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Allerton Oak: ancient and award-winning tree

The Allerton Oak is a 1000 year old sessile oak that stands in Calderstones Park. It’s surrounded by a double fence to protect its ancient structure, and metal crutches installed in 1907 hold up its branches.

Calderstones Park is in Allerton, which was mentioned in the Domesday Book and has a long history of its own. A long standing legend about the Allerton Oak is that its spreading branches sheltered the medieval hundred court. It would have been similar to the court held in West Derby (whose courthouse is a remnant of this tradition), and was often held at a significant (not to mention recognisable) landmark. The Allerton Oak fits the bill, although Mike Royden has suggested that the meetings are more likely to have happened nearer to the Calder Stones. Given that a boundary dispute map from 1568 uses the Calder Stones as a boundary marker between Little Woolton, Allerton and Wavertree, the mound wouldn’t be the first prehistoric monument to act as a medieval court location in a place like this.

Allerton Oak legends

The tree’s history continues to inspire legends. When the Lottie Sleigh exploded in the Mersey on 15th Febuary 1864 (11 tonnes of gunpowder were on board) the blast shattered windows and put out gas lamps across Liverpool. Authorities in Chester rang up to ask what all the noise was about. It’s said that all the windows in Calderstones Manor were shattered, and that a massive split appeared in the tree.

The Oak is indeed split down the middle, and largely hollow, but no one can really say that this was caused by the Lottie Sleigh exploding. Nevertheless, this shows how local history stories interweave across centuries. No doubt the story also helped cement the Allerton Oak’s reputation as an indestructable plant.

During the Second World War, leaves, seedlings and acorns from the Oak were sent in cards to soldiers fighting on the front. Staff from the manor house sent the cards, reminding soliders that they were in the thoughts of people back home, and perhaps to let something of that tree’s long life rub off on the men in danger. The upshot of sending these seedlings abroad is that there are probably young descendents of the tree across Europe and maybe further afield.

A long past and a healthy future for the Allerton Oak

The Allerton Oak has stood tall for over 1000 years. The Liverpool Echo ran a story in the 1970s that suggested it would have rotted to death by 2020, but this report seems premature. The tree is 5.5 metres tall and produces 100,000 acorns every year, so it’s future seems assured.

Despite this, a tree this large puts a strain on itself. The 1907 crutches have kept it upright for over 1000 years but they are in need of replacement. There is an £80,000 project to replace these crutches with more modern support, and which can grow and adapt to the changing tree. There is also a sapling (‘Allerton Oak the Younger’) in the park itself, and Calderstones gardeners are busy protecting this next generation.

The Allerton Oak’s fame is spreading around the world, since it has twice won England’s Tree of the Year (2014, 2019) and is set to represent the country in the European Tree of the Year in 2020. Money raised through these competitions, plus other efforts, will go to helping maintain this ancient tree for many centuries to come.

Further Reading

Borough Curios: the Allerton Oak http://liverpooletc.com/borough-curios-the-allerton-oak/

The Calderstones (Mike Royden’s Local History Pages) http://www.roydenhistory.co.uk/mrlhp/articles/mikeroyden/liverpool/calders/calders.htm

Calderstones Park’s ‘1000 year old’ Allerton Oak named England’s Tree of the Year https://www.thereader.org.uk/calderstones-allerton-oak-named-englands-tree-of-the-year-by-woodland-trust/

Liverpool’s Allerton Oak crowned England’s tree of the year https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-merseyside-50141031

Image: Allerton Oak, taken 19th April 2015 by the author

The Calderstones in their new location

Calder Stones: a new, more accessible, home

The Calder Stones have a troubled history, even for a site that’s about 5000 years old. While it’s escaped complete destruction like many of its Irish Sea cousins, there are many of these Neolithic sites which aren’t doing too badly. Even those completely denuded of their turf, soil and/or cobble mound stand proud in fields across Wales, Ireland and Scotland, the chamber more or less intact.

The Calder Stones, on the other hand, have had the sand in their mound re-recycled for cement, and their stones (both the main stones and cobbles in the mound) crushed and used for road-building material. Then the remainder were torn from their original arrangement and turned into an aesthetically pleasing (to the owner at the time, Joseph Need Walker) ‘druidical’ circle.

