Steve Sneyd describes a legendary spiritual journey in West Yorkshire
Berry Brow is a hillside suburb a little south of Huddersfield. It is also the location of an unusual natural feature notable equally for its name and its associated weight of folklore.
Deadmanstone is a massive rock, perched above a dogleg of a minor road, and giving a good view out over the Holme Valley. What, however, makes it truly unusual is that a natural hole runs through it from end to end, just above the visible base, forming a natural tunnel large enough to crawl through, at any rate for a slim adult or child, the distance being twice a man’s length or more.
In local tradition, coffins were rested on the stone on their way to burial. In medieval times, the church at Almondbury, a couple of miles away over Castle Hill. was the mother church of a huge parish, running right to the Pennine ridge and thus embracing the whole Holme Valley, with burials from all this area taking place there. However, the surviving variant of the story has coffins being rested there on their way to the later, but much nearer, church at Armitage Bridge, just down in the valley, the story having presumably changed to reflect new developments, at the cost of logic, since there would be little need to rest a coffin over so short a distance.
However, using the stone as a coffin rest seems implausible in any case. The bearers would first have to get the coffin up a slope to the stone, then make a further considerable effort to raise it high enough to reach it up on to the flattish top of the stone – hardly a meaningful break in the toil of carrying their burden!
But the presence of the hole through the stone may offer an explanation for the apparently irrational link with corpse-carrying. Although I have nowhere seen this particular belief in print, an acquaintance who was brought up in Berry Brow in the 1950s told me, many years ago, that as a child he and his playmates used to play a macabre game that involved taking turns to lie still and pretend to be dead. Then the others would haul the ‘dead’ child into the hole at one end, through it, getting bumped and scraped along the way, although it was part of the game not to react to any pain, but remain inert, and out the other end. He said the reason they did this was that they had heard from adults that, at Deadmanstone, corpses used to be taken out of their coffins and pulled through the hole before being put back into the coffin and carried on to the church for burial.
This ostensibly bizarre behaviour, if it was the faint echo of an old ritual based on a belief that the tunnel had symbolic power, perhaps echoing the transit through the birth canal to rebirth, after a difficult journey in some sort of afterlife, would offer a possible explanation for the association of Deadmanstone with ‘coffin-resting’ – the coffin would indeed be put down while the corpse was temporarily out of its container.
The story, which has appeared in print, that boys at one time climbed through the hole with penny candles also has the air of faint memory of ritual rather than practical necessity; since daylight illuminates the tunnel from either end, candles would be unnecessary (unless this was a night-time dare).
The tunnel, incidentally, albeit that one earlier writer described it as being ‘per-forated with a hole resembling a gun barrel’, is in fact neither straight nor truly round in section, and certainly does not have a smooth interior like a gun barrel; the irregularity of base, sides and top all indicate that it is of natural origin, not man-made.
Although on the face of it the Deadman in the name would relate to the corpse-resting stories, the possibility should be mentioned that the stories arose to explain a name which was in fact a corruption of another word. One suggestion is that it was originally Dudman or Dodman, a term sometimes claimed to be a term for early, even prehistoric, surveyors of routeways. Another suggestion is that it was initially Dobman, which would then relate the name to the term dobby, a kind of boggart, or dobbie stone, used in the North to denote a holed stone. In some cases the hole was used to pass a part of the body through, or to crawl through; in this part of the country as
elsewhere (the Cornish Men-an-Tol being a particularly well-known example) this was traditionally associated with a variety of healing and other ritual.
Another explanation given for the name is that it relates to the story of a soldier’s corpse discovered at Deadmanstone, although it is somewhat imprecise as to where exactly this occurred, whether at the stone itself or the nearby site of Deadmanstone House (itself associated with an unspecified ghost) or somewhere in the short distance between.
The House, which lay slightly further up the slope (it was demolished in the 1960s and replaced by the present small housing estate behind the stone: part of its perimeter wall, however, rising on a rock-base, still remains), was a Georgian structure, with an Adam staircase. It was , however, on a much earlier site, of a medieval fortified manor house, the foundations and deep cellars of which, according to the Reverend A Bickersteth, it incorporated.
