Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Sarsen

Ashdown House is unique amongst stately homes in having a sarsen field lying to the east of the house. This field is classified as a Site of Special Scientific Interest as the sarsen stones host exceptional lichen flora which is thought to have taken centuries to develop. The sarsen field is an integral part of Ashdown's historic past.

Sarsens are extremely hard boulders composed of quartz sand particles cemented together by silica to form sandstone. Most authorities believe that the sandstone layer was formed approximately 50 million years ago when a tropical climate existed in Southern England. The weathered stones that now litter the landscape are the remnants of this layer which once overlaid the chalk of the Downs. During inter-glacial times the thawing of the ice and the meltwaters eroded the chalk, causing the sandstone to fracture into irregular shaped stones that were carried down hill. Famous sarsen sites include Stonehenge, Waylands Smithy and Avebury Circle.

Despite the proximity of the sarsen field to the house, the stones have been preserved undisturbed for centuries. There are also many sarsen stones in the grounds and in the woods. Many of these have the characteristic holes which were made by the roots of palm and other tropical trees that grew in the area when the sandstone layer was forming. Sarsen stone was also used to face the outer ramparts of Alfred's Castle, the Iron Age fort situated nearby. The antiquarian and traveller John Aubrey passed Ashdown at the time the house was being built and commented that the builders robbed out the fort in order to use the sarsen stones in the foundations of Ashdown House, so Ashdown is literally a house built on Sarsen stone if not of it.

The word sarsen derives from Saracen, meaning "foreigner." The name probably originated as a way to describe these different stones in a chalk landscape. They are also known as grey wethers because the scattering of stones can easily be mistaken at a distance for grazing sheep.

Various legends and folklore have grown up around the sarsen field. It is said that the sarsens are the remains of an army turned to stone by Merlin. Since nearby Baydon is one of the possible sites for King Arthur's Battle of Badon Hill, one can see the links in the legend. The enormous sarsen stone a few miles away at Blowing Stone Hill is reputed to have been used by King Alfred to rally his troops for the Battle of Ashdown in 871AD. Again the link between the stones and local folklore is very strong.

The sarsen stones add another layer of history and myth to the story of Ashdown. They are a constant source of fascination to the visitors to the Park and we hold them in great respect.

With thanks to Keith Blaxhall, Head Warden, for extracts from his article on the Sarsen stones.

4 comments:

Jan Jones said...

Er...50 years ago?

Apart from that - very interesting indeed.

Nicola Cornick said...

Oops! A small matter of a missing million! Thank you!

Sue said...

Hello Nicola, I've been a fan of your books for years, and now I'm a fan of your blog - it's wonderful!
Thank you for sharing your passion and knowledge of history with us.
Sue

Nicola Cornick said...

Thank you, Sue. What a nice thing to say! I love my historical blogs and am always delighted when people enjoy the posts.