Roman and Saxon stones in Yorkshire

ROMANS TRAVELLING ON the ancient Dere Street, a road constructed by the Romans, between York and Hadrian’s Wall crossed the river Ure near the present Yorkshire village of Aldborough, which archaeological research has revealed stands on the site of a large Roman town called ‘Isurium Brigantum’. Some of the Roman remains can be seen at the beautifully laid out English Heritage site in Aldborough. The parish church in Aldborough is built on the site of the forum of the former Roman town and contains a Roman sculpture, which might well depict the god Mercury. Excavations, which we viewed, being undertaken by archaeologists from Cambridge University are discovering that the Roman town was an important way station for supplying and servicing troops travelling to and from Hadrian’s Wall. The archaeologists, who kindly showed us around their dig,  asked us not to reveal what they have discovered because they have yet to be published in the appropriate way.

A carved Saxon stone incorporated into the masonry of a church wall at Kirby Hill, Yorkshire

After crossing the Ure at Aldborough, Dere Street, so named after the Romans had departed from Britain, travelled north to Catterick (Roman: ‘Cataractonium’). A few miles from Aldborough, the old road used by the Romans passed close to the Yorkshire village of Kirby Hill, whose parish church, All Saints, perches on the summit of a hill. It is possible that the church is sited where once there was a Celtic and/or Roman shrine. The church’s informative website (www.allsaintskirbyhill.org.uk/) reveals:

“… there are some large stones in the lower walling; one of these at the South West angle is clearly Roman and has a sunk panel, which once contained a 13 line inscription. Unfortunately, it is now very badly weathered. It was a posthumous dedication to either Antonins Pius or Caracalla, the first such recorded from Roman Britain.”

Unfortunately, when we visited this lovely church recently, we missed seeing this interesting souvenir of the Roman occupation of Britain. However, during our brief look inside the church we did see evidence of some of the invaders who arrived in Britain after the Romans had left.

The church contains some well-preserved carved fragments of Saxon crosses. High up on the south side of the church, we noticed that such a fragment had been incorporated in the stonework of its wall, just as the Roman stonework had been incorporated elsewhere in the structure of the church as already described.

The nave of All Saints was built both during the Saxon and Norman eras. Its structure includes some Saxon slabs as well as those placed after the Norman invasion in 1066. A north aisle was added in about 1160 and is separated from the older part of the church by semi-circular masonry arcades supported by sturdy stone pillars topped with capitals dating back to Norman times.

The church, which we only visited because we followed a roadside direction sign with the words “Ancient Church”, contains many other interesting features, which we did not have time to examine as we were in a bit of a hurry to reach an appointment on time. When we told a lady, who was telling us about the church, that we were rather pressed for time, she said to us, smiling:

“That’s a pity. You’re speaking with the wrong person. You can’t expect someone from Yorkshire to be brief.”

No longer on the main Road

BYPASSED BY TIME

ON THE DAY BEFORE the second English ‘lockdown’ commenced in early November (2020), we drove to Abingdon Piggott to enjoy one more excellent luncheon at the Pig and Abbott pub. On this, our fourth visit in the same number of months, I enjoyed one of the best fish pies I have ever tasted. On our way to lunch and to satisfy our love of sightseeing, we visited Buntingford, a small town in the east of Hertfordshire.

As the ‘ford’ part of the town’s name suggests, Buntingford is on a river, the River Rib, which is a tributary of the River Lea. Also, the town lies on the course of the Roman road known as Ermine Street, which linked London with Lincoln.  For many centuries, Buntingford, which is located just west of the Greenwich (or Prime) Meridian, was a staging post on the main road from London to Cambridge, the current A10. The town contains many buildings that were once coaching inns. Of these, only one or two still operate as pubs.  Since this main road was diverted around Buntingford via a bypass constructed in the mid-1980s, the town, filled with historic buildings, has become a pleasant backwater.

