I’ve been told about this place before, but its disputed antiquity, and the ever lengthening list of my must see sites had firmly pushed it to the back of my mind. Now with autumn's grip starting to discourage ventures too far from home, pleasant weekend weather inspired us to seek out somewhere to visit, and being as Knypersley was less than 30 miles from us, today seemed an opportune time to finally visit.
Just south of Biddulph on the A527 we took the signposted right turn to the Greenway Bank Country Park. There are two car parks here, the first with a small visitors centre, toilets and coffee bar, but if you want a shorter walk just continue on down the lane to a further car park next to Knypersley reservoir itself. There are plenty of people out for walks today, and the reservoir is a tranquil site, surrounded as it is by a fringe of woodland. A group of twitchers with some serious photographic equipment, throng the dam wall, feverishly photographing a group of Great Crested Grebes out on the water as we walk by.
Soon we reach Poolside Cottage, and the spot where we take the footpath that flanks the reservoir. Heading into the woods we soon pass a verdurous pond to our right, vegetation thronging its still waters, and hinting of the atmosphere of the woods to come. It’s quieter here, most people having opted to walk around the lakeshore in the sunshine, the forest canopy still retaining enough leaves to darken the day. Just down the path a handy signpost indicates we are heading in the right direction for Gawton’s Stone and Well, and looming out of the trees on an outcrop to the left, is the romantic ruin of the Wardens Tower, a folly built in 1828 and lived in as recently as the 1950’s.
Continuing along the path we soon arrive at Gawton’s Stone, and it’s not something you can easily miss! Resembling a huge dolmen, like some cyclopean version of the Devil’s Den in Wiltshire, a giant boulder rests atop two smaller, but still pretty huge stones. Sadly it’s unlikely to be from the Neolithic, but that’s about as much as we do know. Various theories have been proposed as to how these stones got here. It doesn’t strike me as a folly, as firstly there are written references to it going back to the early 1600’s, (before the era when the building of follies became fashionable) and no records exist of a landowner having had it built. Intriguingly it also looks an unlikely natural arrangement of stones, particularly as the ‘capstone’ is of a different type of rock to the base stones. It is possible though that the largest stone had toppled from the nearby outcrop, which is the same type of rock, fortuitously ending up where it did, or indeed was pushed from the outcrop in antiquity.
It all adds to the sense of mystery, as does the ‘face’ simulacrum of the rock if viewed from one side, and the folktales of the place being redolent with strange magical powers, and mysterious magnetic fluctuations. Sadly I forgot the compass today, so I can’t check if any weird magnetic anomalies were going on, but I didn’t pick up any strange sensations on touching the stone.
The small chamber inside the stone doesn’t look like it would have provided much in the way of shelter for the eponymous hermit who was once supposed to have lived here, but it does appear some working has been made to the stone at the back of the chamber, and I imagine if you were hunkered down under the stone it would provide some solace from the elements (fortunately I don’t need to try it today!)
We spend a bit of time taking in the place, the only sound that of the birds and the wind in the leaves, punctuated by the occasional bark of an overexcited dog getting a walk nearby. J.D. Sainter in his 1878 book suggests a Germanic route for the name of the stone, even going so far as to suggest it resembles an early type of Scandinavian dolmen, and I’ve got to say it does remind me in a way of the Gladsax dolmen we visited in Skane, a site which utilised a natural boulder in its construction, and which was established to be the earliest carbon dated burial mound in Sweden, so perhaps he has a point?
There is also a reference on the Biddulph museum website to an excavation that took place in 1900 which indicated burials took place at the site, but I’ve not been able to uncover any more information about this yet. Stranger and stranger.
All in all an enigmatic site, and well worth a visit, I’ll definitely be back knowing now how close it is to home, and so we leave the mysterious stone for the time being and continue our search for the nearby well…
There is a local story of a hermit using Gawton’s Stone as a hermitage after he was cured from the plague by Gawton’s Well.
The story of the Hermit:
Gawton / Gorton was one of the servants of Knypersley Hall when he became ill with the plague. Due to everyone thinking they too would fall ill he was forced to leave. He left and went to live in a cave (Gawton’s Stone) near Knypersley pool.
Nearby was a spring which is known as Gawton’s Well which is where he bathed every day. He also used the spring for his drinking water. The spring was believed to have the power to heal skin diseases by the locals and apparently cured Gawton of the plague.
Even though he was now healed he continued to stay at the cave and lived there till his death.
(The Biddulph Parish Register shows that a Robert Gorton died in 1611. He was buried on the 06th December).
Local legends say that if you crawl underneath the stone that the ‘Devil will be knocked of your back’, in a similar fashion to the nearby Bawd Stone, less than 10 miles away to the east.
Many local people do believe the stone has strange magical powers and gives off healing properties and a kind of magnetic field when touched.
J. D. Sainter in his "Scientific Rambles round Macclesfield" 1878 states:
'About one mile south of Wickenstone, and near the reservoir, Knypersley Park, there may be noticed a fine spring of water flowing into two elongated stone cisterns, along with a smaller one that is circular ; and some years ago this spring was much resorted to by the sick and lame, on account of its reputed medicinal properties. A little up the valley to the right, there comes into view that huge,
singularly shaped and poised block of sandstone, named the " gawton," gorton, or gawstone ; from the German "gau," a spring in a hollow or furrow, and " stan," a stone,
i.e. the spring near to or not far from this celebrated stone. It will weigh about 60 tons, and forms the capstone of a large sepulchral cell or dolmen that has undergone rough and degrading usage. This form of burial is of an early Scandinavian type that had been adopted in this country.'
Information taken from the Biddulph museum website.