Pagan Mystery Tour of Ripon and Masham

19th July 2015

Ripon Spa Gardens – Green Man Hunt, Ripon’s links with Alice in Wonderland and maze

What is a Green Man?

A green man is a carving in stone or wood, drawing, painting or any representation showing a head surrounded by or made from leaves.

The face is usually male, but there are some Green Women around – as we will see.

There are 4 major types:

  • A head where the whole face is made of leaves
  • A face with leaves, vines or branches sprouting from the mouth, nose or ears.
  • A head where the hair, moustache or beard is made of leaves
  • A head surrounded by foliage but where the leaves are not part of the face

Green Men are some variant on these types and can come in many types.

Most Green Men are found in Christian churches in the medieval period 11th-16th, the majority of them in Britain, France and Germany.

As we will see they can be hidden away anywhere in the church – behind rood screens or choir stalls, high in ceilings, on columns, over doorways, or on roof bosses.

There was a ‘Gothic’ revival of the Green Man in Victorian times and the image has been taken up by pagans and environmentalists.

Origins and History of the Green Man

Although most commonly seen in medieval churches, he dates back much earlier.

The Romans sculpted figures intertwined with vegetation or with leaf masks. A leaf clad statue of Dionysus in Italy dating from 420 BC is often considered to be one of the first Green Men. Before he became associated with wind and sex, Dionysus was usually portrayed as a leaf crowned lord of the wilderness, nature and agriculture.

There are other examples of the Green Man appearing in ancient cultures.

There was a Celtic ‘cult of the head’ (based on belief that the head was the repository of the soul) and Celtic veneration of trees.

Early Green Men were largely based on older pagan models from antiquity.

The Green Man had pagan origins but became absorbed into Christian iconography. What could be salvaged or used from old pagan beliefs was taken up by Christianity, but what was too disruptive or dangerous was repressed. So the popular practise of tree worship was not permitted (many sacred trees were cut down) but the Green Man was allowed as a safe nod towards old practise while at the same time being under the new church. In a sense, the Green Man bridged Pagan past and new Christian order.

The heyday of the Green Man was 12-15th century. The Green Man was adopted by stone masons and put into the carved decorations of medieval churches. Beverley here being a typical example of this. In Beverley Minster, as you are going to discover, there are numerous examples of Green Men.

The intricate Romanesque and Gothic architecture of this era was perfect for including all manner of grotesque statues and mythological creatures (just take a look at the wood carvings on the choir stalls) and the Green Man was one of these.

The Green Man continued to appear in English architecture up to 17th century.

Also, the Green Man became a popular name for pubs in the 17th century.

The Green Man disappeared during the 18th and early 19th century. He received a revival with the popularity of the Gothic Revival and Arts and Crafts movements of the 19th century. The Victorian version of the Green Man appears in many important buildings. You can even find him on banks, factories and commercial buildings.

Many modern neo-Pagan, New Age and Wiccan practitioners have incorporated the Green Man into their artwork and symbolism.

What is the meaning of the Green Man?

The truth is the Green Man is a bit of an enigma.

The most common interpretation is that the Green man is a Pagan nature spirit; a symbol of the life force and the cycle of growth each spring. In this form he probably evolved from older nature deities.

Some argue that the Green Man is a male counterpart to Gaia, the Earth Mother or Great goddess.

Symbol of life and nature. Because Green Men appear so frequently in medieval churches and cathedrals he is often seen as evidence of a Pagan tradition surviving alongside the dominant Christian tradition. Green Men are shown boldly in churches – over doorways, on columns, in choir stalls – as you will see here Beverly. It’s suggested this is a kind of act of faith on the part of the carver and evidence of Pagan traditions relating to nature and trees still having an influence in medieval times.

Symbol of fertility. The Green Man is most often associated with spring or May Day, but there are examples where he is more autumnal. Some incorporate acorns into their design and they were a common medieval fertility symbol.

