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Invoking the Spirits of Place

On Saturday the 2nd of April 2016 Calderstones Mansion in Calderstones Park, Liverpool was home to #SpiritsOfPlace. This was a multidisciplinary symposium with nine guest speakers, all of whom took their cue in one way or another from the Neolithic stones which give the park their name.

I was the organiser of the event and my talk “Invoking the Spirits of Place” served as a kind of introduction and mission statement for the day. Based in part on my earlier Calderstones article, a piece I wrote about the genesis of the event for #FolkloreThursday, and even in some small way something I wrote for, I present here the full text of my talk.

Welcome to South Liverpool, to Calderstones Park, and to Spirits of Place.

South Liverpool is where I was born, where I grew up, and where I live still. It is a place full of green-spaces. Its abundance of woodlands, parks, cemeteries, playing fields and golf courses are linked by an intricate network of narrow, bramble-lined public footpaths and overgrown roadside verges. The more romantically inclined might be tempted to call them faerie paths, or corpse roads, and perhaps some once were; back when an Iron Age fort stood on top of Woolton’s Camp Hill, or perhaps longer ago still.

The area is bursting with history to the point where many of its residents seem to have become immune to the strange sites and artefacts they pass every day. Many people are dimly aware that the ornamental lake in Princes Park is filled by one of the city’s many “lost” subterranean rivers, the River Jordan. There is an extant 17th century chapel just round the corner from the same park where astronomer Jeremiah Horrocks was once schooled by a member of the Mather family who later emigrated to America and played a large part in the infamous Salem Witch Trials. Williamson’s Tunnels – an uncharted labyrinth of vaulted, brick-lined tunnels constructed under the orders of an eccentric 19th century tobacco magnate – lay buried and largely unexplored beneath Edge Hill. There’s a 15th century Holy Well in Wavertree, right next to a swing-park, which bears a Latin inscription translating to “He who here does nought bestow, The Devil laughs at him below”. Allthis is normal, commonplace stuff in South Liverpool, it seems. So much so that even more ancient monuments are sometimes taken for granted.

Robin Hood’s Stone stands on the pavement at the junction of Booker Avenue and Archerfield Road surrounded by green painted metal railings. During term time in the summer months an ice-cream van is often parked next to it, ready to supply the kids from Booker Avenue school with frozen treats on their way home. Robin Hood’s stone was given its name on account of a series of deep grooves in its surface once believed to have been used for sharpening arrowheads. The grooves are now considered to have occurred naturally when the rock was formed, and been further ingrained as the sandstone was worn away by the elements. Other, more intriguing marks lay buried beneath the concrete into which the stone was set eighty-eight years ago, having been relocated when houses were built on a nearby field where it had stood for who knows how long. These are known as cup marks and are believed to have been made in Neolithic times.

Newgrange, Ireland.jpg
CC BY-SA 3.0,

These same cup marks can be found on the Calderstones – the six curious stones from which this park takes it’s name – and also on stones in dozens of other sites across the UK. In Ireland, Switzerland, Spain, Italy, Greece, and modern day Israel there are stones with the same markings. The cups are often surrounded by concentric rings, sometimes accompanied by spirals and other patterns. While these marks are often found on rock outcrops, standing stones, and on cists (small stone built boxes) they are also commonly associated with passage graves. Passage graves consist of a narrow passageway made of stone leading to one or more burial chambers enclosed in more stone. A circular earthen mound is set over the chamber or chambers giving them a hillock-like appearance. The nearest such surviving tombs to the Calderstones are in Wales: Barclodiad y Gawres (“The Giantess’s Apronful”), and Bryn Celli Ddu (“The Mound in the Dark Grove”) one hundred miles to the West of here, on the isle of Anglesey. Both of these passage graves are virtually intact and some of their stones have very similar carvings to the Calderstones. Comparable patterns are also found on the stones of Irish passage graves at Newgrange and Knowth, which the welsh tombs also share similarities in their construction, size and layout with. These similarities have lead archaeologists to conclude that the Calderstones are in fact the remnants of a Neolithic passage grave constructed between four and five thousand years ago. These marks – these cups and rings and spirals and lines and even labyrinths – were carved by people who had no written language. This island having been cut off from the rest the landmass of Europe by a catastrophic tsunami some time around eight-thousand BC. The marks were made centuries before the Egyptians built the first of their great pyramids. Engraved when woolly mammoth still roamed in Russia, and bears, lynx, and wolves prowled the green forests of pre-England. The advent of these carvings represents a pivotal moment in prehistory – a time when humans were trying to find a way of expressing their thoughts and beliefs in a meaningful and lasting way.

