Monday 17 October 2011

The Legend of Alderley Edge

The small Cheshire village of Alderley Edge, about 5 miles north west of Macclesfield and some 12 miles south of Manchester on the A34 main trunk road, is steeped in folklore and legend. The village clings to the bottom of the steep sandstone escarpment overlooking the Cheshire Plain, along the B5087, known simply as 'The Edge'. Copper and lead mining are known to have taken place during the Bronze Age and Roman times and continued again from the 1690s into the 1920s. It is an area rich in legend and history.

The name Alderley first appears in 1086 as 'Aldredelie'. Several versions of the origin of the place name are known, one says it derived from 'Aldred 'and 'leah' meaning 'Aldred's Clearing'. However, the association with Alder trees persists in some accounts. The Alder is a mystical tree once favoured by the ancient Druids and also sacred to Fairy folk. The tree is reputed to be one of the sacred trees of modern witchcraft, indeed Alder is often called "the wood of the witches". A witches coven is said to have left The Edge in the 1960's after being exposed by a local paper.

The mystical Alder was venerated in medieval Welsh poetry. In the 14th century poem The Battle of the Trees (Cad Goddeu) from the  Book of Taliesin, the Alder leads the line into battle. In a later manuscript version of the same tale Amaethon steals animals from the Otherworld and a battle ensues between Arawn and Bran from Annwn, the Celtic Otherworld, and the Children of Don. The battle is over the theft of a white roebuck and a whelp, both animals which appear at the beginning of the Mabinogi as the possessions of Arawn, Lord of Annwn. Amaethon prevails when his brother Gwydion successfully guesses the name of his adversary, Bran, by the fact that he has Alder sprigs on his shield.

Mining activity over millennia at Alderley Edge may have led to some of the early traditions as miners were superstitious people; anyone who entered the bowels of the earth and journeyed amongst the underground spirits to retrieve lumps of rock that could be turned into metal generated a certain aura. Mysteriously, several ancient gold bars have been found here.

Nearby is the town of Wilmslow, home to Lindow Common in which lies the Black Lake, the name derived from the Welsh 'llyn ddu', a surviving indicator of a once much larger and wetter expanse of land known as Lindow Moss, an ancient peat bog. It was here on 1 August 1984 that a body was found in the bog by peat cutters. Known as Lindow Man, the body appears to have been a 1st century AD victim of Druid sacrifice found with mistletoe pollen in his stomach and suffered the classic Celtic triple death; he was strangled, hit on the head, and his throat cut.

Many people visit the Edge each year drawn by it's legends and history, with many unusual sites along the escarpment linked to the story of the The Iron Gates:

“Once upon a time, the story goes, a farmer from Mobberley was on his way to Macclesfield market riding a white mare which he hoped to sell. Whilst walking along the ridge road, he was stopped by a grey-bearded man who offered to buy the horse, but the farmer refused, saying he could get a better price at the market. The old man told the farmer that he would not sell the white mare at the market and he would be at this spot again that evening when the farmer returned. Although the mare had been admired by many at the market he farmer failed to sell the horse and, cursing his luck, made the journey back home. At the same point, the old man appeared again, offering the farmer the money, which this time he accepted. The old man told the farmer to follow him with the horse though the woods on the Edge to a rock on which he laid his hands on it. The old man banged on the ground with his stick and, to the farmer’s shock, the rock opened up to reveal a set of Iron Gates. The old man beckoned the farmer to follow him through the gates into a large cavern where he saw countless knights and many white horses, all asleep. The old man explained that all these sleeping warriors were ready to awake and fight should England fall into danger, but were in need of one more white horse. The farmer was given a purse of gold for his white mare and ran out of the cave. As soon as he was out of the gates they crashed shut behind him and the rock returned to its place and no one has identified the site since”.

