Mysterious rural site overlooked by tourists

An aerial view of the amazing and huge Thornborough Henges. Picture: Dave MacLeod.

An aerial view of the amazing and huge Thornborough Henges. Picture: Dave MacLeod.

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EVERYONE is aware of the classic ancient monument of Stonehenge but do you know that there is another significant prehistoric site tucked well amongst the Yorkshire countryside?

Remarkably few people know about Thornborough Henges, ten miles north east of Ripon. The scale defies the imagination. For a start it consists of giant earth circles that had to be constructed by hacking at earth and gravel with antlers and carrying it up in a basket before tipping it onto the top and going back to do it all again thousands of times, enough times to create a circle with a circumference of 240m formed out of a ditch over a metre wide and deep, and a bank of the same size.

And there isn’t just one henge at Thornborough, there are three, each separated from the next one by over 500m of connecting earthworks.

It’s almost impossible to imagine how many lives it must have taken to make something on this scale and equally so to ever fully know why they did it. What we do know is that it was unlikely to be for defence. If you want to stop yourself being attacked, you build a ditch on the outside of the defensive wall so that the attackers have to climb up a steep hill and fight at a disadvantage. These sites have their largest ditch on the inside - a good idea if you are trying to hide the mystery of what was happening inside the circle.

The henges are thought to have been covered with brilliant white gypsum so that they stood out amongst the mass of green in the surrounding countryside. And they may also have had a wooden palisade standing out proudly. Clearly a lot of care was taken to ensure that you saw them from a great distance.

The land that lies between the Pennines and the North York Moors is well-watered, generous country. There must have been a lively population making a living there over 5,000 years ago who had enough time after getting in the harvest to create monumental structures. Perhaps they were not living such hand to mouth lives as we often assume?

Very few people visit this astonishing complex. The land it sits on is mostly owned by a quarry company and there are no signposts, car parks or tea rooms. The best way to understand the scale of what was achieved is to view it from above - either in a helicopter or more cheaply via Google Earth. Landowners Tarmac allow the site to be opened once a year for a pagan celebration known as Beltane, so it is possible to walk the site then if you take care to avoid tramping over the protected monument.

The absence of visitors lends it an eerie feeling and adds to the atmosphere of being in a special place. The first henge is in a dark broody wood just outside the village of Nosterfield near West Tanfield. It is helpfully located close to a rather nice village pub - always a bonus when contemplating ancient history.

A short walk following close to the route of the connecting earthworks takes you to the middle henge which sits next to the quiet rural lane leading to the hamlet of Thornborough. You don’t need to get out of the car to see the circle. It lies in an open field alongside the road.

Usually no one else will be there and this makes it easy to get your imagination working.

Turn around and look on the other side of the road and you can see signs of the fieldworks which lead off into the distance where the third henge is far enough away to be no more than a shadow on the horizon.

If you want to see a first class ancient monument you have a choice. You can get in the car, drive south and pay to shuffle with lots of other people around a well-trodden route that you will have seen on the TV a thousand times. Or you can visit a quiet country road near Ripon and have one of the most impressive ancient monuments in the country all to yourself. I suggest you look the site up on Google Maps and then decide which you prefer.

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