The town’s name is most likely derived from ‘Bunta’, which was the name of an Anglo-Saxon tribe or its chieftain. A local historian, one Frank Bunting, writes (www.hertsmemories.org.uk/content/herts-history/towns-and-villages/buntingford/origin_of_buntingford_name) that there was once a village called ‘Bunting’, which was a few miles north of the present Buntingford. It is, he claims, marked on a map drawn in 1732 by Herman Moll (c1674-1732), which does not mark Buntingford, which was probably then too small to add to the map. Now, according to the historian, Bunting has disappeared and Buntingford is a town of some size.  I have looked at an on-line copy of Moll’s map of Hertfordshire (https://www.archiuk.com/cgi-bin/slideshow_loop.pl?gallery_subject=herman_moll&filename2show=hertfordshire-old-map-1724-herman-moll.jpg&launchpage=old-map-index-page) and found that it marks ‘Bunting’ close alongside ‘ford’, the two words being separated by Moll’s simple plan of the town. It appears that Buntingford was significant enough to appear on Moll’s map and that the place called ‘Bunting’ probably never existed in this area. A document prepared by or for the Knights Templars in 1185 mentions the town as ‘Buntas Ford’.

Most of the older part of Buntingford lies alongside the long straight road, the former Ermine Street. It is here that you can see the former coaching inns, each with an archway leading to the courtyards behind them. There are also several other picturesque edifices dating back to the 18th century and earlier. At the south end of the High Street, there is a Church of England church, St Peters, which looks Victorian, but it was originally constructed in about 1615. It has undergone so much modification that its early origin is difficult to discern.  Just north of this is the Manor House, a fine 18th century building, which now houses the offices of the Town Council. Next to this on the side of the road there is a wooden enclosure containing a hand operated water pump encased in timber. This was erected to commemorate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria’s reign in 1897. The Black Bull pub opposite the Town Council is one of the few former coaching inns still serving as a hostelry.

Church Street that leads east from the Ermine Street winds downhill to the River Rib. It passes an attractive gothic revival cottage called ‘Fancy Hall’ (built 1825) and then a quaint old pub, the Fox and Duck (first licensed in 1711), which does not look like it was formerly a coaching inn.  The River Rib flows just below the pub and can be crossed either by a bridge or a ford, which looks recently constructed. The ford after which the town got its name was where the Rib crossed Ermine Street.

Next, Church Road continues uphill on the other side of the river but with the name, The Causeway. It winds steeply uphill first passing a long brick wall, the boundary of a private property called Little Court, which I was unable to enter. This building was constructed in the early 19th century with bricks from an earlier building on the site that was built in 1598 and demolished in 1819 (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1174663). The road continued seemingly endlessly up hill and into the countryside before ending at the isolated, flint walled Layston Church. This is St Bartholomew whose construction began in the 13th century if not before. The roof of its nave is of very recent construction (21st century) with a row of skylights below the roof tiles. The church is now used as a private dwelling. Known in the Domesday Book as ‘Ichetone’, the parish of Layston contained the town of Buntingford. Therefore, the now deconsecrated church of St Bartholomew used to be Buntingford’s parish church, a role now assumed by St Peter in the town.

In common with Washington DC, Buntingford has its own White House. Built in the 18th century, this is not the home of presidents, but probably served as a private residence. Opposite it, and high above the pavement and above a passageway leading to a car park, there is a small, picturesque clock with its own gabled roof. It is an example of a single-handed turret clock. It was already in existence in 1618, when local citizens paid for various alterations and repairs. The clock, which might have been first placed there in 1558, has undergone numerous modifications and improvements over the centuries but what we see does not look remarkably different to how it was originally. It contained a bell that was replaced in 1742 by the present one, which is sounded on auspicious and sad occasions including on the day of the funeral of Wellington in 1852.

I hope that I have written enough to persuade you to spend an hour or two in Buntingford, a town that is often bypassed at speed by motorists on the A10. Once again, we have found much of interest in a place in England that hardly gets a mention in guidebooks yet is full of beautiful historical sights. By the way, if you are in need of a coffee whilst in Buntingford, you would do well to visit The Buntingford Coffee Shop, which is almost beneath the ancient Town Clock.