But even though these marks are so widespread, so similar from site to site, their original purpose and meaning has been forgotten. Diverse theories abound, of course, but they generally agree on one point. These mysterious marks are more than mere decoration: they have a religious, or spiritual significance.

At least three other standing stones, like Robin Hood’s stone, once stood in the landscape surrounding the Calderstones as evidenced in a map of 1568. The cloth map represents the oldest surviving evidence of the Calderstones which were included as a boundary marker between the disputed limits of Allerton and Wavertree. Standing stones – so called satellite monuments – are often found in the area surrounding burial-ritual monuments, and again the Calderstones’ welsh cousins bear this out. These satellite monuments may have been sign-posts of a kind, showing those travelling to the tomb that they were on the right track, but they may also have had a more ritualistic purpose.

In the nearby village of Woolton a medieval cross made of sandstone stands at a crossroads, the remains of similar crosses can be found in the nearby districts of Hunts Cross (also at a crossroads), Garston and in Cronton, Widnes, less than twenty miles east of here. These crosses were created as Christian holy places where funeral processions could stop, the coffin bearers rest, on their long journey to the township’s church and burial ground. These were not mere markers or signposts, but mini versions, perhaps literal fragments, of the holy place itself. To me, it does not seem like any kind of stretch to assume that the carved stones which surrounded the chambered tombs may once have served a similar purpose.

There is something strange about the markings on many of these stones that I have not mentioned yet. That is that the carvings were seldom seen by the living. In the case of chambered tombs that stands to reason – in most cases nearly all of their carvings are on the inside of the tombs themselves and would therefore only be seen by those bearing the bodies into their final resting place and performing whatever rites and rituals stood in place of our modern funerary custom. But, if we return to Robin Hood’s stone for a moment and consider it’s markings once again: the weathering I mentioned earlier – the grooves that were never actually used for sharpening arrows they has taken centuries, perhaps millennia. Perhaps the stone did once have carvings above ground that have long ago been erased by the Wind and the rain, but the cups and rings which are now encased in concrete have been below ground for a very, very long time. Writing in the Journal of the Merseyside Archaeological Society in 2010 George Nash put forward the theory that these subterranean markings could have been intended to guide the spirits of the deceased away from the burial site to the prehistoric Underworld. Equally, these markers – these magical symbols – might have served to guide those ancestral spirits back to the ritual space of the chambered tomb. Perhaps they can help to guide them back here, to the park, to the stones, and to us.

This place – this green and leafy space – sits at the heart of a ritual landscape which the Calderstones have defined for thousands and thousands of years. But the shades of our Neolithic forebears are not the only spirits present, or called upon, here today.

Genius loci is a Latin phrase – translating as spirit of place – which is now most commonly used to describe the individual atmosphere, sense, or feel of a particular location. The 18th century poet Alexander Pope popularised this use of the term, making it an important principle in garden and landscape design. He wrote:

Consult the genius of the place in all;
That tells the waters or to rise, or fall;
Or helps th’ ambitious hill the heav’ns to scale,
Or scoops in circling theatres the vale;
Calls in the country, catches opening glades,
Joins willing woods, and varies shades from shades,
Now breaks, or now directs, th’ intending lines;
Paints as you plant, and, as you work, designs.

This verse laid the foundation for one of the most widely followed principles of landscape architecture; that garden designs should be adapted to the context in which they are located. As ancient as the origins of our current location may be, this park is, of course, a product of those principals to some extent.

In the early 19th century this land was owned by lead shot manufacturer Joseph Need Walker. This building we are in today was his home, completed in 1828. The surrounding parkland was his private estate and was augmented accordingly. In 1878 shipping magnate brothers Charles and David McIver bought the estate and began introducing trees from across the world – particularly from North America – to the parkland, many of which survive to this day. Liverpool Corporation purchased the park from the brothers in 1902 and in 1905 it’s gates were opened to the public for the very first time. Today, as well as its artificial lake, its walled Old English Garden, and Japanese Garden, Bog Garden, and Text Garden, Calderstones Park is home to an extensive and diverse botanical collection.

Long before the phrase became linked with gardening, landscaping and by extension architecture, town and city planning however, Genius Loci – a term originating from Britain’s Roman Conquerors – referred to an actual spirit, or deity, which inhabited, protected, and defined a particular space. At one time the Romans believed that everything had a genius – a spirit which was attached to that person, or object, or location, or in some cases concept – watching over it. The Genius was the soul; the spiritual, immaterial self of each individual thing but also a kind of guardian deity. The Greeks had a similar belief only they called their spirits Daimons. If you’ve got a fifty pence piece in your pocket then you might be carrying a representation of the genius of Great Britain with you – the Anglo-Roman Britannia with her trident, shield and Corinthian Helmet. She first appeared on Roman bronze coins in the first century AD, back when Hadrian – the one who built the wall – was Emperor.

