Smithills Ancient Monuments

There are a great many prehistoric remains in Smithills and most of them are easy to find. Almost all have fallen down or been vandalised but there’s plenty left still for a keen explorer to discover. North Bolton was thriving farmland five thousand years ago, in the Neolithic Era, and we have the barrows to prove it.

It’s now the fashion to look at a landscape archaeologically, rather than to simply view the isolated monuments that remain. There were abundant prehistoric Boltonians, judging by the barrows they made, some of them have been opened but many are undisturbed and pose the ethical dilemma of whether to slice them or just to simply leave them as the undisturbed tombs of our ancestors. The largest barrow has been known as Halliwell Hill and it’s hidden from the Ring Road by the young trees that cover it. From Tootals’ Park it seems to be a natural steep hill about a hundred yards long and seven or eight yards high. It’s aligned east-west, as many long barrows are, and is a little higher at the eastern end. There’s a decrepit drystone wall that closes off the old entrance to the tomb, and a small forecourt which looks northeast. There’s more stone revetment below, and both bits of wall are more than four thousand years old. The chamber of this communal ‘house of the dead’ has collapsed, or lately been dug, and is indicated by a round hollow in the grass. Soil has been thrown over the wall – suggesting Victorian grave robbers.

There’s certainly a later round barrow, not far away, that must be the same age as this retaining wall. It’s on the edge of the hill down to Crossley’s Mill Reservoir and is in someone’s garden. It has a near twin nearby, by the turning at the top of the lane that comes through what-was Crossley’s Mill, behind a couple of shaky garages.

When the owners see this article they’ll know they have an Early Bronze Age round barrow in their backyard. There’ll something beneath those two mounds as well as under the others nearby (that have now almost certainly been lost.) In the north of England, it was usually ‘high status males’ that were buried underneath these round barrows. Is this a case for the Time Team to solve?

Ancient Smithills was an open farmed landscape. Perhaps there were feudal arrangements, with a chieftain as the ‘Lord of the Manor’, and orders of workers and slaves beneath him. There were certainly groups of advisers that counseled and informed such an hereditary leader – the term ‘Druid’ seems appropriate – and they must have purveyed the traditions of weights, measures and land boundary by word of mouth. The real druids trained for almost twenty years, according to Julian Caesar, two thousand years later. It is very possible that the land divisions between parishes now were in use five thousand years ago. Maybe it was the first farmers, in a new stone age, that originally divided the land. Certainly their stones are often found on these borders and have, more recently, been co-opted as Boundary Markers. An early visitor to the Two Lads cairns mentions their enclosure ditch, which is now lost, and the mystery of the material excavated from the lengthy Dean Ditch is partially solved by the small, transverse, long barrow that closes its eastern reach. This barrow is without a forecourt and aligns nearly north to south. The broader part is in Darwen and the narrower section is in Bolton.

Farming needs a calendar at the heart of all operations – to know the time to sow seed, to cut hedges and when to harvest and preserve crops. This was the Druids’ central task and they studied and learned what is now called astronomy. In those days the movement and cycles of the stars was immersed in superstition and myth. Some of these myths are still known. ‘When the moon hath horns it shall snow’ and ‘Ne’er cast a clout till the May’s out’. One of the simple ways of deciding if a site is prehistoric or not is ‘does it have a footpath beside it?’ If it does, then the supposition has weight and originally the path would be used to get to and from the stones, but only now, after four thousand years of disuse, is this function being regained.

There’s a lovely track goes round the back of Halliwell Hill, but finding the start of it is now difficult. Derek Billington preferred the name ‘Toothells’ for this whole area. The Hospitaller Knights of St John of Jerusalem, early medieval owners of the manor, chose it for their headquarters and for Bolton’s first infirmary. These Black Knights were probably attracted by a flat field, with an abundance of already quarried stone and, perhaps, legends of lost ancestors. Derek Billington liked the idea of it being used as a spy hill, by Saxon farmers wary of rustlers, and that is where the Toot name originates. Some academics believe that the long barrows were themselves imposing boundary markers and it seems that the margin between what is now Halliwell and Smithills is five thousand or more years old. The kids that play here just call it ‘Tootals Park’.

