We’re finding the Druid’s Temple on a whim. I remember reading about it; there’s a symbol on the road atlas although no specific road seems to touch it, we passed a sign but now we are on a dirt track with no phone signal and it doesn’t seem promising. Finally we reach a clearing that we can use to park up and take to foot.
We are in the deep green of North Yorkshire, heavy woods either side, at the top end of a stone hamlet. It’s not somewhere you’d expect to find anything, but a stone circle would of course be in keeping with the general aesthetic. Abandoned and left to grow over for two thousand years, a relic of a forgotten ear, evidence of an eradicated tradition. There is something suspect about this site, however, which is uncluttered with English Heritage signs or history of archaeological research.
Of course we all know now that stone circles had nothing to do with druidism. Separated by a thousand years and from different lands, druids may have stumbled across Stonehenge but their reaction is highly likely to have been closer to mine at this so-called Temple than the solstice revellers. It’s a mixture of astonishment and glee. The construction is much more substantial than I expected, a large Stonehenge-like recreation with an altar and a viewpoint to clamber around on.
Its large scale and significant state of preservation are the main indications that the whole thing is not quite what it purports to be. In fact it’s a charade, a fantasy, without a purpose. Even if it didn’t have the abandoned bonfire and Fosters tins, it’s not a place that exudes ancient mysteries but instead feels like a playground. It’s only just over two hundred years old, built by local people paid by William Danby for a shilling a day, a scheme to keep them employed during a local recession. He would later be a highly-regarded writer with the sublimely entitled ‘Thoughts on Various Subjects’ amongst his works.
Such local philanthropy has an honourable tradition; the Williamson tunnels in Liverpool being possibly the most famous example. The folly that William Danby had built has outlived his reputation but remains secreted away from the world as a memorial to a lost relationship between landowner, the land, and the people who are attached to the land, and would never have received planning permission. It even feels slightly subversive in its unregulated glory. It even makes an appearance in Disraeli’s one nation novel Sybil, as the meeting site of the political agitators. But of course I don’t know what the workers thought of this construction task. The post of Hermit was never permanently filled.
The connexions thread through the landscape and the history, the stones placed about the land are markers of our own presence and when we visit we acknowledge those ancestors, however distant, and even when we don’t raise our own stones they prompt us to think about why they are there and where they’ve come from. A Victorian folly can achieve that in its own way, and still evoke a pattern of Englishness that connects us, them and the original monumenalists on our island.