Can there be anything more civilised than a municipal bench?
You will have favourite benches. The British Isles is peppered with them; many with inscriptions in memory of a loved one who knew the place and loved it well. There is one in our forest. It is called, locally, Pip’s bench. It commemorates a man who loved the woods and would walk them with his dog. He is gone, but we remember him every time we sit down to take a load off and watch the dog scavenge.
Royston, Hertfordshire, some 260-odd years ago, decided its streets needed new furniture.
One of its markets was being tarted up, and so they wanted a bench for folks to sit on and rest from their consumer exertions. It’s a modest project but one which has the aforementioned charms: we love a place to sit down and watch the world go by, and the women selling butter and cheese were no exception.
The market in question was The Butter Market, and the bench would be sited at the corner of the old Roman Road, Ermine Street, at its intersection with a road called Icknield Way.
So, one day in 1742, the workmen turned up with their tools and began to make preparations. Their first action was to bang a sturdy post into the ground as an anchor.
The post almost completely disappeared.
When they investigated, it was obvious what the problem was. There was a millstone in the way. And cursing under their breath, but most courteous over it, the workmen began the arduous task of digging out the old millstone.
Except that the millstone was not just any millstone. It was an entrance.
What they discovered that day in 1742 has baffled prehistorians and historians for centuries. For the millstone hid a passage.
It was more than half filled with earth, but rumours of buried treasure soon sorted that out. Locals had that out in a jiffy, though no gold was ever found and much of the rich archaeological evidence was destroyed. But when they had finished, they were confronted with a great, bell-shaped cavern hollowed out in the rock, there beneath the Butter Market in Royston. 17 feet in circumference, and 26 feet high, no-one had ever seen – or indeed, would see again – anything quite like it.
And the pictures of the wall were compelling indeed. Mediaeval, they were early Christian in character. Stone sculptures: St Katharine, the Holy Family, St Lawrence, and someone with a drawn sword – could this be St George? The fanciful talk styles this a cave for the Knights Templar; the more reserved say it is a cell for a monk who wished to escape the world. Others still point to Masonic symbolism on the wall.
And odds are, we will never know for sure.
It has fascinated many: and if you ever find yourself in the town on the borders of Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire, on a Summer weekend, it would be well worth seeking out the little passage, dug in 1790, to guide tourist into the subterranean world beneath.