Feature Articles – In search of Middle England
Rather than go in search of the mythical Middle Earth, for thousands of years, people have tried to locate the centre of England. Retracing their steps reveals how accurate our ancestors were in mapping the island, accomplishing an almost impossible task with apparently no scientific instruments.
by Philip Coppens
In the eight century, the Venerable Bede identified Lichfield Cathedral as the centre of England. If he was trying to make a geographically significant statement, he was off target. In 1941, Sir Charles Arden-Close, Director-General of the Ordnance Survey, identified the centre of the British Isles as being “on Watling Street, 4 miles ESE of Atherstone, close to the railway bridge, between the villages of Higham-on-the-Hill and Caldecote”. He acknowledged two sites that traditionally were said to mark the centre of England: a cross at Meridien, in Warwickshire, and an ancient tree, the Lillington Oak, at Leamington. Neither of them are the centre, though both have put in claims.
John Michell has highlighted the case of Meriden, where an old stone cross is said to have marked the site that claimed to be the centre of England, though Michell noted that early topographical writers did not make any mention of it. He discovered that the first reference to Meriden as the centre was written in 1876 by J. Tom Burgess, who also mentioned the rival centre at Leamington.
The cross at Meriden has been moved and its original site is not exactly known. According to Dorren Agutter, the capstone of the cross, now lost, took the form of a Doric capital. Meriden supposedly means “miry valley” but anyone will notice the close resemblance to meridian, the longitudinal lines linked with mapping time zones on the Earth. However, before the 13th century, the site was known as Alspath, suggesting Meriden is indeed more closely linked with “miry valley” than a meridian.
The other listed contender is the Midland Oak at Lillington, on the western outskirts of Leamington. Its iron railings were removed during the Second World War, which unfortunately led to the oak’s death. In 1982, a new oak was planted. However, like Meriden, Midland Oak is not the centre of England. Though Arden-Close acknowledges only two contenders for this title, there are far more – and better – candidates. Nigel Pennick saw Royston, with the crossing of Icknield Way and Ermine Street, as the “perfect geomantic centre”. This crossing was marked by the King Stone, sitting on top of the enigmatic Royston Cave. But it is clear that if ever these were centres of anything, it were regions, not England.
The same applies to the case of Oxford, though its claim comes with a powerful legend. In the Mabinogion, it is said that the Celtic king Lludd was instructed to measure the length and breadth of England in order to determine its centre. At that spot, he would find two fighting dragons that were responsible for the evils afflicting the nation. He found the two creatures fighting at what is now Oxford.
Others have used geography to define the centre, like John Walbridge, who has identified Arbury Hill, Northamptonshire, as the English omphalos. On Arbury Hill, at 225 metres the highest point in Northamptonshire, the territories of three Celtic tribes converged and it is the part of England most distant from the sea.
Though interesting, in the end, it is clear that it has too little to become a genuine candidate. The omphalos was a sacred rock marking the sacred centre. Perhaps the best known example is the omphalos of Delphi, whose position was defined by Zeus releasing two doves (some legends argue for eagles) from the east and west end of the world. The two birds met at Delphi, which therefore was the centre of the world.
To define the centre of England, we need to start with the “main axis” of Britain: the line between Duncansby Head, the most north-easterly part of the Scottish mainland, and St Catherine’s Point, on the Isle of Wight. Interestingly, it crosses the coast of Southern Scotland at the point where the former of Scottish county of Haddingtonshire (now East Lothian) joins Berwickshire; this was once the most northern point of England. Equidistant from that point and the opposite extremity at Land’s End, the point on the main axis that is at the centre of this isosceles triangle, is the centre of England.
Finding a sacred centre was not only a Greek obsession: the Romans practiced this science as well. Meriden is ca. 12 miles from Venonae, which the Roman surveyors identified as the centre of England and where they placed the crossing point of two of their great roads, Watling Street and Fosse Way. When we compare the location arrived at by Arden-Close with modern means, with the location identified by the Romans, we are talking about a difference of a few miles. It underlines the geographical knowledge and expertise the Romans possessed, whereby they somehow were able to arrive at the same conclusions without the availability of any modern maps. Venonae is now known as High Cross, an isolated point on the Warwickshire-Leicestershire border where four parishes meet. A visit to the place will last merely a few minutes: the A5, or Watling Street, is a dual carriage way, which turns single carriage at this crossroad so that people can more easily get off it. Once off, you have a crossing of two minor roads: the main one who takes you to Claybrooke Magna, another one, Bumble Bee Lane, which has an interesting name. Fosse Street is nothing more than a track, and on maps listed as “Leicestershire Round”.
High Cross sits on top of a rise in the landscape. Burgess said that 57 church towers can be identified from this location. Dr. William Stukeley described High Cross as “the centre, as well as the highest ground in England; for from hence rivers run every way.” He might have been right about the centre, but it definitely was not the highest ground from a geographical perspective.
High Cross is a crossing on high ground, but the name comes from a monument that was erected on orders of the Justices of Warwickshire in 1711, at a cost of £400: a tall cross. It had an inscription, which on one side read: “The noblemen and gentry, ornaments of the neighbouring counties of Warwick and Leicester, at the instances of the Right Honourable Basil Earl of Denbeigh, have caused this pillar to be erected in grateful as well as perpetual remembrance of Peace at last restored by her Majesty Queen Anne, in the year of our Lord, 1712.” It continued on the other side: “If, traveller, you search for the footsteps of the ancient Romans, here you may behold them. For here their most celebrated ways, crossing one another, extend to the utmost boundaries of Britain; here the Vennones kept their quarters; and at the distance of one mile from hence, Claudius, a certain commander of a cohort, seems to have had a camp, towards the street, and towards the foss a tomb.” The “high cross” is now gone, but Stukeley left us with a drawing of the monument. Equally lost, today, is the importance of Fosse Way, while the other Roman highway, Watling Street, is “only” the A5. But nearby is, nevertheless still the connection of the M6 with the M1, the modern arteries of automobile England.
