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The Warring Giants of Dudley and Birmingham

A published folklorist, Pollyanna enjoys writing about hidden histories, folk customs, and things that go bump in the night.

Image from "Strange Lands: A Field Guide to the Celtic Otherworld".

Image from "Strange Lands: A Field Guide to the Celtic Otherworld".

When we think of folklore, Birmingham and Dudley don't seem to be the likeliest of places to find old tales. However, these are not exempt from myth and legend as the people of these areas explain the lore of the land.

Birmingham is a bustling city of culture, contrasts, and surprises, one of which is found along Warstone Lane, Hockley, in the city's famous Jewellery Quarter. An old rock, seemingly out of place in the middle of this cosmopolitan district, tells many tales which offer a fascinating glimpse at Birmingham's past, going back thousands of years.

Known as the War Stone, the boulder has been a feature of interest to geologists and historians alike. The folklore associated with this curious rock helped to uncover the mystery of a lost castle of Birmingham.

The grand entrance to the Warstone Cemetery, with the War Stone itself just to the left of the building.

The grand entrance to the Warstone Cemetery, with the War Stone itself just to the left of the building.

The War Stone

The War Stone

The History of the War Stone

The War Stone is in fact a glacial erratic, dumped in the area at the end of the last Ice Age, around 10,000 years ago. The fact that it is still visible in the centre of Birmingham is somewhat astonishing.

Mounted on a plinth next to the entrance to the impressive Victorian Warstone Cemetery in Hockley, this curious rock has an engraved inscription beneath it which reads:

THE WAR STONE
This felsite boulder was deposited near here by a glacier during the Ice Age: being at one time used as a parish boundary mark. It was known as the Hoar Stone of which the modern War Stone is a corruption.

This stone was first recorded in 1390 as a boundary stone. These markers were common around Britain and set out the boundaries between parishes, districts, or estates. Known at this time as the Horenstonfeld, it marked the point where the boundaries met for the manors of Handsworth, Birmingham, and Aston, long before these villages became part of the city of Birmingham. Horensonfeld is derived from the Old English "har stan feld" which literally means "boundary stone field".

The purpose that this stone served throughout history is the likely reason that it has survived in situ to this day. It was illegal to move a boundary stone, and each year, there was a customary walk around the markers of an area to check that such stones were still in place. Grave were the consequences for anyone who dared to try to move the markers to increase their own acreage!

The beautiful Victorian Warstone Lane Cemetery features some atmospheric Catacombs.

The beautiful Victorian Warstone Lane Cemetery features some atmospheric Catacombs.

This glacial erratic seems most out of place in its urban setting.

This glacial erratic seems most out of place in its urban setting.

Evidence for a Castle

Over the years, the name Horenstonfeld became corrupted by local dialect. At first it was shortened to "Hoar Stone", then to "War Stone", as its history was forgotten by the lay-folk of the area.

Naturally, such a curiosity needed an explanation for its origins, and this was to be found in folklore.

What is forgotten about boundaries is made up for by something far more interesting. Evidence for a castle that may once have stood in this area.

Who would have thought that a castle could be found in the middle of Birmingham City Centre?

Who would have thought that a castle could be found in the middle of Birmingham City Centre?

Dudley Castle

Dudley Castle

The Legend of the Fighting Giants

John Noake recorded a folktale from Dudley in his 1856 work, "Notes and Queries for Worcestershire" [1]. This tale explained how the War Stone was deposited in its present location as a result of a battle between two feuding giants:

At Dudley there is a tradition that many years ago a giant lived in Dudley castle, as did also one in the castle of Birmingham. The Birmingham giant had done suit and service to the Dudley giant for many years, but growing fat he began to kick, and refused to serve the Dudley giant longer. A furious dispute thereupon broke out; the Dudley giant in his rage threw a large stone all the way from Dudley at the Birmingham giant and demolished his castle and killed him. Some of his surviving followers erected a stone in the lane as a memento of his prowess and rage and called it the War Stone, whence the name Warstone Lane.

The view from the Keep of Dudley Castle.

The view from the Keep of Dudley Castle.

Early photograph of the War Stone with the chapel of rest in the background. The chapel was destroyed by a German bombing raid in 1940 and no longer stands.

Early photograph of the War Stone with the chapel of rest in the background. The chapel was destroyed by a German bombing raid in 1940 and no longer stands.

Birmingham's Lost Castle?

Whilst Dudley Castle survives, standing proudly over the Black Country, no trace can be found of the one in Birmingham. The giant of Dudley certainly seemed to have done his job well!

There is no smoke without fire, and the legend helps provide evidence to pinpoint the location of a castle that may once have stood in the area.