Britannia’s anthem Rule Britannia began life as a poem written by the Scottish poet James Thompson. It was set to music in 1740 by the same composer who created God Save the King (as it was then), Thomas Augustine Arne, a contemporary of his. Thompson’s second best known work was The Seasons – a poem composed and published in four parts, each representing one of the four seasons.

Four stone personifications of the four seasons have stood at the Hearthill Road entrance to Calderstones Park since 1928. The quartet of neoclassical statues originally stood on the roof of a Victorian office block next to Liverpool Town Hall in the city centre, but were removed prior to its demolition in 1926. Each season is portrayed as a woman: Spring on the far left of the entrance is a young woman holding a bird’s nest in one hand, Summer holds a bouquet of flowers and has a basket of blooms at her feet, Autumn on the right of the entrance has a bare breast and holds a sheaf of wheat, while Winter, to her right, is a dour looking older woman wrapped in many layers of cloth with a cowl about her head. Here then are four of the Genuis Loci of Calderstones Park – the seasons themselves which control not only the flora and fauna of the parkland, but the ways in which visitors use and interact with the space.

In Roman mythology Vertumnos was the God of seasons, of change, and plant growth, as well as gardens and fruit trees. Although male he could change his form at will. Ovid’s Metamorphosesrecords a tale of how Vertumnos tricked Pomona – goddess of fruitful abundance – into allowing him to enter her orchard by transforming himself into an old crone. He then, of course, seduced her because Roman Gods were a bit like that, weren’t they?

Ceres was the Roman Goddess of agriculture, grain, fertility and motherly relationships often depicted with an exposed breast and a sheaf of wheat, just as our Autumn statue is.

Ceres’ daughter, the Goddess Proserpina was essentially a Roman analogue of the Greek Persephone and, like her, she was forcibly abducted by the God of the Underworld. Ceres was so distraught by the disappearance of her daughter that she transformed herself into an old crone and brought death to all the plants and crops in the world of men. When Proserpina eventually returned to her mother’s side, shoots sprang forth and flowers bloomed once more. But, having been tricked into eating food while in the Underworld, Proserpina was bound to the place and had to return there for four months of every year. So it was that when Proserpina had to go back to Jupiter’s realm, the leaves fell from the trees and the crops withered and died, but when she returned the Spring began again.

We have our four Greco-Roman seasonal deities then, but the Hearthill entrance still has more to offer. Each of the two huge stone gateposts is supported by a magnificent and gigantic statue of Hercules (or Heracles as the case may be) the skin of the slain Nemean Lion worn as a hood but tastefully knotted around his midrifl‘ so as to show off his heroic abs. And why not? Hercules was the son of the sky God Jupiter (or Zeus if he’s actually Heracles) and his own great-grandaughter. As I said, they were a bit like that. But what better gatekeeper of the parkland, what greater guardian could be invoked, than the divine hero – the man-god – so powerful that he is said to have shouldered Atlas’ burden of the sky itself for a time?

While the term Genius Loci originates in ancient Rome, the concept of a location having its own spirit or deity exists across many cultures. The woods which once covered this parkland and the surrounding are, among whose trees the inscribed stones once stood, were part of the ritual landscape – the sacred forest, or grove within.

In Japanese folklore, if a tree lives for one hundred years it is said that kodama take up residence in it. Kodama are tree spirits with similarities to the Greek Dryads. They are magical, sometimes mischievous creatures said to take on the appearance of atmospheric ghost lights, of animals, and sometimes of humans. Cutting down a tree which houses a kodama is thought to bring misfortune, and such trees often have a length of sacred rope tied around their trunks, both to mark them out and to protect them. Many of the trees here in the park are old enough to have their own resident kodama by now but I’ll return to that thought a little later.

The Japanese Garden here in Calderstones was created in the 1960s according to the basic principles of the Shinto garden. Shinto is the ethnic religion of the people of Japan. It focuses on ritual practices to be carried out diligently, to establish a connection between present-day Japan and its ancient past. Landscape and nature and place are all very much a part of their beliefs and the religion is also known as kami-no-michi – the way of the spirits. There is flowing water, carefully positioned stepping stones, a sense of concealment and a “journey” through the space designed as a kind of idealised Japanese landscape in miniature. There is a traditional Japanese stone lantern – a Toro- and among the many brightly coloured and neatly prunes trees and shrubs there is a Cryptomeria – or Japanese Cedar. This tree is is venerated in Shinto practice, and considered sacred.