Symbol of death and rebirth. The sprouting vegetation from the Green Man is seen as a Pagan representation of resurrection and rebirth – as new life naturally springs out of our human remains. There are examples of skull like Green Men with branches sprouting from eye sockets.

Green Men in Ripon Spa Gardens

Ripon Spa Gardens has a Green Man trail. There are supposedly 30 Green Men and Green Women face plaques around the gardens. Some are attached to trees, some are hanging from trees and some are in other places.

You can see them all from the paths or grass or café so you don’t need to go in the flower beds or on the bowling green. There are none by the road, next to the gates or the low footpath by the houses.

Happy hunting. I found 17 – see if you can find more!

Ripon’s links with Alice in Wonderland

You can’t fail to have noticed the wood carvings of Alice in Wonderland characters here in the park. The carvings are by the wonderfully named ‘Chainsaw Mick’ and were commissioned by Harrogate Borough Council for the Gardens to create a sculpture in honor of Lewis Caroll and his associations with Ripon. The carvings use the trunks of thinned-out cypress trees.

Lewis Caroll was a regular visitor to Ripon during his father’s time as the cathedral’s Canon. It is suggested that the inspiration for Alice in Wonderland came from the time Caroll spent as a choir boy in Ripon Cathedral looking at the church’s animal carvings on its misericords. It is said that the idea of Alice following the rabbit down the hole came from the cathedral’s underground crypt.

Another curious feature about the local landscape is that there is a network of gypsum craters under the town. These are sometimes liable to subsidence and have in the past left gaping holes in the ground, once again a possible inspiration for the rabbit hole. Lewis Caroll must certainly have been aware of this phenomenon and seen the holes created at regular intervals when the gypsum rock collapsed. The original title of the book was Alice’s Adventures Underground.

The drawings of Alice by Sir John Tenniell were based on Mary Badcock, daughter of Canon Badcock. Caroll saw her picture in a Ripon photographer’s studio and, with her parent’s permission, sent it to Tenniell.

Ripon maze

This maze was re-created in 2001 by The Rotary Club of Ripon Rowels, with a millstone at its centre.

The design is based on a well documented and ancient turf maze on High Common in Ripon, which was destroyed about 1827 after enclosure.

In ancient times the maze was called ‘The Maiden’s Bower’ and was probably associated with fertility rites.

Nunwick Henge

On the face of it I’d admit this is not a particularly impressive place. We are standing here looking across the field at what is the site for Nunwick Henge. But bear with me because we are standing in the middle of one of the most remarkable ritual landscapes in the country, if not the world! At this and the next site we are going to visit, which I’ll tell you now is going to be Thornborough Henge, I hope to explain why all of these are so important. Because this area contains a huge complex of ritual sites spread over many miles that are all linked.

First, let’s put this site into the context of its landscape. We should really have started this part of the tour at Devil’s Arrows, but we visited there last year. Devil’s Arrows is a line of three surviving megaliths at Boroughbridge.

Or we might have started much further north at Scorton a few miles away north of Catterick. It’s a bit outside the route we are covering today and, a bit like Nunwick Henge, hardly anything of Scorton Cursus is visible. Scorton was 2km long cursus dating from around 3,500BC and in use until at least the Bronze Age, circa 2,000BC. This cursus was a huge ceremonial avenue marked out by parallel ditches.

So, what I want you to try and imagine is a huge ritual area stretching from Boroughbridge to north of Catterick. Between Devil’s Arrows and Scorton Cursus both of which might have provided gateways or entry points for the ritual landscape are a string of henge monuments, of which Nunwick is one.

There six henges in this area – Nunwick here, Cana Barn and Hutton Moor (both just a couple of miles away), and of course the three rings just up the road from here at Thornborough.

They are all similar in size and layout, varying no more than 5 metres in their diameter. They all have a nw-se alignment with openings at those compass points. Some of these henges are in exact alignment with each other or with Devil’s Arrows. In the area there are also clusters of Bronze Age burial sites which suggests the site continued to be a significant into that period.

