|The following was deemed by it's author to be too long and irrelevant to constitute fieldnotes, so has mutated into something that only really fits as a weblog.
What makes a hill become worthy of the designation 'Sacred Hill'? Not in terms of categories of site postings on tma, but generally, in terms of what people feel about a place? Is there some sort of tickybox list of features, for example:
Does the putative sacred hill have:
a) Gods and things dancing about on the top, hoying thunderbolts at the humans below
b) The ability to make all the Locals in the pub, suddenly stop talking all at once, and start staring at you, frowning suspiciously, when you ask "So what's so special about the hill then?"
c) A big sign saying 'THIS IS A SACRED HILL'
d) Hardnosed, peer reviewed, meticulously executed Archaeological evidence that it has been the site of 'ritual activity'
e) An absolutely spiffing view
f) A quote from Tactitus saying something like "The hill is declared by the natives to be a place of pilgrimage, and the uncouth barbarians there make homage to their crappy spirits which in their ignorance, they mistake for proper gods"
g) Modern reports of UFOs, fairies, ghosts, and maybe even a quick 5-minute guest spot by the BVM herself
h) Sufficient electro-magnetic properties to cause a reading of 'Off-the-effing-scale' on a state of the art liquid gel circuitry Sacredhillometer, (One with the flashy lights, like a more modern version of the thing in Ghostbusters)
i) Eldritch lightning
j) Something indefinable, but definitely there, in a 'you can't say what it is, but you know it when you see it' kind of a way.
k) More eldritch Lightning.
Who knows? Not I. But I do feel that Simonside Hills merit the appellation 'Sacred'. Not that I could actually say what the feth 'Sacred' means. Special is possibly explanatory enough. But whatever 'Sacred' is, Simonside is it.
I've been able to see this place for most of my life, on the edge of the horizon to the North of Tyneside. Every time you go up one of the ridges near the Tyne, you can see the distinctive humps of these hills, silhouetted in the distance, particularly so at sunset in the summer, when the light fades behind them. They have a presence which extends for miles. They indicate the start of the Cheviots to someone who likes hills, this is enough in itself. These hills represent, to a slightly loopy post-industrial dweller of the Tyne as myself, a sense of security and a sense of continuity. For when seen from the wrecked landscapes of the Tyne, in counterpoint to the gaping wounds that are the opencast works on the costal plain, beyond the enclosed estates of the post-riever years, Simonside sits unconcerned, as it always has done, because it's a hill. As far as I've ever been able to work out, hills don't get concerned about much.
Of course much of this sense of the unchanging permanence of Simonside, is illusion, It has been forested, deforested, reforested and finally become moorland. It's slopes were once buzzing, comparatively speaking, as Lorenshaws hillfort was built on it's edge. It's footslopes have probably been arable at one point at least, but that's not the point, the point is, to me, Simonside represents something timeless and constant, in a landscape of hurly-burly alteration and strife.
And this is confirmed by a visit on a sunny day. The timelessness was lessened in one sense, in that the crags are so eroded, the passage of time is written on them plainly. The numerous solution holes are scoured wide by the action of wind and rain, which will be quite fierce at times, as this is a very exposed place. Then flitting on the periphery of possibility, some of the solution holes are just odd enough to suggest rock art.
Tales recorded in the 19th century, but possibly of much older origin, mention the "dwarf-like inhabitants of the darker recesses of the hill".
These entities are known collectively as the 'Duergar', a term which is allegedly confined to Simonside. The Duegar apparently were serious tricksters, with a penchant for leading the unwary over precipices in the mist.
See references to the writings of D.D. Dixon in Paul Frodsham's 'Archaeology in the Northumberland National Park' CBA, 2004.
Nothing fancy, just cups and grooves, but given the severity of weathering, it feeds the imagination to know that further down the hill, at Lordenshaw, are some fine panels of complex motifs. Some of the patterns made by the action of the elements suggest stylised animals, particularly snakes, others are familiar abstract motifs such as spirals, but none of these are the work of human hands. In a couple of places, particularly on Dove Crag.
