Brigantia’s Land: Sacred Sites in the North of England

by Mary Frankland

Arbor Low in the Autumn - photo by Michael AllenAround the world, there is a cry of joy: "the Goddess is returning!"  I believe that here in the north of England, She never went away but was hidden for a while in one of her secret places.  In this article, I hope to take you on an armchair tour of some sites which are or may have been associated with Her.

Arbor Low, Derbyshire

At first glance, you may not think this is as impressive as, say, Castlerigg in Cumbria, but it is a place dear to me as it is the first stone circle I visited many years ago.  On a clear day, you can see just about forever, although as this is in the Peak District and 375 metres above sea level, the weather mood can change very quickly.

It is thought Arbor Low was built around 2,500 BCE.  There is a circular bank about 76 metres in diameter and two metres high with a group of stones in the centre which I take to be the sanctuary area.  A ditch encloses this  with 2 entrances north west and south east of the bank.  The large stones are 76 in number and 15 small ones in a circular alignment which looks a little like a clock face. All the stones are laid flat, which is unusual. It is unknown whether this is intentional or whether the stones have been vandalised.

Close by is Gib Hill, a Bronze Age mound erected on a Stone Age barrow, so the site has been held sacred for several centuries.  It may well have been the centre of a ritual complex as there are several Neolithic tombs and Bronze Age cairns close by.  It has a wonderful atmosphere, although local people will not approach after dark.

Interestingly,  in the 1970s, the Dragon Project discovered that the stones emit electro-magnetic signals and ultrasound at certain times of the year.

Devil's Arrows, North Yorkshire

The Devil's ArrowsThe Devils Arrows are three in number, although it is thought there were at least five at one time.  They vary in height from 18 to 22.5 feet.  The stones were erected during the Bronze Age, and are at the centre of an alignment of standing stones, henges and other remains in Yorkshire which are all alongside the A1 from Hutton Moor to Thornborough Henge,  The A1 was originally the Great North Road, and has been important communications route for thousands of years.  Aldborough, which is just down the road from the Arrows, was once the tribal capital of Isurium Brigantium, and it may be that the Devils Arrows site was adopted as a centre for religious or tribal gatherings in the Iron Age. It is also possible that the Arrows, together with Thornborough Henge, which is about 10 miles north, were once part of a significant religious gathering point.

Thornborough Henge, North Yorkshire

Thornborough Henge is a huge triple complex, which sadly is in danger of being wrecked by quarrying.  The complex is believed to be 5,000 years old and even today hosts a Beltane Fair.

There are no standing stones here, but the three henges are each 240 metres in diameter.  They are so exact in design that until the 1930s, they were thought to be of Roman work.  Like the Pyramids at Giza, they are in alignment with Orion’s Belt, and are in fact more accurate. They also predate Giza by 1,000 years.  The central henge is underlined by a cursus, which was probably a processional way.  The alignment is roughly east – west, the west being thought to align with the setting of Orion in 3,500 BCE, whereas the east may be set  towards the midsummer solstice sunrise.

The Orion connection was affirmed by a group of academics from Newcastle University when they looked at the arrangement of the entrances to each henge.  Each had 2 entrances forming a north – south alignment, and they found that when viewed from the central henge, the southern entrance frames the zenith of  Orion at the same times as Sirius is rising in the east. So here is a very sophisticated ritual site.

Thornborough Henge - photo by Tony Newbould

Holy Wells

The North is rich in holy or healing wells – even the industrial cities of Leeds and Bradford have several each.  One of my own favourites is Wine Wife Well, Sawley near Ripon.  Fortunately, this is one of the better kept wells.  It has an arched lintel over a sunken trough, and the water flowing through it is clear.  There is also a large oak tree nearby.  It is the name which interests me since it is thought that any well with “wife” in the title refers directly to the Goddess.  Similarly, there is a well at East Witton in the Dales called Diana’s Well.  It is located in woodland high up on Witton Fell.  The locals call it somewhat irreverently “Slaverin Sal”.  Could this be a corruption of Sulis?

My own favourite is St Anne’s Well, Buxton, in Derbyshire.  Buxton’s waters are thermal, like those of Bath, but are warm rather than hot.  The Romans named the town Aquae Arnemetiae.  Arnemetia is the local Goddess whose name means “She who lives in the sacred grove”.  Sadly, the grove is no longer there, but there are traces of rituals to Arnemetia in nearby Poole’s Cavern.

