Tuesday, June 05, 2007

The Iron Age Settlement at Warbreck: Part One

(This posting turned out to be slightly longer than we’d originally anticipated and has, therefore, been divided into three parts. Apologies for any interruptions in advance.)

The view from the rock gardens on the summit of Knowle Hill at Warbreck, as anybody who’s ever stood there and gazed out towards the Pennines would agree, is unsurpassed along the Fylde Coast. The Irish Sea, the River Wyre and the Fleetwood Peninsula are all clearly visible at once, making this the perfect choice for an Iron Age fort.
Warbreck’s name was first mentioned in a document of 1279 where it was recorded as ‘Warthbreck’. That’s a Norse word, of course, the ‘breck’ part referring to the hill itself, and the ‘Warth’…well, that’s where different people have their own interpretations. Most historians believe that the ‘Warth’ refers to a beacon. We think differently.
Knowle Hill’s original name was Beryl Hill, recorded by William Thornber as having a cairn on its summit that was used in the 1760s to warn of invasion by Napoleon Bonaparte. Interestingly Lord Burleigh’s map of 1590 records the location of all the beacons in the area. Preesall Hill, for example, is shown with a crude but very obvious beacon. Beryl Hill, however, doesn’t sport any such drawing, which is odd, don’t you think?
We’ve reproduced Burleigh’s map below, such as it is. (Burleigh wasn’t much of a cartographer it must be said.) As always, just click on the thumbnail for the larger version.

The cairn, of course, has now long since gone, but the idea that it was originally a beacon seems to have no real foundation. It’s possible, of course, that by the 1760s (Napoleon’s time) a beacon had been erected on Beryl Hill, but if that were the case then it wasn’t included on contemporary maps, and the idea that Beryl Hill’s name is a corruption of ‘Beacon Hill’ is a bit of a hard pill to swallow.
Here’s our suggestion; Beryl Hill is actually a local dialect corruption of ‘Burial Hill’, the land beneath the water tower having once been a pagan burial ground. ‘Warbreck’, we’d also like to suggest, signifies a guard post or watchtower, rather than a beacon. The Norse word ‘Varth’ (pronounced Warth as in the 1297 spelling of ‘Warthbreck’) actually refers to ‘being on one’s guard’, the slightly longer noun ‘Varther’ being specifically a cairn used as a guard post.
Whilst the flattest section of the summit of Knowle Hill does afford incredible views of Fleetwood, the Wyre and Bispham cliffs, the view towards Blackpool is less accommodating and, anybody building an Iron Age settlement there would have required a lookout post slightly further to the south.
This description of the hill is provided by William Thornber in his ‘History of Blackpool and its neighbourhood’ before the housing estates now blocking the view came into existence: “If the visitor be desirous of viewing the country at one glance, let him accompany me along the north bank of the sea to Beryl hill, near Warbreck. Here, mounted on a lofty speculum, he will have a delightful prospect of the Welsh hills, Blackpool and all the places before mentioned.”
In other words, all the places that the view from the slightly less elevated, but considerably flatter, part of the hill to the north doesn’t encompass.

Above is a photograph of the water tower under construction. Whether the workman discovered any ancient watchtowers or burials there or not, we couldn’t honestly say, but they probably wouldn’t have mentioned them if they had.
Okay, so let’s see if we can justify our reasoning behind Beryl Hill’s original name being ‘Burial Hill’. If, and it’s a big “IF” we admit, Knowle Hill once housed an Iron Age settlement then a burial ground somewhere close by would also have been required.
We’ve already mentioned that Warbreck’s name is of Norse origin. And it’s a well-established fact (or at least it ought to be, because we’ve been harping on about it for long enough) that when the Norse and the Celts took up residence together (as they frequently did around the Fylde and Wyre) invariably a keeill would spring up to service their spiritual needs. So what we need here is some sort of evidence for a keeill on the top of Beryl Hill, keeills, more often than not, being erected on Pagan burial grounds.
Let’s return to Reverend Bulpit and this quote from his ‘Notes on the Fylde’: “Warbrecke was the Beacon Hill, and Knowl was the Hill. Tidacre was the Titheacre, and a tithe barn, with a boggart legend, once stood there.”
In our experience, boggarts always tie in with the locations of keeills. Take Boggart’s Yate (originally ‘Boggart’s Gate’) near Hambleton, for example, hard by Kilbreck (otherwise translated as the ‘keeill on the hill’) or the ‘Boggart Field’ at Stanah, close by, and connected to via an ancient track, Kelbreck field (again the ‘keeill on the hill’).
There are numerous other examples of such correlations between keeills and boggarts around the Fylde, so the suggestion that a keeill once stood in the area haunted by the Tidacre boggart can’t be overlooked.
By way of confirmation, let’s turn once more to Reverend Bulpit: “I went to Leys, at Warbricke, searching for a Cross which the Poulton Register tells stood there as late as 1620. I did not find it, but at the farmhouse were several inscribed stones, and on the keystone of an arch I found an open hand sculptured, having four fingers extended, but no thumb was delineated. A similar cutting exists at Halsall Church, at the apex of the sacrarum, and tradition says there is a holy relic behind it.”
Leys, incidentally, was the farmhouse standing just behind the water tower. From Bulpit’s description it appears that an ancient church, very possibly a keeill, once existed there.

(We haven’t finished yet by a long chalk. Part two will be posted here next week.)


John said...

An interesting post, and you present a very persuasive argument. I look forward to the rest of this piece.

How fortunate are you to have so many mysteries to investigate?!

Now lets see you get out there and start solving them... and let no water tower stand in your way!

Cheers, JOHN :0)

Brian Hughes said...


Proving our theory might be a bit on the tricky side as Blackpool Council probably wouldn't take too kindly to us digging up the rock gardens by moonlight.

Bwca said...

I came over here from jahteh's referral at Lord Sedgwick's - JT said you were a 'deranged aristocrat' ... so here I am looking for titled twitticisms, only to get "Ill-Met By Moonlight In Blackpool" ... keep it up though.

Brian Hughes said...


Apologies for any misunderstandings. The dishonourable Sedgwick and I go back to the days when we ran a political/sociological zite guist together many 'ill-met moons' ago.

Since then, however, I have matured like a fine, corked wine whilst Sedgers has continued to plummet the depths of satire (right down to the bottom of the barrel most of the time).

I still like to visit the old beard, however, and leave him the odd irritating comment. It's just that nowadays I do so under the guise of a sensible, middle-aged antiquarian with a reputation (such as it is) to consider.

One of these days, when we've finished digging up Celtic poes and mediaeval torture devices and I've got enough time, I'll probably return to Sedgwick's world of Paris Hilton tributes and John Howard photographs to complete my political work.

By then my reputation as a know-it-all historian should be in tatters anyway.

Lord Hughes of Fleetwood.