The War Stone is found in the district of Hockley which is derived from Old English "Hocca's Leah", meaning "Hocca's Clearing". Some suggest that it was derived from "Hocca's Lowe", meaning "Hocca's hill/mound".

Hockley is sited alongside Icknield Street, used at least since Roman times as a major route through Britain, and many forts and settlements have been found or even still stand along this great road.

A moated site was visible in the 18th Century in the area where Warstone Lane and Vyse Street now meet, which is thought to have been Sir Thomas de Birmingham's castle, known as "Warstone near the Sandpits", recorded in the late 14th Century [2].

Anglo-Saxon Times

Such a castle may, if the Old English name pinpoints the site, have dated back to the time of the Anglo-Saxons. During these times, many settlements were fortified with wooden perimeter walls, with a moat outside. These would protect the inhabitants and livestock from wild animals and raiders to their communities, and there is evidence such as with sites like Eddisbury hill fort in Cheshire, that ancient hill forts from the Bronze Age were re-used and used as Anglo-Saxon burhs.

We see this happening across much of Britain; when a site is chosen as a strategic location for a fort, it is re-built on over the centuries by each incoming civilisation to our lands. There are many moated houses around Britain these days that no longer resemble the defensive structures that would have stood on the site, and the moated property on the corner of Vyse Street and Warstone Lane may well have been such a structure by the time it was lost beneath the growing city.

I find it incredible that a simple folktale of a giant's boulder helps mark the spot where Birmingham Castle may once have stood.

Finding the War Stone

Grid reference: SP059877.

Near to the junction of Warstone Lane and Vyse Street in Birmingham's famous Jewellery Quarter, the site is easily reached by bus or train.

The War Stone is located near the entrance to Warstone Lane Cemetery, also known as Brookfields Cemetery, on a plinth on the western side of the ornately blue brick lodge.

Parking for cars is available locally, and the site is suitable for people with disabilities. No toilet facilities are available, but there are plenty of cafés in the area where you can refresh yourself.

The site can be visited 24 hours a day, every day of the year, and is free of charge.

Sources

[1] John Noake, Notes and Queries for Worcestershire (1856) - ASIN - B00A30LKZQ

[2] William of Dargue, A History of Birmingham Places and Placenames

© 2015 Pollyanna Jones

Comments

Pollyanna Jones (author) from United Kingdom on November 05, 2015:

Thank you Jennifer, and CrisSp! I am glad you found this interesting. I often find things when I am out and about, and have to find out all of the hows and whys as I have a thirst for all sorts of random information. As a collector of stories, I also love to preserve and share them. This one really was a surprise when I came across it.

CrisSp from Sky Is The Limit Adventure on November 04, 2015:

Well detailed and very much enjoyable. Not surprised that this has been picked as HOD.

Congratulations and thank you for the educational tour.

Jennifer Mugrage from Columbus, Ohio on November 04, 2015:

Thank you for this article! I LOVE tales of ancient giants. Turns out there is quite a bit of evidence for them, from around the world.

Of course, that doesn't mean this stone was actually thrown by a giant, b/c your article is also about something else that I love ... etymology and false etymology (untrue stories of how words came to be what they are.)

I also love reading about ancient Britain. So you are three for three. :-) So glad this was made the Hub of the day.

Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on November 04, 2015:

You're very welcome Polly. It was quite intriguing to know about it, too.

Pollyanna Jones (author) from United Kingdom on November 04, 2015:

Thank you Kristen! I am so glad that you enjoyed this article.

Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on November 04, 2015:

Polly, this is a great hub. It's so interesting to know about the castle and the War Stone from way back then. Great travelogue with awesome pics, too. Congrats on HOTD!

Brian Langston from Languedoc Roussillon on October 18, 2015:

Fab Hub Polly which made fascinating reading. As a native of the Black Country I didn't know any of this history. Wonder whether Warstones in Wolverhampton has any connection? Loved the illustrations too!

Don A. Hoglund from Wisconsin Rapids on October 18, 2015:

Folklore and legends are so much a part of culture and adds to understanding it. Thanks for sharing this story.

Pollyanna Jones (author) from United Kingdom on October 18, 2015:

Thanks all! It was a real surprise to find this legend and the history associated with the site. I never knew so much was going on, and it's all thanks to this old rock!

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on October 17, 2015:

This was very interesting Pollyanna. Thank you for the enjoyable read.

David Hunt from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on October 17, 2015:

I really enjoyed this, Pollyanna. I like the way you lay out fact and myth and since it was connected to my first hometown I had to read it. Your writing skills are excellent.

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on October 17, 2015:

This is quite filled with interesting information especially the War Stone, having survived all of these many years later. And the use of boundary stones is quite fascinating too.

Angels are on the way to you this evening ps

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