Thursday, 19 May 2016

Goblin Gold, a Hairy Hermit and a Druid's Temple

Druid's Temple, Ilton, Yorkshire

"A short distance from Ilton (4 1/2 miles from Masham) is the "Druid's Wood," a very picturesque spot, containing an assemblage of large rough unhewn stones, which were removed hither and constructed as a model of a Druidic Temple, by the late William Danby, Esq., of Swinton Park." T.Whellan and Co. 1859 (1)

I've known about this site for years, and always planned to visit, but, as these things go, I'd kept putting it off, despite it being near-to-hand.

Usually known as the 'Druid's Temple,' it is often 'billed' as a reproduction of Stonehenge, although it bears little resemblance to that site. I had already seen some pictures and, the knowledge that it was a 19th century fancy, (which to me evoked images of 'Hell-Fire' clubs, black magic and wild 'goings-on,') rather than a truly ancient site, was probably at the root of my reticence to visit before now.

Druid's Temple, Ilton, Yorkshire
Druid's Temple, Ilton, Yorkshire

Commissioned between 1800-1820, by William Danby, a writer, philosopher and one-time Sheriff of Yorkshire, it is one of Yorkshire's most striking and quirky follies. Danby had already rebuilt his nearby home of Swinton Park in a Gothic and castellated stye, and, it is said, offered local people a shilling a day to work on his new project of creating a 'Druid's Temple,' as a way to help alleviate unemployment and poverty in the area.

Inside the Druid's Temple, Ilton, Yorkshire
Inside looking towards the entrance of the Temple
Set in woodland the site spreads over a large area, with various different stone structures.

Satellite Structure, Druid's Temple, Ilton, Yorkshire
Satellite Structure, Druid's Temple, Ilton, Yorkshire
The site is Grade II listed with the following description:

"Folly c1800. For William Danby of Swinton Castle, Sandstone. Reproduction of a Druids' temple. Basically in the shape of two circles with monoliths and trilithons. The first large circle, in the form of a vesica piscia, contains 4 monoliths and a central monolith phallic symbol of ancient reverence. Behind 3 stones forming a screen is an antechamber, then a circular chamber which contains a Sacrificial Stone and beyond this a tomb. On the hill above is a tall column of stones symbolising a deity and the 12 signs of the zodiac." 
J. Cornforth "Swinton, Yorkshire III" Country Life, April 21 1966 (2)

Column of Stones, Druid's Temple, Ilton, Yorkshire
Column of Stones, Druid's Temple, Ilton, Yorkshire

There is also a story of Danby offering food and a salary to anyone taking up the opportunity to live in the 'cave' at the temple for seven years as a hermit. During this period they should not cut their hair or beard, and should also remain silent. Reputedly one man stepped up to the challenge and managed just over four years before giving up, succumbing either to climate, boredom or madness.

Cave / Tomb, Druid's Temple, Ilton, Yorkshire
Cave / Tomb, Druid's Temple, Ilton, Yorkshire

View from Cave / Tomb, Druid's Temple, Ilton, Yorkshire
View from Cave / Tomb, Druid's Temple, Ilton, Yorkshire

 Another interesting feature of the site, is the presence of a rare luminous moss within the 'cave/tomb.' According to Wikipedia Schistostega pennata is also called Goblin Gold, or luminous moss: "The moss's greenish-gold glowing appearance is due to the clear, sherical cells in the protonema that can collect even the faintest light like lenses, and the chloroplasts nearby in turn give off the greenish glow from the reflected light." (4)    
Something which would, I'm sure, have given small comfort to our possible hermit, were it present then.

Luminous moss / Goblin Gold, Druid's Temple, Ilton, Yorkshire
Luminous moss / Goblin Gold inside the cave / tomb

Visiting on a beautiful weekday, we were lucky enough to be in a small window with the site to ourselves. I found it quite beautiful and peaceful, and a really interesting place to explore. The first images that actually came into my mind as I entered the 'Temple' were 'Indiana-Jones' type pictures of our heros tied up by 'wild savages' hell-bent on boiling them alive, or tying them across the altar to perform unspeakable rites whilst removing their still-pumping hearts...

Walking around there was plenty of evidence of different use over the years in the shape of charred branches, worn stones and hard-packed earth. I'm sure that, alongside family picnics and children exploring and climbing, there have also been many other types of activity at the site, including those of a more nefarious nature.

Table & Cave/Tomb, Druid's Temple, Ilton, Yorkshire
Charred branches, Table & Cave/Tomb, Druid's Temple, Ilton, Yorkshire

In a Lords Publication from June 2000, Baroness Masham of Ilton talks of her secretary finding a pig's head on the altar of the Druid's Temple during a walk, and another occasion where the Baroness encountered a group of students from Leeds University who had spent the night at the Temple and had such a terrible experience that they had fled. She describes another occasion when the site was taken over by a large gathering of people to hold a rave, causing quite a degree of damage. (3)

Satellite Structure, Druid's Temple, Ilton, Yorkshire
Satellite Structure, Druid's Temple, Ilton, Yorkshire

It is inevitable that sites such as the Druid's Temple will attract a wide range of different people, with a wide range of interests, beliefs and intentions, especially as the site is quite remote from nearby settlement. In more recent years, a new enterprise has started called Swinton Bivouac, with luxury camping/glamping in Tree Lodges located within the surrounding woodland, and Meadow Yurts and a Bunk Barn nearby, along with a cafe, gift shop and car parking (4)

Satellite Structure, Druid's Temple, Ilton, Yorkshire
Satellite Structure, Druid's Temple, Ilton, Yorkshire

Despite it not being a 'proper' ancient site, the Druid's Temple is still historically interesting, with its own stories and mysteries, and quite beautiful to visit. Ancient sites often hold a lot of interest as we know so little about them, leaving lots of scope for imagination and a degree of romanticism - they can be what we wish them to be. This site is, in a way, a part of that story, as it is one man's vision of an imagined past.
Druid's Temple, Ilton, Yorkshire
Druid's Temple, Ilton, Yorkshire

The local area is quite beautiful, and a visit to the Temple can also be combined with various local walks (see links below.)

Well worth a visit, whether you be into follies, picnics, 19th Century flights-of-fancy, ancient sites, Gothic atmosphere, forest walks, countryside, or just interesting, quirky places....

Thank you for reading!


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1. History and Topography of the City of York and The North Riding of Yorkshire by T.Whellan and Co. 1859 - (Book)
Bulmer's History & Directory of North Yorkshire 1890 - Healey Entry (Book)
A History of the County of York North Riding Vol I 1914

Further Information:  

Thank you to Kelly-Marie for reminding me to visit.

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  1. I have never heard of this place and it looks amazing. Your knowledge of unusual spots never fails to impress - it's now on the list!

    1. Thanks Mike - it is amazing! Lucky enough to visit when there was no one else there. Had heard about it years ago but only just just got around to visiting. I hope you do get the chance to go - would love to hear your humorous take on it :)