Contemplating Albion’s Navel

Paul Devereux is a man in quest of the mystical centre of England… Is an East Midlands hill an omphalos?


Many ancient lands had an acknowledged territorial sacred, symbolical centre or navel, its omphalos, and every country has its optimum geographical centre point which may or may not coincide with it. In some places today, especially relatively newly-defined nation states, this will not be commented on, or even known.

Many present-day countries, however, are already aware of, and mark, their geographical navel point, but because a country’s boundaries tend to be irregular, there are usually several locations jockeying for the honour of being the national territorial centre. In the United States, for instance, one candidate for being the centre of the contiguous states is taken to be a point close to Lebanon, Kansas, where a stone plinth fitted with a plaque supports a flagpole flying the Stars and Stripes. An associated  ‘Hub Club’ has apparently been formed there, according to John Michell (At the Centre of the World, 1994).  Rival locations claiming the distinction include Junction City and Fort Riley.

Australians made their formal effort to identify their territorial centre in 1988, during the country’s bicentenary as a modern nation. By plotting thousands of coastal points, a geometry was created that allowed calculation of the centre of the landmass, which was found by a ‘Centre Safari’ to be on the land of Lilla Creek Station near the southern boundary of Northern Territory. A replica of the flagpole at Parliament House, Canberra, was erected on the spot. This didn’t settle the matter for  everyone, though, as other experts variously thought a number of other bases for the calculations should have been used. In any case, the people of relatively nearby Alice Springs had always considered their town to be at the centre of the country, while the Aborigines for untold generations had seen the dramatic natural feature of Uluru (Ayers Rock), also in the general vicinity, as being at the heart of the land.

In the Old World, there are various claimants to being the centre of France.  The ones most contested are villages in the vicinity of Bourges, which takes its name from the Bituriges, a Celtic tribe who lived in the region.  The place most people accept as the navel of France is Chateaumeillant (Middle Castle), which does indeed sit close to the geographical centre of France. Another contender, though, is Chartres, located further to the north. Now famous for its magnificent Gothic cathedral, Chartres was once an important place of assembly for the pagan Celtic tribe, the Carnutes: Caesar noted that they considered their territory to be the “centre of all Gaul”.  Michell observes that Chartres does indeed sit at the centre of a circle that encompasses the whole of  ancient Gaul, and that it was the custom of the pagan Celts  generally to  situate the chief judicial and sacred assembly points in the middle of their territories.

The British, or English, omphalos is likewise a confused matter, with various fairly centrally-placed locales coming into contention.  The Venerable Bede, the English monk-historian active during the seventh and eighth centuries, identified Lichfield in Staffordshire  as Angli Mediterranei, the Middle of England.  The site of this navel is said to be now occupied by the present cathedral. The place often touted as the geographical centre of England, however, is the unremarkable village of Meriden, Warwickshire, where the village cross and local pub vie for the honour of marking the supposed exact spot.  In the ancient Welsh text, the Mabinogion, the strange story of “Ludd and Llefelys” tells that the Celtic king, Lludd, was advised by his brother, Llefelys, to measure the length and breadth of the island of Britain in order to determine its centre, and there to dig a pit and bury in it a tub of the best mead with its top covered with a  piece of silk. This was to be used in an ingenious fashion to trap two dragons fighting there who were causing a terrible shrieking noise to permeate the whole land. Llud had the island of Britain measured, and its “point of centre” was found to be Oxford (which is not geographically accurate, of course).

The Roman surveyors identified the centre of Britain, along an axis running from the south coast to as far north as Hadrian’s Wall, as Venonae, where they placed the crossing point of two of their great roads, Watling Street and the Fosse Way. This is today a somewhat isolated point on the Warwickshire-Leicestershire border, a few miles from Hinckley. Four parishes meet here, and because of its elevated position (giving a vista allowing 57 churches to be seen by the naked eye, so it is claimed) the crossroads was used as a beacon site.  A pillar was erected in remembrance of Venonae in 1711, but today only its plinth survives. Other candidates for being the southern British omphalos include the site of the Midland Oak at Lillington, close to Leamington Spa, the central junction in Dunstable, marking the crossing of Watling Street and another Roman road, Icknield Way, among others.

My personal preference is for yet another site, Croft Hill in Leicestershire. In this I follow local historian, T.L.Walker, who wrote in 1879 about this remarkably symmetrical and atmospheric hill a few miles south-west of the city of Leicester:

Every early nation appeared to have had its Sacred Hill or Omphalos. In Ancient Gaul there was said to have been a Mesomphalos in the centre of the country, on the River Legre or Loire, where the Druids met periodically for special ceremonies and councils. This Mesomphalos was an isolated hill in the midst of a plain. . . The idea of such a Mesomphalos was said to have been borrowed from Britain. Now, as no Druidical temple had yet been described in Britain at all corresponding with  the description of the Gallic Mesomphalos, and as Croft Hill did, as it was an isolated hill in the midst of a plain, nearly in the centre of the country, on the banks of the  River Leire or Soar, and having still traces of  a ditch around its base, it seemed quite possible that this hill might have been the Mesomphalos of the British Druids.

There is supportive evidence for this idea in that not only does Croft Hill stand virtually on the River Soar, it is a bare four miles from the village of Leir. This place-name has been traced to the word  “Legra”, meaning “Loire” (which was called Ligeris in ancient Gaul). Croft Hill was also clearly an important spot in past times: in 836 AD, King Wiglaf of Mercia held a council there attended by important dignitaries of the day, including the Archbishop of Canterbury and eleven other bishops. Other records also suggest that Croft Hill may have been an open-air court, as well as the site of an annual fair or rural gathering. Although Croft Hill is but a modest eminence, it is nevertheless prominent in the flat landscape surrounding it, and extensive views are to be had from its summit. It sits almost exactly at the midpoint of a line connecting the Norfolk coast in the east with the Welsh coast in the west, and is situated less than three miles from the north-south axis of the Roman survey  (and only five miles from High Cross/Venonae). The ancient name of Croft Hill was Crebre, a Celtic word comprised of two elements,  bre, “hill”, and  cre, which may derive from craeft ,  “(rotating) machine” ( such as a mill  – and mills have certain symbolic associations with the axis mundi in some ancient European traditions).  In the nearby village of Croft there is an Arbor Road, and ‘arbor’ also refers to the axis around which a wheel turns.

Taken together, these clues strongly hint at a symbolic hub or fulcrum association with the hill in former times. Croft Hill definitely gets my vote as being the pre-Roman navel point of  the southern half of the British Isles. The long-forgotten heart of Albion – visit it sometime.

Published in NE92, Winter 2002, p16-18