Exploring Dod Law

Goodness, what a long time since I last posted!

It’s not that I haven’t thought about it – or been without topics to write about. It’s more that I have questioned the whole raison d’être of personal blogs …. the internet seems so crowded … who am I to add to the general digital busyness ….

I have sort of resolved this in my own mind. I can’t resolve the problem of internet busyness, but I do really love blogging when I get into my topic.  And right now, that seems a good enough reason …

So here I am,  with a wonderful wonderful walk from last week,  in one of our very favourite parts of North Northumberland – the lands about the Cheviot Hills and the Milfield Plain.view over to the CheviotsWe were looking for something, something that we had looked for before and not found.  Would we be successful this time …. ? Hmm, you’ll have to wait and see!

Our walk started from the village of Doddington, parking not far from what appeared to be a Holy Well. I would guess this was an ancient sacred spot, Christianised perhaps  in the 19th century with the addition of the cross …Doddington's holy wellA trickle of fresh water running gently at the foot of the cross … this is a mysterious and elemental place – a good start for a walk into mystery …water trickling out of holy wellNot far up the road we found a worn and shabby signpost, barely legible for the lichen … but it’s definitely pointing the way to Dod Law … just half a mile up the hill!waymarkerSo up we go! You’ll remember that I’m always behind …
Stephen leading the wayInto the gorse …Stephen leading the way through gorseWhere pretty soon it becomes clear that this path isn’t walked often …. the gorse so overgrown even the sheep are finding it tricky to get through … almost impassable gorseBut then it opens out, and really this is the best sort of walking, the ground springy underfoot, the bracken too young and freshly green to give anything but pleasure …Stephen walking up the pathAnd the flowers! Foxgloves looking statuesque amid the gorse …foxgloves at their bestLittle white starry flowers underfoot … I wish I knew what they were!
young bracken around pathEven more delightful when mingled with small blue flowers, some of which are Speedwell (thank you, we will) but I can’t identify the others. Any ideas?
starry white and blue flowers underfootAnd the bell heather is just coming into bloom …bell heather coming into bloomJust when it all seemed to be going so well, we hit a problem … This stile has collapsed.  As I said earlier, this route no longer seems to be much walked.  The path over the stile takes us onto Access Land (private land where permissive walking is granted but no right-of-way footpath exist).  The unrepaired stile is probably  a reflection not of landowner disinterest but austerity.  Footpaths such as these were once the responsibility of local authority councils but their budgets have been so heftily slashed that footpaths must be bottom of their to-repair list.

Never mind – I did get over it, but only just. Lucky there’s no barbed wire on top!
broken styleOnwards and upwards … you can clearly tell which way the prevailing wind blows …no doubting which way the wind blowsExposed they may be, but these trees clearly offer welcome shelter to sheep …
sheep sheltersOnwards and upwards again … track leading invitingly upwardsAnd then up to scrubbier ground – with providentially a bench for respite …
happy benchmanWith what a view!a great place for coffeeThe land stretching down and round over the Milfield Plain …new growth on the hillsideGaps in the bracken show clearly where the farmer has burnt back growth – so much preferable to treating the bracken with herbicidal sprays …evidence of scorching down the brackenJust a little further and we find ourselves at the hill fort – that’s Stephen ahead, just entering it. This hill fort is thought to have been constructed about 300 BC.entering the hill fortSadly it’s very difficult for an amateur photographer such as I am – and on the ground too – to give a real impression of the magnificence of these remaining earthworks. But the farmer’s trackway gives an idea as it runs through the inner and outer ramparts.modern trackway running through hill fortOver on those hills in the distance were many many other hill forts … An almost unimaginable world …walking through the hill fort rampartsJust as we are immersing ourselves in the magic of this place, we look back to see somebody spraying the adjoining golf course! Aagh! is not even a spot as wild and beautiful as this safe from the common use of pesticides?!spraying the golf courseThe hill fort is a magnificent distraction, but it’s not what we’re really here for … We’re looking for rock art!  Some of the most intriguing and fine specimens are to be found on Dod Law.

