Brimham Rocks, Hartwith, North Yorkshire

Legendary Rocks:  OS Grid Reference – SE 210 649

Also Known as:

  1. Brimham Crags

Getting Here

Sunfall behind Mushroom Rock

From the lovely village of Summerbridge (near Pateley Bridge), go up the steep Hartwith Bank road, going straight across at the crossroads for another few hundred yards, passing the old tombs of Graffa Plain on your right…and they’ll start appearing on your left-hand side (west).  Do not go into the expensive National Trust car-park.  Instead (if you’ve already gone too far), about 100 yards before the Car Park you’ll find a small dirt-track on your left a short distance away.  But if you drive past the rip-off car park, another 100 yards on there’s another spot where you can easily park up on the right-hand side of the road.  Then cross the road and follow y’ nose…

Archaeology & History

The OS grid reference given above is an approximation — for obvious reasons.  This is a huge area that’s covered by Britain’s finest natural megalithic features, obviously sculptured by Nature Herself — though many are the historians who sought to give Druids the credit here.   God knows how!  The area over which these magnificent rock sentinels live covers some 60 acres and is some 1000 feet above sea level.  The view from the hill around which the encircling parade of rocks guards is excellent, allowing our eyes to catch focus on the distant lands of Whernside, Simon’s Seat, York Minster, the Cleveland Hills and Kilburn’s white horse.  It’s quite a view.

Easternmost Rocking Stone
Idol Stone (Godfrey Higgins 1826)

But this tends to be overlooked when you first visit the place, as the rocks which surround and walk alongside you overwhelm with impressions not encountered before.  To those with spirit, you’ll be bouncing and running all day here, clambering upon rocking stones, jumping between dodgy gorges that await falls, and just aching to climb pinnacles that deny you.  But then, if you need the selfishness of silence, this arena will only grant such solace when the rains are about, or dense fog and low cloud keeps others from this haunting amphitheatre.  And it’s not surprising…  The mass of rocks contort into the most beautiful and curious simulacra, which would not have gone unnoticed, nor deemed unimportant in the sacred landscape of our ancestors…

Brimham Rocks have been written about since the 17th century, though they didn’t receive the serious attention of outsiders until the 19th, when numerous Victorian writers — from antiquarians and geologists, to archaeologists and Druids — got to hear about the place.  And by the beginning of the 20th century, a veritable mass of articles had been written in journals and travelogues of all persuasions!  These quiet Yorkshire Rocks had become truly famous!

Brimham Rocks (Walbran 1856)
Old Woman and her consort

A lengthy essay was written in the distinguished archaeology journal of its time, Archaeologia, by northern historian Hayman Rooke (1787), who thought that some of the rocks here had been tampered with by the druids; with the legendary Cannon Rock in particular possessing oracular properties.  The site as a whole was, he posited, a temple for Druids in ancient days.  Certainly the place would have been deemed as sacred, whether by the druids or our more remote neolithic and Bronze Age ancestors.

Harry Speight & his mates, c.1890

In Harry Speight’s magnum opus, Nidderdale (1894), he described these rocky giants as best as he could, admitting as others before and since, that no mere words can convey the impression that only a personal encounter liberates, saying:

“The Brimham Rocks are among the greatest natural wonders of Yorkshire, and many have been the theories from time to time advanced as to the cause of their extraordinary aspects… The resemblances to natural and artificial objects are most striking.  There we have the Elephant Rock, the Porpoise Head, the Dancing Bear (a very singular, naturally-shaped specimen), the Boat Rock, showing the bow and stern completely, etc.  Then there is the great Idol Rock, a most mysterious-looking object, of almost incredible size and form.  It is a perfectly detached block, fully twenty feet high, weathered along face joints into three roughly circular pieces, each from 40 to 50 feet in circumference, piled one above the other; the whole mass, weighing by estimation over 200 tons, being poised on a pyramid 3½ feet in diameter; the pivot itself supporting this immense column having a diameter of barely 12 inches.

