Location Analysis: Peterborough-Stamford Wild Hunt - Part One

A blast from the past may explain Ermine Street's missing section. And start to explain Europe's Wild Hunt folklore. Fri 01 December 2023

Wild Hunt folklore hints at scorched earth warfare. Source: Netflix via Polygon

Wistman's Wood is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) on Dartmoor, Devon. It lies on acid granite rocks just below a spring - the source of the Devonport Leat. Its boggy soil supports acid-loving plants like bilberry, lichens and moss. Its distinctive trees are 17th century dwarf oaks, whose contorted branches drape over boulders or trail on the ground:

Source: Wistman's Wood - Wikipedia

From Wistman's Wood - Wikipedia:

A fringe of bracken surrounds much of the wood, demarcating the extent of brown earth soils.

The boundaries of Wistman's Wood are very distinct:

It's the green patch on the left. Source: An Enchanting Walk Around Wistman’s Wood

You can just see its brown bracken border.

Wistman's Wood is associated with Wild Hunt folklore. Specifically, as a 'kennel' for Wild Hunt 'dogs' ('wisht hounds').

Noke was a boggy Oxfordshire village until drained in 1824. Two remnants of its oak woods survive but a road (presumed Roman) traced between Noke and Drunshill is now lost.

Noke is associated with Wild Hunt folklore.

Sutton Heath is a boggy Site of Special Scientific Interest on a hillside a few miles north west of Peterborough, Cambridgeshire. The relatively acid soil of Sutton Heath's grassy slope supports rare plants in this otherwise alkaline limestone area.

Source: Sutton Heath and Bog - Wikipedia

Sutton Heath is close to England's best-recorded Wild Hunt folklore.

From Wild Hunt - Wikipedia:

Many men both saw and heard a great number of huntsmen hunting. The huntsmen were black, huge, and hideous, and rode on black horses and on black he-goats, and their hounds were jet black, with eyes like saucers, and horrible. This was seen in the very deer park of the town of Peterborough, and in all the woods that stretch from that same town to Stamford, and in the night the monks heard them sounding and winding their horns.

Peterborough's deer park is now under Peterborough's Bretton suburbs, start of a ten-mile Wild Hunt track to Stamford:

Track of Peterborough-Stamford's Wild Hunt.


  1. The Wild Hunt tracks over a woodland plantation called Castor Hanglands. See Location Analysis: Royston Cave - Part Three.
  2. From the Wild Hunt's start at Bretton, Peterborough, the patchy woods around the area are generally labelled 'plantation'. Meaning they are from the 18th century or later.

From The Wild Hunt:

The Wild Hunt is a common motif in the folklore of many European cultures.

It is mentioned most often in Germanic and Norse regions. It is a part of the folklore of Britain, France, Spain, and parts of Eastern Europe as well.

In most cases, the Wild Hunt was seen as a portent of a catastrophe. It was said to appear before plagues, wars, famines, and the deaths of those who witnessed it.

In Germany, the Wild Hunt is typically led by the god Wotan, although related female deities were sometimes identified instead.

Sometimes it is lead by ... Count Hackelberg or Count Ebernberg

From The Family Memoirs of the Rev. William Stukeley, M. D., Vol III, William Stukeley, published 1887, diary entry dated 1737-09-10, at Castor, Peterbororough, p56:

They have still a memorial at Castor of S. Kyniburga, whom the vulgar call Lady Ketilborough, and of her coming in a coach and six, and riding over the field along the Roman road, some few nights before Michaelmas (29th September).

Stukeley says Lady Hackelberg - vulgarly called Lady Ketilborough - died more than '600 years agoe'.

Which puts her arrival before 1137.

From The Wild Hunt:

An English account from 1127 claimed that several reliable witnesses, including monks, witnessed the Wild Hunt riding between Peterborough and Stamford over a period of nine weeks.

Stukeley captured another Wild Hunt attribute when he wrote that Lady Ketilborough rode:

over the field along the Roman road

Wild Hunt folklore advises those caught in the riders' path to lie flat. If they were lucky, the flying riders would pass harmlessly overhead.

