A drive round the best British sites from the Dark Ages

Simon Heptinstall

Simon Heptinstall is a freelance features writer and the author of 1001 Dream Cars You Must Drive Before You Die.

@sheptinstall

Published

April 10, 2014

The ancient stone steps are worn by a thousand footfalls as they wind deep beneath the nave of the cathedral, through passages so narrow you must turn sideways. I passed tiny alcoves stained black from dripping oil lamps that originally lit the way for St Wilfred more than 1,300 years ago.

I’ve toured many of our best-known Saxon sights – but creeping into Wilfred’s simple arch-vaulted crypt under Ripon Cathedral is the closest I’ve felt to Britain’s ‘Dark Ages’.

After the Romans left Britain around 400AD there’s a black hole of history until the Norman’s came a conquering in 1066. It’s a mysterious period with few records, relics or remains. There are more tourist attractions from pre-historic and Roman eras than from this more recent span of seven centuries.

So to celebrate Easter – a seasonal celebration dating back to the Saxon’s goddess Eostre – I’m going on a driving tour to reveal some of Britain’s best Anglo-Saxon sights. Can we cast some light on our Dark Ages?

I’ll start up in the Saxon kingdom of Northumbria, driving from Wilfred’s crypt in the charming North Yorkshire market town of Ripon, north to Lindisfarne Abbey on Holy Island, off the coast of present-day Northumberland. This must be a journey that the much-travelled Wilfred would have taken many times.

On the way, he must have stopped in Durham. If you stop there too, you’ll find the Cathedral holds the tombs of England’s other Saxon superstars: St Cuthbert and the Venerable Bede. And further north, pop into Jarrow, the site of an unlikely family theme park. ‘Bede World’ mixes a chance to stroke Hilda the wild boar with exhibitions about ‘the Einstein of his day’. Artful displays of Saxon artefacts include details of how Bede worked out the precise date of Easter each year – devising a formula that is still used today.

Image credit: pasujoba

The final few miles towards the seashore and the island of Lindisfarne offer a spectacular driving experience. This was the Saxons’ most sacred spot and the site of a monastery where Wilfred studied. It’s the birthplace of the Saxon Lindisfarne Gospels (now in the British Library in London), and was Cuthbert’s home, a regular hangout for Bede and was famously sacked by Vikings in 793.

Holy Island was a national centre for religion, literature and learning – but sadly today’s Lindisfarne has few Saxon remains… other than the stunning geography. Its striking location at the end of a tidal causeway is an essential sight – and makes you realise how the dangerous Dark Ages drove Saxons to inhabit some extreme spots.

Historians estimate that the dyke project exhausted more manpower than building the pyramids in Egypt.

Take the short scenic drive across the Pennines to discover the next Saxon highlights: the stone crosses of Cumbria. These imposing beautifully carved churchyard monuments are among the earliest British Christian relics. Irton with Santon’s is the prettiest, Bewcastle’s the biggest (more than 15ft high), but, if you’ve only time to see one of them, head for Gosforth. The Saxon cross here is covered in exquisite carving that mysteriously mixes images of Norse mythology with Christian stories.

Then it’s time to head south again, to find Britain’s biggest Saxon relic. Offa’s Dyke runs for 150 miles along England’s border with Wales. Offa was the most powerful of the kings of the Saxon middle kingdom of Mercia. His version of Hadrian’s Wall sealed the Welsh border and was a gargantuan engineering feat: the dyke was up to 65ft wide and 8ft high all the way. In many places there was a stone wall or wooden palisade on top of that.

Today there’s a long distance footpath that follows the length of the dyke and a visitor centre at Knighton, Powys,with interactive displays about the building of this vast barricade.

If you’re driving south, look for these prime spots to see the dyke at its best: running up and down the sides of the Ceiriog Valley at Chirk Castle near Wrexham and snaking over the rolling hills north of Knighton. Historians estimate that the dyke project exhausted more manpower than building the pyramids in Egypt.

Image credit: Wikimedia

A short drive east of the dyke, call in at the sleepy Gloucestershire hamlet of Deerhurst. Today, this leafy riverside spot seems an unlikely centre of Saxon politics and religion.

Danish King Canute met his military rival, the English ruler Edmund Ironside (son of Ethelred the Unready) here in 1016. It must have been a momentous occasion accompanied by much shiny armour and ceremony. On a small island in the River Severn the two Saxon kings agreed to divide England between them after years of warfare. Their meeting place is now part of the grassy riverbank opposite the Yew Tree pub.

It survived a raid by none other than King Canute and his pillaging “men of metal” who destroyed the town’s monastery in 1015.

For some reason, the village was already a sacred spot to Saxons. Today you’ll find two of the best-preserved churches from that period 200 yards apart here. Earl Odda’s Chapel adjoins a medieval timber framed house but is an English Heritage property in its own right. Some historians think Odda himself may have been present at the Canute/Ironside summit meeting.

And the parish church nearby is one of Britain’s oldest: it was the church of a Benedictine Priory dating back to at least the seventh century. The plain whitewashed interior won’t make you gasp like a Renaissance cathedral – instead look for rare Saxon details like arcane wall carvings and a beautifully decorated stone font from the 9th-century. It was discovered in a local farmyard 100 years ago.

From Deerhurst, a driving loop through the south of England could include another intact Saxon church, the delightful little chapel of St Laurence alongside the river at Bradford-on-Avon. It survived a raid by none other than King Canute and his pillaging “men of metal” who destroyed the town’s monastery in 1015.

A short drive south are the ruins of the Saxon hilltop fortress at Old Sarum outside Salisbury. To the east is the renowned ‘King Alfred’s Jewel’ in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum – its inscription famously reads: “Alfred ordered me to be made”.

Image credit: Mark Ramsay

And travelling further east, into East Anglia, there are two important Saxon archaeological sites to visit. You’ll see burial mounds and replica Saxon treasures at the National Trust’s Sutton Hoo site and a re-created Saxon village of thatched wooden huts at West Stowe.

The best place to finish our time-travelling journey, however, is face-to-face with one of the most haunting Saxon icons. You’ll find it in the heart of London. The British Museum’s collection of Anglo-Saxon artefacts is claimed to be the finest in the world.

There’s a dragon-shaped ship’s figurehead and a pair of ornate gold rings commissioned by King Aethelwulf of Wessex. But the most memorable image of Saxon Britain is the full-face helmet recovered from a tomb at Sutton Hoo. Its sturdy iron shell was covered with gleaming tin panels depicting battle scenes and its eyebrows decorated with fierce boar’s heads. The blank eyes staring from the facemask give the helmet a menacing personality that seems to shout down through the centuries: “I’m a Saxon. Don’t mess with me.”

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