The last of the winter light was beginning to fade as we left St Andrew’s and wandered out into the churchyard. In many respects, what awaited us outside was far more impressive and interesting than the Georgian interior. There were stones.
It is fair to say that most churchyards have stones of some description, and this one was no exception. Set within the old precinct and ringed with buildings from another era, the green space is a place of peace peopled by memories. A memorial pays tribute to those who served and fell in the great wars, and close by, one grave marks the last resting place of Mary Noble, an old lady who lived to the grand age of a hundred and seven. She was born around the time that Louis XIV, the Sun King of France, finally gave up the ghost. She lived through the years of the French revolution, the reign of Napoleon and his final defeat at Waterloo, seeing the French monarchy temporarily restored under Louis XVIII. Not that she would have cared or known much about such great events, even though they would undoubtedly have played a part in shaping her world. She was a spinner, and continued to spin her threads until three months before her death.
Near Mary’s grave is another that is often passed unseen, marking the resting place of the parents-in-law of the poet, William Wordsworth who, with his sister Dorothy and his future wife, Mary Hutchinson, attended Dame Birkett’s School overlooking the churchyard. Home meant different things for Mary Noble and the poet. One would immortalise the beauty of the area with his words, the other, born decades before the poet and living a long life after his death, spun the threads that clothed the ordinary people who lived and worked the land. Yet, ultimately, for both of them, home would be cold earth and the hope of heaven.
These, however, were not the stones we had come to see. What we were after were stones that had already been around for over eight hundred years when Mary was born. One, known as the Giant’s Thumb, is a tenth century carved ‘wheelhead’ cross, dated to around 920. Tradition suggests that it may have been erected by Owen, King of Cumbria, as a memorial to his father. At some point it was used as a pillory to punish wrongdoers and the lower holes may have been enlarged for this purpose.
The scheduled monument listing designates the cross as Anglian, and says of the now-weathered decoration that a drawing was made in 1921 that showed, “…the east and west faces to have displayed a decoration of scroll and interlacing with a crucifixion scene on one side depicting Christ flanked by two figures interpreted as Longinus the spearman and Stephaton the sponge bearer. Above Christ there is a serpent. On the opposite side of the stone there was another human figure too weathered to interpret.”
It is always with a sense of privilege that we stand in the presence of a stone that has seen so much history and one which, moreover, still carries the carved mark of an artist. For over eleven hundred years this cross has been part of the life of its community… and yet, it is a mere babe compared to some we would see over the course of the weekend.
Just a few yards away is a much more unusual collection of stones, known as the Giant’s Grave. On face value, the group of six stones is no more than a pair of Anglian Crosses with four Viking hogbacks, the carved stones used to mark Norse burials, and yet, uniquely, it is said to be a single grave.
The earliest hogbacks date back to around 920, like the cross of the Giant’s Thumb. They are usually carved with a pattern that looks like roof tiles and are thought to be a stylised representation of a house for the dead. Many are covered with patterns alone, often flowing and sinuous in a style wrongly named ‘Celtic’. Others are also carved with legendary and religious figures…not all of them Christian. Many such stones are beasts in themselves, others are carved with people, boars…and dragons.
The two cross shafts, of a similar date, are also carved, though they are badly weathered. The interlacing is different on every stone and we have wondered if there is meaning to each pattern… a meaning to which we have lost the keys. Curiously, given that we had not yet finalised the details of the weekend at that time, and never announced them, writer Mary Smith sent me, as well as the photo of Merlin’s cave, a newspaper cutting that discussed the lost language of symbolism and a booklet on the old carved crosses. ‘Coincidences’ like that tend to reassure you that you are on the right track…
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