Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Path to the Rath

Apologies in advance for the extremely low quality of some of this week's graphics. We've had this article hanging around on our hard drive for some considerable time now. It's one of those postings that we never quite got around to putting up for one reason or another (possibly because we didn't want to drive our one remaining reader away through boredom) and, somewhere down the line, the original photographs have all been lost. However, we've tried our best under the circumstances (which doesn't amount to much, I must admit).
Some time ago we mentioned (or at least I think I did…it’s hard to tell these days…it might just have been one of those senior moments, which I'm experiencing a lot more frequently nowadays) that one of the most interesting field names around Stanah and Little Thornton was that of Kelbreck.
The name implies (as with most ‘Kelbreck’, ‘Kilbreck’, Kilcrash’ and ‘Kiltree’ fieldnames) that an ancient keeill once stood on the brow of the hill. Keeills, as we’ve mentioned before but feel we ought to recap about, were small but significant early (fifth to eleventh century) churches/village-wise-man-hovels, half Pagan/half Christian, run by either the first missionaries from abroad or by the last of the semi-converted druids, known as culdees. Merlin, from the Arthurian legends, was probably one such culdee, half practical, half mystical charmer and half spiritual. (Yes, we know, that makes 150% but we said they were mysterious, didn’t we?)
Keeills themselves were often built of wood, sometimes being simply the remains of the upturned boat in which the missionary had travelled…hence the name keeill (or keel), although other sources suggest that the name derives from Cela de, meaning ‘Glory of God’. At other times they were constructed of stone. Either way, they were generally situated between ancient villages (for maximum commercial potential) close to Roman roads or Celtic Old Ways, their presence denoted by pre-Norse style keeill crosses such as those at Cabus and Forton.
All of which is fascinating, we’re sure you agree, but we’ve already covered this subject before so no doubt you’re asking yourselves: “What else is new?”
Well, the aerial photograph below, that’s what, available (as you can probably surmise from the Lancashire County Council logo plastered over it) at Mario Maps.

It was taken by the Ministry of Defence (or at least, we assume it was) in the 1940s and, like other black-and-white aerial photographs of this period, shows some interesting features that don’t appear on other images.
In this instance we refer the reader to the white line running northeast from Raikes Road to the brow of Kelbreck Field. A buried, cobbled track perhaps?Well…yes, very probably actually. Does anyone remember a similar line visible on our 1940s aerial photograph of Bourne Hill? Let’s just remind you then.

The photograph above demonstrates what we’re talking about. In Bourne Hill’s case, a quick trench or two revealed that the road lay just below the surface, was about eight feet wide, constructed from beach stones and edged with bright orange clay. It also followed the route you’d expect an Iron Age cobbled track to follow…through both sides of the triangular entrance in the defensive embankments and along the south slope of the settlement, which just goes to show, if nothing else, that features invisible in reality can often be recorded on 1940s aerial photographs.
Back to Stanah then where, nowadays, the track to the brow of Kelbreck is nowhere to be seen. In fact, as illustrated by the photograph below, there’s no sign of the building or possible rath that once surrounded it either.

