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Fieldnotes by Littlestone

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Alton Priors (Christianised Site)

Pulling in to a dead-end bit of road by Alton Priors church (now closed off by a farm gate) I was about to head across the field towards the church when a herd of cows started ambling by with a few of their calves in tow; I held back behind the gate to let them pass (good thing too because the cows were being gently herded forward by a very handsome and very big black bull). Halfway across the field, and between the gate and the church, I passed someone coming in the opposite direction. The gentleman turned out to be the landowner and he told me, as we stood chatting in his field, that his family had farmed the area for more than a hundred years (and that the big black bull was really a bit of a softie).

I asked the gentleman if the church was open and he assured me that it was. I asked him if he knew anything about the sarsen stones under the church floor and he assured me they were there. We talked a little more and then he casually mentioned that I should also take a look at the 1,700 year-old yew tree in the churchyard and the spring that rose close by. I thanked him for his time and we parted.

The church was indeed open. Hot English summer without, cool sacredness within. Just your regular little country church. But where were the trapdoors leading to another sacredness? I ambled about the church for a bit then spotted a trapdoor that was partly boarded over and couldn't be lifted.* Disappointed, I was about to leave when I spotted another trapdoor. Kneeling alone there in the silence, slowly pulling the clasp and watching as the trapdoor lifted to reveal a sarsen stone below was... mmm... more than a little magical.

I went outside and spent some time under the ancient yew tree in the churchyard - then tried to find the spring that the farmer had mentioned. I found the stream but everything else was too overgrown and the day too hot to look for more.

Alton Priors is a very, very special place. A little church built upon a sarsen circle set in the Vale of Pewsey. I've been to a lot of circles but none have had the sense of continuity that Alton Priors has. Go there and be at home (the church is open during the summer months; at other times the key can be obtained from one of the nearby houses).

* Since writing this the larger of the two trapdoors can now be lifted revealing a stone beneath. There is also a sarsen under the north-east buttress.

Ingatestone (Christianised Site)

The town of Ingatestone (Ging ad Petram - the 'parcel of land by the stone') in Essex takes its name from a Saxon settlement of 430 acres which originally supported a dozen or so inhabitants belonging to the Gigingas - the 'Giga's people'. The Saxon name for the settlement was Ing-atte-Stone (Ing at the Stone). It is likely that a Saxon church predated the small Norman one built there sometime between 1080-1100. The Saxon church may in turn have occupied the site of a former stone circle as a sarsen (a hard silicified sandstone of a type also used at Avebury and Stonehenge) was found in the north wall of the church during building work for the organ chamber there in 1905. This stone has since been relocated to the south side of the church. See -

There is evidence that some Christianised sites in Britain and Ireland have been in continuous use as sacred meeting places from before the Roman occupation. Such sites may have started with people meeting in groves, or close to springs, ponds and other water courses. The remains of a stone circle, either near or actually beneath the church itself, are sometimes found at such sites. Often an Anglo-Saxon, and then a Norman church, were built on the older pre-Christian site: Alphamstone and Broomfield churches in Essex and Alton Priors and Pewsey churches in Wiltshire appear to be examples of this continuity. The north wall (the oldest part of the Church of St Edmund and St Mary at Ingatestone) is constructed largely of broken puddingstones, although there are also several quite large dressed stones in the buttress between the north wall and the tower. The puddingstones in the north wall of Ingatestone church are interspersed in places with layers of Roman tiles. See -

In the south wall of Broomfield church there is a similar pattern of flint nodules interspersed with Roman tiles, as well as a few small broken puddingstones and one single, very impressive, puddingstone which protrudes from the base of the south wall. It has been suggested that the sarsen now on the south side of Ingatestone church, and the two sarsens on either side of Fryerning Lane in Ingatestone High Street, once belonged to a single standing stone. See -

Whether or not the 'stone' in the name Ingatestone derives from a single stone, or several stones, is unclear. To complicate matters further the Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names gives the origin of the name Ingatestone as, "One of a group of places so called, this one distinguished by reference to a Roman milestone." Were the first Saxon settlers at Ingatestone referring to one (or more) pre-Roman standing stones on the knoll now occupied by the church or to a single Roman milestone? A cursory examination of the sarsen in the churchyard, and the two sarsens at the entrance to Fryerning Lane, suggests they may actually be three discrete stones. The Freyering Lane stones seem to have been at their present location from at least the early 1930s - ie some twenty years after the stone embedded in the north wall of the church was discovered in 1905. If it can be shown that the Fryerning Lane stones have been at their present location since before 1905 however this would indicate that the sarsens are indeed three separate stones. This may be important; there are five other much smaller stones on Ingatestone High Street (making a total of eight so far accounted for) and these might have once formed part of an Ingatestone stone circle. Together with the broken puddingstones in the north wall of the church this could indicate that a stone circle of considerable size and variety once stood on the knoll now occupied by the church.