Well, apparently so.  But last time we visited we couldn’t find them.  On that occasion we approached Dod Law through the golf course (a route almost parallel to the more circuitous one we had taken today), and we walked round and round and round and round – and found nothing.

You see everywhere – all over Dod Law – there are stone slabs lying exposed to the elements … there are stones everywhereYou can ramble around here, through the golf course, over the hills – and find nothing .. wandering through golf course looking for rock artDespite having Ordnance Survey maps, mobile phones, and hand-drawn maps from the master, Stan Beckensall’s Prehistoric Rock Art in NorthumberlandStephen at the trig pointOK, we did find the trig point – and were pretty pleased with that.at least we found the trig pointAnd – just above the Shepherd’s House – we found some very moving modern rock carvings …
the Shepherd's houseBless you, Sadie and Tom Young – what a place to be remembered!  You must have loved it very much up here …
modern rock artAnd then suddenly it clicked!  And the maps made sense, and I found the three clearly exposed pieces of rock art on Dod Law!

This is the first we found, and probably the most indistinctive of them all.  The problem isn’t just that my iPhone wasn’t really up to the task.  A June day – even if cloudy is not a good time to see the markings clearly.  Best days to see the rock art are in the low light of autumn and winter.

However, if you look very carefully you may be able to make out the cup and ring marks near the top.cup and ring marks on the rocksYou can see the engraved spiral much more clearly on this slab.circular rock artAnd it’s not too difficult to make out the patterns on this so called Main Rock. These are the most distinctive and unusual patterns.unusual rock art on Dod LawI can’t quite tell you how mind blowing it is to see these carvings, worked so many thousands of years ago (latest thinking is that they were made by Neolithic people between 6,000 and 5,000 years ago). But to stand on Dod Law with these very ancient rock messages and the Cheviots in view and a lark singing takes you, I reckon, almost as close as it is possible to our very distant ancestors …rock art with the cheviotsNobody knows what our ancestors meant with these rock carvings. There has to be a religious element, surely – some expression of peoples’ relationship with place and nature and life and death?

I’m intrigued to have read recently that a new project, Belief in the North East, has been set up under the aegis of Durham University “to explore the rich archaeology of the belief, religion and ritual of North-East England”. Studying the local rock art will be part of their brief.  I wonder what they will come up with ..

Back down the hill – just as pleasing as coming up, if not more so for mission accomplished – and the views as good as ever!following Stephen down

Northumbrian Rock Art

Northumberland is full of secrets!  We’d lived here awhile before somebody mentioned the rock art to us.  Apparently, there were some rock carvings, just off the road to Lowick, not far away from us.  We didn’t think very much of it, and then one day we sort of happened upon the spot.  There’s no sign on the road that something momentous is just off it – only evidence of a track, the indentations in the undergrowth left by people walking off the road, into the little wood.entrance to Roughting Linn gladeFollow the track then, and there you are, in the grove – a lump of sandstone, with heather. moss and foxgloves growing on the mound and about.  This is Roughting Linn.Roughting Linn stonesLook carefully, through the lichen, and you will see the carvings.Roughting Linn rock carvingsThese photos above were all taken when we revisited the site last week.  And they do not do justice to the carvings – a summery day is not the time to look for rock art!  You need the shadows of evening or autumn.

Our first visit was in October 2011 and the photographs we took then show the carvings much more clearly.Roughting Linn carvingsRoughting Linn carvings 2They are extraordinarily mysterious and fascinating.  What are they and why?  Who did them?  How were they made?  When were they made?

Lots of questions and there are no answers.

What puzzled me most about the Roughting Linn carvings after our first visit was why somebody had felt so strongly about this particular place that they had wanted to enhance the stone with these carvings.

Of course, we see the site quite differently from how our ancestors did.  These rhododendron bushes – modern imports – are a clear reminder that localities change.  The greenness adds to the mystery of the place for us, but the Ordnance Survey map shows there was a small hill fort here – something you’re quite unaware of now because of the trees and shrubs.undergrowth around Roughting LinnIt’s the small waterfall nearby that is thought to hold the answer as to why our ancestors wanted to record their art on this stone – a strange, mysterious and magical place.

