Exploring Britain's landscapes of love and lust

From fertility symbols to suggestively-designed gardens, these British sites have become icons of the inappropriate – but have their meanings been misinterpreted?Friday, 14 February 2020

For millennia, different cultures and societies have expressed and celebrated their sexuality through symbolism and metaphor in Britain. In some landscapes the representation is subtle, while others, such as giant chalk figures, leave little room for ambiguity.

Archaeologists trace threads of continuity from prehistoric peoples to modern times in much of this symbolism. Communities generally adopt and maintain similar interpretations from their predecessors, says Cathy Tuck, landscape archaeologist and author of ‘Landscapes and Desire’. This explains why, for century after century, villages celebrated May Day in the same place, or went to the same spot to consecrate marriages – the symbolism passed from one society to its successor through folklore and folk memory, says Tuck. 

“Symbolism passed from one society to its successor through folklore and folk memory.”

And often, when presented with hills that looked like breasts or resembled a pregnant belly, communities have reciprocated with their own symbolic creations. 

From stone circles to giant hill carvings to phallic graffiti and lascivious stately home gardens, “the resulting legacy is an environment as beautiful, quirky and intriguing as any on earth,” says Tuck. Here are four of the most striking examples of such landscapes: from the mysterious and ancient, to the grandly new.

Men-an-Tol, Cornwall

With two erect pillars and wide circular hole, there’s no need for imagination to see the sexual symbolism of Men-an-Tol in Cornwall.

But despite local folklore that says passing through the stone will result in pregnancy, finding real evidence of a fertility link with this unique Bronze Age structure is more of a challenge. Constructed about 4,000 years ago, experts now consider Men-an-Tol’s pillars and hole to have formed part of a stone circle of 19 pillars.

Cheryl Straffon, former chair of the Cornish Ancient Sites Protection Network, says, “There are no written records, but some suggest the 19 stones referenced the 19 years for the moon to complete its cycle.” More recent archaeological work indicates the hole has been turned by 90 degrees, and that if it were in its original position it would be perfectly placed to align wth the moon and frame it at the lowest point of its cycle. “If that were the case, to see the moon through the hole must have been a magical sight,” says Straffon.

In the years since, legend and folklore have inevitably become attached to Men-an-Tol, with two competing visions for its purpose.

The first is as a cure for 'crick', otherwise known as a bad back. Adults would pass through the 0.5m diameter hole nine times anti-clockwise (or 'widdershins') in relation to the sun, and children three times to relieve their aches. Interestingly, a test of radiation and ultrasound around the edge of the hole found it to be more than twice the level of surrounding granite. Bronze Age locals may not have had a geiger counter, but they may still have been sensitive to the healing powers of short bursts of radiation.

The second legend pitches the monument as a stone of divination. From the 16thto the 18thcentury, people would place a brass pin on it, and whichever way the pin moved answered their questions.

“Elsewhere you very often find associations between holed stones and having a very easy childbirth, curing infertility, delivering a good harvest or an abundance of calves,” says Straffon. “But the only written evidence for Men-an-Tol is for crick or divination.”

Cerne Abbas, Dorset

First impressions leave nothing to the imagination when faced with the giant chalk figure near the Dorset village of Cerne Abbas. It’s often only later that visitors notice the enormous club that the figure is wielding above his head. The blatant masculinity of the 60 metre tall giant, with his 7 metre erect phallus, would seem to indicate an ancient fertility symbol – and local folklore certainly entertains the idea of childless couples making love in the chalk carving in the hope of conceiving.

History, however, would seem to dispel the idea of the figure as an ancient Celtic sex symbol, says Dr Martin Papworth, archaeologist for the National Trust, which has looked after the site for a century. “The first reference to the figure was in 1694 in church warden accounts,” says Papworth. “There were very detailed surveys in the early 17thcentury and they made no reference to it at all.”

The Cerne Abbas giant is hard to miss or ignore, which has led to a variety of different explanations. One attributes it to a satirical representation of Oliver Cromwell by the royalist Lord Holles, who owned the hillside, with the club and phallus mocking Cromwell’s military law and prudish puritanism. “More recently it’s been suggested that it could be a representation of William III,” says Papworth, or at least William’s hero Hercules, a club-wielding deity, often associated with fertility. 

“James II, the catholic, had been ousted and William of Orange needed to establish himself as a warrior and strong protestant. Though not a strong figure himself he likened himself to Hercules,” says Papworth.

This year the National Trust will try to date the figure through the optical iridescence of silt at the bottom of the giant’s feet and elbows, using a technique that can record when the last light hit the sediment. “Each time the giant is chalked there is run-off to these collection points, which enables you to be confident that there is silt from the time when the giant was first constructed,” says Papworth.

West Wycombe, Buckinghamshire

To the casual eye, the gardens at West Wycombe Park in Buckinghamshire are simply a fine example of elaborate Georgian tastes. Look more closely, however, at the Temple of Venus where an oval slit opens onto a small cavern, and the erotic symbolism is soon apparent.

The gardens were the handiwork of Sir Francis Dashwood, an infamous hedonist and founder of the notorious Hell-Fire Club, which celebrated drinking, free love and debauchery in its mock religious (Black Mass) ceremonies. Dashwood commissioned the gardens of sculpted mounds and hollows to evoke the naked female form, and his vision would not have been lost on his guests.

Fellow Hell-Fire member, John Wilkes, described the the entrance to West Wycombe’s Temple of Venus as, “the same entrance by which we all come into the world, and the door is what some wits have called the ‘Door of Life’.”

Landscape archaeologist Cathy Tuck sees a direct line of continuity stretching back from the libertine designs of Dashwood to the sexual symbolism of land and monuments among ancient societies.

“He wanted to invite young ladies to his gardens and to create a very titillating environment for people to have fun in,” says Tuck. “Dashwood used prehistoric symbolism in the gardens at West Wycombe. He was basically mimicking exactly the symbolism that the prehistoric people had seen thousands of years before.”

Northumberlandia, Northumberland

Archaeologists at the turn of the next millennium will have far better documentation about the origins of Northumberlandia, completed in 2012, than today’s have of monuments built 1,000 years ago, but it would still be fascinating to see the interpretations they draw from this vast site.

Built with 1.5 million tonnes of spoil from an open cast coal mine, the recumbent female form of Northumberlandia, the Lady of the North, stretches for a quarter of a mile with 100-feet high grassy breasts. She is thought to be the largest human landform on the planet, a female Gulliver who automatically transforms visitors into Lilliputians. 

Up close and personal, so to speak, visitors have little anatomical sense of where they are walking as four miles of footpaths gracefully sweep up, over and around the curves of the body. Only the lips and nose of the face are truly distinctive. From the air, however, the striking scale and beauty of this new monument take on an entirely different perspective.

Northumberlandia was the brainchild of landscape designer and architectural historian Charles Jencks, who died in October 2019. Responding to local concerns that the Lady of the North promoted paganism over Christianty, he told the Wall Street Journal“They were worried about it being a pagan love god that would inspire the locals to make love on her. She’s not a pagan god – and people aren’t going to lose their moral compass if they walk all over her.”         

The beauty of art, however, is that it’s open to individual interpretation, and while Jencks insisted that Northumberlandia does not relate to a particular goddess or religion, he did consider it to be “a landscape which incorporates references to the human body towards which we have a natural empathy.” 

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