As I said, the well is now dedicated to St Anne, the mother of Mary the Mother of Jesus.  Long before it became a fashionable spa, it was known as a place of healing.  Mary, Queen of Scots came here to ease her rheumatism.  Again the name is interesting.  Was the well originally dedicated to Ana or Anu?

Derbyshire as a whole has a great love of its holy wells, many of which never dry up even in drought conditions.  Each year between May and September, each town with a well holds its own well dressing ceremony.  The well is decorated with specially made pictures made up of flowers or other natural materials.  Although the ceremonies are now Christian, they are believed to originate from veneration of the spirits of the springs, for example, our old friends the Romans celebrated the festival of Fontinalia, dedicated to Fontus, the god of springs.  On this day, wells and springs were adorned with garlands,

Creswell Crags, Derbyshire

I’ve often wondered why no-one had ever found any cave art in these islands.  Then in 2002, at an Oxford University dinner, this same idea was debated by Drs Paul Pettitt, Paul Bahn and Sergio Ripoli.  They put together a list of possible sites to explore, including Creswell Crags.  In 2003, after only 20 minutes in the Church Hole cave on this site, Dr Ripoli found the first Ice Age drawing to be discovered in Britain, and went on to find images of birds and red deer in addition to triangles representing the Goddess.

The pictures aren’t paintings.  This is a technique called bas relief, where tools are used to rub away part of the limestone.  Many of the images were found on the ceiling.  The team missed them originally as they didn’t expect to find them there.  Interestingly, Paul Pettitt thinks some of the images represent  women, possibly taking part in some ritual dance, perhaps in this cave.

The caves are open to the public and guided tours are provided. The team has written two books about the project:

Britain’s Oldest Art – the Ice Age cave art of Creswell Crags and Palaeolithic cave art at Creswell Crags in the European context.

Julian’s Bower, Lincolnshire

My final stop on this tour of the sacred sites of the North is to a labyrinth, Julian’s Bower in Alkborough.  This is an intricate earth and turf labyrinth, a copy of which is in the church porch.  This was used as a template when the bower was re-turfed a couple of years ago.  It was constructed overlooking the confluence of the Ouse, Trent and Humber rivers and is very tranquil in feeling.  It made me think of a journey into the self.  It is strikingly similar to the floor design in Chartres cathedral which was constructed in the 13th century.  The bower is also thought to date from this period.  Many people think that it does have ecclesiastical origins, but in 1697, a Lincolnshire diarist called Abraham de la Pryne called the bower “the Roman Game”  and a similar construction now lost, “Troy’s Walls”.  In legend, the walls of Troy were built in such a way that an enemy who entered would become so confused, they could not find their way out.

Julian's Bower - photo by John P A Carter

In his book, Labyrinths and Mazes, Geoffrey Ashe not only mentions Glastonbury Tor labyrinth, but also the most sacred symbols  of the Hopi Native Americans in Arizona, which represent Mother Earth. These symbols are in diagrammatic forms, one square, the other circular.  Both represent the womb of the Mother, the round one representing the road prescribed for a human being through life.  To follow this is to attain spiritual rebirth through the Eternal Mother.  Does Julian’s Bower mean the same thing?  I would like to think so.

I hope I have whetted your appetite for our sacred land of the North!

If you would like to read more about northern sites, try Northern Earth, which is published quarterly.   The website is http://www.northernearth.co.uk/ or contact: The Editor, Northern Earth, 10 Jubilee Street, Mytholmroyd, HebdenBridge, West Yorkshire HX7 5NP.

Mary Frankland

Mary writes: I'm 53 (54 in December and therefore a Crone!) I live in Knaresborough, of Mother Shipton fame, and work in York as an administrator with the City of York Council's Marketing dept.I first heard of the Goddess when I was at school in Sheffield, and she has been calling me since then.  I have been so happy since we finally came together but maybe it was the right time.  I am very interested in holy wells and healing with crystals.  I have also studied herbal medicine.I have particular devotion to Isis, Hecate and Bride, quite a broad span across the pantheons!