Nearly five years ago and with strict instructions from my writing partner about ‘not finding things’ on my way north without him, I had accidentally found Breedon on the Hill and we had been ‘going to’ go there together ever since. But ‘going to’ had never happened… there was always something or somewhere else on the agenda that took precedence and even on this occasion, we’d had other plans. With virtually no time off work available, we had managed to squeeze out a couple of days around new year, as long as we split them between both ends of the country. That left us with the long drive north after I’d finished at work, and a little time on the road to play. When our original plans were scuppered, Breedon immediately sprang to mind. So, while most people were preparing to celebrate, we went to church… twice… visiting two churches that take you back in time. Indeed, the church at Breedon, our first stop, takes you back over two thousand years to a time before Christianity arrived in these isles.
Even the drive up from the village is impressive. The narrow lane, barely a car’s width wide, snakes up and around the hill through a tunnel of trees. You know, without being told, that this was once a hillfort… one of those high settlements that are so often associated with ancient sacred sites. When you emerge into the light at the top of the hill, you can see why the place was chosen, and the view from this beacon hill is truly panoramic. For purely defensive purposes, you could hardly choose a better site for a settlement, but if the choice was made to bring the gods of earth and sky together, it would be perfect.
Faint traces of the Iron Age settlement remain on top of the hill, dating back two and a half thousand years, but much of what might remain has been lost to the enormous quarry that has eaten away the land to within scant yards of the church enclosure. You have to wonder how this was ever permitted. You can understand it in the early days; quarrying began here in the late nineteenth century, when the study of our own ancient sites was only just becoming a passion for amateur antiquarians. But how it has been allowed to continue to this extent is beyond me… half the hill is gone and with it any remnants of what may once have survived from ages past. It is the only substantial hill for miles around… but there are moated mounds near the twenty-two acre hillfort that may date back five thousand years. This is a huge and important site… what’s left of it.
While I do not believe that the presence of all ancient remains should automatically halt building, industry and what we are pleased to call progress, it bothers me a good deal when I see such important sites destroyed. The hill was once a place of such standing that they named it not twice, like New York, but three times. Its name comes from the old Celtic and Old English words for ‘hill’ … bre and dun… so adding ‘on the Hill’ to its modern name just emphasises its significance.
The church of Saints Mary and Hardulph has a long history. There was once a hermitage on the site of the settlement that was in place long before the birth of Jesus. Then a monastery was founded there in 676AD which later became and Augustinian Priory nine hundred years ago. Four saints were buried there… Friduricus who helped build the Mercian Royal Monastery there in the seventh century, King Eardwulf of Northumbria…who may be the ‘Hardulph’ of the dedication and who ruled from 796 to 806 , and two Anglo-Saxon saints local to Breedon Beonna of Breedon and Cotta of Breedon.
And they are still quarrying… profits speak louder than prophets or forgotten saints these days.
But we had made it to Breedon at last… and I knew that there were ‘wonderful things’ within…