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Get to know A Bit About Britain - an idiosyncratic view of places to visit in Britain, British history - and stuff. Warts and all. Where shall we go today?

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Devil's Arrows

Devil's Arrows, Devil's Bolts, prehistoric standing stones, Yorkshire

I was looking for three enormous prehistoric standing stones, or menhirs.  I knew roughly where they were, just to the west of Boroughbridge in North Yorkshire, very close to the A1 trunk road.  Whoever put these things up meant them to be seen, I reckon; but I managed to drive past them twice.  One was eventually spotted by the side of the road, hiding behind a post and rail fence; the other two were lurking suspiciously in a cabbage field on the opposite side of the road.  The next challenge was finding a place to park: rejecting a lane leading to a marina with welcoming ‘No Parking’ signs posted at intervals along it, in the end I left the car half off the road by the solitary stone.  Light was fading and I was tired.

Devil's Arrows, Boroughbridge

Now in some places you’d at least get a car park and an information board.  Some would maybe stretch to a toilet; maybe even a cafĂ©; or perhaps a visitor centre, complete with gift shop and ‘The Devil’s Arrows Experience’.  I’m absurdly grateful that there are many places in the UK that are unspoilt by the excesses of organised tourism, where you can just bowl up and informally look at your own heritage without any commercialism, without any fuss.  But I do think a little sign in the vicinity saying something creative like, ‘The Devil’s Arrows are here’, might be helpful in this instance.  While I’m feeling in campaigning mood, how about serving the two cabbage-patch menhirs with a footpath so that people can get to them?  Or maybe they’re safer the way they are.

What have we got here anyway?  Well, the Devil’s Arrows date from the late Neolithic or early Bronze Age – anything from 1500 to 3000BC.  They are 18, 21 and 22½ feet high (5.5, 6.4 and 6.8 metres) and stand roughly in a NNW – SSE line about 570 feet (174 metres) long – though it is not a straight alignment.  According to 16th century antiquarians John Leland and William Camden, there were originally four stones.  Camden said in 1582 that one had been pulled down by people hoping to find buried treasure and it is thought that the remains of this have partly been used to build a bridge over the River Tutt nearby and partly remain on adjoining land.  Other sources suggest there were once 5 stones - and there are folk who theorise that there would originally have been even more than that.

Prehistoric menhirs, north of England

It is thought the stones came from Plumpton Rocks near Knaresborough, about 9 miles away.  Someone has worked out that it would have taken 200 men six months to drag the stones to their present position.  They would have then had the job of digging pits up to 6 feet (1.8 metres) deep and standing the stones upright.  It is believed the stones would also have been smoothed before being put into position.  The curious grooves at the top, suggesting the image of a large arrow or bolt, are generally thought to be the result of weathering.

The 18th century writer, William Stukeley, wrote that an annual fair, dedicated to St Barnabas but actually in celebration of the Summer Solstice, used to be held near the arrows.  The implication here is of a clear link back to unknown ancient ceremonies.  So everyone can get all excited about druids and paganism and all that stuff (steady, now); there is even a residential area imaginatively called ‘Druid’s Meadow’ just down the road.  I wonder what they get up to on Saturday nights?

Many ideas have been put forward for what the Devil’s Arrows were, or what purpose they served: the fact is that we just do not know.  There are a number of other prehistoric remains nearby, along what might be called ‘the A1 Corridor’.  These include the remains of henges and barrows (burial places).  It is inconceivable that the erectors of the stones did not know about the other sites and quite likely that they are all connected in some way – at the very least as part of a shared culture.  The A1 route has been there, with a few changes, since at least Roman times and, for all we know, may well follow the path of a much older trackway.

Prehistoric remains, bit about Britain

I gazed at the stones, intrigued and frustrated in equal measure wondering at the motivation and determination of our ancestors.  Apart from the odd car, there was no one else around.  The traffic on the A1 rushed by, but it still managed to be a fairly lonely spot.  I felt pretty sure, though, that these massive monuments had no evil purpose and would not have been called the Devil’s anything by the people who put them there.

So how did they get their name?  Apparently, if you walk twelve times anticlockwise round the stones you will get a personal meeting with the Prince of Darkness; care to try?  But the popular story – which can be nowhere near as old as the stones – is that his Satanic Silliness had it in for the new-fangled Christian community at Aldborough.  Standing on a hill somewhere near Fountains Abbey, about 10 miles away, he lobbed these stones, shouting, “Borobrigg keep out o’ way, for Aldborough town I will ding down!”  But he missed by a mile and the Devil’s Arrows, or Bolts, landed near Boroughbridge after all.  Should’ve gone to Specsavers. 

