A blog by an historian, Pagan and fanfiction writer, with left-wing leaning politics. In short, I could be waffling on about anything.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

What Were the Landywood Great Stones?

'... the Great Stones of Landywood stood overlooking the valley of Wyrley Brook, and constituted the temple of the Druids.'
EJ Homeshaw and Ralph Sambrook Great Wyrley 1051 - 1951.

When two local historians wrote those words in 1951, they must have been dreaming of an idyllic, romantic past for Landywood and Great Wyrley. The imagination feeds the rest of the details.

The Herculean effort involved, over several generations, for a community to drag stones from distant places into the heart of their town. We envisage long, arduous quests for the quarry. The chipping away of huge boulders from solid outcrops. The floating, dragging, inching along of the standing stones into their present position. The pride of a people encapsulated in the rising religion of Druidry, wherein these rocks became altars and the megaliths the cathedrals of their day.

Unfortunately for Great Wyrley, this doesn't seem to have happened there at all. But the reality is probably much more dramatic than that.

Ancient Britain: A Mile High Wall of Ice

Imagine a cliff-face of ice. A great glacier that rises higher than Ben Nevis or Snowdon. Now you have that peak set into your mind, picture flying above it. It's not a single mountain here, it's a vast plateau extending as far as the eye can see. Nothing but ice, glistening in the frozen air, reflecting sunlight that warms only to -8 degrees Celsius (17.5 degrees Fahrenheit) in the heat of noon. Then drops to much, much colder temperatures when night falls.

Britain has been subject to several Ice Ages in its ancient history. (Though a mini Ice Age is being predicted for winter 2011.) The biggest of all saw most of England, Wales and Ireland covered in a mile high glacier. Scotland was lost completely beneath it.

Just south of the Midlands was the vast cliff-face that you just formed in your mind's eye. It didn't end at the modern coastline. The oceans were so bound up in ice that it would have been possible to walk across a periliously cold tuntra into today's Netherlands or France. There was no North Sea. There was no English Channel. They were both frozen wastegrounds, in which nothing could easily survive.

Then the ice melted.

Ancient Britain: The Great Flood

Some believe that the story of Noah and the great Biblical flood stems from a folk memory of the melting of an Ice Age. There would certainly have been people on Earth (the last one was only 10,000 years ago, with the biggie just a couple of thousand years before that).

Melt an ice cube on a plate, or leave the freezer door open so that it defrosts, then look at the amount of water that is left. Now scale up and keep on scaling up, until your mind can see the sheer volume of water that once rushed across Britain. If that fails you, then wander down to the seaside. Look at the North Sea. Look at the English Channel. Look at the Irish Sea, the Celtic Sea and St George's Channel. Now can you grasp the level of water that melted?

The North Sea

There was the roar of a tsunami across the tundras. Britain became an island, cut off from the rest of Europe. Valleys were carved out of the landscape. The soil and bedrocks were ground and crushed beneath it. Like a seesaw, the country is still trying to rectify its levels. A lot of heavy ice melted off the top of the mainland British Isles. Even today, Scotland is very slowly rising and London, along with the rest of the south of England, is gradually sinking.

Drop a twig into a stream and see how the water carries it along. Now scale up again. This was the sort of great deluge that carried trees. Watch how a wave scrapes pebbles on a beach back into its depths. Scale up again. The melting ice dragged boulders from the mountain side and took them halfway across the country.

Ice Age Rocks Scattered Across the Landscape

In 1903, a gentleman named Frederick William Hackwood was commissioned by the Lichfield 'Mercury' Office to write a history of the area. It was eventually published as The Chronicles of Cannock Chase. Now out of print, it can still in found in local history centres and libraries. He didn't start with human history, but with the creation of the Staffordshire landscape itself.

One of the major curiosities of the county were the large amount of substantial rocks lying around. They were strewn east of Cannock Chase, in a wide arc that included half of the Black Country. Moreover, they were not indigenious to the area. Geologists had traced their origin to two locations - West Wales and the English Lake District. More specifically Arenig in Gwynedd and between the Ravenglass and Mayport hills in Cumbria.

An example of one of these is in the Walsall Arboretum; another stands in Wolverhampton's West Park. They were brought here in a torrent of water, at the melting of an Ice Age. These orphaned rocks are called erratics.

Great Wyrley and Landywood both sit smack bang in the centre of this plain of erratics.

Is There Any Evidence of Erratics in Great Wyrley and Landywood?

In a previous blog entry, I mentioned that Paul Ford (Walsall Local History Centre) had contacted me about my quest to find the Landywood Great Stones. He and I had both, independently, concluded that this was no desecrated stone circle, but erratics in Wyrley.