There are plenty of stone monuments to explore. The easiest to find are the Thurstones above Barrow Bridge and beside the track that runs through the golf course. After zigzagging up the hill the path takes a sharp right and there are a few trees, a long view of the southern and eastern horizon, a low rounded hillock (another barrow) and a line of upright stones covered by rubble and heather. A couple of upright flagstones at the low end are free of obstruction and one indicates Holcombe Tower, built mainly from the rubble of a nearby cairn, and the other shows the old Lancashire-Yorkshire border, with the Pennine Way, and Blackstone Edge on the skyline. The moon has a complex cycle of motion, which we’ve forgotten about entirely, that lasts eighteen and a half years and was important to our ancestors, being close to their generation age. At the one end of the cycle, the moon will rise and set in the far north then, a fortnight later, it will set and rise in the far south. Our ancestors marked these distant rising and setting positions of the cyclical moon by aligning their monuments toward them. At May Day the rising sun will emerge from behind the peak on Rishworth Moor and again at Lammas, midway through August, at the start of the harvest period. This evocative and ruined stone row, with its attendant truncated small barrows, should be excavated and restored. Aerial photography of the golf links will disclose more

Anyone that’s been to the Pike Fair in Rivington, at Easter, will be able to imagine the atmosphere of the meetings that took place at those great solar and lunar festivals. The biggest feasts were around the shortest day, now the Christmas holidays, and at the longest day (now known as Bolton Holidays). If there were parish boundaries five thousand years ago then there was probably also organised sport. It’s interesting to speculate what they were – in Catalonia human towers are made still and crowned by a young lad – Scotch traditional games still include hurled rocks and tree trunks –the carved stone balls that are known to museums may have been part of a game of ball, distant precursor to football, still played on Orkney and called B’a. Dirty play would have had an entirely different context in the dark times of human sacrifice and slavery and broken limbs are still commonplace in the Kirkwall games, which are divided into senior and junior leagues.

The stone alignment behind the ruined Burnt Edge Colliery works well for the longest day sunset. This is the largest of the Smithills stone rows and is inclined a short way along to create two alignments. The row starts with a low ring cairn close by the colliery wall – some of the small kerbstones can be identified – and this shorter first section points toward the TV mast, on Winter Hill, broadly, and to a good sized barrow, behind Holden’s Farm, particularly. Over midsummer nights the sun hardly sinks below the horizon and there used to be a star that followed its progress just a few degrees above the skyline. This is the rising point that’s indicated between the short part of the row and Holden’s Farm Barrow – Deneb. The longer section of the row points toward two small cairns on the horizon and shows the northernmost extreme moon set. It also gives a good agreement with the sunset on June 21st. At the western end are some stones that may have made a small circle – but are now lost in rank grass. There’s a small standing stone on the hill slope, above the row, which points to the Two Lads cairns and another northern moon set, this time at the Lunar Minimum. This Burnt Edge site would have hosted the annual summer ceremony and is in urgent need of conservation

There’s a little known public footpath that runs between one corner of the old gamekeeper’s cottage garden and Walker Fold Road. It’s shown on the old Ordnance Survey maps, has assiduously been kept open and runs beside a line of seven large stones that were once raised as a single stone row. They look westward, toward a crease on the horizon, which indicates the setting northern moon at the middle of the moon cycle, the lunar minimum.

One of the seven stones is certainly carved, with well-defined grooves, and another couple may have been scratched with simple designs. Toward the sandy lane which runs down to Hampson’s Farm, is another low round mound with a pair of fallen stones before it. There are other ‘parts’ to the stone row about, a hand-shaped stone beside the track above Greencroft Cottage, and a couple of standing stones on the bluff above, one pushed over and another snapped off. Neither Seven Stones barrow nor Holden’s Farm barrow have been disturbed in any way, other than by time, and retain a compressed original profile.

There are many other sites – the tiny and remote stone row on Counting Hill that would beautifully demonstrate the southernmost moon set into the sea behind Holyhead (if it wasn’t for the smog from Ellesmere Port) as well as the winter solstice sunset and is probably the source of the place name ‘Winter Hill’. There’s a fragment of Rock Art – a piece of a Celtic Spiral probably from a Passage Grave which is now lost – incorporated into a wall on Harpers Lane – there’s the Sugarloaf Hill and the Priest’s Crown – the long barrow (another Toot Hill) above Sixty Three Steps – there’s stuff in Harwood too. And there’s still plenty more to find yet!

By David Aspinall