“East of the guide’s house are the famous Rocking Stones, consisting of a group of four rocks, which were discovered to be movable in the year 1786.  The two on the west side weighing approximately 50 and 25 tons, require but little force to vibrate, while those on the east side, though much smaller are not so well poised and do not move readily.  Each of the larger stones has a basin-like cavity on the top, and a kind of knee-hole open to the north, said to be the work of Druids.  Close to the Rocking Stones are the appropriately-named Oyster-shell Rock, and the Hippopotamus’ Head.  Turning now some thirty yards north of the Idol Rock we ascend Mount Delectable, where is the agreeable Courting or Kissing Chair, happily at not too close quarters with the above Hippopotamus’ Head and Boar’s Snout.  The Chair consists of a single seat, but why it should be so called, I had better leave the amorous lover to solve.  West of these is the more sober Druid’s Reading Desk, with its church-like lectern on a stout stone base.  The we come to the Lover’s Leap, a gigantic and abrupt face of beetling crag, weathered to the west, and rising to a height of 60 to 70 feet, with three immense fragments balanced in a very remarkable manner at the summit.  The rock is in tow principal sections, and an iron hand-rail has been fixed across the chasm to enable visitors to look down from the top.  Further south are the Frog and Tortoise Rocks, the latter presenting from one point of view a capital resemblance to a tortoise creeping up the face of the crag towards the imaged frog.  A little below this is a good imitation of a cannon, projecting from the edge of the cliff.  In addition to these singular resemblances there are many others which the guide points out, such as the Yoke of Oxen, Mushroom Rocks, Druid’s Oven, Dog’s Head, Telescope, and the curiously perforated Cannon Rock, etc.”

In a later work, Speight (1906) also mentioned the existence of a Druid’s Circle some 300 yards west of the main natural temples, but this site appears to have been destroyed.  Thankfully the large standing stone on Hartwith Moor, a mile to the south, can still be found upright…

Folklore

Idol Stone (Hargrove 1809)

In folklore, there’s little surprise this place was held by just about every 18th and 19th century historian as a ‘druidic site.’ But more interesting – in the light of Paul Devereux’s (2001) work on acoustic archaeology – is what Edmund Bogg (c.1895) said of these huge contorted stones:

“In bygone days these immense stones were supposed to be the habitation of spirits. The echo given from the rocks was said to be the voice of the spirit who dwelt there, and which the people named the Son of the Rocks. From a conversation we had with the peasantry not far from here, it seems the ancient superstition had not yet fully disappeared.”

This is precisely the notion of spirit given to rocky places elsewhere in the world, where the very echo was perceived as the ‘voice of the rocks’.  Meditate on it a bit, in situ. (a fine summary of this notion and its implications — which has crept into archaeology of late — can be found in Paul Devereux’s work, Stone Age Soundtracks)

One of Brimham’s southwestern rocks was known as the Noon Stone when Mr Rooke (1787) came here.  There are many stones with this name scattering Yorkshire and other northern counties, each with the same mythic background: that the sun casts a shadow from it at midday to indicate the time of day.  Of this Noon Stone Mr Hooke also told us that,

“On Midsummer Eve fires are lighted on the side.  Its situation is apposite for this purpose, being on the edge of a hill, commanding an extensive view.   This custom is of the most remote antiquity.”

On the very southern edge of Brimham’s Rocks (some might say beyond their real border) is the Beacon Rock — and it is aptly named: as in the year 1887 on the day of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee, a great beacon fire was lit here, signalling to others in the distance.  Its title however, pre-dates Victoria’s Jubilee, though we don’t know how far back in time it goes…

…to be continued…

References:

  1. Bogg, Edmund, From Eden Vale to the Plains of York, James Miles: Leeds c.1895.
  2. Devereux, Paul, Stone Age Soundtracks: The Acoustic Archaeology of Ancient Sites, Vega: London 2001.
  3. Grainge, William, The History and Topography of Harrogate and the Forest of Knaresborough, John Russell Smith: London 1871.
  4. Harrison, William, A Descriptive Account of Brimham Rocks in the West Riding of Yorkshire, A. Johnson: Ripon 1846.
  5. Michell, John, The Earth Spirit: Its Ways, Shrines and Mysteries, Thames & Hudson: London 1975.
  6. Michell, John, Simulacra, Thames & Hudson: London 1979.
  7. Rooke, Hayman, “Some Account of the Brimham Rocks in Yorkshire,” in Archaeologia journal, volume 8, 1787.
  8. Speight, Harry, Nidderdale and the Garden of the Nidd, Elliot Stock: London 1894.
  9. Speight, Harry, Upper Nidderdale, with the Forest of Knaresborough, Elliot Stock: London 1906.
  10. Walbran, John Richard, A Guide to Ripon, Fountains Abbey, Harrogate, Bolton Abbey, etc, Johnson: Ripon 1856.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

Brimham Rocks

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Brimham Rocks 54.079598, -1.680521 Brimham Rocks

Graffa Plain, Hartwith, North Yorkshire

Tumuli (destroyed?):  OS Grid References – SE 211 642

Getting Here

Early OS-map showing ‘tumuli’

