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.”

Watching stars where horses drink

FOUR MILES FROM ST GILES Pound and four and a half miles from ‘Holborn Bars’, there stands a white stone milepost close to a pond at one of the highest places in north London. This pond in Hampstead got its name Whitestone because of its proximity to this white milepost.  Originally known as ‘Horse Pond’, it was a place where horses could drink and wash their hooves. The pond was supplied with ramps to allow easier access for the horses. These were preserved when the pond’s surrounding banks were extensively renovated in 2010.

The pond used to be supplied by dew and rainfall but was later kept filled by water from the mains water supply, which is fortunate given how little rain falls during some periods of the year. Being a shallow pool in an exposed location so high above sea level (443 feet), it is often covered with ice in cold weather.

A tall flagstaff stands a few feet west of the pond. This marks the spot where there was once a beacon that formed part of a network of beacons that could be lit to communicate with each other during the 16th century when the threat of invasion by the Spanish armed fleet was feared. The beacon by the Pond was the most northerly of a series of beacons which originated on the cliffs at St Margarets near Dover. This network can be seen on old maps such as that drawn by William Lambarde (1536-1601) in 1570, several years before the arrival of the famous Spanish Armada. Currently, the only purpose of the tall white pole is to fly the red and white flag of the City of London high above the pond.

High as the pond is, it is not the highest point in Hampstead. That honour goes to the small observatory on the top of the reservoir just south of the pond. This point is 449 feet above sea level. The reservoir is a:

“… wonderful example of mid Victorian architecture … The reservoir and railings were constructed in 1856 for the New River Company to serve Hampstead with the water being delivered by pipes from Highgate. The company was absorbed into the Metropolitan Water Board in 1902.” (http://www.ianclarkrestoration.com/122/Hampstead_Reservoir,_London_-_Thames_Water/).

This structure is inaccessible to the public, but the observatory perched on top of it is, in normal times, opened to the public occasionally.

The small observatory topped with a dome was established in 1910 by the Hampstead Scientific Society (www.hampsteadscience.ac.uk/astro/history.html). It can be seen best from Lower Terrace. The first secretaries of the Society were two keen astronomers, Patrick Hepburn and PE Vizard. The first telescope, a ten-and-a-half-inch reflecting telescope, was donated by Colonel Henry Heberden on condition that it be used by members of the public. In normal times, the observatory is still open to the public on clear nights. At the beginning of the 20th century, nights were much clearer than they became later and valuable observations could be made. As time passed, both dust and light pollution have rendered it far more difficult to make any observations at all. In addition to astronomical uses, the observatory is home to a collection of devices used in meteorology. The weather station at the observatory has the longest continuous record of climate measurements for any still extant meteorological site in Greater London, having begun in 1909 (www.weather-uk.com/page2.html).

Returning to the Pond, I remember that during my childhood, the traffic around it was terrible, especially during rush-hours. It became even worse when police officers arrived to try to control it. While I was studying at Highgate School, there was an extremely bright boy in my year group, ‘B-W’ was his surname. During physics classes, he appeared not to pay attention to the teacher because he was too busy designing complicated electronic circuits. When we took our physics mock-O’Level examination, he was the only person in the class to pass it, exceeding the pass mark by a large margin. My result in this test was a miserable 15%, which was five times higher than the boy with the lowest mark. In case you are wondering, I did well during the actual examination a few months later.

One morning, B-W arrived at school and showed us a complicated diagram. It was his proposal for a scheme that should allow traffic to flow smoothly around Whitestone Pond (where five major roads meet). It is a long time since I saw the scheme that he designed, but I would not be surprised if it is much the same as the much-improved traffic flow system that exists today and was only instituted a few years ago.

The Pond has been part of my life intermittently since my earliest days. In the late 1950s, and early 1960s, my parents and I used to walk past it every Saturday morning on our way to the shops in the centre of Hampstead. During the ‘80s, and ‘90s, I used to drive past it on my way to see my father and other members of my family, who lived in the Hampstead Garden Suburb, which is north of the Pond. More recently, my wife and I have been finding that visiting Hampstead, which has a rich history and many attractive old buildings, is a lovely way to pass time and enjoy fresh air. Whitestone Pond and the carpark nearby make for a good starting point for a stroll through a part of London that has to a large extent resisted the ravages of time and so-called ‘progress’.

Sculpted by nature

WE DROVE AWAY from the sun-soaked, windswept sands on the sea front in Paignton (Devon) and headed upwards on to Dartmoor. We followed narrow roads, often barely wide enough for a single car, bounded by hedges, until we rumbled across cattle grids and entered the wide-open spaces of the moor. The roads remained narrow, but the vistas were wide open. Patches of the moor have been cultivated but most of it is not. Sheep, cattle, and occasional horses or ponies grazed here and there.

We headed up a hill topped with what looked from afar like the ruins of a temple or a small fortress. As we neared it, we saw it consisted of piles of huge flat surfaced, irregularly shaped greyish boulders piled on top of each other in what seemed like a state of precarious balance. It appeared as if a giant had collected these stones and put them together in piles, as if to tidy up the land around them, to clear the space for animals to graze. We had arrived at Combestone Tor. A ‘tor’ is defined as:

“… a large, free-standing rock outcrop that rises abruptly from the surrounding smooth and gentle slopes of a rounded hill summit or ridge crest.”

The definition of tor includes the rocky outcrops I have seen in South Africa, where they are known as ‘koppie’ or ‘kopje’.

We walked from the car park towards the picturesque, tall piles of rocks, the tor, arranged almost artistically. Nature has done a better job aesthetically than many modern artists. A strong warm wind buffeted us as we approached them. It is weather conditions, like wind and rain, that have shaped the stones over the centuries and millennia. The formation of these geological formations began about 280 million years ago when molten rock crystallised to form granite (see: www.dartmoor.gov.uk/data/assets/pdf_file/0025/72097/lab-tors.pdf ). To cut a very long story short, rock covering the granite gradually wore away, allowing the granite to become exposed to the atmosphere. Oversimplifying a lot, the minerals between the lumps of granite became worn away by meteorological forces and, during the ice age(s), by mechanical forces generated by freezing and thawing. What has been left after all this is what we see today.  

The earliest surviving written mention of Combestone Tor was in 1333, when it was named ‘Comerston’ (see: http://www.legendarydartmoor.co.uk/combe_stone.htm).  On an 1809 map the tor is named ‘Cumstun’. Over the years its name has mutated to ‘Combestone’.

We wandered around the tor enjoying the amazingly balanced jumble of rocks of different sizes and the views of the surrounding landscape that stretches far below the summit of the hill (1168 feet above sea level) on which the weathered stones perch. Nearby brown cattle grazed, probably unaware of the strange geological formations, which we had come to enjoy. Recently, we visited the former home and gardens of the sculptor Henry Moore. His often huge sculptures dominate the landscape like the stone pillars that form the tor. Whereas Moore’s sculptures seemed to intrude on the landscape and deform one’s view of it, the rocky piles that comprise the tor feel harmoniously integrated into their surroundings.  Give me moor, rather than Moore, any day!