Wincle & Danebridge Parish
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Prehistoric Cheshire

 

With the kind permission of the authors – Victoria & Paul Morgan
ISBN 1 84306 140 6
www.landmarkpublishing.co.uk
email: landmark@clara.net

The Bullstones
The Bullstones can be found high above the town of Macclesfield on the southern boundary of a moor called Cessbank Common, close to Clulow Cross. Geographically and topographically this site lies within the Peak District National Park. The ring of small cobbles encircling a central standing stone is located on the eastern flank of Brown Hill, with an uninterrupted view through approximately 180 degrees. The vista to the north, east and south is stunning, taking in the sweeping moorland and summits of Shining Tor and Shutlingsloe to the north-east and the outcrop of The Roaches and Hen Cloud to the south-east.

According to the Cheshire County Sites and Monuments Record The Bullstones is classed as the ‘site of a Bronze Age cremation burial’ and as far as the Victoria County History is concerned its stones are ‘obscured by vegetation’. This is not at all the case. The Bullstones is a spectacular monument in a breathtaking setting, and quite possibly one of the most important and unusual monuments in the Cheshire area, after the Bridestones.

The Bullstones, or Bullstrang as it is sometimes known, first came to the public’s attention through the works of Dr John D Sainter in the 1870s. The following extract was published in his Scientific Rambles Round Macclesfield in 1878:
‘A short time ago, in a field close to the [Clulow] Cross, an ancient burial was investigated by myself and others. The interment proved to be that of a child or young person, and it was similar to that which had been found at Langley. The urn, which was also of Celtic type, had been inverted, and among the burnt bones was found a calcinated flint knife and a flint arrowhead.’

Interesting a badly damaged urn, reputedly retrieved from The Bullstones, is part of the reserve collection of the Congleton Museum. However, it was not the burial itself that was most interesting, but the setting in which it was placed:
‘The circumstances connected with this burial were rather peculiar. It lay about three feet below the surface, and was surrounded by a stone circle 20 feet in diameter, with apparently a headstone, more of less mutilated, four feet in height and the same in breadth, placed not in the centre of the circle, but between two and three feet to one site of it, northwards. Directly opposite the headstone, the circle was entered northward by a short avenue of stones; a line of stones also ran up to the circle in an oblique curve from each corner stone at the entrance to the avenue, leaving a small semi-triangular space on both sides of sufficient dimensions to accommodate four or five persons standing upright in each’.

Sainter and a team from The Macclesfield Scientific Society did investigate these triangles but ‘upon a trial being made with a spade no burial was found in either of them.’ The site survives today more of less as Sainter described it. The most striking feature is the central standing stone which dominates the monument. It is a square looking monolith measuring 1.4 metres wide, 0.7 metres deep and 1.1 metres tall. Its ‘flat’ top contains a bowl-shaped depression formed along the stone’s natural bedding, similar to the weathering ‘bowls’ found on many standing stones in this region. This ‘headstone’ sits in a rough oval of cobble-sized stones. Surrounding the central stone is an incomplete outer ellipse of rounded cobble to small boulder sized stones with a diameter of 7.9 metres by 8.5 metres which appears to mark the perimeter of a small platform. Parts of this ring are barely visible but can be followed or inferred through the encroaching grass. The entrance avenue, as described by Sainter, is difficult to make out amongst the mass of small boulders found today.

Being rectangular, the ‘headstone; has a number of faces that could hold alignments. The long axis of the stone appears to be orientated in the direction of Roach End (the northern tip of The Roaches outcrop). The sight line takes the eye across the Dane valley, over Back Forest where the gorge of Lud’s Church is situated and on to the northern end of the millstone grit ridge. The north-eastern long plane is orientated in the direction of Cessbank Common, past the characteristic summit of Shutlingsloe to the smooth featureless ridge of Shining Tor, the highest peak in the area. The south-western face of the stone points to the unimpressive flank of an adjacent hillock where the southerly end of Wincle Minn is just visible.

So what exactly is The Bullstones? It has been classified here as a stone circle, because on the face of it that is what it is – a circle of stones. As mentioned previously, the Cheshire Country Sites and Monuments Record describes it simply as the ‘site of a Bronze Age cremation burial’, perhaps a barrow or cairn. Dr Sainter also posulated this when he suggested that the circle and standing stone may have been enclosed in a ‘tumulus ten or twelve feet in height, with the circle of stones placed round its base’. However, just because the site has a burial there, this does not make it a burial monument. There are many examples of burials found at stone circles which were used as ritual monuments by the living. For example, at Doll Tor in the Peak District, burials and accompanying urns were found at the base of several of the standing stones, while at Arbor Low an inhumation was found close to the central cove.