The whole group of monuments is in a strategic position at a junction between lowland and upland with river route ways through the landscape with north-south links and east-west links across the Pennines.

This field contains the faint remains of Nunwick, one of these Neolithic henge monuments. Although the local farmer was aware of the existence of an earth circle in his fields in the 1940s the site wasn’t officially recorded until an aerial survey of the region in 1951. Today, sadly, much of the site has succumbed to agricultural activity and is all but destroyed. Faint traces of it can be seen at ground level when there are no crops.

Nunwick Henge dates to the Neolithic period. It was excavated in 1961 by Dave Dymond who reported his findings in the Yorkshire Archaeological Journal. The excavation revealed a bank and ditch and a small internal section to the henge. It measured 690ft across and is spread across two fields bisected by a hedge and farm track. The original entrances to the north and south of the ring were still just visible as slight depressions in the bank. The banks were originally about 3 feet high and spread a width of 120 feet, just a few feet smaller than Thornborough.

There are also henges at Hutton Moor and Cana Barn, about a mile and a half away to the south east. Remember the name Cana Barn because I’m going to come back to the significance of that henge later. There is hardly anything to see of the henge at Hutton Moor on ground level because of agricultural activity and also it’s on private land and not that accessible, which is why we haven’t taken it in on this tour. And Cana Barn has also now been flattened by ploughing so nothing can be seen of it except with use of aerial photography. So, I’ve chosen to stop here at Nunwick because we can see the site from the road and because it’s representative of the this string of henge monuments that are no longer visible.

So, what was the purpose of these henge monuments? That’s the question I’m going to answer when we get to our next stop.

Thornborough Henge

I know Thornborough is a site that will be familiar with all of us because of the Beltane and Mabon rituals held here. But today, I hope to make you see the site in a different way. And, hopefully, you’ll go away with a greater understanding of its significance and what it was used for.

The Thornborough complex consists of three almost identical henges situated on a gravel plateau. Just out of interest, how many of you aware that there are three henges here? The central henge is where we celebrate Beltane and Mabon. The southern henge is across the road and over the field, whilst the northern henge is in the woods. When planning the tour I considered going to one of the other henges, but there’s not much to see. One is pretty much ploughed over and the remains of the other, such as they are, are hard to find in the woods.

The scale of the site is best appreciated from maps or aerial photographs where the appearance of the three rings is striking. The central henge is by far the best preserved of all them and, therefore, standing here will make it easier to visualise the purpose it was built for.
Each of the three henges is around 240m in diameter and share a common north-west/south-east alignment with openings at those points. They are 550m apart in an alignment of some 1.7 km. Each henge has an inner ditch and a bank. There is also a more fragmentary outer ditch and bank.

Evidence suggests they were built in phases. At the start there was an earlier cursus that ran through the central henge. The bank and ditch visible today were constructed between 3,500 and 3,000 BC. The banks would have been much higher than we see today and they would also most likely be coated with white gypsum. So it would have been an impressive view for anybody approaching the complex.

So what was Thornborough – and the other henge monuments built for?

Archaeologists have always been in a quandary explaining the purposes of ancient henge monuments. My interpretation of the site comes from Christopher Knight and Alan Butler’s book entitled ‘Before the Pyramids: Cracking Archaeology’s Greatest Mystery’.

They could not have any defensive role – clearly the design was inappropriate for that because the ditches are inside the banks.

Some people have suggested places to coral animals to keep them safe. This is really unlikely. It may be animals were allowed to graze inside the henges, but that could not have been their primary purpose.

The henges may have been used as meeting places. What is clear is the banks were not used to sit on like an auditorium but as a way of screening out the surrounding landscape. But that’s unlikely because they are so huge any local meeting would be. Each ring could hold about 2,000 people. They probably were used for meetings but that could not be their main function.

