On North Dartmoor, just off the A30 you will find the village of South Zeal.
Its quaint and its quiet and the village pub has a little secret.
The back room of the Oxenham Arms has a fine menhir built into one wall.
The inn is thought to have been built in the latter part of the 12th Century by lay monks, possibly as a type of wayside hospital for pilgrims or people wandering in the wool trade.
As mentioned in one of the essays in Mr Cope's book the early Christian Church often incorporated the old sacred sites into the fabric of their buildings, attempting to steal their thunder, as it were.
The limited archaeological work that has been performed at the Oxenham Arms shows that this is probably what happened here, that is to say the monks built around the stone.
A locally produced leaflet says the stone was "shaped by man 5 thousand years ago." That is the only reference to an age for the stone I have been able to find.
The stone reaches up into the ceiling of the room and according to the leaflet " Not withstanding deep digging its foundations have never been reached."
So he (its a Boy this one) is a big chap. Its a bit weird finding this marvelous thing stuck in a wall, wedged between a radiator and a television. Its hard to explain but he seemed quite ok there, or maybe it was just me, wankered on cider and whooping along to some local accordion players (ye gods, the madness that is in apple juice).
In the restaurant area is a smaller menhir , a little over six feet. The owner told me that this was added as a Victorian novelty. He couldn't say whether the stone had been carved specifically for the joke or if it was a genuine menhir pulled off the moors and re erected here. I got the feeling that it probably had been recovered from a ransacked site and taken to the pub. There is no shortage to pick from.
South Zeal sits at the foot of the whopping Cosdon Hill, the hill is packed with Neolithic monuments, burial mounds, a cracking circle (Nine Stones) and a triple stone, row which was one of my main reasons for being in the area in the first place.
The Oxenham arms makes a good base to explore this part of the Moor which was clearly of great importance to our ancestors. Please note this is deepest Devon, their definition of a vegetarian breakfast is offering you brown bread with your bacon.
The most popular bit of folklore surrounding Bowerman's nose goes as follows. In the times of William the Conqueror a great Norman warrior (a Bow-man ) settled in the area. He was out hunting with his hounds one day when he he gave chase to a hare. The chase led the huntsman and his hounds crashing through a coven of witches who were about their work. The Huntsman scattered the coven and lost the hare.
The witches cooked up a scheme to revenge their dignity. Some time later Bowerman the bowman was hunting in the area once again when he spotted a pure white hare, a witch in disguise of course.
The witch led the hunter a merry chase until at the top of a hill on Hayne Down the witches sprang their ambush turning Bowerman into a pile of stones and his dogs into the rocks and clitter that surround him.
Now for a bit of amateur etymology. There are other places called "nose" on Dartmoor and it is clear that "nose" is being used as a generic term to describe an outcrop of rock. This meaning has become twisted in the case of Bowerman because in profile he looks very much like a face with a distinct nose. So Bowerman's outcrop has become firmly fixed in modern imagination as Bowerman's nose, wrongly drawing attention to one aspect of the rock pile rather than the whole site itself. So lets discount the nose and concentrate on Bowerman.
If there was a Norman noble Bowerman or Bowman living in the area he did not leave any traces of his name in the Doomesday book in 1086.
A more tempting theory is to be found if you look into the remnants of the celtic language where here in the far South West anything with Man, Men or Maen translates as "Stone" (in that way Cornwall's famous Men an Tol becomes "Stone with Hole"). Given the word Vawr means "Great" then it is an easy step to see how Vawr Maen "Great Stone" becomes Bowerman.
I liked this theory right up to the point I was told that the Celtic/Cornish tongue would have put the words the other way round ie Maen Vawr.... "Stone Great" because the adjective comes after the noun. To prove the point there is a geological feature in Cornwall called Maen Vawr which over the years has transmogrified into "Man-O-War". But how hard and fast is this adjective/noun rule ? Surely over millennia it could change... or is this just bending facts to fit a favourite theory?
Everyone is agreed that Bowerman/Bowman/Vawr Maen/ is a geological feature, but is it a sacred site ? At the foot of the rise on which Bowerman stands a prehistoric settlement has been found. Standing there at Blissmore you can appreciate Bowerman in all his glory, there has to be a link between Bowerman and those early settlers. Some people (including Mr Cope ) speculate that the ancients toppled similar rock piles nearby in order to leave Bowerman standing proud. The problem with that theory is when you consider the amount of effort put into toppling the other stacks, why did the architects then leave all the rubble lying around their new sacred site ?
Of course it is a lot of work to clear paths through the jumble of rocks, but that is exactly what has happened about 400 meters South of Bowerman where a 2 meter wide bronze age road picks its way through the granite slabs for about 200 meters. If they did it there, why not around the Idol?