The Bullstones shared many similarities with a group of monuments known as centre-stone circles which are commonly found in south-west Scotland. One of the best examples is Glenquickan near Kirkcudbright in Dumfries and Galloway. Reading the description of this site by stone circle expert, Dr Aubrey Burl, in his Guide to the Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany one gets the feeling of déjà vu:
‘Standing on a level grassland it is composed of 29 very low, closely set stones in an ellipse … the apparent gap in the ring at the south-west is filled by a stone whose tip just shows above ground. The interior of the ring is tighly laid with small stones like cobbling. At the middle of he circle is an immense upright pillar …’

In his larger volume, produced in 2000, Burl expands his description and explanation of centre-stone circles, which are also found in Shropshire, Wiltshire, south-west Ireland and Cornwall. He states ‘circles with centre stones appear to be late and frequently have a cremation deposit at the foot of the centre stone’ and that ‘the circles are composed of unobtrusive, rounded stones whereas the interior pillar is distinctly bigger.’ He adds ‘such monuments can never have been conspicuous and wee probably for local ceremonies’.

John Barnatt of the Peak District National Park Authority describes The Bullstones as ‘a truly cracking site which does not fit with our normative typologies’. He believes it has affinities with the platform cairns found in areas such as Dartmoor and Bodmin Moor as well as the centre-stone rings in south-west Scotland.

The importance of Cessbank Common area does not end there, however, for a close inspection of Sainter’s text reveals that there may have been at least one other stone circle in the immediate vicinity. In addition to the ‘small stone circles’ in the adjoining field to the south, which might possibly represent the remains of hut circles as discussed previously, Sainter also briefly mentions that ‘at a short distance to the north-east [of the hut circles], in a hollow, there is a traceable stone circle, 30 feet in diameter’.

Approximately a 100 metres to the south of The Bullstones, a single standing stone still sits in a hollow today. The stone seems to be a glacial erratic with a face that is highly polished and very pale in colour, making it stand out quite noticeably from the surrounding vegetation. A plough scar can be seen at the top of the stone suggesting it has been buried and re-erected at some stage, but perhaps represent the remains of this second circle. The diamond-like profile of the stone is very noticeable on the horizon from the road to the south-west (A54 Congleton to Buxton road) at the point where the road crosses the tributary of the Hog Clough brook.

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Clulow Cross
There is a suggestion that a Bronze Age settlement in east Cheshire may have existed at Clulow Cross in Wincle, close to The Bullstones.

The broken millstone grit pillar of Clulow Cross stands about 3 metres high on a large conical mound close to the A54 Congleton to Buxton road. Some, including Sainter, believed it to be an enormous tumulus; ‘This wayside cross, once so common, is placed upon the summit of an artificial mound of earth …This mound, or tumulus, is 250 feet in diameter, 25 feet high’. This does seem unrealistically large for a barrow and is more than likely a natural feature, but that does not mean that it was not utilized by prehistoric people. Often secondary burials were added into the mounds hundreds of years after they were originally constructed. Who is to say that Later Bronze Age communities did not mistake a natural mound for one built by their ancestors?

The whole area around Clulow was examined in detail by Sainter and members of The Macclesfield Scientific Society in the 19th century. The Proceedings of the Society, of which Dr Sainter was the President, reveal that some members spent several days examining the area and discovered ‘a well-defined grave mound’ midway between Clulow Cross and the Four Lane Ends. ‘In height it was about two and a half feet, oval, measuring from north to south about fourteen feet, and from eat to west about ten feet. Around the mound was an irregular circle of stones, but most of them entirely covered with grass and bilberry bushes.’ This site, now quite badly eroded, lies on the southern edge of Cessbank Common close to a public footpath and is surmounted by the grave of a dog named Rex.

During excavations a 1.2 metre wide trench was cut across the middle and beneath a layer of dark topsoil, a thin layer of sand and gravel was discovered covering a grave mound composed of boulders. The largest boulders had been placed around the base with smaller ones on the top and in the centre. The trench was further extended until it was two metres across revealing, in the words of an excavator, ‘a soft mixture of white sand with a black layer in it’. The white proved to be a ‘calcination of the neighbouring grit and phosphates’ and the black ‘oak charcoal’. Further examination continued the next day, and after another widening of the trench, ‘a funeral urn was discovered in situ’. Unfortunately it collapsed upon removal but enough fragments were presented to identify it, particularly at the base where root fibres from plants had held it together. ‘The urn measured four inches at the top, and the same at the bottom; it was eight inches in height and eight in width across the middle. The top portion is ornamented with the usual Celtic herringbone pattern.’

Within the urn a ‘good specimen of a sling-stone’ and a number of small triangular shaped stones, which the writer suggests may have been broken arrowheads but were more likely to have been included accidentally. He concludes my stating ‘Not far from the spot I have been describing are the remains of a cist under which our President (Mr Sainter) and others found a portion of an urn.’