Visit the Boroughbridge Community Website for more information.

And you may be interested in downloading a short and informative guide (with pictures) called PrehistoricMonuments in the A1 Corridor.

Only enthusiasts (or idiots that write blogs) would go out of their way to see the Devil’s Arrows.  But if you’re passing by along the A1, or visiting the charming town of Boroughbridge (including the Roman remains at Aldborough), take a look and try to figure out what your ancestors were doing.


25 comments:

  1. The scene surrounding them is so beautiful, I can see how one could miss them. Fascinating, Mike, thanks so much for sharing.

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  2. how very cool! i'll pass on the satanic vision, though.

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  3. Sounds a bit like Ireland's Giant's Causeway story.

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  4. Did you lose count or did you get your personal interview? ;-) The creative and ingenious ancestors weren't nearly as ignorant as many make them out to be. I always like seeing the many interesting Yorkshire offerings. I think there's a stone circle, in fact, near Swinithwaite. Maybe I'm remembering that wrong. It's been a while.

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    1. You're right; it's foolish to think our ancestors were daft. I've never heard of a stone circle at Swinithwaite, but these things are all over the place so there may well be one.

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  5. I'd go there!
    ......oh yeah, idiots who write blogs.

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  6. The devil sure has a lot of things named after him in England! What an interesting site with these stones and how did they ever move them and shape them, although I'm sure centuries of rain, snow and wind have eroded them greatly. They fascinate me and I'd enjoy finding them too.

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  7. Pre history and standing stones and stone circles are fascinating to me. From you photos they seem to be paired in a similar way to those of Averbury, one taller and one shorter. They look to me as if there would be many more of them when they were first erected there.

    I had never heard of them before and I will be sure to look out for them, next time I am travelling in that direction.

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  8. cool

    Maybe they were omens of the coming zombie apocalypse. I'm ready, are you?

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    1. I don't think we'll ever quite be ready for the zombie apocalypse. But you're behind the news - they have already penetrated shopping centres throughout the UK.

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  9. Someone went to tremendous effort to erect these stones and there must have been a reason for them to expend such effort. I find them fascinating.

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  10. I always find these type of stone structures interesting. Obviously they were important to someone.

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  11. Quite mysterious! I'd be inclined to go see them myself.

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  12. Fascinating. I have never heard of these before and yes, I would go there too ;)

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  13. Standing stones are fascinating aren't they. We visited the Merry Maidens in Cornwall in the Summer and on the way back stopped to chat to a farmer. He told us that he had some standing stones on his land too. When SD asked what they were called he said 'well, you'm can call'un what you like but I mostly just call'un raaaks'

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  14. Don't think I'll be walking round twelve times ... just in case. I heartily agree with you about so much of our heritage becoming "commercialised" - where's the space for using the imagination and just being awed by the feats of our ancestors?
    Liz

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  15. I'd never heard of these stones, how interesting. It sounds like you did well to find them, but thank heavens there isn't a car park and visitor centre attached.

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  16. A visit with the Prince of Darkness himself? Sign me up! I love Ozzy! (LOL?)

    In all seriousness, it is a shame that no written record from the Druids has ever been found. Yes, there are accounts by scribes from Roman times and soon after, but they may have been heavily-influenced by the scribe's personal opinion of what he was told secondhand by non-Druid natives.

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    1. Could Ozzy find them at all? Ah - I have it on good authority that the Druids never wrote anything down, in order to avoid their secrets being told; it worked - no oral tradition. But the Druids were Celts - these stones were put up long before the Celts arrived in Britain.

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  17. I completely agree with you. We have a few of those places around here too, and there are times in my life that I just need to take a visit there and bowl up! (I like that phrase!) Lovely captures here.

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  18. that's all so interesting...wonderful photos and i agree with you about the organized tourism/commercialism...but yeah, a sign would be nice ;)

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  19. "...or idiots that write blogs..."

    Well, sir... we're all enthusiastic about something.

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  20. Make that idiots and write AND read blogs.
    I've always been fascinated by places like this and I'm glad that this one has escaped the commercialism too. We will never really know what the builders were thinking when erecting the stones, and that is part of the charm for me.

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  21. A very interesting read! I visited these stones in August 2012 - I made a stop in Boroughbridge on the way to Northumberland, parked in Boroughbridge and had a wander round, then followed a town trail or something out of the the town and to the stones! It would be good if you get closer to them, but I think a footpath might spoil the appearance.

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Hi - thanks for dropping into A Bit About Britain. New material is now being posted to www.bitaboutbritain.com and most of the material here will gradually be updated and moved over to that new site. Please drop in there, click on the blog page, and take a look round. TTFN - Mike.