Then in 1954 they were put on ‘display’ in a glass vestibule, the only remnants of the extensive glasshouses that once graced Calderstones Park. This protected them from the weather, but the enclosed glasshouse meant that their condition continued to deteriorate. Visitors could only look in through the scratched semi-opaque glass, and as a visitor attraction they were largely forgotten.

The vestibule today, where once were stones

Letting silent stones speak again

One unexpected consolation prize after all this movement was that – so little being known about their original position and arrangement – there was very little further to lose in their conservation and re-presentation. All options could be put on the table.

The new home for the Calderstones opened in September 2019, and I visited in mid-October. How has the visitor experience changed? In a word, the new setting is unrecognisable compared to the old.

Whereas before the stones were locked away in a glass box, at least two metres from the viewer, you can now walk right up to them and between them.

The Calderstones in their new location
The Calder Stones in their new protected environment

The six surviving stones are arranged in two parallel rows. This is meant to be a nod to their original passage tomb shape, but as the relative positions of the stones are not known, the Reader Organisation and the rest of the team were free to choose the order. I’m not sure how it was decided, but if I hear about I’ll add it to this article.

It’s a great solution to the eternal archaeological reconstruction puzzle: do you pick a moment in history to reconstruct? And how do you represent the more recent history? When the Calder Stones were sat in a circle on Calderstones Road, that became part of their history, and is a point of interest to those who study the monument. To try to place the Stones in their ‘original’ configuration would not only be impossible as there are so few left, but it would be as arbitrary a choice as the circular layout.

The parallel rows acknowledge our lack of information, while reflecting the part of the history we do know. They also increase physical access to the Stones.

The new experience

The first thing that strikes you when you arrive at the Calder Stones is how close you can get. There are no barriers between you and the rock faces, just a narrow line of slate between the path and the stone.

It goes without saying: you shouldn’t be reaching out to touch them. But you can certainly examine the stones’ surfaces, and explore them from every angle. You could try shining a torch on them from a shallow angle to highlight the relief patterns. This required special event access before.

You can walk around both sides of nearly all of the stones (one is too close to the glass, so you’ll need to go outside), examine the sides and the tops. You can truly examine the rock art.

State of the rock art

And as it’s the rock art that raises this monument above many of its relatives, this proximity makes all the difference.

No longer is the monument a pile (or ring) of stones to be looked at, gazed upon. It’s a gallery of human actions – everything from the shapes of the stones themselves, through the prehistoric cup and spiral markings, and the feet (bare and shod) from anywhere between the Neolithic, Medieval or modern periods. And don’t forget the graffiti initials!

In some way this feels closer to how the builders could have experienced it: a journey from one stone to the next, glyphs passing the eye. You’re no longer looking at the monument, you’re reading it.

Photo to show carved initials on stone
Those initials – know any JL from south Liverpool? 😉

I’m not sure of the decision behind the stones’ order, but it seemed to me like the stones were placed with most of the art facing inwards. This again might reflect the chamber’s original arrangement, but in any case it makes it easy to take it in in one big sweep.

This freedom to explore the stones surface leads to a tantalising possibility: will I find some new art? It’s been done, and recently! Alas, it was not to be this time, but I’m sure it won’t stop me trying each time I visit.

Here are some of my favourite carvings on the stones (click for larger versions):

You can also more closely look at the sandstone itself, for its own sake. Sandstone is a sedimentary rock, laid down at the base of an ancient sea. In south west Lancashire it’s especially red, and the ruddy layers can be seen on the edges of the stones.

It creates a link, a chain, between nature, the builders of this ancient structure and many of our buildings. Just take a look at the Anglican Cathedral, or St Peter’s Church in Woolton, nearby, and every garden wall for miles around. This is the living rock of Merseyside.

Photo demonstrating the natural sandstone making up the Calder Stones
The red sandstone of the Calder Stones can be found in buildings across Liverpool and beyond

Practicalities

As soon as I posted a couple of pictures on Twitter, the archaeologist Mike Pitts noticed the blackboard imploring people not to touch the stones.

It’s vital point to raise. All heritage projects need to decide on how much access to give to visitors. Perfect conservation can always be guaranteed by completely removing visitors, and if you’re Stonehenge, complete destruction can be ensured by allowing everyone to do what they want!

At the Calder Stones, the Reader organisation have put the stones in a lockable enclosure, with close-up access to them only when the house is open (though they can be seen through the glass at all times). As I replied to Mike, there’s a certain level of trust on display. Coupled with the low level of visitors and the museum-like feel of the place, I think this trust will be repaid. The Stones will no doubt be closely monitored, as will visitor activity, and time will tell us the effects.

