Middlewich Heritage - Benchmarks

Local residents might justhave noticed, especially families with younger children, that Middlewich has adopted an unusual way to express itself. How? Well, small smooth stones are decorated, labelled… and placed in public locations around town. Artistic imaginations are set free. Miniature images range from simple daubings and inevitable holiday or festive themes to amusingly clever cartoons. Those who paint, hide or collect are ‘Pebble Finders’!

Facebook fad or expression of identity? Currently the practice is popular not just here or even in the wider county (known as ‘Cheshire Rocks’) but also in many countries around the globe. When it re-opened, Fountain Fields recreation park became part of the trend. The community was invited to contribute to the art installation there – and it did, enthusiastically. Remembrance Sunday too has seen a drift of poppy pebbles as this year’s Armistice Day marked 100 years since the end of the First World War.

But is this an entirely new craze? Not really. Far from it, in fact. There are many historical instances of ‘rock-marking’. Examples can be found right here in and around Middlewich.

In the lateeighteenth centuryOrdnance Surveymapping teams added curious inscriptions to British landscapes. ‘Benchmarks’ formed a national network for accurately measuringdistances and heights above sea level.During the following two centuries around half a million more were inscribed - hand-sized cutmarksconsisting ofan up-arrow andhorizontal stroke, calledthe ‘levelling line’.Often these strange-looking symbolswere incised into semi-permanent vertical surfaces. Church walls or stone bridgeswere common sites. One appears atthe base of St Michael’s Church tower. Another faces Nantwich Road by the canal bridge; and a horizontal version lies on the top steps of Stanthorne Lock.

Yet ‘Cheshire Rocks’ has another meaning entirely, and well before all that. In early Christian times the ecclesiastical centre of this district was at Sandbach. Monumental stones there are quite special. Carved, coloured and bejewelled these tall, ninth-century Saxon Crosses in the marketplace beamed a bright new Biblical message. What an impact these shining sandstone obelisks must have made on early medieval populations.

Age-wise even all these efforts pale by comparison, because recently one of the oldest known rock drawings in the world was discovered. A South African cave yielded a single but telling stone fragment. It bore an distinct pattern of abstract red markings… and is dated to 73,000 years or so of antiquity. Clearly humans have felt moved to mark rocks for a longtime – and it’s not that unusual!

© Julie Elizabeth Smalley 2018

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