Paul Ford found a mention of such rocks in HG Mantle's 'Glacial Boulders East of Cannock Chase', a book written in 1897. It was the same study quoted by Hackwood, in his history of the area. Mantle had observed, 'On both sides of the road between Gt Wyrley Railway Station and Brownhills... there is a constant occurrence of erratic blocks varying from an inch or two, to several feet. Roadside heaps consist of the most part of erratics... as do stones in the turf and arable fields.'

Neither Mantle nor Hackwood talked about any 'temple of the Druids', as Homeshaw and Sambrook had fancied.

Erratics Used in Creating the A34/Walsall Road

In 2000, the Great Wyrley Millennium Committee produced a book as part of its 'welcome to the 21st century' celebrations. It was comprised of five chapters, charting Wyrley's history, buildings, organisations, the entire 20th century and its future. Many older residents had been interviewed and their stories were told. Amongst them was Mr H Rowley, whose father had been the road surveyor responsible for 11 miles of the A34, as it passed through Great Wyrley.

He wrote about how the Walsall Road, as it's known locally, was just a muddy trackway at the start of the 20th century. Under his father's supervision, it was turned into a roadway suitable for traffic, but that involved a lot of labour and materials. A temporary stone works was established opposite the Star Inn, where a Mr Hanson oversaw the cracking of rocks for use in the road.

Mr Rowley went on to write, 'Stones were plentiful in Great Wyrley, relics of the Ice Age when the granite hills of Wales and Cumberland were perpetually covered with snow and ice which moved southwards in the form of huge glaciers, carrying masses of granite to the Midlands. Many of these were saved by the British and Saxon settlers as boundary stones.' (pg 55, Great Wyrley Millennium Souvenir)

This would have sounded suspiciously like the Landywood Great Stones anyway, as Holly Lane once constituted the border between Essington and Wyrley, but Mr Rowley had something more to add.

As an elderly man born and raised in Great Wyrley, he had watched the progress of the Great Stones as they were moved around the town. He added, 'One of (the boundary stones) can be seen at the entrance to Landywood Enterprise Park. Those deposited in the fields provided labour for the women and the young in gathering them for the road making.'

In short, the Landywood Great Stones were simply erratics that were too big and heavy for local women and children to carry to the stoneworks.

The End of the Hunt for the Landywood Great Stones

I hope that you enjoyed this quest through the history and environment of Landywood. The Great Stones may not have been hauled into Great Wyrley by humans, nor probably used by the Celtic Druids as a temple, but their journey was no less dramatic for it.

It is likely that they were individually carved out of the bedrock, in Wales and Cumbria, then carried to Wyrley in the country's biggest historical flood. As the torrential flow subsided, the rocks were dropped as erratics and lay there for tens of thousands of years. A forest grew around them. A rare myrtle and gorse bushes covered them in a glade.

Then human beings arrived. Celts and then Saxons manoeuvring these erratics into borders, showing where one territory ended and another began. For another millennia, the Landywood Great Rocks served this purpose at the edge of the Essington Forest, showing where Landywood began. They would have silently watched Landywood become submerged into the greater township of Great Wyrley. They would have seen the forest receding again under the demands of the charcoal and timber industries.

But where there was forest, there is coal. The Landywood Great Stones would have been there before the coal, but they were still in the way. Teams of men would have hoisted them onto carts. Horses or oxen would have dragged them out of the way, into a neat semi-circle at the foot (or maybe the heights) of Broom Hill.

For just another 100 years, the Stones sat alongside Gorsey Lane, as the town expanded around them. The boom time of coal-mining was here, bringing with it miners and their families. Good roads were needed to cope with the larger population. The wives of miners and farmers picked their way through the fields, taking all of the smaller erratics. But the Great Stones were too big to carry. They were saved from the stone-crackers' hazel hammer.

Housing was sorely needed, as industry swelled the population of Great Wyrley; and prime land was right there on Gorway Moor and the slopes of Broom Hill. The Anson Road and the Tower View council estates swarmed over them, but the Great Stones were now in the way.

As the construction work went on, it was lorries that were loaded up with these large erratic stones. We lose sight of them for about a decade, but then, in 1985, one turned up as a decoration in front of the Landywood Enterprise Park. It is possible that the rest are at the side of the road in Streets Lane, where they've been since the first residents of that council estate moved there in 1979. If so, then we didn't lose them at all. They were merely transported from Gorsey Lane to Streets Lane, when Tower View was built.

Who knows what the next millennia has in store for them.

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