More than one third of the official Shinto shrines in Japan are dedicated to Inari Okami – the androgynous spirit of of foxes, of fertility, rice, tea and Sake, of agriculture and industry, of general prosperity and worldly success. Just to put that in perspective, there are almost one hundred thousand official Shinto shrines in Japan, and that number does not include the thousands and thousands of small roadside or field shrines, shrines kept in homes and offices, or even smaller shrines without full-time resident priests. Inari shrines, even the small roadside ones, typically feature a statue of a kitsune – a fox. Official this is because of Inari’s white fox companions who are supposed to act as her messengers but there is an old folk belief, one which both Shinto and Buddhist priests try to discourage – that Inari is often to be found in the form of a fox. Back in 2013 the a BBC television programme called Urban Jungle briefly documented some of the wildlife here in Calderstones, and of course foxes were among the creatures they caught on film.

If Japanese kodama may have taken up residence in some of the park’s older specimens then it stands to reason that Native American Canoti – literally “tree dwellers” – should also now reside there, having hitched a ride on some of the specimens imported and planted by the McIver brothers back the Victorian era. The Canoti, and the smaller Canotila, are examples of the Native American “little people” – mischievous creatures which bear a striking resemblance to the dwarves, elves and fairies of European folklore.

Fairies, of course, come from a place called Faerie – a place that has much in common with the Underworld of antiquity. Some even believed that fae were not magical “others” but the spirits of those who had died long ago. Our ancestors. The true meaning and purpose Britain’s prehistoric monuments was forgotten thousands of years ago and, as moss and ivy covered the chambered tombs and the land felled and reclaimed its stones, these weird monuments became the relics of a mythic lost race; the fairies. The passage graves in Ireland and Wales became “faerie mounds” and acquired rich folklore – they were literal entrances to the realm of the fae and any damage done to them, even activity near them could come at a heavy price. The fae travelled between these mounds on straight tracks known as faerie paths – straight tracks following the same lines prehistoric men and women once walked bearing their dead to their tombs.

Other than risk entering faerie mount, another way to enter faerie, or at least to see fairies, traditionally is to step inside a faerie ring. A faerie ring is also known as fairy circle, elf circle, elf ring or pixie ring, is a naturally occurring circle of toadstools, and there is one here. Every September a little grove of trees over on the south side of the park is encircled by a ring bright red, white spotted, fairy tale looking fly agaric mushrooms. Every year myself and my kids step into it but the fairies have yet to show themselves.

Returning to tree spirits for a moment: over on the north side of the park near the junction of Menlove avenue and Calderstones Road another representation of Genius Loci once stood.


Sometimes in the mid 2000s the still upright trunk of a deceased Beech tree was transformed by sculptor Geoff Wilson. The tree became the figure of a long-haired woman, a cup or bowl held aloft in one hand as if in a triumphant toast, a fruit clasped to her in the other. Although in style she resembled a Native American Totem pole, her iconography was very Roman in as much as statues of Genuis Loci were often depicted with a libation bowl or cup, and a cornucopia of fruits and flowers. Around her waist she wore a belt of rope, just as the Japanese kodama trees are encircled with rope. The carving was called The Lady of the Forest but, perhaps fittingly, the wood has long since rotted away and returned to the soil.

If any tree in the park can be said to embody the spirit of this place that tree must unquestionably be the Law Oak. While the tree is not as old as the Calderstones themselves it is still a fair old age, estimated to have lived and grown in this place for more than one thousand years. Throughout the major cultures of Europe the oak tree has been held in high esteem. To the Greeks, Romans, Celts, Slavs and Teutonic tribes the oak was foremost amongst venerated trees, and in each case associated with the supreme God in their pantheon, oak being sacred to Zeus, Jupiter, Dagda, Perun and Thor, respectively. All of these Gods are Gods of thunder and it may be noted that the Allerton Oak does look as if it has been struck by lighting (though local folklore says the damage was done when a ship carrying gunpowder exploded on the Mersey). Oak, along with mistletoe, is popularly associated with the sacred practices of the Druids – those murky hooded figures who the rather romantic seventeenth and eighteenth century Antiquarians deemed responsible for Stonehenge and many of the island’s other prehistoric remains. The Allerton Oak stands close to the northern entrance to the park where a low stonewalled roundabout marks the spot where the Calderstones stood for a time arranged in a faux stone circle as Antiquaries of the day believed they should have been. Of the five roads that meet at that junction one, it may be noted, is named Druid’s Cross.

