Ten years ago, Derek Plews began building Yorkshires’ answer to Stonehenge. Now as the winter solstice approaches he tells Sarah Freeman why he wants to open up his stone circle to everyone. Main picture by Simon Hulme.
Derek Plews admits that he is prone to the occasional leftfield thought.
However, even the man known locally as Mad Farmer Derek admits that he was surprised when he woke up on morning with a voice telling him he should build a stone circle.
“I wouldn’t say that I am a pagan, but I have always been what you’d call a spiritual person,” he says. “I grew up in quite a liberal family. My father had been turned off mainstream religion by being forced to go to too many Sunday school sessions and my mother was a bit of a free spirit so we weren’t brought up in a traditional household.” Unable to shake the thought that he should build his own stone circle he got out a pair of dowsing rods and decided to see if he could locate the perfect spot on the family farm at Brompton, just a few miles from Northallerton.
“It turned out it was right at the top of that hill,” he says, pointing past a flock of sheep and beyond a new toilet block he is in the middle of building. “I could really sense that up there the Earth’s energies were strong. Don’t think I am mad, but it felt as though many thousands of years ago there had been a stone circle up there which had since been demolished.”
While there are no historical records to back up his claim, it’s not entirely without substance. While Wiltshire might be Britain’s hub for stone circles, there are a number still partially visible on the North York Moors and Derek believes that the original ancient stones may have been demolished during the construction of a nearby Roman road.
“I knew I had to rebuild what was there before, but I wasn’t quite sure how to go about it,” he says. “I thought the best thing to do was to contact a few pagan groups. They seemed keen to be involved and suggested I set up a committee.
“To be honest I am not really one for committees, it seems to me that there is sometimes an awful lot of talking and not a lot of actually doing, but to get the project off the ground it seemed like a sensible thing to do.”
With a working group up and running, Derek put himself in charge of finalising the design and sourcing the stones which would form Yorkshire’s answer to Stonehenge.
“The first option was to get them cut from a quarry, but I didn’t want that, it didn’t seem right. I wanted something more natural. It was a bit of serendipity really that I came across a website for a local stone merchant.
“He lived near Hawes and I gave him a call and told him what I was planning to do. It turned out that he was of the same spiritual thinking as me and he couldn’t have been more helpful. On his own land he had load of rocks which had fallen off the cliff edge during the last Ice Age and he asked if I wanted them.
“I couldn’t believe my luck. Having stones from round here, which had been shaped naturally by the elements was exactly what I wanted. It felt like they had been waiting to find a purpose and then I came along.”
If finding the stones was the easy bit, pulling them into place was less so. Had the ancient Britons had access to tractors and JCBs, Stonehenge would have been completed in a matter of days rather than years. However, as a nod to his ancestors, Derek decided that he would where possible use traditional methods.
“Every one of the stones was physically dragged up this hill and then we used an A-frame to raise them into place,” he says. “The first one was the toughest, because there are 14 stones in all and each of them has particular relevance.
“The first one is called the Sentry Stone. That one was like the guardian angel of the project. Then there is the Centre Stone, which if you look closely is not actually in the centre.”
He’s right, it is in fact a little off to the left.
“Had we put it in the middle it would have looked too much like an altar.
“While it is a special, place and a spiritual place we didn’t want it to be attached to any formal religious service.
“Under each rock we placed small offerings like pebbles and crystals. It was our offering to the Earth. We finally heaved the last stone into place in September 2008. It took three years in all. There were times that I wondered whether we would ever get it finished, so that day was particularly special.”
It might have been hard work, but it paid off in unexpected ways. Two and a half years ago, one of the original team of 120 helpers became his wife and together he and Jayne are planning a series of events to mark the decade.
“I am from South Yorkshire originally and I had never done anything like this before,” she says. “I heard about it through a friend and I just thought what Derek was doing up here sounded interesting. It was physically demanding, but what I remember most about that time is the friendships which were born. So many different people, from such a wide variety of backgrounds came together to build this place.”
To mark the 10 year anniversary of the Sentry Circle, the couple are planning a series of events throughout next year and hope to make the site more accessible.
“We have people popping by every so often asking if we mind if they sit in the circle and we always say yes, and over the years we have hosted a number of events and festivals here, but for our 10th anniversary year we have big plans.”
First up will be the festival of Ēostre, which is named after a Germanic fertility goddess. That will be followed in the summer by a charity event which will raise money for charities including the Yorkshire Air Ambulance, Macmillan Cancer and the nearby St Theresa’s Hospice.
“In August it will be 880 years since the Battle of Standard in which English forces repelled the Scottish army which had already taken large parts of Northumbria,” adds Derek. “It is thought that the hill on which the Sentry Circle sits was one of their lookouts and so we are going to hold a history day up here.
“We do want to let people know what a special place we have, but we don’t want it to become a tourist attraction. I went to Stonehenge once and watched the sun come up. It was back in the days when you got close to the stones, but even then it felt quite commercialised.”
The couple are also working on improving disabled access to the site which currently can only be reached by deactivating the electric fence which keeps the sheep in.
“It’s funny looking back to how far we have come,” says Derek. “There was a bit of opposition from some people when they first got wind of what I wanted to do. I think they thought there would be a load of druids dancing naked up here every night. Stone circles have those connotations, but things have settled down.
“Particularly in recent years there has been a lot of talk about mindfulness and how we all benefit from having some quiet time just to sit and think. That’s what the Sentry Circle is all about. It’s a place where people can come and have a bit of peace. In today’s world we need those places of refuge more than ever.”
To find out more go to .facebook.com/Sentrycircle