns beside them. Next, perhaps, by the boundary markers called ‘herms’, reminiscent of the Greek god Hermes, the patron of travellers and messenger of the gods who moved between the worlds… and whose name means a boundary cairn. Then by the holy men and hermits who served the road and also, oddly enough, by the Templars, formed to protect the pilgrim routes to the Holy Land during the Crusades. As we continued our journey, we were left with more questions than answers…

Riddles of the Night: Guardians of the Way

Beyond the forest’s leafy shade,
The hooded one, with giant’s pace
From pinnacle to pinnacle
Leap’t silently, in moonlit grace…
In eremitic solitude
In caverns deep to meditate…
Within, the riddle of the night,
A key that will elucidate…
Beyond the stones, to four once nine
To where the goddess meets her mate
And heavens dance at winters turn
Bends earthwards to illuminate.

After lunch at the Druid, there was another riddle that would give clues to the location and the significance of the sites we would be visiting that afternoon. It didn’t take long for the company to divine that it had something to do with a hood in the greenwood, a giant’s ‘stride’, a stone circle and a hermit. A search of the books we had on the table…and a bit of Googling too… and we were on our way to Robin Hood’s Stride.

The Stride itself is a fabulous outcrop that looks as if it would be more at home in the landscape of some fantasy film or the American west. It is another site we know well, as it is part of a much wider sacred landscape whose history begins in the Neolithic era and continues into medieval times. The area immediately around the Stride holds Bronze Age settlements and barrows, an Iron Age hillfort, a stone circle and a hermit’s cave… and through the middle of this landscape runs an ancient track, now known as the Portway.

Mam Tor – the Shivering Mountain above Castleton.

The Portway runs across the Derbyshire landscape, from Mam Tor… the ‘mother hill’ above Castleton to the Hemlock Stone, forty miles away in neighbouring Nottinghamshire. The old tales say that the Hemlock Stone was thrown to its current position by the Devil himself when he lost his temper at the constant ringing of church bells. This is obviously a later legend… the stone has probably been there since the Ice Age and the track was in constant use from prehistory to medieval times… but it does link both ends of the trackway. Like the Ridgeway, which is some five thousand years old or more and possibly Britain’s oldest road, the ancient track runs close to some important prehistoric sites along the way.

© Copyright Alan Murray-Rust and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.
The Hemlock Stone. Image: Geograph.org © Copyright Alan Murray-Rust CCL

From the village of Elton, it follows Dudwood Lane to pass between Robin Hood’s Stride and Cratcliffe Crag, or Tor, and beside the stone circle. ‘Dudwood’ may come from ‘dod-wood’ and Alfred Watkins, the author of the Old Straight Track and father of the modern interest in leys, posited that the ‘dod-men’ were the prehistoric surveyors who laid out the original network of trackways.

The existence of the ley network invites much controversy and many theories, with some believing that they are simply routes between significant sites, others that they map earth energies and yet others claiming they do not exist at all. Our purpose was not to impose a view, but to explore ideas and, considering where the breadcrumb trail had been leading us, to offer a few possibilities of our own… and this site provided us with an ideal location to explore some of them.

But first, we needed to explore the land itself, starting with the Stride. Boulders of strange shapes and aspects litter the ground around the Stride. One looks like a giant hare, with its ears folded back moongazing. Others look like giant heads. There are traces of prehistoric rock art, hidden amid more modern graffiti, showing that the place was important to our more distant ancestors and the continuing tradition of climbing to a dangerous point, to hang there a wicker heart as a symbol of love, suggests a memory of old fertility rites.

At one end of the Stride is a rather odd cave, open at both ends to the winds and containing a deep depression that fills with water, making it an ideal scrying pool. Above it is another, smaller ‘cave’…and alcove with superb acoustics. Stuart has chanted in there before, but has never heard its effects…so Steve kindly ascended alone to test how the sound carried to the open cave below. The effects were startling… and the sudden rising of a wind that lasted only as long as the chant? Pure coincidence…

You could call it coincidence that a perfectly shaped nose forms one wall of the cave… a single stone, unattached to the main body of the Stride, that rests against it. We know that the ancients moved huge slabs of stone…we could see four that had been indisputably erected in antiquity from where we stood. We also know that if we, modern humans who are so far divorced from the life of the land, can see the faces and forms in the stone, be they natural, coincidental, fortuitous, or not, then our ancestors, whose survival required their attunement to the life of the land, would have seen, used and possibly adapted them too.

Twin pinnacles rise from the apparently jumbled heap of rocks and, just as at the recumbent stones we had seen in Scotland, there is an astronomical event that would not have failed to impress. From the centre of the stone circle, close by, the major southern moon can be observed as it sets between the two stone pillars on top of the hill. That our ancestors knew about this seems proven by the positioning of the stone circle… there is no other reason for it being just there. I would love to know if it is reflected in the scrying pool as it sets…

It would have been easy to spend the entire afternoon discussing possibilities at the Stride, including the idea that the ‘Hood’ of the Stride refers to the phases of the moon as it pulls darkness across its face, but the short December days were dictating our pace. We crossed the ancient Portway and moved on to Cratcliffe Crag…