Again, you step just off the track into a green world as the path steps down steeply to the stream.path to waterfallWet, muddy and very slippery – we both ended up on our bottoms several times as we went down.uprooted treeNot as old as the rock art perhaps, but people have wanted to record their presence here for many years.graffittied treeA small cave just off the path adds to the feeling of mystery here.small cave near waterfallFirst glimpse of the waterfall.First glimpse of waterfallYou cannot but approach with the feeling that you are in a special place.  Archaeologists and theologians speak of the liminal: where places are “thin”, where the “other” is more present than elsewhere.  Roughting Linn waterfallThe twisted corpse of a tree – it is as though the very trees are watching guardians of this place.twisted corpse of a treeBack to where we had parked the car nearby, and we found this on the wall.  An offering to the gods of the place?sheep's head watching usStan Beckensall was the man responsible for the serious recording of these rock art carvings.  A local teacher, he became fascinated with them, and has pushed for their appreciation and conservation over many years.  The Northumbrian Rock Art website, set up under the aegis of Newcastle University with an AHRC grant, consolidated his hard work.  You can read therein his assessment of the Roughting Linn rock art.

Roughting Linn is perhaps the best known and most easily accessed of the local rock art sites.  But we were lucky enough to enjoy a walk with Ron Shaw up Chatton Hill recently to find more rock art.  Ron is most knowledgeable about this area, having devised the St Cuthbert’s Way path when working as a tourism officer in Wooler.

We set out on a gentle trek up Chatton Hill through beautiful grasslands.  It is credit to the farmer that this site is accessible and well-managed (as recorded in this BBC article).Ron and Stephen climbing Chatton hillLooking back over the gentle incline to where we had parked the car (the small white speck on the road).Looking back to parked carWe’ve got a worried sheepy audience – you can sense them wondering why these people are in their fields and heading their way?sheep watching us warilyAah – we’re after the rock art on the brow of the hill.  It takes a while to find it – there’s plenty of sandstone slabs about, and it could be any one of them.   Sadly, it’s not unusual to find examples of modern graffiti.modern graffiti on Chatton HillBut find it we do, and here is my photograph of the find with the magnificence of Northumbrian skies and the Cheviots in the distance.Chatton hill rock carvingsThere’s time for photography and the recording of the triumph of finding the specific stone.Ron and Stephen taking photographsHowever, we encountered the same problems we’d had at Roughting Linn: the light of a summer’s day (even if overcast) is not conducive to good rock art photographs.  So Shirley, Ron’s wife, has most generously allowed me to reproduce her photos of the same site, (both taken in the early spring, but on different years – you can see the snow of the Cheviots in the lower photo).  These are great photos that do full justice to the site, and allow you to capture the sense of awe our ancestors may have felt on top of a glorious Northumberland hill.Chatton Park Hill 05Chatton Park Hill 08We continued Ron watching Stephen aheadWe’re now looking for Ketley Crag which Ron tells us is somewhere on this hillside, but since he was last there the bracken has completely taken over.  We spent quite a while ploughing  through the bracken from sandstone slab to sandstone slab, but no luck.  The Ketley Crag is not for viewing on this trip!View over bracken to the CheviotsLuckily, Shirley is able to help out again, and here are her photos of the Ketley Crag rock art, taken in the very early spring.Kettley Crag rock shelter 03Kettley Crag rock shelter 01It’s quite different from both the other rock art examples I’ve explored in this blog, sitting as it does under a protruding rock, on the side of a hill.  Undoubtedly a beautiful place, but liminal, awe….no, neither of those descriptions seem to match this spot.  But then, I haven’t actually seen it in person – perhaps if I did, I would “get it”.  Definitely a trip for another day – probably in the autumn when the bracken has died back and the light is softer.  For now I’ve got to settle for these fine photos and what the Northumberland Rock Art database has to say on Ketley Crag.Kettley Crag outlook westThese places leave you silent.  The mystery, the wondering, together with the magnificence of the Northumbrian landscape – what did these artists want to tell us?

(Many thanks to Shirley and Ron Shaw for the use of their photographs and a wonderful guided walk.)