So, they must have been places for religion and ritual. The 3 henges are connected by a wide avenue and could well have been used as processional routes from one part of the sacred landscape to the others.

But did they also have another function?

They had an astronomical purpose.

Neolithic people were intelligent and curious – they observed the stars.

They planned the henges using the Megalithic Yard or Rod. This was calculated from the timing of the stars by erecting a pole at 2 different places and measuring the time as the stars moved from one point to another.

They could use a simple pendulum to measure angles.

And henge builders could measure latitude from the stars.

Neolithic structures were built by highly competent astronomers.

Why this site?

Well it was flat. This meant you could have an uninterrupted view of all the celestial bodies. From the centre of the henge these would rise from and fall back to the top of the banks with no reference points to the horizon, as with stone circles.

The land is flat looking south east as far as Lincoln Hill. Neolithic people could measure relative latitude. If you measure from the centre of the central henge to a point on the same latitude as the Lincoln mound the two places are exactly 1 megalithic degree of latitude apart (1/366th of the polar circumference) – which is a stunning discovery and calculation.

When you project north-west then the stone circle of Callanish on the Isle of Lewis is exactly 5 megalithic degrees.

So, we can see that the builders of Thornborough Henge must have made measurements not just locally but over great distances.

Relationship to Sirius

There’s another significant factor about this site – and that relates to the star Sirius.

Sirius was, and still is, the brightest star in the sky. Sirius had an unusual relationship with the Thornborough site. When it was built Sirius rose and set at the same point on the horizon as the sun of the winter solstice (then 18 Jan) – almost exactly south east and south west.

This must have created the impression that Sirius was linked to the sun when observed from Thornborough. At this point Neolithic astronomers could witness the star apparently stopping the sun’s progress across the horizon from north to south. From Thornborough it appeared the great star halted the sun’s progress and persuaded it to move north again – towards summer.

To stone age farmers this must have seemed crucially important.

They would have calculated that Sirius passed over their heads once per day and 366 times a year. This would have enabled them to divide the circle of the day into 366 divisions or degrees of the sky by putting poles into the banks, using them to observe the movement of stars across the horizon.

Connection with Orion’s Belt and Sirius

The dog leg layout of henges were constructed in this way to mirror the formation of 3 stars known as Orion’s Belt. These stars were extremely bright and were used by all ancient cultures as a navigational aid.

The star Mintaka aligns with the northern henge, Ahilam with the central henge and Alnitak with the southern henge.

The relative distances between the 3 stars are in exactly the same ratio as the distances between the henges. The position of stars and henges provide a perfect fit.

A direct line from Orion’s Belt to the south will lead to the star Sirius.

Cana Barn Henge is directly in line with Thornborough’s south-east and in direct line with the star pattern. It mirrored the place of Sirius in the sky and was designed to place Sirius in the landscape.

Carna Barn Henge was part of the same ritual complex as Thornborough. It was a conscious attempt to place Orion’s Belt and Sirius in the landscape.

Astronomical purpose

Thornborough Henge was built for astronomical purposes with an astronomical factor in its layout.

The bank tops of Thornborough form an unchanging horizon. When a star or planet appears at the top it is at same latitude as any other planet or star.

The centre of the henge provides the eye piece for a huge naked-eye telescope.

This is why the henges are so big – because they were using naked eye to look at small and distant things. The scale of the circles helped to compensate for this. If you wanted a good scientifically accurate observatory – you needed a large site. The henges were a perfect size to use poles to measure trajectory of the stars.

Day after day, night after night (probably for centuries) trained people would refine their knowledge of astronomy and use that to maintain ritual and agricultural calendars and fix dates of special celebrations.

There were numerous observations that could be done using the henges.

  • track position of rising sun through year
  • fix points of sun’s extreme positions such at mid summer and midwinter
  • calculate lunar rhythms
  • track rising and setting points of stars and planets and gradual changes in their paths

Spiritual and ritual purpose

There are 6 large henges in a small area – this means this whole area was considered to be very special to those who dug the ditches and built the banks.

