Eden Benchmarks
Exploring the cultural landscape in East Cumbria
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The Nine Standards (Instalment 12)

“The weird sisters, hand in hand,
Posters of the sea and land,
Thus do go about, about:

Macbeth’s witches by William Shakespeare

The river’s approach to Kirkby Stephen has a covert feel as it slips along the shady corridor of trees, hidden from the town by a steeply rising wooded slope.  Over to my right the big open field forms a bowl shape below Hartley Castle Farmhouse which perches on the hillside where there was once a castle. This was originally the home of Sir Andrew de Harcla, Sheriff of Cumberland, who led many battles with the Scots culminating in the English defeat at Bannockburn in 1314.  He was executed for treason by King Edward lll following some questionable, but almost certainly well-meaning negotiations, with Robert the Bruce in 1325.  His estate was subsequently sold to the Musgrave family. The castle was described in 1677 as ‘’an Elizabethan building consisting of an inner quadrangle, surrounded by buildings and an outer courtyard to the north protected by a high and thick curtain wall.  The south end was occupied by the chapel and withdrawing rooms, whilst on the western side, a large oriel window lit a long gallery facing the quadrangle’’.  The Musgrave family lived there until 1735 when it was demolished.

The path follows a twist in the river to Frank’s Bridge where the views compel me to stop and stare.  The river, of course, is reason enough to stop but on a clear day there is also an excellent view of the Nine Standards cairns on top of Hartley Fell.  Nothing much is really known about them although there have been some audacious claims regarding their age and function.  In their present form, give or take some restoration work over the years, I don’t think they can be more than two hundred years old.  There is, undoubtedly, some evidence to suggest that nine stone markers of some kind existed previously but they were regularly called stones rather than cairns.  Certainly the name ‘Nine Standards’ is mentioned in centuries old boundary inspection documents and the area around the summit was known as ‘Nine Standards Rigg’ and shown as such on maps dating from over four hundred years ago.  There don’t seem to have been any specific descriptions, or indications, of nine markers in a straight row as they are today.  Could it be that the original Nine Standards were standing stones rather than cairns and perhaps differently aligned?  They are often confused with Nine Stones Rig in the Scottish borders made famous as “Nine Stane Hill”, in Walter Scott’s poem ‘Bridal of Triermain’.     

“And redden’d all the Nine-stane Hill
And the shrieks of death, that wildly broke
Through devouring flame and smothering smoke,
Made the warrior’s heart blood chill!”

Up close, our present day Kirkby Stephen Nine Standards have a friendly, reassuring quality, like a row of amiable trolls transfixed on the skyline in a time-warp induced trance.  If only they could speak.  I usually talk to them when I’m up there (if nobody else is around) but they remain resolute in their silence. Varied in shape and size, the middle one is the biggest and most impressive.  Essentially cone shaped, it is 3.5 metres tall and 3.7 metres in diameter at its base, tapering to the top with two intermediate ledges around its circumference.  Standing in an irregular line, roughly north to south and 75 metres from end to end, all of them are variously cone shaped except the one at the northern end, which was reconstructed by the Ordnance Survey, years ago, as a square marker column.  Their location, only twelve metres lower but all of 400 metres south of the summit, was obviously chosen carefully to ensure they could be seen from a wide spectrum of vantage points in the valley below.  Had they been built further back, on the actual summit, they would have been a lot less visible.

I instigated some major repairs in 2005 as part of the Discover Eden Project.  Most of the cairns were in a very poor state of disrepair; two had completely fallen down and the middle one was in a perilously dangerous condition close to collapse.  I’d allocated £10,000 from the Heritage Lottery grant for their repair, once again little suspecting that my good intentions would be met with yet more of that all too prevalent petty bureaucratic intransigence. 

I was aware that the cairns were a designated Listed Building.  What I hadn’t realised was that their ‘listing’ didn’t necessarily equate to their protection and I was left wondering why legally protected structures can be allowed to deteriorate so badly to a point where they are falling down.  Could it be that ‘listing’ is simply an official acknowledgement that a building is leaning over to one side!             