The Minn End Lane Stones
Five standing stones are located in Wincle adjacent to the popular hikers’ and cyclists’ path, ‘The Griststone Trail’ which runs for 56 kilometres from Disley to Kidsgrove. Three standing stones, believed to be prehistoric, and two possibly more recent additions, are all situated within two metres of the western edge of Minn End Lane. This would certainly add credence to the theory that standing stones were used to mark ancient track ways.

Of the three scheduled stones, the southern single stone (Minn End Lane I) is a slim specimen that leans heavily to the east and, when vertical, would have stood at 1.2 metres high. The stone and ground around it bear the hallmarks of its adaptation to a gatepost at some point in the recent past. The stone appears to make the southern edge of a narrow, levelled entrance to the previously enclosed field to the west and have two hinge settings carved into its north face. Approximately two metres north of the stone the levelled area ends and a low bank starts, presumably making the line of the former wall.

The other ‘genuine’ stone pair (Minn End Lane IV and V) are located approximately 300 metres further north. These stones are also short and slim, leaning heavily and resembling gateposts. The southernmost stone of the two leans to the west, and would again have been about 1.2 metres high when upright, Its colleague, 2.4 metres to the north, leans southwards and would have stood about the same height were it not for the list. All three of these scheduled stones have weathered, rounded edges suggesting they have been exposed to the elements for a great number (possibly hundreds) or years.
Between the single stone and the pair stand two unscheduled stones, probably more recent additions to the lane-side. Both of these stones (Minn End Lane II and III) stand vertical at one metre tall, almost two metres apart, and have sharp, ‘freshly’ quarried edges. The northern stone of the two has an Ordnance Survey ‘benchmark’ symbol carved into it.

All five of these standing stones could be said to mark the trackway that today is Minn End Lane, but also appear to have been used as gateposts. However, the antiquity of the middle two stones can be thrown into doubt immediately with their lack of lean, ‘freshness’ and carving, suggesting that they are far more recent additions than the other three. On looking carefully, a line of rubble can be traced linking the three now redundant entrances parallel to the lane. Historical Ordnance Survey maps confirm the evidence of a fully enclosed field on the western side of the track (currently between the two iron gates). The 1910 map of the area shows the lost field boundary which enclosed an area of approximately 11 acres (4.5 hectares).

The question is, of the six stones that were needed to make the gatepost pairs, were the three Bronze Age ones already perfectly placed or were they moved from their original positions to save money, time and labour? Perhaps the answer lies in the lean. Only the three scheduled prehistoric ones are not truly upright, implying they were perhaps left in their original positions. As for the other two, although they appear to be more modern it seems strange that someone would remove all the other stones along the line of what was quite obviously once a dry stone wall, leaving only those five. All that aside, the current location of each of the stones is perfect. This saddle is ideally placed to take in superb views to the east covering the Peak District, the Dane Valley, The Roaches and Hen Cloud and to the west across the Cheshire Plain, Bosley Cloud and Croker Hill. With such imposing vistas it is easy to see why our ancestors constructed so many ritual monuments on the Pennine fringe.

Bartomley Farm
There is a potential Neolithic unchambered long barrow in Wincle, lying on land adjacent to Bartomley Farm. These normally consist of rectangular or trapezoidal mounds ranging between 20 and 120 metres long, and between one and seven metres high, long barrows were normally orientated east to west. According to Gordon Rowley, this mound on high ground could be the remains of a possible long barrow. A natural spur of rock forms part of the hillock, but the area around it has been adapted with an artificial covering of stone. The site has never been scientifically excavated, but a flint blade core was found half a metre down in its eastern side some years ago, suggesting it could be authentic.
Not far from the suspected long barrow, is a tumulus which over the years had reputedly produced some high status treasures. The following account comes from the pages of Scientific Rambles Round Macclesfield: ‘where the ground has been used for agricultural purposes, there has been formed a small tumulus containing either a Roman or Saxon burial; and this, (probably for the object of plunder), has been levelled, and the above ornaments had escaped the notice of the marauders. Or, without any tumulus, the articles may have been stolen, and hid or secreted for safety by the owners’.

Sir Philip Brocklehurst, owner of the Swythamley estate, elaborated further in his book about the neighbourhood of Swythamley, describing a number of artefacts discovered following ploughing in the area: ‘At Bartomley … have at various times been discovered in considerable number of Roman antiquities, consisting of gold rings, in one instance with a curious green stone called prez., together with gold ornaments, the last discovery being a very beautiful fibula of virgin gold.’ Gold objects such as these are incredibly rare in Cheshire. The only other record that we have come across to such rich artefacts comes from William Thompson Watkin’s Roman Cheshire where he reports the discovery of two gold bracelets of twisted torque pattern, found while excavating for a cottage near the site of Egerton Old Hall near Malpas.

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