Besides their cups and rings and spirals The Calderstones have other markings too; nine stylised human footprints are carved into their surfaces. Eight of them have five toes and one has six. The footprints are thought to have been made at a later date, perhaps sometime around three thousand BC. The proper term from carvings of this is kind is petrosomataglyph. Again these carvings are found across the world. Sites including one near Loch Loren in Scotland, one on top of Tiantai hill on Wangan Island, between China and Taiwan, and on in the Pony Hills of New Mexico near the Mexican desert border, all have examples of tiny footprints carved into rocks which are said to have been left by “little people”. In many cases these marks are either natural occurrences which seem to have been improved by additional carving, or else there is the claim of some magical or spiritual source. The footprints of Jesus Christ, of The Buddha, of Abraham, of Muhammad, of King Arthur, and many saints and can be found in various locations where they are said to have magically appeared.

The Romans were accustomed to carve pairs of footprints on a stone with the inscription “pro itu et reditu” (“for the journey and return”). They used them for protective rites on leaving for a journey and for thanksgiving for a safe return. The traveller stepping into the outgoing to mark the beginning of their journey and the incoming pair to mark their safe return. This same story is told of King Maelgwn of Gwynedd in North Wales, who placed his feet in carved footprints to ensure his safe return from a pilgrimage to Rome.

Similar carvings once had a part to play in the ordination of kings. It was believed that only the rightful king was able to use them for the purpose that they were intended and by stepping into them he would prove himself worthy. Not only that but he would connect with the spirits of his ancestors who had previously done likewise and in doing so receive their blessings.

Pool Farm cist

The footprints carved on the Calderstones are stylised – each one having a blunt, squared heel. There is no question of them having been, or having supposed to have been, left magically, rather they are artistic representations of footprints. There are only a few British stones and artefacts with comparable carvings, most notably a cist which originated from the Pool Farm barrow in West Harptree, Somerset and features six such footprints. Because the footprints are all singular, each is thought to represent specific individuals. Whether these were people who were entombed there, who oversaw rituals, or perhaps acted as guardians of the site, we can only speculate.

So then, having identified some, but by no means all, of the Genius Loci of Calderstones Park, are we any closer to understanding the meaning behind those cryptic carvings and monuments which lend their name to this place? I think we might be. In a time before architecture, before landscaping, as we know it, prehistoric people endeavoured to augment their environment. They did so in accordance with the principles of Genius Loci and of Shinto Garden design, neither of which had yet been invented. They worked in sympathy, in harmony, with the natural look and lay of the land to create something artificial, man made, which nevertheless appeared organic and to belong to the landscape. They sought to make their mark, to create a monument not just to their lost loved ones but to their own culture and society and beliefs. These beliefs were founded on absolute truths: that Spring was followed by Summer was followed by Autumn was followed by Winter. That birth was followed by life was followed by death was followed by rebirth. Everything is a circle, a cycle, a spiral, a loop that keeps on looping.

So today we call upon the spirits of this place; the spirits of those pre-English ancestors who moved and marked stones and mounded earth with their bare hands, not just to honour their dead, but so that we might know something of what they believed and knew. Upon the hidden race of fairies and elves which they they later became in popular folklore and imagination. Vertumnos – God of growth and fruit and seasons, Ceres – Goddess of agriculture, grain, fertility and motherhood, Hercules – strong and powerful man-god protector of this parkland’s gateway. The kodarna, the canoti, the wood sprites, boggarts, goblins, and pooka. We call upon the Lady of the Forest, upon the spirit of the ancient Allerton Oak. All of these spirits we invoke, and we ask them to show us, to teach us. To share with us their knowledge of this place – this small suburban green-space which is all green-space, which is everything. A slice of the natural world which we kid ourselves we have altered and mastered and tamed but which, in reality, is merely a fraction, a sliver of the true order of things. A tiny piece of the ancient green-land which waits impatiently for the moment when it might reclaim what is rightfully its. All across South Liverpool centuries old roots ripple through tarmac, absorb railings and bow walls. Stop-motion brambles wind cunningly around fallen sandstone slabs, spider-walk through skull-socket knotholes, cascade over weather-worm fence-panel and post in a prickled, black-fruit foamed spray. The thin veneer of civilisation can be seen, almost heard, crumbling one driveway-fracturing dandelion at a time. This place does not belong to us alone, here our ancestors, our history, our folklore are all alive and waiting to be rediscovered. To reclaim and re-enchant this earthly realm.

So, I bid you welcome. Welcome to South Liverpool, to Calderstones Park, and to Spirits of Place.

Other #SpiritsOfPlace talks already published online include:

Cat Vincent’s “Where the Buddleia Grows

Gary Budden’s “On LandscapePunk

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