However, a cursory glance at old field maps (and, indeed, the aerial photograph itself) shows us that the hedge line (most likely Mediaeval) in the south-west corner of the field was forced to detour around the track, giving us some indication of how old this feature might actually be. Incidentally, Ordnance Survey maps dating back to the 40s (the same decade that our aerial photograph was taken) don’t record the track either, which, if it had been visible at the time, they would have done.
It’s natural to assume, therefore, that this is the original track to the keeill. A probe in the ground should easily locate it (providing it hasn’t been ploughed out over the intervening years, of course) and should lead the archaeologist straight to the location of the building itself. And the 1940s aerial photograph might be able to tell us a little more yet about the site. The second ‘cobbled track’ leading away from the keeill towards Bulker Ford, for example, suggests that residents at Skippool’s prehistoric settlement, or possibly even from the early villages across the Wyre, once frequented our Culdee. This section of track runs through a field called ‘Knipper Bone’ which, considering that keeills were often built on Pagan burial grounds, might give us some indication as to how the field came by its epithet.
To the north (if you look again at the aerial photograph) you might just be able to determine a possible third track leading through the hedge towards Boggart Field at Stanah. As we mentioned in a much earlier article here at the Fylde and Wyre Antiquarian, entitled ‘When the Hampson Dobby met the Brunsa Hobby’ Boggarts, Dobbies, Culdees and Druids are all, basically, one and the same which, again, might explain the name of this field. Not only that but we can even hazard a guess at our culdee’s appearance: Tall and thin, wearing a shaggy woollen long-coat and dragging a hare (possibly albino) around behind him on a length of string…true to the form of dobbies, hobbies and boggarts everywhere.
Right…that’s about enough of that for now. It’s time for a large coffee before I nod off completely.


John said...

From the photographs, it's very difficult to see what you're talking about. However, if I can assume from the curving hedgerow that the line you are talking about is the one that goes NE above Knippers Bone field, then doesn't that seem as large as the other roads on the map? Wouldn't that be visible from the surface, if it's so large and bright from the air?

And could it not be a dirt road that someone created through multiple journeys up the hill. The other smaller diagonal path certainly indicates that there was something on the hill worth checking out on your way to the E, anyways.

Don't mean to question, but it never hurts to do so. I'm actually fairly convinced from your arguments, and the matter certainly seems worth investigating. And just because there were many a Keill in the old days, doesn't mean that there isn't one out there that will stand out from the crowd and shine light upon the ancient world, does it?

In other words, someone SHOULD definitely check it out. First find the two paths, prove their existence and age, and then find out just what it was at the top of the hill that people were willing to go out of their way to see. Maybe it was an old well, or a produce stand, but a Keill also fits the bill.

What's a Rath? What does the word Knipper imply from your place name origins? Do not assume that a bone field is a graveyard, although it is a good guess. Knipper sounds like Knap, and some animal bones were once used to knap flint, so.... I'm offering another interpretation.

Since you've convinced us over and over again of the importance of place names, can you tell us if anyone knows where they came from?

Did place names come about from descriptions of the landscape that people used over and over again until they became commonplace, or are they something chosen by mapmakers, or landowners, or what?

More questions, of course, but I can sense you nodding off already...

Cheers, JOHN :0)

John said...

PS By saying that Merlin was a culdee, are you verifying his very exhistence, and in fact the Arthurian legends themselves?

Would a King, even one with a bad lovelife, hang out with someone who associates closely with rabbits, and probably has fleas?

Curioser and curioser, JOHN :0)

Brian Hughes said...


Okay...let's see. (Inhales deeply and launches into response.)

Yeah...the aerial photograph is a bit rubbish. No...actually, it's a lot rubbish. The original one we had was much clearer and the north-east track didn't look quite so wide on it. This is my fault for leaving these articles on my hard drive too long without doing anything with them. The track under Bourne Hill (which looks exactly the same as the one at Kelbreck on similar aged aerial photographs) we've already dug...and it's cobbled. So the one on Kelbreck is probably the same.

I like the idea of a produce stand on top of the hill. (Possibly a hot dog stall?) The fact that Kelbreck is called Kelbreck (meaning the 'keeill on the hill' in Norse) tends to suggest that it was a keeill, however. Otherwise it'd be called 'Cabbage Stall Breck' or 'Sausage in a Bun Breck'.

A 'rath' was just a low defensive earthwork surrounding a keeill. We actually wrote this article (and I use the term 'article' very loosely here) ages ago and since then we've examined the hill more thoroughly and...yes...there does seem to be faint traces of a rath in place although, by the looks of things, it's been ploughed out long ago.

