The first that I read of this place was in an article of the Scottish Ecclesiastical Society journal, on the parish history of Horndean. Standing originally at the edge of the ruined remains of the old churchyard, the author W.S. Moodie (1915), told that a long lost,
“grim relic of olden days is said to have existed here till fifty years ago. This was the Witches Stone—an upright pillar with a hole in it, to which the bodies of the poor unfortunates were fastened after they had been glede, while the faggots were piled around.”
A perusal in the Royal Commission inventory (1915) of the same year told that it had been moved several miles northeast to Paxton Cottage (NT 9279 5229) in the adjacent village. It was described as being,
“about 4 feet 6 inches in height above the ground, some 2 feet in breadth, tapering towards the upper end, and about 7 inches thick. Near the top are two perforations, not quite on the same level, about 2 inches in diameter at the surface on either side, constricted towards the Centre, and about 9 inches distant from centre to centre.”
Is this old stone still in existence…?
Moodie, W. Steven, “Ladykirk, or the Kirk of Steill, Berwickshire,” in Transactions of the Scottish Ecclesiological Society, 4:3, Aberdeen 1915.
Royal Commission Ancient & Historical Monuments, Scotland, Inventory of Monuments and Constructions in the County of Berwick, HMSO: Edinburgh 1915.
Follow the same directions to reach the Polisher Stone at the top-end of Overton Down as it meets Fyfield Down. From here, walk down the slope for 100 yards or so where you’ll notice, just above the long grassy level, a line of ancient walling running nearly east to west. It’s very close to the yellow marker in the attached aerial image shot to the right. If you walk along this line of walling you’ll find it.
Archaeology & History
As I’ve only been here once, and briefly — under the guidance of the Avebury expert Pete Glastonbury — my bearings on this site may need revising. There are two distinct sections of walling here: one has been excavated by Peter Fowler and his team; the other hasn’t. (correct me if I’m wrong Pete) And in Fowler’s (2000) fine survey of this area he does not describe this very distinct holed-stone in the line of walling, or adjacent “linear ditch F4”, as it was called. But then, many archaeologists don’t tend to find items such as these of any interest (unless their education stretches to other arenas, which isn’t usually the case). But the stone seems to be in a section of walling that isn’t in their survey; standing out in aerial imagery as a less well-defined, but still obvious line of walling that is closer to the fence, 70-80 yards north, with a decidedly Iron-Age look about it!
But, precision aside! — as you can see in the photos, the holed stone here isn’t very tall — less than 2 feet high; though we don’t know how deep the stone is set into the ground. This spot is on my “must visit again” list for the next time we’re down here!
There’s nowt specific to this stone, nor line of walling, nor settlement (as far as I know), but it seems right to mention the fact that in British and European folklore and peasant traditions, that holed stones just like the one found here have always been imbued with aspects of fertility — for obvious reasons. Others like this have also acquired portentous abilities; whilst others have become places where deeds and bonds were struck, with the stone playing ‘witness’ to promises made.
Fowler, Peter, Landscape Plotted and Pierced: Landscape History and Local Archaeology in Fyfield and Overton, Wiltshire, Society of Antiquaries: London 2000.
Go west through Stanbury village towards Lancashire for a mile till you reach the end of Ponden Reservoir. Where the water ends, follow the small track up to, and past, Whitestone Farm, till you reach the stream. Follow the valley up…
Archaeology & History
As the great Yorkshire historian J. Horsfall Turner (1879) told, “Ponden Kirk consists of a ledge of high rocks, dry in summer, but forming a stupendous cataract after heavy rain. It was here that Mrs Nicholls (Currer Bell) caught a severe cold shortly before her death.” The site is a fine one – not to be attempted from the base by unfit doods, unless you’re really serious about your climbing! But to those of us who like clambering up rocks and wholesome scenery, walk to the site via the stream (Ponden Clough Beck) and get to the cleft in the rock face. Tis a truly fine place!
In 1913, one writer posited the notion that the opening in the rocks through which local folk crawl (see Folklore, below) “is seemingly artificial” – which aint quite true, sadly.