While the smaller stones, some painted white and now scattered along Ingatestone High Street, might not yet be considered important enough to return to the Ingatestone churchyard there are good reasons, on grounds of conservation and heritage, for returning the two large Fryerning Lane stones to their likely place of origin on the church knoll.

These Fieldnotes first appeared in the Heritage Action Journal. See -

The Church of St Mary with St Leonard, Broomfield (Christianised Site)

The Church of St Mary with St Leonard in Broomfield, Chelmsford, Essex stands on a little knoll a couple of miles from the town centre. It is one of only six churches in the county with a round tower - the reason for constructing round towers here is that large stones are so scarce in the county that using small stones, set in mortar, was an economical way of building larger structures. The Essex RIGS Group on behalf of Essex ( ) has the following entry -

"Chelmsford. At Chelmsford Museum a block of puddingstone stands next to the main entrance door.[*] Two sarsen stones can be seen in Broomfield by the church gate."

Following a recent visit to Alphamstone, which also has sarsens by the church gate and built into its foundations, the mention of two sarsens by the gate of The Church of St Mary with St Leonard was enough to lure me out this afternoon. Could there really be more sarsens in the stone-scarce county of Essex? After a couple of wrong turns I finally found the church and saw the two sarsens as I went past the church gate. Deciding to drive a little further I went down a lane and pulled up behind the church. Entering the churchyard from a gate on the west side I started walking clockwise around the church. Nothing to see in the foundations - nothing that is until I turned the south-east corner. There in the foundations of the south wall was this -

The stone (an amazing black puddingstone) has a similar 'positioning' to one of the stones protruding from the foundations at Pewsey Church in Wiltshire - it literally sticks out about two foot from the wall and is about six inches from ground level! I stood there gob-smacked for a while when the vicar happened to walk by. "Interesting stone" said I. The vicar nodded and said he thought it was either a way marker or of pagan origin. He then went on to tell me about Pope Gregory and his edicts concerning the assimilation of pagan practices into early Christianity. Although the church was locked, the vicar took me in (via the tradesman's entrance as he put it) for a look inside. Some interesting items in there and well worth a visit. On the way out I picked up a copy of the church information pamphlet** which has this to say -

"The original Norman church, possibly on the site of a wooden Saxon church was probably built on the incentive of the de Mandeville family of Broomfield Hall, almost a thousand years ago. The south wall of that original small church containing nave and chancel survives today. The windows were small lancets then and the chancel was shorter, as can be seen from Roman bricks that formed the original south east corner. Among the flint and Roman bricks of the South wall is a projecting puddingstone, or mass conglomerate. Some believe that such marker stones are an indication of a pre-Christian site."

The pamphlet goes on to say -

"The Roman tiles are a reminder of the story still related fifty years ago. The plan had originally been to build the church at the top of New Barn Lane, called Dragon's Foot in the tithe maps, there is a depression, now somewhat ploughed out but still deep enough to be a dragon's footprint. This was the site of a Roman building which still yields numerous hypocaust tiles and bricks, so the story is a delightfully muddled memory of the Saxons trundling cartloads of Roman bricks down to the Green on the orders of their new Norman masters to use as quoins since there were no local stone quarries."

The Church of St Mary with St Leonard has all the hallmarks of a Christianised site. As at Alphamstone in Essex and Pewsey in Wiltshire it has an unusual stone protruding (and prominently visible) in its foundations. Across the lane from St Mary with St Leonard's there is a pond (as there is at East Kennet church in Wiltshire). The pond is fed by both a stream and several springs - one of the houses (parts of which are medieval) opposite the church has a rivulet running under the paving stones in its cellar. I was told by the occupant of this house that the two sarsens in front of the church gate were originally in the stream that runs close to the church. The springs and stream, together with evidence of a Roman villa and the unusual black puddingstone in the church foundations, perhaps all indicate that the site was sacred and pre-dates both Christianity and the Roman occupation.

* See

** The Church of St Mary with St Leonard by Ann Howard.
Studied art and design at Swindon School of Art, Wiltshire, England and afterwards Japanese painting and calligraphy at Kyoto University of Fine Arts, Kyoto, Japan.

In 1966 I was a lay monk at the Zen Buddhist temple of Ryozen-an in Kyoto and practiced under the guidance of its Director, Ruth Fuller-Sasaki and senior monk Dana R Fraser (co-translator of Layman P'ang: A Ninth Century Zen Classic).

Also present at Ryozen-an was the author and poet Gary Snyder. Gary Snyder was one of the first Westerners in Japan to study Zen Buddhism and was the inspiration for Jack Kerouac's book, The Dharma Bums.

I was assistant conservator (paintings) at Kyoto National Museum from 1969-1980 and Chief Conservator (Eastern Pictorial Art) at the British Museum from 1980-1986. Japan Foundation Fellow 1973-1974 and Fellow of the International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works since 1985.

Interests include ancient history, classical music, comparative religion, the fine arts, poetry and writing.

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