All hail, Westknab! Great Kinder! Blakelowscar!
Stanedge! Winhill! Storm’s Blackstone! From afar

Ebenezer Elliott

Dominating the eastern fringes of Saddleworth Moor at Wessenden Head, looms the mysterious West Nab. A high ridge of land topped with a crown of broken and blasted rocks. It’s an atmospheric place that feels steeped in history. Yet when compared to Castle Hill, another local hilltop within sight near Huddersfield to the east, famously occupied in the Bronze and the Iron Age, surprisingly little is known about it.

Rumoured to have been a place of ancient worship, West Nab does not give up its secrets easily. From a possible druidic altar stone known as ‘The Druid’s Seat’, to the rock-carved compass and the oddly named Bellman Castle, I have always felt that West Nab has a rich and undiscovered past.

It sits in a landscape surrounded by traces of ancient people. Bronze Age cremations were found on the summit of nearby Pule Hill in the late nineteenth century (1). Other known burials have been found at Ringstone Edge, Castleshaw and Blackmoor Foot. Occasionally Bronze Age artefacts such as axe or spear heads are found in surrounding areas, such as Dean Clough and Rishworth Moor. The western tip of Castle Hill was also first enclosed during the Bronze Age and excavations have found the remains of burnt huts from around 2150BC.

At the foot of the Nab are two earthworks. The first being the possible remains of a Roman marching camp from an early attempt to cross the Pennines, but the second is older, possibly dating from the Iron Age.

The summit of West Nab boasts several curious features. The most prominent of these is the rock outcrop known as ‘The Druid’s Seat’.  Perched on top of earthbound boulders is a long lozenge shaped rock along the top of which are three indentations or bowls, each large enough for a man to sit in. From the deeply ingrained weathering, it is obvious that it has occupied this position for many thousands of years and it is very likely that nature is responsible for carving out the bowls. Similar features can be seen on other nearby rocks.

Despite this, the rock bears a similarity to that of the Irish Ballaun Stones, which date from the Neolithic and are generally said to be bestowed with magical or healing powers. On the other side of Saddleworth Moor is the Pots and Pans Stone, also rumoured to have druidic associations and bearing numerous bowls on its upper surface. Water from these bowls is said to be a cure for eye ailments. Possibly a similar folktale may have been attached to the Druid’s Seat, which has now been forgotten.

It is easy to see how this rock formation can fire the imagination. A letter to the Yorkshire Post in the 1930’s ventures to call West Nab a ‘Temple of the Sun’:

‘The unique feature at West Nab is the three seats cut in the rock of the highest and largest stone, facing the east, doubtless those of the priests of the sacred Triad, from which they watched for the first rays of the sunrise, when the sacrifice was made’.

Although the local historian and folklorist Philip Ahier explained away the correspondent’s suppositions as being the result of nature (2), I still can’t help but feel that in a way, he may be right in his suspicions of West Nab being a place of ancient importance.

A further possibility is that West Nab could have been a Dark Ages moot hill. Close to the summit of the hill is a rocky prominence know as Raven Rocks. In fact there are two other rocky outcrops in the area of Saddleworth Moor that bear the name ‘Raven’. Ravenstones Brow looms over Greenfield Brook and Ravenstone Rocks on Broadstone Hill above Diggle commands views over the Tame Valley. Local poet and folklorist Steve Sneyd suggests that these could have been important boarder points during the Dark Ages (3).

If West Nab was close to the meeting point of several boarders, it could possibly have been seen as a liminal place for local meetings, such as councils and courts. In Celtic mythology, the Raven is the sacred bird of Odin and Raven Rocks could have been the place where the sentences of the moot court were executed.

Also at the top of the hill is a spoil of stones that looks very much like the remains of an ancient burial cairn. As mentioned previously, there are funerary deposits from this period nearby so it makes sense that the most prominent landscape feature would also be used in this manner.

During the Bronze Age, cairns were not just used to deposit the bodies of the dead, but were used as prominent features in the landscape to claim ownership and identity. A large cairn at the summit would have been visible from miles around and as the mid-winter sun rises directly over West Nab when viewed from nearby Buckstones, I feel that this is a link that could be investigated further.