My feeling is that Bowerman is a completely natural "found" holy place and landmark. The fact that the earliest oral traditions associate Bowerman with both witchcraft and a great Hunter figure also binds him closely in with the old religion. On a personal note, for me, Bowerman still has his mojo working. He dominates a fine a landscape and as you approach you know this is a sacred site. Just as some stone circles are said to defy attempts to count the number of stones in them so Bowerman has confused many visitors about his height. I have seen it recorded separately by well respected Dartmoor experts as 26 , 40 50 and even 55 feet. Go have a look for yourself !
I visited the Hurlers with the missus for the first time over a year ago. I haven' t been back. Hard to explain really.
A lovely day and high hopes came to naught. The setting is wrong somehow, derelict mines and alien looking telecom masts, a nearby road and dumped agricultural equipment don't help.
The stones look like part of the clutter. Two unseen dirt bikers added a distracting, ever present, angry wasp hummmmm for the hour or so we tried to loiter.
Retreating to the village for some extra cholesterol cornish ice cream I bumped into an old friend. His clothes were two sizes too big for him, his skin was grey, he looked and sounded like shit. You can't exchange the usual pleasantries with someone who can see the shock on your face.
He hadn't come to see the Hurlers, he had never heard of them, he wouldn't tell me why he was in the tiny village. I bought him a post card of the rings from the village shop and left him, the village and the stones to it.
I found out later that he had been diagnosed with liver cancer. The Hurlers hold no happy memories for me.
In an earlier posting about Scorhill I put forward the idea that a nearby natural holed stone (Tolman ) in the river Teign could have had some influence on the siting of the circle in this place. After some reading (I must get out more) I found a bit of folklore that connects Scorhill stone circle not only with the tolman but also with the nearby double circle of Grey Wethers. Here it is.
"Faithless wives and wantons had first to wash in Cranmere Pool then return and run round Scorhill Three times. They next went down to the river Teign and passed through the Tolman ( a holed stone reputedly good for rheumatism as well as virtue ), then up to Grey Wethers where each woman knelt and asked forgiveness. If the stones remained standing all was well, but if they fell, and some did as can be seen, the woman would be crushed to death."
Anthony Hippisley Coxe
1975 Pan Books.
Second guessing my way through Bibliographies I think the author picked this tale up from "The Witchcraft and Folklore of Dartmoor". by Ruth E Gordon St Leger Published London 1965.
Stories about faithless wives and wantons meeting a grizzly death at stone circles sounds a bit like the usual attempts by Christians to demonise these places. That said the story may be a twisted, half lost version of some older ceremony which connected the circles and the Tolman.
My directions to the holed stone were a bit rubbish last time so I include another little extract which is so sweetly written it deserves to see the light of day again.
"The wooded gorge of the Teign below Batworthy is very grand and picturesque. Passing around the Batworthy enclosure, I gain the river, in which is one of the most remarkable natural phenomenon on the Moor, the Tolmen. It is a solid block of granite about 10 feet in diameter and 2 feet to 4 feet thick, through which the action of the water has worked a hole a yard in diameter, and two other holes appear to have begun by the same agency.
Although the Drudists do not, I think, claim this phenomenon, as they do the rock basins, to be the work of their favourite priesthood, they yet, I believe, assign it a place in their rites, as an ordeal or miraculous cure.
I fancy I have heard too that a superstition still lingers that anyone passing through the hole will be proof against rheumatism. He must take care not to drop into the river below I should imagine".
An Exploration of Dartmoor Antiquities 1892 by John Chudleigh.
You can of course avoid dropping into the river below by going down under the stone and hauling yourself through. Which, given the powerful symbolism of re birth connected with these things would seem the obvious way to use them. On my last visit I even managed it. I wanted to walk on to Grey Wethers but the other half didn't want to. I think the old wanton was worried about being crushed.
Despite this being the land of my fathers and this area in particular the scene of happy childhood memories February 2000 was my first visit to an RSC.
We grumbled our way through the surrounding stands of stultifying conifers (farming telegraph poles is the finest way possible to wreck local flora and fauna while providing tax dodge fat profits for absentee investors ), we glanced at the notice board, looked around and were stunned by this place.
Its in wonderful condition, not just in the physical restoration but also in a strong sense of a continuity of use.
Neither a desolate ruin nor a sterile reconstruction, but a vibrant place. The other half summed it up by saying that in some places the old ways die hard, and come back brighter. That seemed right.
The alien (to my eyes) appearance of flankers, recumbent, inner cairn stones and small central cleared circle left a deep impression. Standing in that inner circle was a dizzying experience.
The notion of a priest caste using its knowledge of lunar cycles to advise a crop dependent culture hit home loud and clear, I could almost see the old buggers at it. I was interested to read the earlier entry by Merrick who also found the site conducive to producing strong mental pictures.
Something else came whistling back over the years to me. A little anti establishment rant, Scottish style.
