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.
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 café; 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.
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.
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.