I was looking for three enormous prehistoric standing stones, or menhirs. As you do. And you would think they were difficult things to mislay, wouldn’t you? I knew roughly where they were meant to be, just to the west of Boroughbridge in North Yorkshire, very close to the A1 trunk road. Whoever put these things up surely meant them to be seen…but, no, I managed to drive past them several times. Perhaps it was some ancient game of hide-and-seek. Eventually, one stone was spotted coyly hiding by the side of the road, behind a post and rail fence; the other two lurked suspiciously in a cabbage field on the opposite side of the road. The next challenge was finding a place to park: rejecting a lane leading to a marina with welcoming ‘No Parking’ signs posted at intervals along it, in the end I left the car half mounting the kerb by the solitary stone. Light was fading, I was tired – and possibly a little fractious.
Now, some prehistoric relics come with their own nearby car park and information board. Others may stretch to a bum-freezing olfactory assaulting toilet; possibly even a café too; from there, it is but a small step to the lottery-funded visitor centre, complete with gift shop and the 3D Devil’s Arrows Experience. Imagine that. I’m absurdly grateful that there are still so many places in the UK, some of them relatively remote, that remain unspoilt by the excesses of tourism, where you can just bowl up and informally look at your own heritage without any tacky commercialism, without some intrusive, albeit well-meaning, guide; without any fuss. But in this instance I do think a little sign in the vicinity saying something witty like, ‘The Devil’s Arrows are here’, might have helped. If money is no object, a modest lay-by might be a kind thought too, because there is nowhere nearby to park and the native drivers don’t take prisoners. I’d draw a line at a proposal to serve the two cabbage-patch menhirs with even an unobtrusive footpath, though; the old stones are probably safer surrounded by their existing vegetables.
What do we have here anyway? Well, the Devil’s Arrows (aka The Devil’s Bolts, The Three Greyhounds or The Three Sisters) date from the late Neolithic or early Bronze Age – anything from 1500 to 3000BC. They are stones which measure 18, 21 and 22½ feet high (5.5, 6.4 and 6.8 metres) standing very roughly in a line about 570 feet (174 metres) long on a NNW – SSE alignment. According to 16th century antiquarians John Leland and William Camden, there were originally four stones. Camden said in 1582 that one had been pulled down by locals hoping to find buried treasure and it is thought that the remains of this have partly been used to build a bridge over the River Tutt nearby, and partly remain on adjoining land. Other sources suggest there were once 5 stones – and there are folk who theorise that there might originally have been even more than that. Perhaps the stones were part of a henge or some other larger arrangement, long since vanished.
For all the theories that have been put forward to suggest what the Devil’s Arrows were, or what purpose they served, the fact is that we just do not know. They remain one of life’s exciting little mysteries, like why people stop at the top of escalators to admire the view. There are a number of other prehistoric remains near to the Devil’s Arrows, along what might be called the A1 Corridor. These include the remains of henges and barrows (burial places). It is inconceivable that the erectors of the stones did not know about the other sites and quite possible that they are all connected in some way – if only as part of a shared culture. The A1 route has been there, with a few changes, since at least Roman times and, for all we know, may well follow the path of a much older trackway.
The 18th century writer, William Stukeley, wrote that an annual fair, dedicated to St Barnabas but actually in celebration of the Summer Solstice, used to be held near the arrows. The implication here is of a clear link back to unknown ancient ceremonies. So everyone can get terribly excited about druids and paganism and all that stuff (steady, now, madam). There is even a residential area imaginatively called ‘Druid’s Meadow’ just down the road. I wonder what they get up to on Saturday nights? The Druids, however, almost certainly came after the people who decided to erect the Devil’s Arrows.
It is believed Devil’s Arrows were quarried from Plumpton Rocks near Knaresborough, about 9 miles away. Someone has worked out that it would have taken 200 men six months to drag the stones to their present position, using a sled. They would have then had the job of digging pits up to 6 feet (1.8 metres) deep and standing the stones upright. The stones would also have been dressed – smoothed – before being put into position. The curious grooves at the top, suggesting the image of a large arrow or bolt, are disappointingly thought to be the result of enduring centuries of Yorkshire’s weather.
You can’t get that close to the two stones in the field without killing cabbages. So I gazed across at them, intrigued and frustrated in equal measure, wondering at the motivation and determination of our ancestors. Apart from the odd car, there was no one else around. The traffic on the A1 rushed by, but it still managed to be a fairly lonely spot, particularly as darkness began to fall. I felt pretty sure, though, that these massive monuments had no evil purpose and would not have been called the Devil’s anything by the people who put them there.
In fact, I’m willing to bet a fairly small amount that the individuals who undertook this project called it something else. So how did the Devil’s Arrows get their name? Apparently, if you walk twelve times anticlockwise round the stones you will get a personal audience with the Prince of Darkness; care to try? But the popular story – which is obviously nowhere near as old as the stones – is that his Satanic Silliness had it in for the new-fangled Christian community at Aldborough. Standing on a hill somewhere near Fountains Abbey, about 10 miles away, he lobbed these stones, shouting, “Borobrigg keep out o’ way, for Aldborough town I will ding down!” But he missed by a mile and the Devil’s Arrows, or Bolts, landed near Boroughbridge after all. Should’ve gone to Specsavers. Probably, after the stones’ original name and purpose had been long-forgotten, our superstitious ancestors looked for some explanation they would understand – and Old Nick can be a frequent fall guy in Britain’s landscape.
Unless you’re an enthusiast, you will probably not want to drag your small children, pet, spouse, partner, or good friend to see the Devil’s Arrows, or make a special trip. But if you’re passing by, or visiting the charming town of Boroughbridge (including the Roman remains at Aldborough), take a look and try to figure out what on earth your ancestors were up to. My own suggestion is that they did this kind of thing for laughs and found the idea that we’d spend so much time wondering about it absolutely hilarious.
The Boroughbridge Town Council website has a bit more information, but is much more serious in tone.