‘The desire for knowledge and the love of mystery are two of the most powerful human impulses and Stonehenge satisfies both at once. That is why it has never lost its hold over our imagination or our curiosity’.
So wrote Rosemary Hill in her erudite and entertaining history of Britain’s most enigmatic ancient monument. If people were enthralled with this famous site in Wiltshire, how did they react when they found just such a monument in a quiet corner of Yorkshire?
William Danby of Swinton Park, near Masham, was a learned man, publishing volumes such as Thoughts, Chiefly on Serious Subjects. In creating the Druid’s Temple on his Swinton Park estate he was displaying his credentials as a man of the enlightenment. During the 18th century there was a movement away from a view of the past in which untamed men erected dolmens and henges whilst mythological creatures skipped at their feet. In its place came a reverence for the creators of such monuments as a civilised people, early pioneers in such fields as geometry, astrology and architecture.
Danby would have wanted the temple to excite such high-minded thoughts. Of course if there was just a hint of demonic slaughter too, to cause a shudder of fear amongst the oh-so delicate ladies, then that was all well and good.
The tale sound spread that Danby had tried to recruit a hermit to live in the temple, but this was dismissed by the local writer Robert Hird, who composed a history of the area around Bedale in verse. Sometime in the 1830s he wrote:
‘Twas said to be an hermit’s cell,
And that for seven years,
Where Danby wanted one to dwell,
With all his nails and hairs.
And folks believ’d the idle tale,
And told it off quite pat,
With Englishman such doth prevail,
They’re chronicle’d for that.
By the Victorian era things had changed. The generation that loved melodrama was more than happy to believe that dark rituals were enacted therein. In 1871 a gentleman wrote to the Leeds Mercury in great excitement having ‘discovered’ the temple and inside it a ‘huge block, probably for sacrifice’. He found everything in the ‘highest state of perfection and preservation’; unsurprising really, as the folly was not yet a century old.
The temple was probably constructed in the early 19th century (it was there by 1810) as an act of philanthropy to give employment to destitute soldiers returning from the Napoloenic wars. What is curious is that it is not discussed in early tourist guides and there seems to be few mentions in contemporary letters, diaries, or newspapers. Did Danby deliberately keep it hushed up to add to its lure, or was it just too far out of the way for genteel tourists to visit?
It was mentioned in a guide to Mashamshire in 1919. The author dismissed the idea that it was built for religious purposes, pointing out that the structure was equipped for picnics with a stone table and chairs and an adjoining kitchen. She suggested that Danby built it because he was interested in the engineering challenges and wanted to replicate the challenge of stone-moving faced by the ancients, whilst also creating employment at a ‘time of distress’.
Anyway, today’s visitors are in for a treat. The Druid’s Temple can be accessed via a public footpath and permissive footpaths allow further exploration courtesy of the Swinton estate, which also offers excellent sustenance at the nearby Bivouac cafe. https://www.swintonestate.com/bivouac/
Rosemary Hill’s Stonehenge was published in 2008 and is available from your local independent bookshop.
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