I’m so glad they did things this way.

Visiting the Calder Stones

Next to the Calder Stones is a small exhibition placing them in the context of world history. A time-line shows them being built before the Pyramids in Egypt, and Stonehenge in Britain. As it’s the Reader, we’re also shown when various writing scripts began their use.

Another room has an exhibition on the house and estate itself, and the aforementioned Walker family. There are replica newspapers from the time, another time-line, and a slideshow of Victorian images of Calderstones. Finally there’s a café for refreshments, and a whole park to explore!

The mansion house is open every day from 8:30am to 7pm, so go along when you can and enjoy a slice of Scouse prehistory!

Image: the Calder Stones in their new location, taken by the author.

Photo of the entrance Bryn Celli Ddu burial chamber

Neolithic Anglesey and the Merseyside connection – a trip with the NSG

Anglesey and North Wales are very close to Liverpool hearts. Countless Welsh builders helped create some of our inner suburbs in distinctive yellow brick, and the red bricks of the University are Welsh too. More recently, there can’t be many Scousers who haven’t had a day trip or two to Llandudno, Conwy or Beaumaris.

On the weekend of 13th to 15th May 2016 I joined a Neolithic Studies Group tour to Anglesey, or Ynys Môn, to have a look at much older remains of Wales’s inhabitants, and inevitably ponder on how old the links to Merseyside could be. You’re probably two steps ahead of me already, but I’ll catch up with you in good time. Read more

Photograph John Reppion and Ramsey Campbell at Spirits of Place

Spirits of Place: Where historic landscapes collide (with folklore and fiction)

There’s nothing like a gathering of like minds to get the keyboard fingers itching to put down a few words! And this past Saturday (2nd April, 2016), the Spirits of Place symposium held at the Calderstones Mansion was just one of those gatherings.

The organiser was John Reppion, who’s written a book on 800 Years of Haunted Liverpool, as well as countless articles on Yo! Liverpool, comics and no doubt more that I’ve not come across. His opening talk set the scene for the day, and kicked off a full set of varied takes on Liverpool’s past. Read more

Robin Hood’s Stone

Robin Hood’s Stone (or the Robin Hood Stone) is a Neolithic or Bronze Age standing stone currently to be found within a set of railings on the corner of Booker Avenue and Archerfield Road. It originally stood to the north east in the middle of a field known as Stone Hey, but was moved when the nearby houses were built in 1928.

Description

Robin Hood’s Stone is a roughly rectangular stone around two metres high, just under a metre wide and half a metre thick. Deep grooves run down one of the larger faces, and these stop at what would have been the original ground level. Everything beyond the end of the grooves was buried when Robin Hood’s Stone was in Stone Hey.

After it was placed inside the railings, a bronze plaque was attached with some information about its origins:

“This Monolith known as Robin Hood’s Stone, stood in a field named the Stone Hey at a spot 280 feet bearing North from its present position, to which it was moved in August 1928. The arrow below indicates the direction of the original site. This side of the stone formerly faced South”.

Robin Hood's Stone plaque

Engraved at the base of the stone, as has been mentioned, are a collection of cup and ring marks. Marks like these, made of concentric carved rings with circular ‘cups’ at their centre, can be found across the west and north of Britain and in Ireland too.

Original Location

Robin Hood’s Stone originally stood to the north east of its current site, in a field known appropriately as Stone Hey. ‘Hey’ is a word of Anglo-Saxon origin, and suggests an enclosure, possibly for animals. It’s been suggested that a farmer brought the stone to this field to let the grazing animals scratch themselves on it.

Robin Hoods Stone on an OS map from 1893
Robin Hood’s Stone in it’s ‘original’ position (at least since possibly 1550) near Booker’s Cottages in south Liverpool (Ordnance Survey, 1893, 1:2500)

Although Robin Hood’s Stone may originally have been part of the Calderstones, we know that it has stood alone in this part of Liverpool since at least 1771, when Eye’s map of Liverpool shows the Stone Hey field name. So it’s sensible to suggest that, although the Stone itself is not marked on that map, it was in this field at that time.

A boundary dispute of 1568, which uses a number of ancient monuments as boundary markers, mentions that a stone was removed from the mound of the Calderstones in around 1550. This may or may not have been Robin Hood’s Stone, but the cup and ring markings near the base of the pillar date the stone to a similar era to the Calderstones.