The exact location of the Iron Gates is unknown, but they are supposed to lie somewhere between Stormy Point and the Holy Well. There are several versions of the story but the first literary reference appears in 1805 when a newspaper, the Manchester Mail, published the legend, said to have been collected from local tradition, but mainly from an old man named Thomas Broadhurst. The newspaper account added that the tale was told by a Parson Shrigley who died in 1776, showing that oral versions of the legend were already in existence in the north Cheshire area. Later in 1805 a letter was published in the same newspaper from a reader claiming to be the "Perambulator" stating that he knew the location of the Iron Gates.

By Sevenfirs and Goldenstone
The Legend of Alderley, complete with a version of the myth of the sleeping hero, kick started Alan Garner's literary career, the tale being the inspiration behind “The Weirdstone of Brisingamen”, written between 1956 and 1958. Garner subtitled this book “A Tale of Alderley”, a story in which two children enter an underground kingdom, presided over by Cadellin the wizard who watches over sleeping knights, until the hour of the country's greatest need. Garner continued the theme in "Weirdstone” into the sequel “The Moon of Gomrath”.

In 2007 Garner delivered a lecture to the Temenos Academy which gave an account of the origin of the legend as far as Garner was concerned and published three years later as “By Sevenfirs and Goldenstone: An Account of the Legend of Alderley” (Temenos Academy, 2010). The 20 page booklet is Garner's account of the local lore of Alderley covered in his tale. The addition of a map would have been a useful addition for anyone wishing to trace out the route on the ground.

The Wizard's Well
Garner is evidently drawing on an oral account, in a local context, supplied by his grandfather, a blacksmith, seemingly without being aware of 19th century written versions of the tale. He goes on to tell the reader how his grandfather told him the story about the farmer from nearby Mobberley and his white mare he is taking to sell at Macclesfield market. In this booklet Garner attempts to identify the route of the tale from the location where the farmer first encounters the grey-bearded old man at Thieves’ Hole, and along the journey across the land by Seven Firs and Goldenstone to Stormy Point and Saddlebole. In his efforts to trace this journey across The Edge, Garner came across peculiarities in the form of mounds, big stones and significantly, boundaries.

Garner identifies Thieves' Hole as a hollow way, a linear earthwork, suggesting it could have been an ancient border, a land division, its original purpose now lost.  He found a reference in a Charter for Rolleston, Staffordshire, dating to 1008 AD, describing a boundary marker as 'to the thorn where the thieves lie'.

He interprets this as a place of execution and/or burial, as Anglo-Saxons favoured boundaries for such things.

The Edge possesses six enigmatic shallow, circular, flat-topped mounds, roughly three feet high and twenty five feet in length, all of unknown age. He conjectures that they could be prehistoric burials or later additions, perhaps such as a folly. Three of these mounds are passed by on the journey from Thieves' Hole to Saddlebole, one is named Seven Firs. He takes the reader on the journey past Goldenstone, a free standing block of conglomerate sandstone with a high quartz content. He states the earliest mention of the Goldenstone that he can find is in a Perambulation of the boundaries of Over Alderley and Nether Alderley dated 1598, “a gear stone called the golden stone on the north side of the wain way.” He suggests this stone bears evidence of prehistoric tooling and is puzzled why a grey stone should be described as golden. Rejecting other possible meanings Garner finds that in Old English place names 'glyden' can mean tribute, which he prefers. Behind Goldenstone is the second flat-topped mound.

The route continues to Stormy Point where it touches the third flat-topped mound. Nearby is the Devil's Grave, an artificial chamber forty feet across, entered by way of a trench at one side. Garner postulates that 'Devil' names are often associated with the naming of strangeness and often used for early works in the landscape; concluding that a suitable description would be “the tricky trench”. Close by the Devil's Grave is a mound called Pikelow, an ancient burial mound, significantly on the boundary of three parishes and four townships.