There are pillars of eroded sandstone forming small scale versions of the Cheesewring on Bodmin moor. These natural sculptures are maybe sufficiently strange to have been recipients of special status in prehistory.
http://www.themodernantiquarian.com/img_fullsize/29873.jpg " alt="Dove Crags">
This profusion of unusual textures is echoed on a larger scale by the overhangs and crannies, which raise the tantalising possibilities of prehistoric use of the rock shelters that abound on the crags. A good one is on the northern edge of Dove Crag, another is Old Stell crag. Some of these shelters are very silted up, others overgrown, but strip a few thousand years away, and it's easy to imagine Mesolithic folk thinking "Here, this is a good place to stop". And well they should think that, for it has shelter, but affords a view that is as good as you will get if you want to watch the land about. I kid thee not, you can see Penshaw Hill on Wearside to the south, even the hills of Durham. Way past the border into Scotland to the west, up past Alnwick to the north, and to the sea from to the east. It's a full 360degree view, extending for over 50 miles in some directions. Absolutely perfect if you want to watch out for gangs of fourlegged food piling across the plains to the hills, or even to just sit and watch the stars rise. There's even a convenient water supply in the pool at the bottom of Old Stell Crag, very picturesque as well as practical.
The idea that this place has been held sacred in prehistory, is possibly supported by the fact that there are numerous monuments in the surrounding area, many seemingly placed to afford a view of Simonside. There are cairns on the hills immediately to the west, where the horizon is closest. To the east, there are the panels of rock art, burial cairns, and standing stone at Lordenshaws], right at the foot of the hill. There are more panels, some including confirmed manmade versions of the extra large cups on the crags, tracing the path of a stream down to the river Coquet. On the other side of the Coquet, there are more standing stones, cairn fields and rock art. To the south, there is rock art and a four-poster circle at Fontburn and the possible (strong emphasis on possible) ritual enclosure at Nunnykirk. Simonside is visible from the the buria mound next to The Warrior Stone. I couldn't swear to it, but there's a chance the standing stone alignment of The Five Kings to the west near Elsdon, also has a relationship with the Simonside hills, if not directly to Simonside itself. Even fifteen miles to the south, the Stone and mound of The Poind and his man at Bolam is placed on a ridge with a clear view of the distinctive profile of Simonside.
I am told that sacred hills are the focal points of ritually significant landscape relationships, explaining the possible absence of monuments on these hills themselves. If this is the case, then Simonside also has a vote from me in that it links two other possible sacred hills. The first of these, Penshaw, to the south on Wearside, has greater likelihood of sacredness than the second, the Bowden Doors near Wooler, which are visible to the north of Simonside.
One last thing that clinched a love for this place, was the appearance of an adder right in the middle of the path. After a few hours of scrambling about crevices and avoiding the precarious mats of vegetation that hide many clefts from the unwary, the sudden awareness that there had possibly been adders right next to me, put an extra spin on the experience.
I can honestly say that my afternoon bouncing about this place was one of the best excursions I've ever had. Whilst you get a good view from the top of Cairngorm, Helvellyn or Snowdon, the view from the top of Simonside though not as spectacular, is (for me) a view of home, and one that drips with hidden, intangible shadows and echoes of unwritten histories. It has a real 'Power of place' to borrow a phrase from Stan Beckinsall's book on Northumberland. Even on a nice sunny day, it wasn't hard to feel that there could have been otherworldly entities nearby, but that were keeping quiet in the background of awareness. For on that day at least, Simon side was welcoming visitors. It might be a tad fearsome if 'It was dark and windswept night'.
(Might even get a bit of eldritch lightning, that would be a plus, you can't go wrong with eldritch lighting effects on hills.)
PS: I was lucky enough to get to be next to the window in a plane flying over Northumberland, a few days after the visit described above, and got to see the Simonside hills from the air. They completely stand out in the surrounding landscape. Like the Thornborough Henges, they have even more presence when seen from above.
Posted by Hob
4th July 2004ce
Edited 12th March 2005ce