While writing The Road to Bedlam, there were a number of things that I wanted to achieve. First and foremost I wanted to continue the story of Niall and Blackbird from where they were left at the end of Sixty-One Nails, and show the impact the events in that book had on their lives. This was the continuation of their story, but I also wanted to reveal more of the world they inhabit.
In Sixty-One Nails, the world was seen almost exclusively from Niall’s perspective, and I wanted to bring in some new viewpoints to balance Niall’s view. As Niall’s new responsibilities took him to new places, I wanted to show that the ancient roots of folklore extended way beyond London. One of the things I love about England is the way that ancient and modern are layered over each other, and the way that English people take things that may have their origins in the beginning of history entirely for granted, simply working around them or in some cases incorporating them into their modern lives.
Near the beginning of The Road to Bedlam, Niall is sent North, in part to get him away from what is going on back at the courts, but also to fulfil his role as Warder and have him dig into some odd incidents. This is part of his initiation as a Warder and his first test in his new role. He uses the mystical routes which traverse the land known as the Ways to travel north, arriving at a node-point in Yorkshire:
I arrived in a cornfield; a twenty-foot-tall brown stone spike emerged from the gently swaying heads. Yards away, another finger of stone pointed upwards. The spike was scored with deep marks as if huge claws had scraped down it. Lichen coloured its surface with curly-edged stains of red and amber. I wondered whether the stones were part of the Way-node or here simply to mark its presence.
The stones in question are known as The Devils Arrows, or The Three Sisters, or sometimes as The Greyhounds. They stand a little way from the A1 trunk road aligned NNW-SSE along a line almost 200 yards long.
Shown here are the smaller two of the stones, measuring 22 ft and 18ft tall respectively. The largest, pictured below, is 22 ft 6 inches tall and is set back in a small patch of grass beneath some trees just across the road that runs down to the A1 junction. When I discovered them, it immediately struck me how well the modern road was aligned with them.
Legend says that the stones were thrown by the Devil from How Hill at the village of Aldborough and fell short, about a mile away, though they predate Christianity by about 2000 years and whoever threw them managed to hit holes that had been carefully prepared and packed with grit and cobbles, as an excavation in 1709 discovered. The stones are rectangular in section and are deeply scored with what appear to be claw-marks, though they show no sign of tool working, either in the grooves or in the way they were formed. The marks are probably due to weathering – similar stones at Plumpton Rocks show the same markings.
Though three stones are standing today, there is at least one other:
“Foure huge stones, of pyramidall forme, but very rudely wrought, set as it were in a straight and direct line…whereof one was lately pulled downe by some that hoped, though in vaine, to find treasure.” John Leland, 1530s
The upper section of the fourth stone is said to stand in the grounds of Aldborough Manor, someone having hauled it that last mile, presumably to save the Devil the trouble, and the lower half forms part of a bridge over the river Tut in Boroughbridge.
Close up, the stones are huge, rough and warm to the touch. They are visible on Google Maps, if you care to look, where they stand in a crop-field much as I saw them when I visited. To the people of pre-Roman Britain they must have been a significant symbol, though whether this was of religious significance or as some sort of boundary marker is lost to us.
What is not lost is the sense of awe one has standing next to them, even after 4,000 years.