The Edge
The final leg of the journey to Saddlebole is the most intriguing our guide informs us. Saddlebole is  a spur from Stormy Point. Garner suggests Old English 'bolla' can mean a round hollow, a bowl or a crucible. He adds that Boles or Bolestids were places used in ancient times before smelting mills were invented. Metallurgy is a magical and dangerous art he tells us and as such concentrations of metals in the soil prohibits the growth of vegetation, suggesting that evidence of lead mining will be found at Saddlebole.

Alongside the track from Saddlebole to Stormy Point, again a multiple boundary, is the rock of the Iron Gates. Excavations in 1999 revealed an earlier structure running along the boundary ridge, consisting of wall of rubble and cut stone, travelling as far as Stormy Point. From this Garner interprets the meaning of Iron Gates as the 'stone way'. Recent Archaeology has interpreted the ditch as a prehistoric route along the crest of The Edge, running from the highest point, Beacon mound, to Lindow Moss and Mobberley and in the other direction toward Macclesfield.

Today a farm track crosses the ditch at right angles; it is here, Garner deduces, that the farmer first met the old man with the grey beard. He suggests that if the track did indeed pass over Thieves' Hole then there would have been an intersection at this point. Crossroads are liminal places where boundaries between worlds are breached, the reason why, according to Garner, boundaries play a significant part in the tale; we are clearly dealing not only with a physical but also a spiritual topography; divisions without dimensions, he adds, symbolise the supernatural in space. He argues that if a crossroads did not exist on Thieves' Hole then the old man would not and could not have met the farmer there. Indeed, it is here at Thieves' Hole that the approach to the Sleeping Hero begins.

“Accounting for the deeper nature of the Edge is not easy”, Garner says, and for him the tale is set deep within the psyche of his childhood, a tale of the supernatural in which boundaries between the worlds are breached. As he puts it, “The Edge is a remarkable 'Thing', which stands out when seen from both the plain and the Pennines. It is, of itself 'liminal'...... a special, a holy or  a haunted place....”

The Wizard of Edge Inn
Further variations say that the grey-bearded old man was the wizard Merlin and the sleeping men were King Arthur and his Knights. There is a restaurant on The Edge is called "The Wizard Inn". There is evidence of the hand of man at play here which has added a little antiquity to The Edge; a rock along the path has an old man's face and inscription carved in it and a stone trough below on the ground. This is the Wizard's Well, and the face has come to be known as that of the wizard Merlin. Below is written "drink of this and take thy fill, for the water falls by the wizard's will". The carved letters are clearly not ancient, although the carving of the wizard's face may be older; these are more likely recent(-ish) additions to the local lore. The Wizard's Well is one of several springs along the edge such as the Holy Well and the Wishing Well. They may well be ancient or the product of more recent mining activity.

Deep within the woods on the path between Stormy Point and the Beacon lies the Druid's Circle. This circle of recumbent stones has fooled some antiquarians into believing it an authentic prehistoric work, but, according to Garner, the Druid's Circle is the work of his great-great grandfather Robert Garner, a local stonemason, who also created the inscription above the Wizard's Well. The Druid's Circle is therefore barely 200 years old.

The Sleeping King
The Legend of Alderley is clearly a local variation on the Sleeping King theme, well known throughout nations featuring their legendary heroes, usually accompanied by their primary band of warriors, and always sleeping in remote places: mountain caves; remote islands; even supernatural realms. The hero is frequently a historical figure of noted martial prowess in the history of the nation where the mountain is located and will return in their time of greatest need.

The motif of the Sleeping King is indeed ancient and may have been cradled in the enigmatic island of Ogygia mentioned in Homer's 8th century BC “Odyssey”; which, writing in the 1st century AD, the Greek historian Plutarch says is the place where Cronus is imprisoned and lies sleeping in a cave. In Celtic realms we find King Arthur as the legendary sleeping hero so it should be of no surprise that we find him in residence at Alderley. The earliest reference we find to Arthur as the enchanted prisoner is under the Stone of Echymeint in the Triad "The Three Exalted Prisoners of the Island of Britain" from the 13th century Trioedd Ynys Prydein (Triads of the Island of Britain) with a similar tale, albeit with Mabon in the role of prisoner, in the earlier 11th century tale of Culhwch and Olwen.    