So the movement of Robin Hood’s Stone could have taken it from the Calderstones mound itself, to Stone Hey (now the location of 11 Greenwood Road), and finally 280 feet south east to its present location on Booker Avenue in 1928.

Legends

The very name of the stone is a reference, of course, to the famed archer of Sherwood Forest, and this comes from the long grooves in the rock. Legend has it that these grooves were made by medieval archers sharpening their arrow heads on the stone in the course of practising their aim. There’s no direct evidence for this, and the Robin Hood name is merely an extra layer in the mythology.

Another more gruesome legend suggests that the grooves are there as drains for the blood of the Druids’ human sacrifices! Needless to say this is a typical over-excited Victorian story, and quite far from the truth.

The mysterious carvings on the base of the monument, buried for so long in the ground at Stone Hey, have been seen by Alfred Watkins, inventor of ley lines, as a map of local leys. Considering Watkins ideas about the power of leys, it’s not entirely clear why you’d need a map of them…

Excavation and protection

Prior to its relocation to Booker Avenue, the Stone was excavated on October 29th 1910, which was when the carvings were rediscovered. These have since been compared to the carvings on the Calderstones, dating Robin Hood’s Stone to a similar date, the Neolithic.

Photograph of Robin Hood's Stone under excavation
Robin Hood’s Stone under excavation in 1910, showing the buried elements and cup and ring marks

In 1924 the Stone became a Scheduled Ancient Monument, but due to the threat posed by the new housing, it was relocated to its present site in August 1928 by the Liverpool Corporation and the Mersey Building Company. It was protected with the iron railings, and has stood in this state ever since.

References

Robin Hood’s Stone, Allerton, Liverpool, Lancashire, The Northern Antiquarian, https://megalithix.wordpress.com/2013/02/21/robin-hoods-stone/, accessed 7th January 2016

Robin Hood’s Stone – Standing Stone (Menhir) in England in Merseyside, http://www.megalithic.co.uk/article.php?sid=8435, accessed 7th January 2016

Robin Hoods Stone, PastScape, http://www.pastscape.org.uk/hob.aspx?hob_id=67205, accessed 7th January 2016

South Liverpool – Allerton (West and South Allerton), Allerton Oak, http://www.allertonoak.com/merseySights/SouthLiverpoolAL.html, accessed 7th January 2016

The Calderstones, Mike Royden’s Local History Pages, http://www.roydenhistory.co.uk/mrlhp/local/calders/calders.htm, accessed 8th January 2016

Extract from the Greenwood old map of Lancashire, 1818

Old Maps for Local History Research

Although the Ordnance Survey maps chart the most significant changed in Liverpool’s history, older maps often are unique. They show details or aspects which no other map does, and can often show what was important to the map-maker. You can’t beat old maps for laying bare the great changes of a city like Liverpool.

Modern maps are often much more ‘objective’ in comparison. But old maps are still of use to the local historian, at the same time as being beautiful objects.

If you know of any others I’ve missed out, or other places where these maps are available, let us know in the comments!

Early Liverpool Maps

Liverpool developed from seven streets, laid out at its founding in 1215. Soon there was a castle, a chapel and the Tower, a fortified house built by the Stanley family in 1404. Maps of this period (1205-1700) do exist, most of them drawn later. Here are a few of the easiest plans of Liverpool to get hold of.

One of Ashton's two old maps of Liverpool - a sketch of Liverpool from 1920
Liverpool from the River in 1650, by William Ashton

William Ashton included a simple sketch of 17th century Liverpool in his book ‘Evolution of a Coastline’ in 1920 (above).

Ashton also drew a top-down plan of Liverpool:

Another of Ashton's old maps - a sketch map of Liverpool as it was in 1572
Liverpool (‘Lerpoole’) in 1572

The book itself has recently been reprinted, so if you want a higher resolution copy you can pick up ‘Evolution of a Coastline‘ at Amazon.

Genmaps

Genmaps is a map site hosted by Rootsweb (part of Ancestry.com), and has a page on Lancashire maps. There’s a huge range, so I’ve collected the Liverpool entries in the following table. If you’re reading this in the dim and distant future, I recommend going to the original page, hitting Ctrl+F on your keyboard and searching for ‘liverpool’ to catch newer uploads.