That doesn't sound like good advice for an encounter with the 24 hooves and four wheels of a coach and six:

Folklore says horseshoes are lucky. Source: Postal vehicle, coach and six

Examined conventionally, Stukeley's account of Lady Ketilborough's arrival - or fly-by - contains several problems:

  • It seems odd that memories of Lady Ketilborough's arrival '600 years agoe' had not been usurped by the antics of later dignitaries.
  • If she came along the original Roman Ermine Street, then she offers a remarkably well preserved memory of one Roman dignitary's arrival.
  • If she came along the 1,500 year old, overgrown and - by 1736, partially lost - Ermine Street, she didn't arrive in a conventional wheeled carriage.
  • And if Lady Ketilborough arrived in any known form of wheeled carriage, it's unlikely she came over a field.

A decryption key may lie in Wild Hunt folklore's apparent mixing of memories of two separate, momentous historical shifts.

From The Wild Hunt:

While early medieval accounts portrayed the Wild Hunt as demonic, later romances imagined it as a host of fairies. English leaders of the Wild Hunt included Nuada, King Arthur, Herne the Hunter, Wild Edric, and King Herla.

the Wild Hunt was even led by Sir Francis Drake.

Ie, An earlier event brought on by mostly unnamed demons and a later event associated with named heroes, apparently assisted by fairies.

Stukeley's evidence also suggests two phases: a building phase and a destruction phase.

Stukeley set off down the Stamford to Peterborough stretch of Ermine Street in May 1736 because he heard Roman Durobrivis - was being uncovered.

From The Family Memoirs of the Rev. William Stukeley, M. D., Vol III, William Stukeley, published 1887, entry dated 1736-05-21, at Castor (Roman Durobrivis), Peterborough, p47:

They are plowing the city of Durobrivis.

It doesn't take a genius to work out that the easily accessible and well-watered River Nene meadows at Durobrivis/Castor/Water Newton should already have been well ploughed.

And well picked over.

In the 1,500 years since the Romans allegedly left, the meadows had offered farm-produce, ready-cut stones, tiles, lead sheet and Roman nick-knacks to anyone with a spade. Or with just hands. All conveniently sited ready for transport and sale into Peterborough's markets just four miles downriver.

Yet Stukeley reports a strange mix of Roman Castor and medieval Castor being dug up - and pulled down - as he arrived:

Now they are pulling down many of the buildings, the old stately hall, selling the slate, timber, and stone.

They now dig up the stone coffins of the old lady abbesses, &c., and sell them.

They lately dug up tesselated pavements in the churchyard.

They still dig up Romans in Castor's churchyard:

Roman bodies last longer than everybody's. Source: Time Team Castor S16 Ep08

Romans dumped on villa floors.

Three months later, Stukeley described 'vast foundations' and fields 'full of fragments of tiles and the like' at Cotterstock - another just discovered Roman site 12 miles upstream. There he noticed a boggy area created by a spring that once fed into a tiled Roman conduit.

And despite speculating the site had been plowed 'time beyond memory', Stukeley acknowledged local claims that one of the structures now scattered across Cotterstock's fields had been a large warehouse.

The ruins - spanning from Southwick to Cotterstock, north of Oundle, Northamptonshire - have since been labelled part of a large Roman iron smelting site. Stukeley said stones from the destroyed warehouse were used to build St Andrew's Church, Cotterstock.

Warehouse to church conversion should sound familiar.

Stukeley also says Ermine Street north of Castor was becoming overgrown with 'daneweed' Sambucus ebulus - a fast-growing pioneer weed and therefore new on the road.

Charles Frederick revealed more about this curious stretch of Ermine Street when he walked it 32 years later.

In Some Account of the Course of the Erming-street through Northamptonshire, and of a Roman burying Place by the Side of it in the Parish of Barnack, Charles Frederick, Archaeologia Vol 1, 1770, pp 61-62: was baffled by an inexplicable bend in the road two miles south of Stamford, Lincolnshire:

the Erming-street enters a small paddock belonging to Thomas Noel, Esq; at Walcote, and runs just within the wall; and upon its leaving the paddock enters a large common field, where it takes a remarkable circular sweep, merely to comply with a natural ridge of the ground which runs in that form, though the ground on either side is equally dry

He probably means the orange segment on this map:

Roman Ermine Street's inexplicable curve.

