Mysterious Stone Heads.
Sometimes I come across an interesting story from a word or sentence in a book, however in this case I was visiting a friend in the nearby town of Biddulph, when his wife, who is a keen rambler told me that on one of her recent walks she had passed through the yard of a farm in a remote area of the county of Staffordshire. The name of this property is Porters Farm, and what sets it apart from others is the fact that there is a number of stone heads which have been incorporated in the walls and buildings of the property when it was built.
I decided to do two things, firstly I would find the property myself and photograph it and secondly I would try to understand the purpose of these unusual stone heads.
After locating the property on an Ordnance Survey map I found the house to be situated off a back road which runs between Lask Edge and Rudyard lake, and on the 23-12-14 I photographed the property and stone heads in question.
The first thing that struck me was that the heads had been located in places where they would be seen by anyone passing through the property, so their purpose was to be seen by people and not hidden away, as to their function that would become clearer with more research.
An interesting extract from a book by John Billingsley is as follows; ” the image of the human head appears to stand for a kind of gatekeeper of the threshold, or even a guide to, the otherworld regions. The motif therefore also offers a clue to the pagan and superstitious conception of where the otherworld may be contacted. At such points we may also expect to encounter, as we do, folklore relating to witches, fairies and other cross boundary beings, hauntings or paranormal phenomena…..”
It came as quite a surprise to me when I found out that these stone heads had different categories and even sub categories. What follows covers some of these categories:
Stone heads protecting rivers and fords.
Places where two rivers meet, or where a bridge crosses a stream or watercourse are traditionally regarded as magical boundaries where contact with the otherworld was possible. Rivers themselves can be seen as both natural and supernatural boundaries, and bridges and fords that cross them can be interpreted as boundaries within a boundary, as evidenced by the tradition which asserts how the Devil, Witches and evil spirits are unable to cross running water.
Whereas charms such as horseshoes, witchposts and lucky stones were apparently used as protective talismans at fords and bridges in southern and eastern England, the use of heads appears to be confined to the north and west of the British Isles. Carved stone heads and in some instances human and animal skulls can be found in a variety of contexts in the Pennines as protective charms.
I believe that the category that fits Porters farm would most likely be the Stone Head as a House Guardian. This is a category that has direct parallels with a number of other aspects of stone head traditions, the most striking of which are the guardian skulls. Basically, these are stories which suggest that a carved head has become identified so strongly with a building with which it has become associated that a tradition has grown up suggesting that under no circumstances must it be removed from the threshhold. Often these skulls, or stone heads, as the motif seems to be interchangeable in many cases, are kept in specially made niches or bricked into walls to ensure they cannot be removed or disturbed. If this taboo is broken, oral tradition suggests those responsible will suffer misfortune, bad luck or some other form of supernatural retribution.
The identification of heads with a building can also be seen as an interpretation of skulls or heads representing a physical embodiment of an ancestor of the family or clan, who provides what is in effect a guardian spirit of the house and family hearth. This kind of belief can be found most clearly in the story from Carnac in Brittany where the head represents the animus loci of the deceased owner of the building it protects. The following is the account from Carnac told by a former Derbyshire resident, John Taylor Broadbent who describes a carved stone head he noticed while on holiday in northwest France in 1996:
“I was staying at a campsite at Le Pan, which is about four hundred metres from Old megalithic
stone rows at Carnac, in Brittany. We had gone for a walk out of the entrance down the road
which leads to the alignments and we happened to pass a small cottage. There we saw a carved
stone head standing on a garden wall looking out onto the streets
We saw it and were
fascinated by it because it was very like one of the Brigantian heads but obviously was not all an
ancient one. The face was carved in high relief, with an oval face and deep set slot eyes, a
stylised Celtic moustache and a slightly gaping mouth. I was so curious I went and knocked on
the door and the owner, an old lady aged 84, came out. I asked about the head in French and
she said “Oh, it is my husband. ” She then said when they got married and got the cottage
together, he made (carved) this head about sixty years ago and put it on the wall to protect the house. He had died around twenty or thirty years ago… “but he is there… he’s in the head,
looking after the house. ” There are a lot of similar stone heads in Britanny, the one I found was
set on a wall and I was able to find how old it was and what its purpose was. From what the
old lady told me it acted as the god of the house, a spirit or head of the family, an ancestor. She
talked about the head and the standing stones as if they were living things. It reminded me of
the heads built into the yeoman houses of West Yorkshire, some of which have seventeenth
century dates carved below them. “”