Remember that it was only in 18th century that celestial movements were separated from religion or fate. To Neolithic man there would have been no inconsistency between the remarkable science they understood and the spiritual and religious purposes they applied it to.

To our ancient ancestors night sky must have been a thing of wonder. Some of this feeling is lost to us because of light pollution. Ancient ancestors would have seen the sky differently.
So there was also a spiritual purpose underlying the astronomical possibilities of the henges.


The Thornborough henges and their surrounding landscape are remarkable.

You have Neolithic people who could observe and understand the science behind their observations.

They could measure time and distance to extraordinary accuracy.

They could only do this by measuring distances across the whole country – it’s said that the henge at Dorchester on Thames was used with Thornborough to make these calculations.

This means that you have a community that is travelling and communicating with one another over the whole country.

There must have been a group of astronomer/priests-priestesses who resided and worked at the site.

Druid’s Temple

Don’t be fooled by this ruin! Though I’m sure you’re not. This is not a magnificently preserved pre-historic site; it is, of course, a folly.

The Druid’s Temple is a Regency folly. It was built by William Danby (1752-1833) the eccentric squire of the Swinton Hall estate. He also served as High Sheriff of Yorkshire in 1784.

As you can imagine from the design of this folly, William Danby was an interesting character.
He was an educated man and very rich. During his lifetime he rebuilt his country house at Swinton using designs by the local architect John Carr, known for his work on Harewood House – you might have noticed that we passed the walls marking the boundary on the way.

His house had a fine library and also a museum of minerals.

He also fancied himself as a philosopher, writing tracts with wonderful titles such as ‘Thoughts, Chiefly on Serious Subjects’ (1821) and ‘Ideas and Realities, or, Thoughts on Various Subjects’ (1827).

On a tour of the north in 1829 the poet and writer Robert Southey said Danby was the most interesting person he had ever met, very rich and very old.

In 1786 William Danby went on the Grand Tour of Europe with his wife in a second-hand travelling coach, returning in October 1790. On his travels his imagination was stimulated by the antiquities he had seen. They inspired him to recreate an imaginary past in the grounds of his estate.

Also, a fascination with the Druids – and the Gothic – was popular at this time. The antiquarian William Stukeley was one of the first to investigate the stone circles at Stonehenge and Avebury, wrongly believing they were part of the druid religion. Stukeley took to calling himself a druid and was a significant figure in the development of the ‘neo-druids’, a group of gentlemen who celebrated druidic values of justice, benevolence and friendship. Danby shared an interest in these groups and must have been influenced by this movement.

The result of these different sources of inspiration on Danby was this mock Druid’s Temple, which was built in 1820, though one source claims it was built in the early 1800s and was definitely in existence by 1803.

The construction of the temple was an act of philanthropy to provide work for local labourers to support them during the economic depression of these years brought about by the Napoleonic Wars. The men were paid one shilling daily.

They cut into the hillside to make a level space for the temple. It must have been an arduous task. They moved the stones to create the mixture of standing stones, chambers and altars that you see here – and some of the stones are 10ft high and must be an enormous weight. The stone used was all local millstone grit.

What he created was an eccentric place, part Stonehenge, part inspired by classical ruins he would have seen in Europe. It’s a grand druidic folly with sacrificial slabs, portal dolmens, megalithic tombs, standing stones and a hermit’s cell.

The temple is aligned NNE-SSW. It is an oval shape, wider at the south. The alignment to the south is quite close to the midwinter sunset and in the opposite direction to the midsummer sunrise, though the hillside affects the skyline in that direction.

According to a local guide of the area published in 1910, Squire Danby attempted to tempt people to take up residence at the Temple as a hermit. He’s said to have offered to provide this individual with food, and a subsequent annuity, providing he would reside in the temple seven years, living the primitive life, speaking to no one and allowing his beard and hair to grow. It’s said that one man took up the challenge and lasted for four and a half years when he admitted defeat. There’s no other proof to corroborate this story.

