How Old is our Church

No 6: Sarsen Stones as Evidence

Sarsens by Crown Lane

Large sarsens or sandstones, like those that line the track below Church Knoll, were often used in pre­-christian religious sites and there is, in fact, a local tradition of a circle of Druid stones on the Knoll. One version says that the stones were hauled up Crown lane (where several apparently littered the roadside until it was widened) to start a new church, but that most of them walked back home every night. In another version it was the Devil who dragged them back. This type of legend is not peculiar to Penn and is fairly common elsewhere.

Sarsens were particularly useful and valuable to early man because they were the only large stone in the south of England that was easily accessible, very strong and could be moved by hand fairly easily. Fred Payne, my former neighbour, explained to me the technique still practised by farmers at the start of the century when they had to dig these stones out of their fields. They dug under the stone and by balancing it on a series of wooden poles were able to swing it around and slide it along relatively easily.

Sarsens could be very large, one quarried for Windsor Castle, was 15 feet long and weighed about 50 tons. Together with pudding stones (a sarsen matrix surrounded by pebbles or roughly rounded flints), they are found all over the Chilterns and were mapped in 1952 by Dr. Morley Davies and Dr. Arnold Baines. They gave Chesham its name (Ceastel, a heap of stones), as well as Honor End (hon, whetstone), Stony Green and Ibstone. Stonehouse, in Church Road, was so called in the 17th century but the name is probably very much older and presumably refers to the plentiful sarsen stones found there.

Sarsen in base of Penn Tower

The stones are to be seen in or near the churchyard and/or in the foundations of the towers of fourteen Chiltern churches including Penn, Little Missenden and Amersham, as well as Chesham. They often marked parish boundaries as at Widmer Pond where a large stone marked with a cross lay on the Penn and Tylers Green border until 1973. There was a five foot long stone on Winchmore Hill common near the Village Hall which was apparently dug up when Horsemoor lane was widened in 1912 and now lies on the far side of the common.

Farmers had been finding these stones in their fields over the centuries but in 1952, Fred Payne, who was living in what was then an estate cottage on the Knoll, dug a cesspit and found four large stones stacked one on the other as if they were roughly stepped.

Then two larger stones were unearthed by the Electricity Board when putting in a cable along the track running past the house. In 1974, the new owner, Freddie Griffith Jones, doubled the size of the house by adding a new west wing and put in a new driveway and garage. During construction, 46 stones of varying size were dug up from various depths. The contractor, Mr. C. Bristow thought they were randomly scattered but the digger driver, Charlie Sawyer, found what he remembered as a circle of large stones about two feet down, of about nine foot diameter with a small hole at the centre which was black, he supposed from a fire.

This was the story I put together in 1982 after talking to all concerned and I was very excited by it. Knowing that Pope Gregory in AD 601 had advised that new Christian churches should incorporate pagan monuments in order to borrow their powerful associations (which may well have been the case at Chesham), my imagination was allowed full rein (despite disappointing scepticism from experienced archaeological friends) and I did my own dowsing and digging which, as I thought, confirmed my theories.

© Miles Green, December 1996


No 7: Sarsen Stones a natural deposit

Fred Payne’s discovery of four large sarsen stones, apparently stacked one on the other, together with the digger driver’s memory of what sounded like a stone circle with a fire in the middle, all seemed to be exciting evidence of a pre-Christian religious activity at Church Knoll.

Sarsens at Church Knoll

In 1989, the present owner of Church Knoll built an extension to the east of the house and the foundation trenches revealed some 16 large sarsens. However, there was no evidence whatsoever that they had been touched by man. There was no bone, pottery or any other man-made artefact, no sign of post holes or foundations and all the stones lay flat with no stacking or shape. There was evidence of a disused well of unknown depth or date but this would probably have belonged to the school established there in 1746. In short, it was clear that the sarsen stones were a natural deposit on the site.

I belatedly came across a book, ‘Megaliths, Myths and Men’ (1976), by Peter Lancaster Brown, in which he recounts his own excited investigation of the site and how he so nearly jumped to the wrong conclusions. In 1974, he was invited to see the Griffith-Jones excavations in progress and he too thought the blackened stones were evidence of a fire, but a closer look revealed stains of organic leaf mould.

I got in touch with Professor A.S. Goudie at the School of Geography at Oxford, who was involved in the Geological survey of Britain and has written about sarsen stones in the south of England. He explained that the stones are found naturally in the Reading beds on the hilltops and could have been left behind when melting glaciers washed away the clays to form the Chiltern valleys. The stones could also have slid downhill at the end of the ice age as the top layer of permafrost melted to form an ice slide, a process known as solifluxion. A very shallow slope would have been sufficient and the resulting heap of stones would have remained as the water continued to erode the valley below it to form the knoll.

We must therefore accept that no evidence has been found of pre-Christian religious activity on or around Church Knoll. However, the focus of so many roads and footpaths on a large area of common land in the centre of the parish is likely to be a very old pattern, much older than Christianity. Presumably some sarsen stones were always visible on the surface and my own hunch, and it is no more than that, is that it would be surprising if such an evocative place was not recognised and used by our forbears.

© Miles Green, February 1997


No 8: Minster priests; reasons for moving the church uphill.

A simple wooden church may reasonably be supposed to have stood on Church Knoll for at least a century or two before the Conquest. Christianity returned to England with St Augustine’s arrival in 597 and by 643 Birinus was appointed the first bishop of Dorchester and local tradition has him baptising converts in Bapsey Pond, Taplow.

F or the next two or three hundred years, religious life was focused in the monasteries or minsters which were often richly endowed with land and linked to adjacent royal estates. An important minster at Cookham is documented from the early 8th C and its ‘parish’ may well have covered the royal estate centred at Burnham which, I have proposed elsewhere, included Penn.

There were no local priests and it was the minster priests that went out visiting outlying areas, often performing their duties in the open air or in a wooden church. It was only when the large royal estates started to be broken up, to reward royal thanes, mostly from the 10th C onwards, that local manorial churches started to appear. Local churches were of different status, some with an attendant priest and graveyard and some without either. Tithes and taxes such as plough alms, churchscot and soulscot (burial fees), were a valuable asset and so were often a source of contention between the old minsters and new lords. Local graveyards were not always permitted at first despite inconvenience to far flung parishes.

No burials have been found at Church Knoll. Deadmans Dene, on the northern border of the parish, where an Anglo-Saxon warrior burial was found in 1828, is a possible early burial site and the field name ‘Bonescroft’ under part of Wheeler Avenue and the Middle School is suggestive, although the area lies firmly across the old parish border in Tylers Green.

The move of the church up to its present site probably took place in the century or so after the Conquest and there are a number of possible explanations that fit the events of the time :-

— It may have been part of a community agricultural reorganisation which introduced the rotating open field system and required the concentration of a previously dispersed population.

— It may have been a response to campaigns by several early Bishops of Lincoln to stamp out superstitious and pagan practices associated with particular places. Wycombe is specifically mentioned during St Hugh’s tenure (1186-1200).

— It may have arisen in the same kind of way as when a Lincolnshire landowner, in c1180, left a wooden church to a Priory on condition that a new church be built on 3 acres of land next to the road which he also bequeathed, requiring, that the bodies be moved from the old graveyard to the new.

— Or perhaps it was simply that when the fashion for stone churches arrived, around the time of Conquest (see part 3), the present site was considered more convenient or appropriate.

© Miles Green, April 1997

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