Fredrick's "natural ridge of the ground which runs in that form" doesn't blend in very well since it was ploughed out:

The after-plough stain of an artificial agger. Source: Google Maps

Frederick didn't comment on what Ermine Street's unnatural curve did next. How it turned kinky as it crossed the southern side of St Michael's priory. Better known today as Burghley House.

But he did describe the materials recovery going on just south of Ermine Street's inexplicable curve:

it passes through the parish of Barnack in Northamptonshire, where the ground on each side of the road has been opened a large space to dig for stone; and these pits from a small Hamlet in this parish, are called Southrope pits.

In those of the west side of the road many Roman coins and antiquities have been found.

From which remains it is evident that this was a considerable burying place during the government of the Romans in this island;

evident from the vast quantity of cinders and fragments of urns found there

Helpfully, Frederick identified the northern edge of these excavations:

After passing these pits, the Erming-street enters a small paddock belonging to Thomas Noel, Esq; at Walcote

The small paddock is probably today's 'Southorpe Paddock' - just north of two more or less oblong, water-filled pits:

Southorpe pits and paddock.


  • Blue marker: Southorpe pits and paddock
  • Red line: Ermine Street

Southorpe's remains baffled Frederick as much as Ermine Street's sweeping curve:

That it was the custom of the Romans to bury their dead without [meaning: 'outside'] their towns or cities, and most usually by the sides of their highways, is a fact known to everyone who is the least conversant in their antiquities; but the distance of this burying-place from any known Roman station, seems indeed a little extraordinary, it being at least three miles from Durobrivae [Castor]

The location of Mr Noel's paddock may seem trivial. But it's important.

If Frederick passed Noel's paddock, he must have passed the ruins of Southorpe Palace:

Site of the unmentionable Southorpe Palace.


  • Blue marker: Southorpe pits and paddock
  • Black marker: Southorpe Palace site
  • Red line: Ermine Street

For some reason, neither Stukeley nor Frederick mentioned Southorpe Palace, its extensive outbuildings, or its former owners. Even though its ruins and fishponds were still shown on maps more than a century later:

The ruins are Grange Farm today. Source: National Library of Scotland

Perhaps they just forgot.

Harder to explain is that neither Stukeley nor Frederick mentioned another Ermine Street oddity to the south of the palace, the paddock and the pits.

That Ermine Street breaks apart as it crosses Sutton Heath.

Sutton Heath's twin Ermine Streets as mapped 1895. Source: National Library of Scotland

The road on the left was then a footpath that fizzled out in Sutton - a village just below the bottom of this image. The road on the right continued south as Ermine Street.

The suggestion of squares between the two sections of Ermine Street may hint at platting - the grid layout favoured by Roman town-planners. And when you travel north along the left hand stretch of Ermine Street, every so often you'll see lumpy fields to your left to Southorpe and beyond. Roman quarries. Or more likely, quarried Roman buildings.

Today, any former Sutton Heath settlement exists only as a terse reference to a Romano-British settlement. And a little icon:

But only on some maps.

You can zoom in and out of the next map to see the route taken by of each section of this stretch of Ermine Street:

Sutton Heath relative to track of Peterborough-Stamford Wild Hunt.

Depopulated England. Eyewitness Evidence includes Stukeley's quote that 'a considerable town' has been destroyed near here. He says Silburton Lodge is the only surviving house among the ruins then visible at Sibburton - less than a mile south west of Sutton Heath.

The map suggests Stukeley was correct.

Here's how these hints of lost town look on the map. Stukeley's 'considerable town' of Silburton in yellow, Sutton Heath in orange:

Ermine Street's lost suburbs in yellow and orange.


  • Blue marker: Southorpe pits and paddock
  • Black marker: Southorpe Palace site
  • Red line: Ermine Street
  • Yellow circle: Centred on Stukeley's destroyed 'considerable town'
  • Orange circle: Centred on Frederick's cinder-strewn Roman remains
  • Blue circle: Ruined city of Durobrivis/Castor/Water Newton

The size of the circles is my guess. But other clues suggest the yellow and orange circles really did overlap.