Venonae – sometimes referenced as Venonis – was therefore the settlement at the centre of Britain. It is mentioned in the Antonine Itinerary, a document of the late second century AD. The document lists all Roman routes across the empire, fifteen of which are within Britain, and three of which pass through this settlement: Iter II was the route from Hadrian’s Wall to Richborough in Kent; Iter VI, the route from London to Lincoln; Iter VIII, the route from York to London.
Excavations of Venonae have occurred, and hence the settlement is known to have stretched at least half a kilometre to the south-east. Excavations on the south side of Watling Street have revealed post holes, hearths, gullies and slots of timber buildings, but so far, no complete building plan has been uncovered. Though centrally located, it appears it was not important. In fact, it is only mentioned once, as late as the 2nd century AD and the archaeological evidence – pottery – recovered on site dates only as far back as Flavian (ca. 69-96 AD). As such, though a centre of Britain, it was from a commercial or demographic perspective almost insignificant.
Though located at the very centre of England, it therefore seems that Venonae was an afterthought, and did not even have a military structure, perhaps because none was needed as a small Roman fort lay less than a mile to the north-west of the settlement, at Wigston Parva. Still, one wonders how far advanced Roman geography was that they quite accurately identified this area as the centre of England – and constructed their network of roads so that precisely here, two main routes would cross.
However much the Romans might have known and given to the Brits, this knowledge, however, did not begin with the Romans. It appears that the Celts were already aware of the centricity of this region and their sacred centre was not High Cross, but a hill nearby.
Of all the candidates for a Celtic omphalos, and the site that was recognised as the ancient centre of England, Paul Devereux’s preference goes to Croft Hill, 128 metres high and a few miles southwest of Leicester and five miles from High Cross. It is known that the hill was used as a beacon in ancient times and that from its summit, several kings of England surveyed their kingdom. Writing about this solitary hill in 1879, local historian T. L. Walker, made an interesting observation. He stated that in ancient Gaul – France – there was said to have been a “mesomphalos” in the centre of the country, on the River Loire, where the druids met: “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.” This means that the French borrowed the idea of a sacred centre from the British, and Walker was sure that Croft Hill was this lost British mesomphalos. Devereux agrees. There is strong supportive evidence for this conclusion in that not only does Croft Hill stand near the River Soar, it is also close to the village of Leir, linguistically close to “Loire”. Most omphali are stand-alone hills and Croft Hill definitely stands out, alone. Furthermore, Croft Hill is quite conical, and, most specifically, is made of granite, two characteristics that would have greatly pleased our ancestors. It was a rock in the right shape, in the right material, in the right place.
Today, most of Croft Hill’s interior has actually been carved out, which becomes truly visible when one stands on its summit and sees the massive canyon wall the quarrying has created. Noting that in ancient mythology the centre of the world was said to be a midway station between Heaven and Hell, someone has definitely been taking this too literally, and is making his way to Hell.
The quarry, in fact, is a super quarry, which turns out two million tonnes of granite per year. Croft quarry is in fact the largest man-made hole in Europe and when quarrying is completed (at the present rate, in ca. 2015), 45 million tonnes of granite will have been removed and the quarry will go down as much as 160 metres below sea level at its deepest point. A veritable man-made canyon and truly a sign that we are digging into Hell, from the sacred centre. Croft Hill has been used as a quarry for the past 2000 years, the evidence of which can be found on the Fosse Way, though serious quarrying was started only around the mid-19th century. In between those two periods, Croft Hill was an important gathering place. It underwrites the claim that this sacred centre was recognised as such by many, and we should see it as being on par – though nowhere near as famous – as the Tynwald of the Isle of Man, or even the Boot Hill (or Moot Hill) of Scone, near Perth. Still, at Croft, in 836 AD, King Wiglaf of Mercia held council, which was attended by dignitaries that included the Archbishop of Canterbury and other bishops. The site was also used as an open-air court, as well as the site of an annual fair, on par with activities that occurred at Tynwald. Both Venonae and Croft Hill are close to the “real” geographical centre of England, which underlines that in Celtic times, perhaps as much as 3000 years ago, if not older, our ancestors possessed advanced knowledge about the geography of the island they lived on.
John Michell stated that Caesar noted that the druids were skilled in astronomy and astrology, but also geodesy and land measurement. He added: “Despite Caesar’s hint, accurate surveying is not generally attributed to the ancient priesthoods.” He went on to argue that it should nevertheless be seen as an ancient skill. In recent decades, we have accredited the druids and their predecessor with an advanced understanding of astronomy. But astronomy was also connected to land measurement, according to the doctrine of “as above, so below”. Having mastered knowledge of the lay of the land, is something we have not yet endowed upon our ancestors.
How they acquired that knowledge, is an excellent question, with no known answer. In a culture and a time where navel-gazing has almost become an art form, we should abandon our complacent self-absorption and try to answer how our ancestors could identify a real navel of an enormous island and get it so right. When we do, we will once again becoming truly “centred”. In memory of John Michell (1933-2009)