See the smoking bowl before us,
Mark our jovial ragged ring,
Round and round take up the chorus,
And in rapture loudly sing.
What is title what is treasure ?
What is reputations care ?
If we lead a life of pleasure,
It is no matter how or where.
A fig for those by laws protected,
Liberty is a glorious feast.
Courts for cowards were erected,
Churches built to please the priests.
Robert Burns (1759-1796)
I first went to the village of Drewsteigton five or six years ago to interview Britain/the worlds oldest landlady... 100 years old and still pulling pints. Rather miserable old girl I recall. She's gone but the pub "The Drew Arms" is well worth a visit. Anyway, driving to the village I noticed the little hand made "Spinsters Rock" sign and returned when I had the time to savour the site.
Tree growth and house building have played their usual tricks on any possible landscape alignments and the horror stories about stone rows and circles around here being ploughed under blackened my mood. That said, the rocks cheered me up no end. I find these uplifted stones uplifting. The other half sat in the rocks grinning as I circled, climbed and smoothed the fine things. An undeniable warm sensation spreading across my shoulders. I was reminded of the tinglestone tag given to a site up country.
The name deserves a closer look.. the word spinster has suffered from some major alteration in meaning.The name Spinsters Rock was first recorded by William Chapple in 1779. The folk tale he relates is that three Spinsters (meaning spinners of yarn, not unmarried women) put the stones up. I haven't managed to see a copy of his original description of the site but Crossings Guide To Dartmoor (1912) says that Chapple derived the name from "Some Celtic words having much the same sound....and which he says mean an open observatory or stargazing place".
My Cornish isn't good enough to began to guess what word sounds like Spinster but means star gazing place.
The Antiquarian Polwhele in "The History of Devonshire" (1806) refers to another local legend. He records a version where the stones were erected by three young men who came down with their father from the hills carrying the stones. This has been attributed to a reversioning of the story of Noah and his sons coming down from the mountain after the Ark came to rest. All a bit Christian and lacking in female input to my way of thinking.
All the above sources mention that this was once a major site with stone rows and associated circles. All now "cleared for agriculture". An act of cultural vandalism that defies words.
I have also found references to this site as Shilstone Cromlech and rather funkily The Great Rock.
What can you say really.. gut reaction when I saw him was to laugh my ass off. Im sure he has had this effect on pilgrims for thousands of years.
I read with interest what Proffesor Ronald Hutton had to say about him being a Reformation joke aimed at Cromwell. The argument is based around the fact that no one wrote about him until that period.
The theory being that a local landowner went out and cut the figure into the cliff to flick the V's at Olly.
The trouble is no one at the time, including the aforementioned landowner wrote about the appearance of a vast nob monster on a Dorset hillside. No one involved in the joke seems to have felt the need to mention it or draw anyones attention to it. A lot of effort to go to to raise a laugh and then not share it with anyone.
The argument seems to be "no one mentioned it, so it didn't exist". By the same measure Britain didn't exist until the Romans started writing about it. End of rant.
I have a couple of stories about the big mans pride and joy. He has lost it on a few occasions. The prudish Victorians turfed it over and then during the Second World War he was emasculated again. The story goes that Luftwaffe pilots were using his nob to target Bristol.
My favourite story is about the Sunday school teacher who led a party of children up onto the giant for a day out. When an inquisitive child asked about the monster dick the flustered teacher told the kids. " He must have been a tailor, and those must be his scissors".
The village of Cerne Abbas has a cracking holly well near the church.
Southern dartmoor OS 655 576
Behind the village of Ugborough is the impressive bulk of Western Beacon topped with a system of five large cairns. Its the Southern most hill on Dartmoor and the cairns are aligned so that they have a stunning view over the South Hams and, on a clear day, the English Channel. A nice place to spend eternity. I always approach this site arse about face because the cairns are just up the hill from my back garden. On reaching the site there is an impressive stone row which leads roughly northwards. The stones are on average 4ft high and spaced at about 90 paces apart. They lead from the cairns down the Beacon then up the next hill called Butterdon. On top of Butterdon is another impressive array of cairns. To the right hand side of the summit there appears to be a collapsed stone circle. Its weird looking, if it was a circle then all the stones have fallen inwards, suggesting to me that it was deliberately but not very comprehensively wrecked. The stone row continues Northwards but the stones are much smaller and only a couple of feet apart. They go on for a long way. Any amateur anthropologist could guess that the rows were used as part of a burial procession ceremony leading from the heart of the moor, up hill and down dale ending at the summit of Western Beacon. Sat on top of Butterdon's biggest cairn one day (feeling myself deliberately but not very comprehensively wrecked) I was checking out the alignments with the stone row, and other distant Tors. I had a thought. If you don't know what a Tor is then look at Mr Copes photograph of Bowermans nose on Dartmoor. A Tor is a natural rock formation but it looks completely artificial. Huge flat stones piled on top of each other by nature not by man. So what would an ancient people make of these things ? They would probably think they had been put there by giants, or by gods. So why not imitate them by building their own burial mounds on hill tops ? A stroll across to nearby Ugborough beacon seems to add weight to this idea. That big Tor is in places nearly buried under the remains of a large cairn. Some of the chambers of the cairn look like they have been rebuilt in more recent times but I would guess by the amount of stones up there that the Tor would have been completely covered. The view from Ugborough Beacon also looks out across the South Hams but is somewhat tamed by a golf course. Tossers.
