Albion, ancient sites, Art, Don and Wen, sacred sites, TOLL, travel

Legends in the landscape – a life in the stones

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The first time we saw Robin Hood’s Stride it was getting dark and it was raining. To call it a visit is perhaps a misnomer. We had been meaning to get there for quite some time… particularly as there were other things close by… but between a lack of time, bad weather and a distinct dearth of signage, we never quite managed it. And anyway, it was just a natural outcrop, wasn’t it? Finally, though, we had found the lane that we needed to take and located some of the nearby ancient places we needed to see. So, one October day, we headed off in search of stones.

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The landscape was at its autumnal best and we were welcomed by a herd of exceedingly curious cows. It was going to be one of those days… but that was okay. Those days generally mean that we are going to find something special. It had already been quite a weekend, with close encounters with some surprising creatures as well as the enigmatic Mister Fox.

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I’ll be honest, even after having glimpsed the Stride from the lane, we hadn’t been expecting too much. Just a natural outcrop of large boulders… interesting, no doubt, but not really what we were looking for. It was only later that the pieces began to form a picture of a wider landscape. That’s the trouble with books and websites where these things are concerned… they take each element and examine them, but seldom piece them together or give a sense of their relationship to one another. You have to get out there and see for yourself just what the land has to show you.

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The first thing we noticed, quite apart from the sheer scale of the place and the Stride’s proximity to a number of recognised ancient sites, was a certain quality in the shapes of the stones. Natural? Yes, probably. Mostly. But not entirely. We knew there were carvings… but how many of the stones had been ‘helped’ into their present shapes and positions?

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We have no way of knowing for certain, but it doesn’t really matter. What we, with our modern eyes accustomed to screens and scientific knowledge can still discern, our forefathers, to whom every rock and curve of the land was alive, would undoubtedly have recognised. Especially in a place where the moon appears to set between the pinnacles.

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There appear to be strange faces and forms in almost every rock. Giants in stone, guarding what must have been a sanctuary, either sacred or profane. Today it still draws the eye and the feet of many people. Some come to scale the rock faces, others just to walk and wonder. We climbed the rocks too, though we took a more sedate route to the top.

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Our path took us through a triangular cave, open at both ends. Within, there is a basin in the rock that, when full, would provide a source of water for ritual purposes, scrying or simply for drinking. The site did not have the feel of a mundane fortress, though.

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On the top of the rocks, the wind and rain of millenia have carved strange shapes and striations, lending the place an otherworldly feeling. It certainly doesn’t feel like England up there, though the views across the countryside are spectacular.

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One of the oaks that cling precariously to the rocks is festooned with wicker hearts. Getting them there must be dangerous and require a certain amount of daring; do the young men of the area still prove their love and fitness as a partner by these feats? There was such a tradition at the Eagle Stone above Baslow, not far away,

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The rocks became a little crowded as we examined the carvings, ancient and modern, in the stones. It also started to rain so we took shelter, as much from the people as the heavens, in a passage through the rock. The echoes and reverberations of the human voice within the little stone chamber were exceptional as my companion began to chant. It was an eerie sound…and what others made of it, we do not know. Only that we soon had the place to ourselves.

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From the top of the rocks, if you know the distant hills, you can trace where other ancient sites are situated in the landscape. There are sites closer than the horizon too… a hillfort, a mound, the traces of burials and even a stone circle. Some of them we intended to visit while we were there. It is only in seeing how these sites cluster together that you begin to get a sense of place… an insight into the lives once lived within the shadows of the stones.

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It was only when we came down from the heights, though, that we realised what we had missed. Faces we had seen, animal forms animating the silent stones… but we had missed one. One side of the triangular ‘cave’ was formed by a nose. A nose that seemed to have been very conveniently placed. And once you realised that, the rest of the rocks came to life too.

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There were half-buried faces, giants sleeping in the bracken around a quite grove. Convenient slots between stones that could have been used for sighting, but which we cannot check without instrumentation…and we do not need to. Although it would undoubtedly be good to prove some of our wilder theories, others have been there before us, establishing the complex relationships between land, stone and stars.

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The main reason though, is that we do not need to prove what can be felt. We do not, cannot, fully understand what the ancients were doing in these mysterious sites. We do know that their culture was not that of the primitive caveman as we were once taught to believe; the mathematical and astronomical precision of many of their sites is already too well documented for doubt.  But beyond that, there is something else; something we have forgotten, perhaps, but not altogether lost… we too sense the life in the stones and respond to the silent beauty of the land. And in that, perhaps we can bridge the millennia and stand with our forefathers in wonder.

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