I’d seen photos of them and thought I might be impressed by their size. I certainly wasn’t wrong.
“This is the greatest single stone-row anywhere in the British Isles.”
The Devil’s Arrows can be found near Boroughbridge, very close to the busy A1M and the A168 that runs parallel to it. I’m sure you can hear the noise of the traffic, but by the time I’d caught sight of the stones I was so excited that I didn’t notice.
I went there with my daughter, Verity, and after finding somewhere to park the car – trickier than you’d think – our first excitement was stemmed slightly by the fact that the field in which two of the stones stand was shoulder-high in oilseed rape. Luckily, a path had already been made through the field by recent visitors.
The middle stone, far from being engulfed, soared above the brown jungle like a Neolithic version of the Shard. We arrived at its base sporting a few new hair adornments and then walked all around it, gazing up in awe. The surface of the stone was rough, just as you’d expect of the gritstone from which they are hewn. A large area seemed to be plastered with a type of black lichen; and even more strikingly, deep vertical grooves had been worn – or carved – into its faces.
A little late, but better than never, I remembered that I’d brought my dowsing rods with me. Trust me to pick somewhere like this for their first solo outing! I could only take about three paces away from the stone before being swallowed by a forest of rapeseed. But I did find a strong spiralling effect by one corner of the monolith, which was confirmed by Verity, much to her delight; a blind spring, I wondered? When we looked down at the ground, it seemed that someone else had found it too, as a small piece of rock crystal had been placed on the exact spot.
We decided to admire the furthest stone (above) from a distance, and turned our attention to the third and tallest member of the Arrows, which stands in a little wooded clearing by the side of Roecliffe Lane. In fact, it had been watching us all the time…
This one has its own fencing along the roadside and even a special sign with a blue plaque explaining its significance. I was put in mind of a dangerous animal in a zoo enclosure, and the huge dark presence of this stone didn’t do much to dispel that impression. The trees met above its head, but they seemed to be standing a good distance away from it. Again, there was the same mysterious grooving that is visible on all three of the Arrows, and the suggestion of cup-marks around the base. Weathering? I am not at all convinced.
Verity hugged the stone and immediately felt light-headed, and I must admit that I had a similar sensation while standing next to it. As I posed for a photo, I must have leant a little too hard on the rods in my back pocket, because when I pulled them out I found that one of them had all but snapped in two. I’m thinking I should start a new blog, entitled ‘Disastrous Dowsing’.
What’s with all those grooves?
The Devil’s Arrows are not by any means the only stones to be marked or shaped in this way. This is what Alfred Watkins has to say, describing the Queen Stone near Symond’s Yat in his book, ‘The Old Straight Track’:
“Most inexplicable of all the mark stones are those with clean-cut grooves running from the top to the bottom of an upright or ‘long’ stone. The Queen Stone in the horseshoe bend of the Wye near Symond’s Yat is a fine Herefordshire example… The grooves die out before reaching the ground but continue in an irregular way over the apex… it seems quite impossible that they should result from any natural cause….
The top of the stone is irregularly corroded, and the probability of this being caused by fire presents itself. I tried the insertion of broomsticks in these grooves but the tops projecting on opposite sides were too irregular for such a method to have been used for sighting.”
I can just imagine Alfred Watkins putting broomsticks in the grooves. About the Devil’s Arrows, he wrote: “These three are 16½ to 22½ feet high, in a direct line north and south, from 200 to 300 feet apart. Their alignment (there were four aligning in Leland’s time) indicates that they are on a ley.” He was slightly incorrect about their placing, because they are not set in a precisely straight line – the middle stone is offset a little to the west. But the height is accurate, making the tallest one higher than Stonehenge.
And were there originally more than three? It seems as if there were – but just how many we’ll never know. According to the antiquarian William Stukeley, there were five stones here in the early 18th century, and 1694 a fisherman named Peter Franck reported seeing seven of them. John Leland saw four stones in the 1530s, but in 1592 William Camden visited Boroughbridge and was horrified to discover that one of them had been uprooted. The lower half of this stone was apparently used as a bridge over the River Tut, while the top portion was said to be preserved in the grounds of Aldborough Manor; smaller fragments were rumoured to grace local gardens.
“…foure huge stones, of pyramidal forme, but very rudely wrought, set as it were in a straight and direct line… whereof one was lately pulled downe by some that hoped, though in vaine, to find treasure.”
The age of the stones is open to speculation, but the blue plaque on the roadside offers a date of 2700 BC. Each Arrow is said to weigh over 40 tons, and their height is even more amazing when you learn that another five feet or so lies below the surface.
“The first recorded excavation at the foot of the stones was in 1709 when a nine-foot area around the central stone was opened. This revealed that just below the topsoil, cobbles, grit and clay had been packed around the stone to a depth of five feet. The base of the stone had been dressed by pointed tools to produce a smooth bottom which sat squarely on the hard packed clay beneath.” Ancient Wisdom
The Arrows are believed to have been hewn from a rocky outcrop at Plumpton, south of Knaresborough. I haven’t visited Plumpton Rocks, but a little research shows that they bear very similar vertical grooves, parallel and close together. To me, and I am the first to admit that I am a mere bystander, this doesn’t look like the natural weathering of water on stone.
An old legend claims that the Devil stood on How Hill and prepared to fire three arrows at the village of Aldborough, whose residents had for some reason offended him. He shouted, “Borobrigg keep out o’way, for Aldboro town I will bring down.” But the arrows missed their target and landed in a field. This is a familiar theme with many heaps of stones around the British Isles, but I’ve got to say that these missiles were more dangerous than most! Just for good measure, a local superstition warns that walking 12 times around one of the stones in an anti-clockwise direction will summon the Devil.
This was a fun experience, and Verity and I are still pondering our impressions of these colossal stones. I have made a mental note to re-visit them in the winter time, when the fields are bare and their full height can be appreciated.
Photos copyright © Jo Woolf
I want to show you this photo, of one of the Tuilyies stones near Dunfermline. It bears similar grooved markings, although it is nowhere near as tall as the Devil’s Arrows. I’ll be writing about these soon on The Hazel Tree.