Bickersteth was also a believer in the story that an underground passage led from the stone via the house’s cellars a mile or so up the hillside to the Iron Age hillfort-cum-castle site of Almondbury Castle Hill (as an aside, tunnels are said to lead to Castle Hill from a variety of often quite remote locations: it is possible to speculate that these stories are garbled memories of holloways concealed by folds of the landscape, whereby defenders of the fort could make sallies and retreat safely: I was told by Bob Evans, a veteran of the Yorkshire Dragoons, one of the last regiments to use cavalry, that during pre-WWII exercises, when ‘defending’ Castle Hill against ‘attackers’, he and his comrades were able to get on horseback down to the valley below using folds of the land, quite undetected by the ‘foe’. It is also possible that they involve garbled folk memories of sacred or ritual approaches to the hill)
There are several variants as to the finding of the Deadmanstone soldier ‘s corpse, none of which provide details as to the year when it supposedly occurred. W R Haigh (quoted by Ahier in his Myths and Legends of Huddersfield and District) said that he was found in a cave, having been caught off-guard by attacking Scots and walled up there to die (in historical terms the Scots under Edward Bruce overwintered one year at Morley, and could have raided this far: another possible historical context is the passage of stragglers of the
1745 Jacobite Rebellion through the area as they attempted to get home from Derby). According to Bickersteth, who said the body was found in the tunnel in which he so firmly believed (adding the picturesque detail that the soldier’s uniform disintegrated when exposed to air), the soldier had been bricked up by his officer for sleeping on duty. Bickersteth also speculated “since the tunnel was resealed after the gruesome disovery, whether the soldier could perhaps still be there, on guard as ever, beneath the new houses”. My above-mentioned acquaintance said that as a boy he and his friends believed the body found had been that of a Roman soldier. (Again, in terms of possible historical context, a Roman coin hoard was found in the grounds of Northgate House on the approach to Honley, only a mile or so away).
This story has the air of an extremely garbled folk memory of there having been, at some time in early history or more likely prehistory, some sort of possibly high-status warrior burial at or near the stone (perhaps even directly under it) which would both explain the association with it of stories relating ritually to the dead, and of the garbled accounts of the soldier.
From all this cluster of folklore associations, it is clear that, although we are in the realm of possibilities rather than facts, the stone at Deadmanstone is, as well as being atmospheric in itself, a location of great potential interest as a plausible topographic focus of early belief systems, a staging post, as it were, on very ancient final journeys.
NOTE : The Rev Bickersteth was quoted extensively in a Huddersfield Examiner Diary item – unfortunately, the cutting I have is undated, but a news item on the other side of it describes Mrs Thatcher as speaking for the Opposition.
Deadmanstone, Berry Brow (Steve Sneyd)
heavy the box to bear so far
ah but here we can rest it here
though much much of the slope remains
up up old stone trod past worm-whirl
cast-up earth of castled place
until at last the church top sighted
where this one must go to lie and wait
the one we’ve brought from hills behind
here is the place that we must rest
here is the stone to lie the box beside
here is the tunnel through rock’s belly
the wisest one must slide and slither
narrow as a child at hip and shoulder
must draw and drag behind the still
the naked worm must try to avoid
damage bruising the empty thing
in case that skin have need again
rising at the last trumpet’s crying
time but now stoneface – still we watch
the cast-off corpse go on older
journey through the answering tunnel
through wisdom’s narrow way and tight
the gate between this world and the other
and almost squashing but ah now it is
out safe the face is reappearing through
birth-opening at the other end our
old friend and neighbour has completed
the journey as has always been
from our shore to the other
the grey land of waiting
as must be always done in case
newcomer church has got it wrong –
much lighter carrying uphill after this
now the soul’s gone on alone
[prev. published in collections, In Coils of Earthen Hold and Neolithon]
From Northern Earth 99, Autumn 2004, p18-20