West Nab was once known for its rocking stones all of which have now sadly been destroyed. One was to be found near the Wicken Stones on the northern side of the hill until 1827 when it was dislodged by local masons.

“some half-dozen masons (who) planned and executed the work of destruction for a frolic. They first endeavoured to accomplish it by blasting it with gunpowder and, on the failure of this scheme, they fetched tools from Deer Hill, with which they drilled a hole and then wedged it, when the stone fell with a tremendous crash, hardly allowing the man on its summit who was drawing in the wedge to escape without injury.”(4)

Joseph Hughes (1866)

Another rocking stone was destroyed by a gamekeeper in order to discourage visitors, using the excuse that they would disturb the nesting grouse. It is as a possibility that the Druid’s Seat itself could once have been a rocking stone too.

A short distance from the summit, nestled into a small rocky outcrop is the oddly named drystone ruin ‘Bellman Castle’. A three-sided structure butts up to the outcrop so that the natural rock forms its rear wall. This tiny structure is far too small to be a sheep-fold and the posts at its entrance show no sign of ever having a gate fixed to them.

A photo in the Huddersfield archives show that in 1920, Bellman Castle was in much the same ruinous state it is today. But it seems that the structure once had a roof, as the southern wall bears a small, niched window. My guess is that it was once a shepherd or gamekeeper’s shelter, probably dating from the early to mid-nineteenth century. However, the correspondent to Yorkshire Post though different…

 “One would like to know when the last Bale fire burned on the summit of West Nab; still more, when did the last priest of Bel or Baal breathe his last in the cave which I find, – from the Ordnance Map, still bears his name – for it is called ‘Bellman’s Cave’ – no surname of some moorland farmer, but the ‘Bale-man’, the priest of Bel or Baal, the Sun God, who tended the undying fire on the round stone which lies there to-day.”

Ahier again dismisses the correspondent’s claims, but it is just possible that West Nab may well have been connected to ancient sun worship.

There is an old legend that the ditches of Castle Hill hide a golden cradle. It is interesting that when viewed from Castle Hill, the twin peaks of West Nab and Deer Hill form a saddle, or cradle-like landscape feature, behind which the sun sets around the time of Imbolc, the Celtic fire festival marking the start of spring. As rocking stones are also often known as cradle stones, this could be a tantalising view of the relationship between Castle Hill and West Nab.

One final curiosity is the Cock Crowing Stone, standing at the roadside at the foot of the hill. You can’t miss it, as it has its name painted on it in white emulsion.  There is little known about this rock, other than it probably taps into the legend of stones that are said to perform some sort of movement at the crowing of the cock on certain days of the year. My suspicion is that there is little ancient about this stone and it could have been placed there from the old quarry that is just over the road.

Although much of the history of West Nab is now lost to time, it is still a compelling and evocative place. When the sun rises out of the mist to illuminate its jagged rocks, or when it sets into dark clouds on a freezing winter evening, it is easy to imagine our ancient ancestors performing weird rites. When the wind booms around the blasted hilltop as night falls, sometimes you think that you catch a faint echo of chanting, which adds an extra push of urgency to your step as you descend the hill.

(1) Early Man in the District of Huddersfield – Petch 1924. The urns can currently be seen in the Tolson Museum in Huddersfield.

(2) Legends and Traditions of the District of Huddersfield, Part V – Philip Ahier, 1942.

(3) Three Ravens to the West, Northern Earth Magazine issue 76: Steve Sneyd

(4) The History of the Township of Meltham, Hughes, Joseph, 1866.

Photos by Andy Hemingway of AHG Photography 

1. Druid’s Seat Spring Sunrise

2. Sunrise Through Mist; West Nab

3. Raven Rocks from West Nab

4. West Nab Sunrise

5. Druids Seat Winter Sunset

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2 Comments

Comments

  1. Ali
    Very interesting article. I wrote a totally fictional story about West Nab, many moons ago, if you're interested! "Herons and Other Mysteries": https://lemmingophobia.com/
  2. Alexander
    Great article, having walked here it was great to here the history behind the places I’ve visited.

    I’d offer one small suggestion for a correction: Odin was not a diety of the Celtic pantheon, being Germanic in origin.

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