Versions of the legend of the Sleeping King residing in a hollow hill abound, an early example comes from South Cadbury hill, Somerset, regarded as the original Camelot by some, first recorded by the Welsh antiquary Elis Gruffudd, who died in 1552, but perhaps the most well known with Arthurian traditions is concerned with the Eildon Hills, a triple peaked hill, on the south side of Melrose on the Scottish Borders. On the north hill is the largest hill fort in Scotland, once thought to be the power base of the Selgovae as recorded by the Roman geographer Ptolemy. On the middle hill is a large Bronze Age cairn and a monument  to Sir Walter Scott. In the 1st century the Roman army built the massive fort of Trimontium, named after the three peaks, at the foot of the hill on the bank of the River Tweed.

Eildon Hills
It is at the hollow Eildon Hills that a horse-dealer by the name of Canonbie Dick meets a stranger on Bowden Moor. Opposite the Moor are the central and southern peaks of the Eildon hills, the col between them called Lucken Hare. It is here that Dick and the stranger pass through a hidden doorway into a huge cavern under the main peak. Here Arthur and his knights, fully armed along with their horses, lay sleeping. Next day Dick told his story to some shepherds then dropped dead. Needless to say, no one has found the cave since.

We find echoes of these legends in the tale of The Queen of Elfland by Thomas the Rhymer, a 13th century Scottish laird and prophet from Erceldoune (modern Earlston, Berwickshire). One day, as Thomas sat beneath the Eildon Tree near Melrose, he heard the tinkling of silver bells and the sound of a horse's hooves. The beautiful Queen of Elfland rode by on her white horse. Thomas fell under her charm and journeyed deep within the hollow Eildon Hills to the 'Fairy Otherworld'. He remained there for seven years and acquired the gift of prophesy. When he returned to the mortal world he found he was unable to tell a lie and became known as 'True Thomas'. In one version of the tale, Thomas appears to be the stranger who drew Canonbie Dick into the cave under the Eildon Hills. Some even say that Thomas became immortal and still lives gathering horses for the sleeping knights within the hollow hills.

This is classic Celtic Mythology, from which we see the Otherworld Journey, typically the Irish echtrae, where the hero is lured to the Otherworld by the goddess of the tale, usually bearing a flowering silver branch of apples, or silver bells, as an indicator of their Otherworldy status. Thomas' abductor is no less than the Celtic Great Queen goddess Rigantona, known as Rhiannon of the Mabinogion, who rides past on her white horse displaying clear parallels with Epona, the Gallic horse goddess.

The hills at Melrose have been associated with Arthurian themes since at least the 12th century. It is here that Chrétien de Troyes, probably following an earlier tradition, locates the Dolorous Mountain. Earlier in the 12th century, Geoffrey of Monmouth connects the Dolorous Mountain with Mount Agned, which he identifies as the Castle of The Maidens, thought to be Castle Rock at Edinburgh. Significantly, according to the battle list in the 9th century Historia Brittonum Arthur's 11th battle was fought at Agned and in The Black Book Of Carmarthen the incomplete poem "Pa Gur yv y Porthur” (What man is the Gatekeeper/Porter?) Arthur is pitched on the slopes of Mynyd Eiddyn (Edinburgh) fighting dog-headed men (Cynvyn). All one and the same?

From the above we can postulate that the Arthurian association with the Sleeping King in the Hollow Hill was extant in Scotland and the borders from at least the 13th century and a similar tale was in existence as far south as Somerset by at least the 16th century. The attachment of the persona’s of Arthur and Merlin to the Legend of Alderley appears to be a much later addition. The first literary account of the legend with Arthur appeared when a version by James Roscoe appeared in the Blackwoods Magazine in 1839. We cannot ascertain a date for the oral transmission of the tale to Cheshire but the Legend of Alderley appears to have arrived late, with the earliest written accounts appearing in the 19th century, although traditional accounts, complete with local variants, were no doubt circulating prior to that.