 

Name Date Map-maker and Notes
Liverpool Early 18th century Map maker not known
Swire’s plan of Liverpool 1720 (1824) William Wales – Wales & Co. Castle Street Liverpool

19th Century

Liverpool, street plan ca.1801 George Cole. engr.J.Roper  in The British Atlas
Lancashire 1809 John Cary
Liverpool, Warrington, Leigh area 1809 John Cary (detail of map above)
Liverpool 1832 Lt. Robert Dawson in Plans of the Cities and Boroughs of England and Wales: shewing their boundaries as established by the Boundaries’ Act, passed 11th July 1832
Liverpool, street plan ca.1833 (includes plan of  Liverpool in 1729) Society for the Diffusion of Knowledge
Plan of the Liverpool Docks 1846 Jesse Hartley (Dock Surveyor) engr. C.B. Graham, Washington, D.C.
Environs of Liverpool 1850 Thomas Cowperthwait (inset detail from England)
Liverpool Docks ca.1860 J.Bartholomew for R. Fullarton.
Liverpool 1863 John Dower, published in The Weekly Dispatch
South West Liverpool 1863 B.R.Davies (detail from Liverpool map  in The Weekly Dispatch Atlas)
Liverpool-Birkenhead area ca.1870 A.Fullarton (detail from The Environs of Liverpool and the Estuaries of the Mersey & Dee)
The Town and Borough of Liverpool 1880 J. Bartholomew. (detail)
Plan of Liverpool 1881 Charles Letts
Liverpool.-sewers,contourlines and municipal boundaries 1882 Map maker not known
Liverpool – city plan 1883 George W. Bacon in The New Ordnance Atlas of the British Isles
Liverpool (Eastern Section) 1885 Report of the Boundary Commissioners for England and Wales. There’s a link through to a higher resolution version.
Liverpool (Western Section) 1885 Report of the Boundary Commissioners for England and Wales.
Liverpool 1897 Century Atlas Company. (detail from map of England and Wales) Quite a tiny map!
Liverpool 1898 Meyer in German lexikon Brockhaus. Published by Leipzig Bibliographisches Institut.

20th Century

Liverpool: town-plan (and detail) 1900 K.Baedeker
Environs of Liverpool & the estuaries of the Mersey and Dee ca.1910 J.Bartholomew
Liverpool Docks 1920 George Phillip (detail from The New Mercantile Marine Atlas)
Liverpool 1922 G.Bartholomew (detail from The Towns of England in The Times Atlas)

Some of them are high resolution, and some not. Others have links to higher resolution versions of extracts below them.

Lancashire County Council

Lancashire County Council has the best collection of old maps for any student of Liverpool history. It runs from a reproduction of Gough’s 1320 map, through all the major map makers: Speed, Yates, Greenwood, Hennet.

Greenwood’s map of Lancashire from 1818, is undoubtedly the best! Click on the exact point you’re interested in, as this map has been cut up into sections when added to the site.

Old Maps of Liverpool

It will take a fuller article to go into all details hidden in maps like these. For us today they provide an immediate visual visit on the past, easy to interpret. For this reason one of my favourites has to be this 1833 Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge map (if only for the name!). It shows quite a lot of detail, including Bootle Castle at the end of Regent Street, an unfamiliarly station-free Lime Street, and is detailed right out to Kensington (the edge of the city back then). Click on the map to zoom in.

Oldest of the old maps

Finally, I want to mention a map I only saw for the first time recently. It is included in the modern edition of The Calderstones by Ron Cowell. The map was made in 1568 to help solve a boundary dispute between Allerton and Wavertree. Not only does it show the Calderstones, but it also shows the mysterious Rodgerstone and the Pikeloo Hill. The Rodgerstone might have been a single standing stone, while the Pikeloo Hill could be a burial mound. The Pikeloo Hill could even have been as large as Silbury Hill, a prehistoric mound in Wiltshire.

Not only does this seem to be the oldest map of the Liverpool area. It’s also a tantalising glimpse of a prehistoric complex now long lost. The map isn’t online, so if anyone has a high resolution scan, do get in touch.

Well, that rounds off this brief excursion into Liverpool maps. There are certainly some I’ve missed, so please share your own sources in the comments!

Image: Extract from the Greenwood map of Lancashire, 1818, available in full on the Lancashire County Council Old Maps of Lancashire website.