I’d been in discussion with the County Archaeologist and he had, somewhat unenthusiastically I thought at the time, approved my proposal to repair them on condition that I commissioned an archaeologist to carry out a desk based documentary survey of their history.  I engaged archaeologists at Oxford Archaeology North to do this and in due course they delivered their findings, which convinced me if nobody else, that the cairns we enjoy today are indeed Victorian in origin.

Although the name ‘standards’ is generally considered to derive from the cairns’ similarity to ‘standers’, the columns of stone left to support the ceilings of tunnels in coal mines, it is difficult to resist the implications of the word in relation to peoples’ behaviour.  The first headmaster at Kirkby Stephen Primary School, an interesting man called Frank Parrott, exploited the connection (and, I suspect, the close proximity of the cairns to heaven in the eyes of small children) by devising nine standards of good conduct.  It wasn’t a new idea.  The bible talks about the Fruit of the Holy Spirit being essential attributes of a true Christian life and there are nine of those too.  Kirkby Stephen has a long history of Puritanism and Temperance so a row of stone cairns overlooking the town might have been a Calvinistic alternative to a cross.  St. Ninian, an early Christian evangelist, travelled throughout the Scottish lowlands and northern England during the fourth century preaching the same aspiratory message and there are several places associated with his visits where his name, over the centuries, has transmuted to the word ‘nine’. 

So the intriguing and overriding question is, why are there nine?  At one time nine of the villages and parishes around Kirkby Stephen were referred to as its townships. I wondered if that might have been the reason, until further thought and enquiry unleashed an astonishing line up of ‘nines’, many of which invest the number nine with a mindboggling array of real, religious, mythical or occultist significance.    
Beethoven wrote nine symphonies and the human gestation period, before a child is born, is nine months.  Noon, our word for midday, means nine and goes back to the Roman ninth hour after sunrise, the spells cast by witches often included the number nine, their cats had nine lives and there are numerous ancient games with nine components like shove ha’penny, nine pin bowling and skittles. The French word for nine is neuf, which also means new and a stitch in time saves nine. The Greeks believed in nine Muses, goddesses who inspired artists, poets, musicians and dancers.  Dante’s 14th century epic poem the Divine Comedy tells of his journey through the nine circles of hell reflecting the fact that most of the world’s religions are full of stories involving the number nine. 

And this leads me back to the Vikings.  There were nine worlds in Norse mythology contained within a gigantic tree they called Yggdressel, which included a frosty realm of ice, lands of Giants and Elves and the Middle Earth of mortal Vikings themselves.  As the Kirkby Stephen area is rooted in Viking culture, could there be a Viking connection?  Did the original nine markers represent their nine worlds? And did they once form the shape of a Viking long-ship?  Dead Viking warriors were often cremated and their corpses burned on a funeral pyre set within an enclosure of standing stones arranged to resemble a boat.

Once I had received the survey document from Oxford Archaeology North I submitted an application to Eden District Council for Listed Building Consent to repair or restore the cairns as required.  The documentary search had unearthed a sequence of photographs, the first of which dated back to 1918 and showed very clearly their height and profile at that time.  Later photographs indicated they had been subject to regular repair and kept in more or less the same shape ever since.  I thought it went without saying that their restoration would involve dismantling and rebuilding as is necessary with any dry stone structure.  Witness the hundreds of kilometres of dry stone walls, many probably older than the Nine Standards, painstakingly kept in good repair by the farmers.   Crucially the photographs of the more complex structure of the cairns provided a vital guide to restoring them, as near as possible, to the shape they were in 1918.

So far, so good; I’d felt rather pleased with myself for having secured the funding to reinstate an outstanding and much loved landmark that contributes a real sense of place and identity for local residents, regardless of its apparently uncertain historical provenance.  In my naivety I thought the planning authority would be pleased as well, until I received a letter refusing consent to repair them on the basis that a listed building must not be demolished or altered by rebuilding once it has collapsed.  According to the planners there was insufficient “overriding exceptional justification”.  The extent and comprehensive nature of both the alteration and rebuilding works proposed to the Grade ll Listed Structure is both considered unreasonable in its degree and unacceptable in principle in the light of the strict criteria concerns outlined.”  I was astounded.  These are dry stone cairns that had evidently been maintained and kept in existence for at least 200 years by repeated and careful dismantling and rebuilding when necessary without alteration, by expert dry stone wall builders.  Evidently modern bureaucracy was the reason the Nine Standards had been left to deteriorate for so long - ever since they were designated as a listed building.               