Take the road up to Brimham Rocks from Summerbridge; crossing the little crossroads, then keep your eyes peeled for the singular farmhouse on your right.  Just beyond this, on your right, you’ll notice some small moorland opens up and reaches gently down the slope for some distance.  Go along the footpath for 100 yards or so, then into the heather to your right, for 60 yards or so (as if you walking towards the farmhouse and small crags).  This is where the following sites could be found. (when we visited Brimham recently, unfortunately sunfall stopped us having a proper wander here, so the status of the site/s remains unknown to us)

Archaeology & History

This little-known and possibly destroyed prehistoric site — less than a mile north of Standing Stone Hill and just a coupla hundred yards south of the legendary Brimham Rocks — has been described by several antiquarians from the early 19th century onwards.  It’s an intriguing place, deserving of much greater antiquarian attention.  Ely Hargrove (1809) appears to be the first who mentions prehistoric tombs here, though his sense of direction implies another site (unless he just got that part of it wrong?).   Along with “several small tumuli or carns” near another section of Brimham Rocks themselves, he told there to be,

“Several large tumuli; one of which about 80 yards west of the great Cannon, measures 150 feet in circumference. It is worth remarking that the place where most of these tumuli are found is, at this day, called Graffa Plain, i.e., the Plain of Graves.”

These ‘tumuli’ were again mentioned briefly in passing by one ‘D.N.H.’ in the Gentleman’s Magazine of November 1823.  The great Knaresborough historian William Grainge also described cairns here.  They were then highlighted on the very first Ordnance Survey of the region in the 1850s and shown as “Supposed tumuli.”   Eventually, at the turn of the 20th Century, they were explored at the behest of the local land-owner by Mr L.A. Armstrong.  His description of what they found here is intriguing and well worth reproducing in full:

“By permission of the Right Hon. Lord Grantley, I was enabled to make a careful examination of two of the ancient burial mounds of ‘ Graff a Plain,’ Brimham Moor, on Tuesday, August 4th, 1908.

“Mound No. 1, of circular form, and about 12′ o” in diameter, is situated about 150 yards north-west of the first large group of rocks, upon the south-eastern boundary of the moor, and about 50 yards south-east of the trackway leading to ‘ Riva Hill Farm,’ and it occupies the summit of a slight hillock, upon a comparatively level portion of the heath, which rises rapidly to the south of it in a bold sweep, terminating in the outstanding rocks of Graffa Crags and Brimham Beacon.

“The entire absence of any heather upon the mound, and the profusion of bright green bilberry plants which covered it and at the same time rendered its outline more noticeable, told plainly of a different character of subsoil from that of the surrounding moor ; but prominent as the mound appeared, its actual elevation was deceptive, being barely two feet above the natural level, and the uneven character of the upper surface suggested previous disturbance to be more than probable. A few attempts to pierce the crown, however, proved it to be a cairn, constructed of large stones, and accounted for the prolific growth of the rock-loving bilberry which overspread it, as well as for the uneven character of the surface.

“The thick green covering was carefully stripped off in lengths and placed on one side, and the few inches of vegetable earth removed, revealing the cairn in an almost perfect state, formed of a series of large stones placed methodically in concentric rings, each stone slightly inclined towards the centre, and the whole mass interlocked together by their own weight. Large stones were placed around the outside forming the enclosing circle, which is almost invariably found in the case of earth-built tumuli, and a few of these had been visible before the covering was stripped.

“The construction of the cairn rendered it necessary to remove the stones from the outer ring first, and to work gradually towards the centre where the burial, if such existed, might be expected to lie. This proved no easy task, as the stones were so tightly wedged, and had each apparently been specially selected for the purpose. Almost without exception, they were about a foot in diameter, oblong or oval in form, and three to five inches in thickness, with flat surfaces and rounded edges. No marks of tools were visible on any, but all alike were either water-worn, or had been especially rubbed to their present form. The stone itself was the Millstone Grit of the surrounding moor, but fragments of stone of the form composing the cairn are not now to be found thereon readily, although a careful search might reveal such. Personally I am inclined to think that they have been transported from a considerable distance; that great care has been exercised in their selection is indisputable.

“When nearing the inner radius of the cairn, small fragments of charcoal were noticeable, but they were by no means in large quantities. There was also a layer of fine grey sand an inch or two in depth, which had apparently been spread over the natural surface of the ground, and the stones bedded therein.  Sand of this kind is abundant in the vicinity of the rocks upon the moor.

“In the centre, large pieces of stone were piled around a rough circle of about 3′ 6” extreme diameter, and within these, large and small stones, all of the form previously noticed, were laid more or less upon their flat surfaces, and amongst them the grey sand and charcoal were very evident; pieces of the latter up to an inch square, being found.

