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CERNE ABBAS LEY, Dorset

7 miles long, this ley runs SSW from Holwell to Cerne Abbas, situated a few miles N of Dorchester.

The ley's most northerly marker is the fascinating church of St. Laurence (69951198) in the isolated hamlet of Holwell - a name that must recall a former holy well. Old English Halig also had a pagan connotation. Information in the present 15th-century church states that it is on the site of 'a much older fabric', possibly Saxon. A distinctive feature of the church is its many strange gargoyle images, probably another sign of pagan survival.

The ley proceeds SSW over a tumulus at 67690470 (unvisited) to Giant's Hill above Cerne Abbas. Here the bearing of the alignment takes it over the earthworks of a settlement (66900216), a short ditch-like earthwork, and an approximately rectangular earthwork enclosure known as The Trendle or Frying Pan at 66740167 above the left arm of the Cerne Abbas Giant chalk figure. The Trendle was formerly the site for May Day revels, the maypole 'symbolising at once the phallus and the tree' as Jacquetta Hawkes writes. The connection of this Iron Age site with the adjacent Giant figure is something of a mystery, though a continuing fertility tradition cannot be doubted. The figure is 180 feet tall, and is formed from trenches in the chalk. These outlines depict a male figure wielding a club, with facial features, nipples, ribs and a 30 foot-long erect phallus and testicles also delineated. Traces were discovered nearby that might have been a shrine. No one knows the Giant's origins, though in the 18th century Stukeley stated that it was known locally as Helis. Walter of Coventry wrote in the 13th century that worship of the god Helith occurred in the district. This and other evidence suggest that the figure is a depiction of Hercules, dated perhaps to the Roman-British period. But if this is so, a number of researchers would agree that such a Roman import was probably located on the site of an earlier fertility cult. There is also a view, however, that the Giant is a 17th century folly. Young women wishing to become pregnant are said to visit the place, often overnight. Like the Long Man of Wilmington, there is a legend stating that the figure is the outline drawn round a real giant who lay slain on the hill slope.

Also like the Long Man, the Cerne Giant overlooks an abbey, which is the next ley point, Cerne Abbey (66690148) is now a ruinous site of jumbled earthworks. A monastery existed on the site in the 9th century, but was refounded as a Benedictine establishment in 987. A legend associated with the original founding states that St. Augustine and his companion missionaries were hounded out of the district with tails tied to their garments. In response, St. Augustine laid a curse on the heathens which resulted in their offspring being born with tails. So the Christian saint was invited back and he founded an abbey which he called Cernal. Meaning 'I see God', because he had a beatific vision at the site.

A short distance to the S of the abbey earthworks is the next ley point, a wishing well (66640137) within a walled enclosure. The well was supposedly struck by St. Augustine, and tradition has it that the wish should be made while holding a cup formed from a laurel leaf, facing towards the church in Cerne Abbas and thus away from the Giant. It has also been called the Silver Well, associated with St. Edwold and with fertility, divination and healing.

The final ley marker is the church of St. Mary (66600122) in Cerne Abbas, not far from the well. The chancel was built c.1300 and the tower is late 15th century. There are interesting grotesques on the church, one depicting what must be the Giant. Wielding a club. As we noted at the beginning of this alignment, such carvings may well indicate the survival of paganism.

Archives

Length 11.3km

Bearing 17°/197°.

CerneAbbasLine