I telephoned the planning officer concerned and conveyed my astonishment and bitter disappointment in no uncertain terms.  The official letter of refusal was draconian in its uncompromising, verbatim repetition of the planning criteria and seemed to offer no room for manoeuvre or compromise.  It ridiculously compared my proposal with a hypothetical plan “to rebuild Stonehenge” and therefore was “not in the best interests of its historic value to society”. (In fact several of the Stonehenge stones were re-erected and set on concrete bases in 1901, 1958 and 1963).  The letter did concede that one of the cairns appeared to be structurally unstable and therefore could be “addressed by sensitive repair” but otherwise I was told they should be left alone to avoid compromising “the historic standing of the group, even though ‘aesthetically’ they may no longer appear as the defined cairns that at some stage they might have been”.  It was crazy!  They seemed to be missing the whole point.  It wasn’t the aesthetic definition of the cairns as they might have been at some stage that was at stake.  With their authoritarian command that “they should be left alone” it was surely them who were compromising “the historic STANDING of the group” because the cairns were in real danger of not standing anymore.  They were FALLING DOWN.     

To my surprise and relief the planner I spoke with offered me a tiny glimmer of hope.  Only a tiny glimmer, but it provided a way forward by way of devious and economical interpretation of his guarded exposition of the restrictions. Consequently I proceeded on the basis that (a) we were permitted to repair the cairns (just enough) to make them safe and (b) build a ‘new’ one in close proximity to the one that had fallen down, which we weren’t allowed to rebuild.  A few days later Steve Allan, Cumbria’s premier dry stone wall builder, with his two assistants and meticulous reference to the photographs, started work and within eight days (or was it nine?) the five cairns, which had been in a ruinous state, looked as good as new and the remaining four had been ‘invisibly’ mended.  Their work won the North Pennines AONB Conservation Award 2005 and any further comment from the local district authority was conspicuous by its absence. 

During the course of the Nine Standards saga, Stephen Walker contacted me by email to inform me of his interest and find out more about my restoration efforts.  He went on to explain that he had been born and bred in Kirkby Stephen and always believed the cairns were much older than was generally thought.  His credentials were impressive.  He had worked for the overseas equivalent of the Ordnance Survey, so knew a thing or two about maps and land surveying and his questions were interrogatingly pertinent.  He talked about the desirability of a digital elevation model to determine those vantage points in the surrounding landscape from which the Nine Standards can be seen and expressed his disquiet that no proper archaeological or topographical site survey had been implemented prior to the restoration work.  He was right; it was a missed opportunity but really not my responsibility, particularly when I’d been obliged to adopt such clandestine, some might say underhand, tactics simply in order to ensure that our Nine Standards didn’t disappear from the skyline forever.               

Such is Stephen’s conviction that they are extremely old and might even date from the Bronze Age he has written a book, ‘Nine Standards – Ancient Cairns or Modern Folly’, largely growing out of his research on the tradition of inspecting manorial boundaries in Kirkby Stephen area.  These were the territory defining ‘perambulations’, or ‘beating the bounds’, regularly undertaken by landowners and local community representatives who walked the boundaries, identifying them by recording prominent features like rivers and streams, ditches and dikes, ridges, the tops of hills, large boulders, crosses and cairns.  Intriguingly some of these surveys mention the Nine Standards and some do not.  His certainty and meticulous determination have given me much food for thought.  The same weak resolve that, in my early years, hindered my acquisition of scientific knowledge has also inhibited my chronological grasp of human history and I now need all the help I can get to make up for lost time.  He may well be right in his beliefs, but I still think the cairns we have today are comparatively recent, built both to replace some previous markers and to fulfil our expectations of a hill called Nine Standards Rigg.  What I can’t accept is his assertion that their survival was somehow assured, in earlier times, by an unspoken tradition that compelled passers-by to add a stone to each cairn.  This is true of many smaller cairns, built casually by walkers in hill country as route markers, but those are waist high at the most, whereas the tops of the Nine Standards are, or at one time were, beyond the reach of even the tallest walker and their construction has obviously been the work of experts.   If funding can be scraped together in the future for regular maintenance by people who know what they are doing, then a stitch in time will save.......