Once on the tops above the Kirk, you’ve one helluva decent view, be it raining or sunny. On the far northeastern horizon arises the great omphalos of Almscliffe Crags; and next to that is the elongated top of Baildon Hill; and a little further northeast is Otley Chevin. It would be good to visit here on a few of the old heathen days and watch the sunrise, just to see if there are any intriguing solar observations to be made! (take a tent though – or p’raps, if you’re like us, don’t bother, but you’ll be bloody cold for the night!) The only potential sunrises of heathen significance appear to be midsummer and Beltane….
For me at least, one of the things which gives this site an intriguing form of sanctity is the fact that the Kirk itself forms the head at the end of the valley. It is a very fine ritual site and would obviously have had much more to be said of it than just the heathen marriage rites which are left today. The forces of wind and rain scream from its height, and in the valley beneath the chime of the gentlest echoes resonate, giving an altogether different ‘spirit’ amidst the same land. Those old cherubs of ‘male’ and ‘female’ spirit commune potently here – no doubt being the ingredients which gave form to the marriage customs… Those of you into feng-shui (the real stuff, not the modern bollox) and genius loci should spend time with the water and rocks here and you’ll see what I mean. Archaeologists amongst you, if you dare, should amble aimlessly here for sometime…for many hours, a few times, and give yourselves a notion of the ‘ritual landscapes’ you like to write about from the safety of your textbooks, to get a bittova better notion of what ‘experiencing the land’ is actually about.
This rocky outcrop was also said to be the place that Emily Bronte used in her Wuthering Heights novel as the place called Penistone Crags. A couple of other local writers have also added this legendary place in their tales aswell.
Alleged by Elizabeth Southwart (1923) “to be of druidical origin,” the first literary note of this great rock outcrop appears to come from the reverend James Whalley (1869) of Todmorden, who in his romantic amblings over the moorlands here, told that if any gentleman wants to get married,
“he must by all means pay a visit to Ponden Kirk… Here ‘they marry single ones!’ Any lady or gentleman who can successfully ‘go through one part of the rock’ (which is quite possible) is declared to all intents and purposes duly married according to the forms and ceremonies of Ponden Kirk.”
His wording here seems to imply that the event of passing through the rocky opening, is in itself a confirmation of the ceremony of marriage, not needing the blessing of some strange christian rites. If so, this tradition would be a very ancient one indeed, making the stone the witness to the marriage event. This would be a rite witnessed by the stones themselves: a universal heathen attribute found in most of the ancient traditional cultures. But this curious unwritten history was to be echoed a decade later by that great Yorkshire historian, J. Horsfall Turner (1879), who told us that,
“at Ponden Kirk, as at Ripon Minster, a curious wedding ceremony is frequently observed. It consists in dragging one’s-self through a crevice in the rock, the successful performance of which betokens a speedy nuptial… The place is now frequently called ‘Wuthering Heights. Apart from the association of such names as Crimlesworth and Oakden (see the Alcomden Stones), fancy easily ascribes a druidical settlement at the Kirk.”
A not unreasonable assumption – though nothing of this nature, of yet, has been found.
That other great Yorkshire writer, Harry Speight — aka Johnnie Gray (1891) — echoed the same folklore telling how,
“The natives of these parts have a saying, ‘Let’s go to Ponden Kirk where they wed odd ‘uns,’ which has its origin in an old custom of passing through an enormous boulder… The belief is that if you pass through it, you will never die single. No one knows how the rock acquired its name, but the Saxon kirk suggests a temple of worship, possibly extending back to the druidical times.”
A few years later, Mr Whiteley Turner came here and he too affirmed the old wedding rites, also telling that “according to tradition, maidens (some say bachelors too) who successfully creep through the aperture will be married within the year.” This bit of info also shows that the rocks also had oracular properties – a function known at countless other sites.
The proximity of Robin’s Hood Well, just a couple of hundred yards away, beckons for association with the Ponden Kirk – which it obviously had… But that’s a tale to be told elsewhere…