The Man Who Set Stonehenge Straight

Picture by Martin Bates for the Daily Mail

Picture by Martin Bates for the Daily Mail

Ah, the gales they are a-galing, and the rain it hammers down.

Our poor county of Somerset is all but submerged. Coastal areas are being ravaged.

Every cloud, no matter how murderous, has a silver lining. News broke yesterday that off the coast of Norfolk, at a little village called Happisburgh the crazed seas have performed a miracle. They have uncovered a set of footprints which are thought to be the oldest outside Africa: 800,000 years old.

A team of archaeologists from the British Museum, Natural History Museum and St Mary’s College, London, identified them after the storms had battered the Norfolk Coast.

Temporal snobs like me will note that this knocks the 5-8000 year old footprints at Formby in Lancashire into a cocked hat.

Look at Happisburgh on Google Earth: an unassuming little village with a caravan park close to the sea. It had a population  of  1,372 in the census of 2001, though back in the Domesday it was a large and powerful settlement well worth taxing.

And perhaps it had been for many thousands of years.

Just up the road from the beach and the caravan park, close to Happisburgh Primary School, lies Happisburgh Manor.

The building is a mere temporal blip  in Happisburgh’s prehistory and history. It was built in 1900, and it is that oddest and most charming of ideas: a butterfly house: with four wings at angles to a central core, just like the creature which gave it its name. Happisburgh Manor is a beautiful, indulgent, arts and crafts work of art, a stunning place perched there the the lieu of the coast.

Its architect was a Detmar Blow, flamboyant hero of the Arts and Crafts movement. Closely allied with John Ruskin and William Morris, he styled himself an ‘itinerant architect’ , travelling to and living at each job much as the mediaeval craftsmen would have done. Not only that, but he gathered a team of itinerant masons around him ( stoneworkers, not handshakers).

He was born in 1867. On the last day of 1900, Britain suffered what it is suffering now: terrible gales. Horrendous weather, and Wiltshire and the land running to the West got the worst of it.

Those were the days when Stonehenge was in private hands. It was owned by a peer: Lord Antrobus at Amesbury, whose abbey Blow had been renovating.

On the very last day of the year in which he built the Norfolk Manor House – 1900 -the unthinkable happened in Wiltshire.

One of Stonehenge’s trilithons – the name for two uprights and a piece balancing across the top – fell down in a storm.

This was not the first time. But it was monumental, and the Peer knew it. He called in SPAB – the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings – and he called in Detmar Blow.

And Blow began to work to repair Stonehenge.

“The leaning stone must be raised,: the Times of April 23, 1901 records. “It contains ‘two grave flaws’. When placed upright these will matter little; but if the stone is left inclined, the effect of rain water freezing in these flaws will before long break off the upper bird part of the stone.”

It would be a long, long time before the trilithon would be put up once again. But it was Blow who corrected the dangerously listing upright nearby, and set it straight.

Our weather: it seems more often an adversary than an ally. It batters our precious stone circle, thought to have been built in 3100BC; but it has uncovered some of the very earliest traces of man ever found in these parts.

You lose some; you win some.


36 thoughts on “The Man Who Set Stonehenge Straight

  1. So glad to see we still hold some records, here in Africa.

    The rain it raineth every day… it gets a bit much, doesn’t it. Until something exciting happens.

    Of course we go outside and do those rain dances, when we need it, and to give thanks.

  2. Love the way you draw in disparate threads to form a new tapestry of story: who else would have linked prehistoric footprints, megaliths, medieval settlements, an arts & crafts building and Britain’s current weather woes? A true poet of the mind’s labyrinthine workings.

  3. Wonderful post, Kate; I will spending part of this snowy day (we have the snow, sorry to say, and seem to be sending it as rain to your islands) investigating Detmar Blow. How interesting he seems.

    Kith and Kin. You won’t believe this. I read your previous post yesterday, did some work here in my little bit of an office, then ran to the library to return and refill my book tote. Again; you won’t believe this. Wandering about, I looked down and there, looking up at me, was a book titled “Kith and Kin”. Heads turned at my squeaky noises of surprise, which happens, often, and home with me came “Kith and Kin”, which is a lovely book from the Art Institute of Chicago of their collection of relics, paintings, etc. – kith! Not much, compared to Great Britain, for sure, however, a fun volumes, with plan taking shape to find them at the Art Institute – and me wondering at the serendipity of finding it when i did.

      1. Hope you can find it used, Kate. It was something to just look down and see it there, shortly after I’d read your blog yesterday. There are some fine kith at the Art Institute, even for such a young country. See how remarkable your posts are? Have a good weekend.

    1. And, if I’m not mistaken, the place where Anna Hyatt Huntingdon created Don Quixote. Doesn’t he ride through the gardens outside? Amazing, amazing piece of work, Brett. I’d give a lot to see it at home.

  4. I honestly never thought about whether Stonehenge had ever required repair! So many mysteries center around how they were erected in the first place, but it’s also intriguing to me that as late as 1901 Blow would have determined the best way to repair preserve the trilithon–and thanks for a new word. I wouldn’t have known what to call it! That must have been a engineering feat at that time, too!

    1. It must have been, Debra. There is an English Heritage book about the history of maintaining the site and it’s on my list to read! I believe some stones were set in concrete at one time or other. Can’t wait to find out more.

  5. Ah, and here is my answer to whether or not you are affected by flooding. How can you not be? The footsteps are amazing. I wonder how they were preserved all those years. Shod or bare feet? Man, woman or child? I always want to know more. It’s my nature, I guess. I will hope for sunshine for England. The sun may never set the world over, but you could stand to have it shining a while on the Island.

    1. The hard thing is that these footprints are so ephemeral. They are uncovered, and then they are washed away. I was so pleased to see that the British Museum got in there so quickly to examine them – and I believe they will be part of a new exhibition this Summer at the BM!

  6. How I wish those footprints had somehow been embedded in stone or something that wouldn’t wash away so quickly, that could somehow have been saved (not just in photos).

  7. Until I read your post, I never knew that Stonehenge needed to be set straight. We saw them once and their very existence is fascinating. As are those ancient footprints. I do hope they can shed more like on made these ancient footprints.

    Wishing you sun shiny days. But not too many. That’d get boring. 😉

  8. Fascinating! This post, and that you find inspiration even when nearly submerged!!! Hope things are better already Kate, and the damage limited. .

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