It’s a wild and wacky place full of Gothic menace. I’ll leave you to explore the site and let your imagination take flight.

West Agra rock art, Coltersdale

At this site there is a cluster of fascinating carvings in what is known as the West Agra Plantation group.

West Agra is an important site of the style and distribution of its rock carvings. There are numerous carved rocks in the fields around here and in the plantation. When I did my research of the site I was only able to locate some of those that are known to exist. And without an experienced eye it is very hard to tell which markings are deliberately created rock art and which are weathered stones. But there are clearly rock art markings on these stones and then we will go into the plantation to look at the most striking example of rock art in this area.

There is also a standing stone on Agra Moor. This is on Agra Moor beyond the crags known as Slipstone Crags. It was just too ambitious to incorporate this into the tour because it’s a long walk along a rocky track.

There was also a stone circle, now destroyed with no remains, further down the valley at Healey. It existed in 1865 because it was noted and described by an local antiquarian John Fisher.

He refers to them as Healey-Baals or Baal Hill and suggest the place was dedicated to the worship of the god Baal and that the place name Healey-Baals means land sacred to Baal. He refers to a circle of upright stones ‘having recently existed near to the place.’ He also refers to a local tradition of quarterly fire ceremonies in the area related to the stone circles; ‘There are traditions, too, which have been handed down to us, to the effect that the heathen custom of making feasts and Baal-fires have continued until very recent times in this district – and especially in Nidderdale – the remembrance of which is transmitted to us in the annual feast which is still held at Healey.’

Another account of the area published in 1906 notes ‘there were formerly circles of upright stones’, so they’d clearly disappeared by then.

So, the combination of the rock art on this hill, a standing stone on the moors and a stone circle all within a short distance of each other suggests at one time this was an important ritual landscape.

The dinner plate stone

This stone was rediscovered some time in 2002.

This stone has what is the most interesting carving of the whole group. It is a boulder with a multi-ringed motif linked by a grooves and cups. It’s an intriguing carving. The main focus is the cup in the middle with six surround rings, intersected by a double-line from outside the series of rings and running into the central ring. The double line points to the south-east. At the end of the double line is a cluster of cup-marks.

It’s hard to interpret what the original meaning of the stone was. It has been speculated that the 6 rings equate to the 6 major planets travelling around the sky. The double line intruding into the carving may be an instruction to line up the post in line with the horizon as sunset or sunrise.

Hackfall Woods, Grewelthorpe

This wood was bought by John Aislabie in 1731 for £906. John Aislabie was a Secretary to the Navy and Chancellor of the Exchequer between 1717-1721. He also owned nearby Studley Royal. He most likely purchased it to extract timber and stone from the quarries for use at Studley.

He died in 1742 and Hackfall was inherited by his son, William. It was he who set out to transform the area into an ornamental landscape and fashionable picturesque woodland garden. The work started in 1749 and continued until 1767. In contrast to the family’s formal water gardens just down the road at Studley Royal and Fountain’s Abbey, Hackfall creates an idealised park with the careful placement of follies, ponds and cascades.

In 1768 he also purchased the Fountains Abbey ruins and incorporated them into Studley Royal Gardens.

Hackfall is also famous for the painting of the woods by J M W Turner in 1816 from sketches made on his tour of Yorkshire.

Victorian visitors, including William Wordsworth, flocked to the area to see the romantic wilderness.

Hackfall was acquired by the Woodlands Trust in 1989 and today is managed by the Trust. The wooded landscape is designated by as grade 1 by English Heritage.

The sites is also designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest because of the large number of birds, plants and insects that make their home here.

What we are going to do is a linear route that takes us down past some of the fountains, cascades and follies and then back up to join the minibus at the exit near Grewelthorpe village.

Read more about our mystery tour.