“Upon the gradual removal of this central mass of stones, the presence of the unmistakable black ‘barrow earth’ became evident in a slight layer, perhaps an inch or an inch and a half in thickness, and spread over the whole area within the inner ring, the bottom of which had been paved with large flat stones. Amongst this earth very slight traces of a greyish white paste-like substance were”] visible, probably the decomposed remains of the bones after calcination. The deposit was carefully gathered together. Its removal bared the large stones forming the bottom of the grave, and these proved to be two in number, the largest being about 2′ o” across, and of a somewhat angular form ; strikingly different to those composing the cairn itself, for the edges were rough fractures, not rounded in any way. Apparently the surface soil had been removed from the ground upon which the cairn was built, for the upper face of the two stones forming the bottom was level with the natural ground surface adjoining, so far as could be ascertained, and these had apparently been laid down for the reception of the deposited remains.

“As there was every reason to believe that some portion of the ashes might have been placed in an urn, efforts were made to raise the stones above mentioned in hopes of a discovery.  This was by no means easy, but by care and perseverance, it was at last accomplished, but only to meet with disappointment. Immediately beneath was a slight layer of ashes upon the natural ground surface, which latter showed very evident signs of fire, the bright yellow sand composing the substratum being calcined to a dark red colour for quite 2” in depth. This sand was very stiff and compact. The most diligent search failed to reveal any trace of a hole or other disturbance at any point, or of any implements which might have accompanied the body, either upon the surface or amidst the cairn.

“One stone found amidst those immediately covering the deposit, was remarkable because entirely different from all the remainder composing the cairn, and appeared to have been shaped with some definite object in view. It was a fragment of hard sandstone, in the form of a truncated pyramid, the sides and top being roughly fractured to shape, but the base was quite smooth, and bore marks of friction. The base measured 6″ x 5″, and the height about 4½”.  This might have been used as a crushing and grinding stone for grain, or for rubbing purposes, but careful search failed to reveal its companion slab.  With this exception, nothing was found that could be considered as having been fashioned for use, and there was nothing to throw any light upon the probable period of the cairn’s erection.

“The second tumulus examined is situated about 100 yards south-west of the first. It was of rather irregular shape, and appeared to have been somewhat disturbed, but the original diameter had probably been about 9′ o”. Upon examination, it also proved to be of the cairn type, and apparently similar to that previously opened, but it had been disturbed throughout at some distant period, and no trace of the deposit could be found, although the yellow sand forming the subtratum was noticeable, calcined over the whole area as before. There were also traces of charcoal. It is remarkable that amidst the smaller stones of this cairn another ‘ rubbing stone ‘ was found, almost identical with that in the former one, and similarly, this proved to be the only ‘ find ‘ of any description bearing certain traces of man’s handiwork.

“Although somewhat disappointing not to be able to assign the erection of these cairns to any definite period, yet their examination proves valuable for two reasons. First it places beyond any question the nature of the mounds scattered over this portion of Brimham Moor, which is known by the name of ‘ Graffa Plain,’ a name which the late Mr. William Grange translates as ‘ the place of graves ‘ — significant in itself, though he at the same time casts a doubt upon the formation of the mounds in question being anything other than natural. The identity of the grave mounds being established, they prove that a settlement of primitive man of no small magnitude must have been located somewhere in the vicinity.”

The word ‘graffa’ seems to be the plural for ‘graff’, which the english dialect magus, Joseph Wright (1900), convincingly assures us to derive from the old english, “græf, a grave, trench.”  This seems confirmed by the common finding of ‘graff’ in regional dialects from Yorkshire, Lancashire and other northern counties, where it relates specifically to ‘graves.’  A variation on the word, as cited above, finds ‘graff’ occasionally relating to “a ditch or trench; a channel, cutting; a hole, pit or hollow.”  The usually helpful A.H. Smith (1961-63) was curiously silent on this place-name; but local historians Grainge, Walbran and others tell us that Graffa Plain is simply “the plain of the graves.”

I know of no other accounts that have explored this site.  Does anyone have any further information about this place?

References:

  1. Armstrong, A. Leslie, “Two Ancient Burial Cairns on Brimham Moor, Yorkshire,” in The Naturalist, March 1909.
  2. Hargrove, Ely, The History of the Castle, Town and Forest of Knaresborough, Hargrove & Sons: Knaresborough 1809.
  3. Smith, William, “Yorkshire Place-Names,” in W. Smith’s Old Yorkshire – volume 1 (Longmans, Green & Co.: London 1881).
  4. Wright, Joseph (ed.), English Dialect Dictionary – volume 2, Henry Frowde: London 1900.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

 

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  54.073302, -1.679041 Graffa Plain cairnfield