Dowsing rods truly help uncover buried secrets

Morpathia photographs'St. John the Baptist, Ulgham
Morpathia photographs'St. John the Baptist, Ulgham

This week’s Morpathia article by Roger Hawkins examines Ulgham and the rise of parish churches.

WE looked recently at two churches, Newbiggin and Woodhorn. Both were probably Anglo-Saxon minsters — forerunners of the later parish churches. If so, they were actually the same minster, relocated from a dangerously exposed situation at the time of the Viking invasions to a safer one inland.

Anglo-Saxon minsters had a territory known as a parochia, much bigger than most modern parishes, which the priests of the minster served by visiting people in their own hamlets to preach and celebrate the mass.

It was customary where there was no church to erect a wooden cross where a visiting priest could stand to preach, and where the inhabitants could offer their own prayers. It is also likely, bearing in mind that the English weather was no better then than it is now, that people built temporary shelters to give the priest some protection from wind and rain.

Thegns, rhyming with ‘trains’, were local landowners. If you were a thegn, it was very desirable to have a church beside your hall, your residence. It was easily done. You built a small timber church and sent away a bright lad, perhaps one of your own sons, to learn his letters at the minster or mother-church. He then came back several years later a priest. Or you could reduce the waiting time by inviting one of the minster clergy to be your chaplain.

Such a building, called a field-church, was only a private chapel. Your churchscot, for the upkeep of the church and clergy, went to the minster. If, however, your estate was ‘bookland’, freehold, and you laid out a Christian burial ground round your church, and (presumably) got the bishop to consecrate it, then you could keep back one-third of your churchscot for your own church and priest.

Even a field-church was worth having.

One of the things Christianity brought to the Anglo-Saxons was writing. Kings and nobles early realised the advantage of having someone who could read and write in their entourage. Their chaplain was also their clerk.

The practice filtered down through the social classes. It would be a grand thing to attend your local moot followed by your own priest, and be able to stick your thumbs in the armholes of your jerkin and say casually that you would, “Get my chaplain to see to it.”

The earliest mention of Ulgham is when Henry I granted Ranulph de Merley free chase in his manor of ‘Elchamp’. Then, in 1138, Ranulph gave Ulgham Grange to Newmister Abbey. Ulgham was probably then, and later certainly, a chapelry of Morpeth. The rector of Morpeth received the tithes — a tenth of all the crops and produce of livestock — of both Ulgham and Morpeth. Ulgham itself was served by a curate to whom the rector paid a stipend.

The parish church of St John the Baptist is Victorian, but has two Anglo-Saxon window heads, or perhaps Anglo-Norman, made after 1066, but in the Anglo-Saxon style. One has a crude carving, depicting a horseman and another figure. It may possibly represent St Cuthbert seeking entry to the monastery at Melrose. If so, the obscure feature between the two figures will be the soul of St Aidan ascending to heaven.

Story has it that someone wanted to put this stone in the British Museum, but the Rector, Canon Grey, had it built into the new church so we still have it today.

In the 1980s, the late Denis Briggs, a retired engineer, surveyed a number of churches by dowsing. Dowsing is usually thought of as searching for water or buried treasure, but archaeological dowsing detects changes in the density of the soil etc. under the ground. Although dowsing almost always fails in scientific tests, my own experience, at a seminar in Woodhorn Church conducted by Mr Briggs himself, was totally convincing.

The traditional Y-shaped dowsing rod is held at chest height, the stalk pointing forward, and the tips of the Y gripped between the thumb and the side of each hand, just firmly enough to keep it horizontal. If you pass over something denser than the surrounding soil, like a stone foundation, the rod goes up. If less dense, such as an old well, then down. Crossing the foundation of a wall generates both reactions, first up, then down.

I chose a large Y-shaped rod and holding it in the most approved fashion, started near the south door and walked slowly forward in a trance-like manner. The floor was concrete, perfectly featureless, and gave no indication of what lay underneath.

About three paces in, the withy came down sharply, giving me a tremendous whack upon a sensitive part of the male anatomy. I put it down and have never attempted dowsing since. It seems I had passed over the edge of a burial vault. The change in the density of the ground beneath my feet was as great as it could possibly be — from well-compacted soil to an absolute void. I have, consequently, never doubted the efficacy of dowsing from that day to this.

Archaeological dowsing is done with L-shaped rods. You make two fists, thumbs on top, and point the rods forward like a pair of pistols, but free to swivel. If you pass over something denser, they swing outwards, if less dense, inwards. Using small sticks as markers, you lay out the pattern of density changes on the floor of the church, and plot them on a plan. Being an engineer, Mr Briggs was meticulously accurate and often had to correct existing plans before proceeding. At Ulgham, for instance, the plan showed the windows in the north wall wrongly.

He detected five features in the church, none of them visible to the eye — a void, probably a burial vault, by the entrance; the foundation of a wall under the north arcade; two rectangular offshots, which he interpreted as vestries; and an apsidal (semi-circular) east end.

Dowsing cannot reveal anything where modern walls stand on top so the only parts of the earlier church marked on the plan are the north wall and the apse. However, we can reasonably conjecture that the south and west walls were exactly where the modern ones are.

Nor can it give you a date. The two offshots, for instance, could belong to any period, and are unlikely to be of the same date as each other.

Ulgham also has an ancient stone cross. It is broken and badly weathered, but Professor Cramp, in the Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture, dates it to the second half of the 11th Century. The cross and the first stone church almost certainly replaced earlier timber ones.

St John’s was not, I think, a minster. The earlier churches — there were at least three — were simple in plan. The earliest was almost certainly a thegn’s wooden field-church with, eventually, a graveyard.

Many field-churches became fully-fledged parish churches before the Conquest or soon after. So did Ulgham, but only in 1875.

Further reading: Janet Brown, Ulgham, its story continued, 1986.