Scorhill.. and a little nearby Magik.
Acclaimed since antiquity as a fine site some guide books will tell you its been much diminished by the removal of stones and much of its mystery has been dissipated by the addition of a cart track through one edge of the ring. So much for guide books. I think its a stunner and whatever prompted the oldies to build it here still lingers.
My first visit was last summer. The week before the total solar eclipse and the local press was full of horror stories about bands of crusties turning up at stone circles to worship the magikal properties of Special Brew.
The trip to Scorhill through Chagford and Gidleigh is hard in a big car. Some of Devon's narrowest lanes and overgrowing hedge rows impede progress. There is also the smallest bridge on the planet, wing mirror scrapping stuff.
On this fine August evening access on the lane leading to the site was further restricted by some self important retired major type who had erected posts to stop vehicles of a certain size. A row ensued and I got through, its narrow but its still a public right of way. I suppose the old boy thought his little corner of England was about to become Woodstock. Whatever. I was not in the right frame of mind as I walked up and across the moor to the site. But Scorhill was worth the hassle.
On high moor free from human intervention it .... well.... it broods. Built in a dip in the land you are physically drawn into the circle as you approach. That's gravity for you, and something else besides. Inside the circle at the centre , a definite sensation... pressure drop. The birds, I swear, stopped singing, the insects stopped insecting. Very nice. Return trips yielded similar results.
On one trip in the company of a very wise woman I saw the most impressive sun set/star fall I have ever seen in years of tramping the moors.
She also revealed a close by natural magik site. If you got to the circle by driving up to Gidleigh and walking up onto the moor then after the circle keep walking but veering very slightly left (ie in the direction of Shovel Down ) for about 300 yards. You will find a large stream and standing in the water is a huge bolder with a hole eroded through it. A big hag stone. A natural Men An Tol. Climbing up onto the stone and dropping through the hole is said to cure arthritis and aid fertility.
I should imagine the stone was probably there before the circle and may have helped in the selection of the site. I didn't go through the hole, wet weather made it tricky. Besides which I don't have arthritis, or the desire to reproduce.
Merrivale, Devon by KPH.
I was intrigued by references in books to the Merrivale site because of it's local name The Plague Market. Two drastically different impressions for the same place . Merry Vale (ahh green and pleasant) Plague Market..(dark and nasty). The Plague Market handle came along with the Great Plague in the mid C17th when it was decided that the old religious site would be a good place to gather the banished victims. Local people would leave food out (hence the "market" image I
suppose) and doubtless the priests would pop along and torment the poor buggers as well.
I accept that the stones would have been a local landmark but it also seems to me that the church may have picked the site in order to keep people away from the stones. Local names for the old sites are often marked by clumsy attempts to demonize them. Hence the Merry Vale became the Plague Market.
I first visited this site on the summer solstice 1999. I chose that day out of curiosity. This is a big site, a lot of work over a lot of centuries, a small stone circle an avenue, a double row, a single row, a cist, outlying single standing stones and hut-circles and other good stuff. The local legend goes that on Midsummers Eve if you stand in the neat little stone circle you can watch the sun set directly into a U shaped gap on a distant Tor off to your right hand side. If you go on Midwinters Eve you can apparently see the same effect on a similar gap on a distant Tor on your left hand side. I was surprised to see about 35 people at the site. Some villagers with video cameras, a couple of stone huggers and a couple of crusties. The moment came, the sun dipped and missed the U shape by a small amount. The villagers with cam corders complained it hadn't worked, the huggers passed no comment. The crusties at least refrained from playing their didgereedoo. Aubrey Burl refutes any astro-archeological goings on at the site but I find the folk memory of a solar observatory a tempting one. Maybe the people who built it judged their midsummers day to be when the sun set in the U shaped gap. We of course have a fixed point in our filofaxes, we should allow a little lee way. I returned Midwinter but because of dense fog I couldn't even find the circle, let alone the sunset. Either way I enjoyed the site and the fact that people had come to see magik work. It may have been in slightly the wrong place but it was a fine sunset. I wished at the time that I had someone to share it with. I met my partner a week later, on a blind date. We hit it off over dinner, it turned out we had a shared passion. Visiting Neolithic sites. Be careful what you wish for.
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