From all this we are left to ponder if Alderley Edge is a landscape created by the legend or a legend created out of the landscape?

Copyright © 2011 Edward Watson


Alan Garner - By Sevenfirs and Goldenstone: An Account of the Legend of Alderley, Temenos Academy, 2010.
Doug Pickford - Myths and Legends of East Cheshire and the Moorlands, Sigma Press, 1992.

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    The apparent triple-death of Lindow Man, discovered in 1984 at a place within a stone's throw from Alderley Edge, bears many similarities with another Iron Age body found in a nearby peat bog in 1958. Now scans have revealed new information on the bog body found during the late 1950s.

    At Lindow Moss police initially thought they were dealing with the victim of a recent crime following the finding of a woman's skull by peat cutters in 1983, a discovery which actually led to the confession of a local man who had killed his wife. He claimed he buried her in his back garden but investigations at the time failed to uncover her body. Radiocarbon dating later revealed the skull to be nearly 2,000 years old.

    In 1958 the severed head of what is believed to be a Romano-British Celt thought to have lived around 100 AD, was discovered near Worsley in the eastern part of Chat moss, a large expanse of peat bog that makes up some 30 per cent of the City of Salford, in Greater Manchester, England.

    In 1987 re-examination of the severed head, of what has become known as 'Worsley Man', revealed he was garroted and then beheaded. His left temple had been hit with a blunt object, causing bone splinters to enter his brain. He was probably already dead when decapitated. The rest of the body has not been found.

    Recent scans at the Manchester Children's Hospital have now revealed more details about Worsley Man's violent death with Doctors of the opinion that damage to the remains of his neck was almost certainly caused by a ligature.

    Bryan Sitch, curator of archaeology at Manchester Museum, said it now appeared the man was bludgeoned over the head, garrotted then beheaded. He added, "This really was an extraordinary level of violence, it could be that there was some sort of ritual behind this."

    The methodology seemingly very similar to that of Lindow Man. In 'The Life and Death of a Druid Prince' (Rider, 1989) the authors, Anne Ross and Don Robins, speculate that Lindow Man was a sacrifical victim during a catastrophic period for the Druids attempting to avert the advance of the Roman Army which resulted in the destruction of their religious powerbase at Mona (Anglesey) and the defeat of Boudicca.

    Today, Lindow Man makes a very sad display at the British Museum.

    Source: BBC News Manchester 08 March 2012


      Forensic analysis has revealed that Worlsey Man was subject to a ritual triple-death.

      The skull, found in a Salford peat bog in 1958, has been X-rayed before with experts divided over how he died; previous tests showing the remains of a garrotte in his neck which some had speculated could have been simply a necklace. But the results of a 3D scan in 2012 showed the clear marks of the ligature that strangled him indicating he was bludgeoned over the head, garrotted and then beheaded in an extraordinary level of violence, sharing chilling similarities with the famous Lindow Man found in a Cheshire peat bog.

      Further analysis of the CT scan results at the University of Manchester has revealed a sharp, pointed object hidden deep within his neck confirming that Salford's Iron Age victim was ritually sacrificed.
      Manchester Evening News 16 May 2014.

      The discovery was captured on camera for the Channel 5 documentary Murdered: The Bodies in the Bog which follows Dr Melanie Giles as she investigates Worsley Man and other bog bodies in an attempt to understand why they were violently killed and then dumped in dark peaty waters.

  2. Alderley Edge is the site of one of the first copper mines in the UK. There is evidence of mining in the early part of the Bronze Age. Is has been argued by Pryor that the pulling of the sword from the stone refers to the making of the first sword. Is it possible that Merlin actually was from Alderley Edge and was an early metallurgist.
    Ed Joyce


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