The Rudston monolith is the largest standing stone in Britain

Words and photos by Dav White 

All Saints Church is nestled on a little hill in Rudston, on the Wolds.

It was built after the Norman conquest in what has become one of the oldest inhabited villages in England.

Many generations have added to the interior adornments which are still used as part of the observance of faith.

However, this picturesque plot and all it contains are counterpoised by a foible of ancient lumpen gravitas, an old timer, a thingamabob, a gizmo so old that no-one can recall what it is called or why it is there.

It has been called the grandmother of the church and is included in many books recalling it, past and present.

It is generally agreed that this majestic whatchamacallit gave its name to the village. 

The Rudston monolith is the largest standing stone in Britain. It is taller than the Sarsen stones of Stonehenge and just as heavy. Sarsen means heathen or pagan.

The name Rudston or Rood-Ston in Old English, meaning cross-stone, may refer to its position at a crossroads which is no longer visible, rather than a cross of consecrated stone.

The name Rudston may also be from Hrodr-steinn in Old Norse, meaning famous stone.

At 26ft high and weighing 40 tons, it’s made of moorland grit stone, such as the kind found at Cloughton quarry.

It was dragged from either Cayton Bay or an outcrop at Grosmont, depending on which history book you read.

It was placed in this very particular position, at the prominent meeting point of four equally important cursuses, just like the cursus at Stonehenge.

The prevailing definition of a cursus is an unexplained and not fully understood linear feature in the landscape. It may be a sunken road, used for processional or ritual purposes, like an approach road to a stadium or a track between two arenas.

Superficially, a cursus looks like a deep and wide ditch, but unfathomably old, dating from 5,000 years ago during the Neolithic period. The term cursus is the archaeological label derived from the Latin word for racecourse, because past archaeologists thought Neolithic cursuses were Roman athletic tracks.

There are four cursuses converging on Rudston, which is on a natural bend in the Winterbourne stream, the Gypsey Race. They are called the Argham cursus, Beacon cursus, Glebe Farm cursus and Breeze Farm cursus. Coupled with a henge on the northern approach to Rudston, they illustrate how important the area was to the people who lived there in prehistory.

A.N. Cooper, secretary of the East Riding Antiquarian Society, wrote in 1920: “There are those who are of the opinion that this stone was set up by the Phoenicians on their trip to England. For the Phoenicians were great builders and the Rudston people might flatter themselves that they were once visited by the builders of Solomon’s temple”.

The Phoenicians, a pre-Roman civilisation of north Africa, are thought to have traded directly with Britain in prehistory. The name Britain is said to come from the Phoenician name Baratanac, meaning land of tin.

The Greek historian Herodotus, who is the source for much of the little we know about the ancient world, describes how tin comes from the ‘lands of tin’. The trade between Britain and the Phoenicians is thought to explain how Cornish tin is found in artefacts all over Europe.

A major Roman road and the remains of a Roman villa lie outside Rudston, suggesting the importance of the area even after the Roman conquest.

In the chancel of All Saints Church is a piscina, under which is a foliated face or green man. The Romans believed that certain places had a genius loci, a protective spirit. They felt the need to contribute their own deities and shrines to the landscape while being careful not to interfere too much with the native shrines.

Genius loci means the prevailing spirit in a place or attendant spirit, like a keeper or caretaker specific to a certain time and space.

The carving has a youthful face and foliage growing from its head. It has been suggested that it   is like nothing else in the church and is probably a reused piece of masonry from the Roman villa, interpreted as a Medusa because of the serpentine pattern of its hair.

In the 1970s, the writer John Michell described menhirs and other standing stones as great nails in the ground to fasten down the magnetic energy of the Earth, which was described by 18th century antiquarians as chaotic and serpentine.

Many old monuments from prehistory were described as serpent-like by William Stukeley, John Aubrey and other historians who attributed this to the druids’ obsession with snakes and snake-like shapes and patterns.

This was reinterpreted by Michell as energy patterns in flux across an undeveloped landscape. He pointed out that this is much like the general principles of feng shui, a Chinese system of channeling energy flows, which the Chinese call dragon lines, the dragon being another type of serpent.

At All Saints Church, the face with the serpentine hair has been placed in the wall facing the monolith through a window facing north.

As part of the piscina, it holds water and plays its part in the ceremonial cleaning of objects used during service.

This is good feng shui.