Every list of ‘quirky sights of Yorkshire’ includes the Druid’s Temple, a few miles west of Masham on the edge of the Dales. And every list then quickly stresses that IT’S NOT A REAL DRUIDS’ TEMPLE, but is a folly. It was built not by wise ancients in pointy hats and white robes, but by a local toff circa 1799 to keep unemployed locals out of mischief, such as demanding social equality.
The square in Masham is typical of many a rural Yorkshire market town: handsomely circled by sturdy cottages, pubs, shops and houses in stonework the colour of freshly baked bread. And ruined by damn cars parked everywhere.
Thanks to the current £2 flat fare scheme on Britain’s local buses, the two-leg trip up from York with folding bike (changing at Ripon) was now affordable, so today I took the chance to commune with the past, and to find out what other entertainment opportunities might arise in brewery town Masham.
So I cycled swiftly on, heading southwest to the Swinton Estate, seat of Lord and Lady Masham. Their sprawling grounds and lands used to exploit poor tenant farmers, but in this more enlightened age, they expl– er, cater to – the rich instead, being an upmarket hotel, spa, glampsite, grouse-hunting venue etc. (The BBC series of adverts Amazing Hotels featured it recently. I must say Lord and Lady M, alias Mark and Felicity, came across as unpretentious, decent and affable.)
I took the southern approach to the Druid’s Temple, on hilly roads through the hamlet of Ilton that gave some neat glimpses back over Masham and some thrilling views of the moortops and valley-side farms and villages. Sweaty work, accompanied by the rusty-clockwork noises of startled grouse, and the burbling of curlews. I think. Maybe they were just my bike drivetrain and leaking water bottle.
The long uphill approach to the Druid’s Temple goes past yurty Swinton Bivouac, where you can glamp, and finishes at the wood whose footpath approach takes you to the stone circle itself. To the sort of dim, moany Tripadvisor critics who expect Disneyland accessed by a motorway, it’s a disappointment: this ain’t Stonehenge and the approach roads are narrow, twisty country lanes.
To sensible people like me, however, the Druid’s Temple is rather charming, and a more than adequate reward for the perspiration involved in riding there. I spent a happy hour poking around the faux-mystical stones, lintels, altars and shrines.
It may all be barely older than the bicycle (1799 versus 1817, in fact) but I like its double-layered feeling of antiquity. (It’s also free, an appeal which never goes out of fashion.)
According to the helpful info panels, the Temple ‘complex’ was pretty well researched for the time, involving some plausible druidy symbolism and iconology. The tower of rocks next to the Temple, for instance, is surrounded by twelve stones representing the signs of the zodiac.
That said, there’s a lot uncertain about the Temple’s conception and construction: little is known for sure about its creation. It was clearly commissioned and project-managed by William Danby, then owner of Swinton Estate, but details are scant.
Such as: was there a hermit? Tentative evidence, in the shape of a job ad, suggests there may have been a professional druid whose job was to live primitively onsite, be unkempt and a bit weird, and interact with visitors for social media purposes, as far as such things went in the early 1800s.
There are some bike tracks around the Temple, though they’re really intended for guests at the hotel and glampsite who have hired MTBs from the Bivouac complex.
Anyway, having communed with the far distant and relatively recent past, I had a sandwich and bottle of water. (The Bivouac’s cafe was unfortunately closed to due a kitchen fire: perhaps a seared carpaccio of organic venison, or maybe a chip pan, got out of hand.)
And I scooted back happily to Masham, downhill almost all the way, this time following the river valley into the town from the west and skirting the northern walls of central Swinton estate.
Back in the square, aka car park, I could unwind in appropriate style at the Kings Head. Which of the two rival local breweries should I support? In other words a pint of Black Sheep, or Old Peculier?
Given what I’d just visited, it had to the latter. Cheers. Here’s to the druids.