The word 'Knipper' doesn't have any known origin as far as we can tell, but locally and dialectically, a knipper refers to a small child...or indeed a small knipperbone probably means simply 'little bones'. As for where these placenames originate, they're handed down through generations of farmers. ("Go orn Arh Granville. Arv left me bucket up ont' Kelbreck an' arh kant be bovvert gerrin' eet monsel'.")Names such as Kelbreck and Knipperbone round these parts tend to be a mixture of Norse and Celtic words.

We're working on the assumption that Knipperbone was a graveyard because...well...keeills were built on ancestral graveyards, so it kind of makes sense.

As for Merlin being a culdee, it's only a suggestion, but I can believe it. You're right...a king probably wouldn't knock around with a grubby culdee...but we're talking about the proper Merlin here, not the medieaval reinvention. The same goes for King Arthur, who wasn't actually a king at all but a Celto-Norse war chief back in the fourth to fifth century defending his lands from the invading Saxons. As a culdee (a semi pagan, semi Christian advisor) Merlin fits the original bill quite well.

Right...I think that's about it. I can't believe you actually read the article all the way through. I fell asleep while I was writing it, myself, so I'm not sure how it ended.

JahTeh said...

I thought about you as I staggered home in the heat last night (not those kind of thoughts, it was too hot) because I was looking at a track through the parkland (along which I was staggering) and realised how these remain. This track was the only way you could walk through here when it was scrubland. Now it's been levelled, grassed and trees planted but we still use the track even with acres of ground where we could walk.

Brian Hughes said...


It's amazing what people think about when they're staggering home, five sheets to the wind, from the pub.

Oddly enough, in recent times, scientists have come up with a name for these seemingly random paths that spring up with no regard for the amount of time wasted by town planners. Can't remembered what they're called now, though. Illegal short cuts or something.

Cows and sheep tend to do the same thing, creating hollow, meandering ruts in the landscape over the decades as they wander seemingly aimlessly but always following the same route. It's something intrinsic to the absent-minded rambler. No doubt a lot of the original prehistoric roads began life in the same way before being developed and widened and cobbled by midnight construction sheep with hidden agendas to set up roadside Edinburgh Wool Stalls.

Bwca said...

so this is
The Bourne Hills Ultimatum?

I read the post all the way through, and yes I am nodding off, but I love the way John the Yankee Toonist comes straight to the point "it's hard to see what you're talking about" - fer chrissakes keep him away from Gaza.

Bwca said...

... not only but also ...
"we can even hazard a guess at our culdee’s appearance:
Tall and thin, wearing a shaggy woollen long-coat and dragging a hare (possibly albino) around behind him on a length of string…true to the form of dobbies, hobbies and boggarts everywhere".

The albino hare is a very smart bunny, and the centrifugal force of that string is actually in reverse of your suggestion - my poor dear cousin Culdee lost a bet with him in regard to a certain harness-racer Downunder, and is now paying it out by Pulling The Snowy Bunny everywhere he wants to go.

Brian Hughes said...

Annie...obsfuscating, me? Never...(singing:) You fill up my senses, like a night in marsh bog, like a joint full of Oxo, or a tall glass of absynth.

"...keep him away from Gaza."

I take it he's got something against footballers then.

" poor dear cousin Culdee lost a bet with him in regard to a certain harness-racer Downunder, and is now paying it out by Pulling The Snowy Bunny everywhere he wants to go."

How do you race harnesses? Give a belt and watch 'em run?

Ozfemme said...

Speaking of boggarts, if you see ours anywhere, can you send ours home? The housework is piling up and he should have come back from holidays weeks ago.

Brian Hughes said...


Us hairy boggarts are not partial to housework. We prefer to sit around smoking pipes, downing beer and philosophising all day. We leave all the menial stuff to the banshees. (Ducks and runs for cover.)

Dysthymiac said...

The Banshees?
They're a scream.

Brian Hughes said...

Apart from Susie...or Siouxie...or however she wants to spell her name...she's just very goth.