In 1997, archaeologist Frances Condron described the curious features of Roman iron smelting furnaces found at Thornhaugh and Sacrewell - which lie between Sutton Heath and Sibburton. It was a long paragraph so I've extracted only the essential parts. You can read the original in Part 2 of Iron Production in Leicestershire, Rutland and Northamptonshire in Antiquity in Transactions of the Leicestershire Archaeological and Historical Society 71. Vol 71, pp. 1-20:

several bowl and shaft furnaces were built over demolished out-buildings. The excavator suggested that these belonged to a post-abandonment phase, though earlier finds of 18 furnaces may show longer-term interests in smelting or forging (though these remain undated),

At present, Sacrewell is unusual in the close association between dirty, polluting iron smelting and high-status residence, which favours interpreting the remains as a smelting and forging centre established over a newly abandoned villa.

Key take-aways:

1. That's a lot of Roman iron smelting furnaces. 2. These furnaces are hard to date. 3. 'Thornhaugh' may be a clue. Furn-haugh. Like Furness Abbey. 4. Suggestion of an attempt to re-build smelters on destroyed structures.

Today, Stukeley's ruined 'considerable town' of Sibburton is presented as one smelting site in a patchwork of east Midlands Roman ironworks and quarries extending over 20 km (15 miles).

Here's that patchwork on a map with Condron's difficult-to-date iron furnaces shown as the red circle:

Iron smelting complex - bounded by ruined Roman ports and road.


  • Red line: Ermine Street
  • Yellow circle: Centred on Stukeley's destroyed 'considerable town'
  • Orange circle: Centred on Frederick's cinder-strewn Roman remains
  • Red circle: Condron's Thornhaugh/Sacrewell iron smelting complex
  • Grey circle: Large scale iron smelting site (allegedly Roman)


1. Condron's 18-plus, hard-to-date, smelting complex sits between two apparently missing Roman settlements and an enigmatic break in a major Roman road. The density suggests this area was home to more than a handful of re-purposed Roman villas.

Thornhaugh, Sacrewell, Sibburton and Sutton Heath look like the remains of a larger Roman town or suburbs four miles north west of the Roman port Durobrivi - on the river Nene. The complex is also about five miles south of Stamford.

Curiously, in 1727, Francis Peck noted a similar problem shows up north of Stamford. Peck pointed out that Roman settlements were usually spaced from ten to 30 miles apart. But Roman towns north of Stamford - such as Great Casterton and Little Casterton - were only a few miles apart from each other.

Peck suspected all these towns had been part of a much larger complex of Roman suburbs around Stamford.

2. The grey circles only show Roman iron smelting sites. Many more iron works have been found, including quarries, ore crushers and smithies. The importance of smelting works is that their furnaces produce higher quality iron and require huge amounts of energy.

Energy that was - somehow - made available to the smelting sites in the grey circles.

3. If you were clearing away the infrastructure of an earlier culture, your earth-moving machinery might leave memories similar to Wild Hunt folklore. For the machinery, see Ice Age Sites of Britain's Serpents - Part four.

4. If you were attacking a branch of the Roman empire, or the Holy Roman empire, or Civil War defences, you would likely focus on destroying key infrastructure.

If you could destroy two river ports servicing an area of iron furnaces, plus a major road linking them, plus associated infrastructure, would you focus on that location?

Wild Hunt folklore is ambiguous on the issue.

From The Wild Hunt:

These versions of the hunt were sometimes said to have a specific prey, usually a young woman. Sometimes this was an innocent victim, but in other cases it was a female demon.

In other accounts, the hunt did not chase prey. Instead, they fought amongst themselves and would kill any unfortunate person who happened to be nearby.

The first version sounds like a witch hunt.

The second sounds like Civil War.

Both of which - in England - reached their peak in 1649.

Part two will look show how England's other Wild Hunt locations are sited amid signs of warfare and large-scale landscaping.


For more evidence of a late-Holocene terraforming in this region, see:

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