THE SOMERSET GIANTS
There are stories of giants all over Britain, but there is a distinct and unusual trail of giant stories that threads its way along the south coast of England, from Sussex to Cornwall, and then up the shores of the Severn Sea to Bristol. They have a number of factors in common, particularly the propensity of these particular giants to throw things, particularly at each other. They are stories rooted in real places, and it is only by visiting these places that one can ever hope to understand them.
The two giants of the Bristol area are called Goram and Ghyston. It should be explained that the connection of Bristol with the Iberian wine trade led, in the Middle Ages, to Bristol’s importing of the cult of Lisbon’s patron saint, Vincent. A cave in the rock face of the Clifton Gorge, originally associated with the giant Ghyston, became known as St Vincent’s Hermitage, and indeed I believe a chapel was built there that was dedicated to him. Because of the association of Ghyston with St Vincent, the giant himself acquired the rather implausible name of Vincent, so you will sometimes find tales referring to the giants Goram and Vincent: but the original names were Goram and Ghyston.
The best place to start understanding Goram and Ghyston is at Henbury, on the north-west periphery of Bristol. We find them in the prime of life, and with two splendidly contradictory stories. The first (and least interesting) is that they decided to build a great mound as a lasting monument to themselves: lazy Goram proposed to provide the bones from his feasts, whilst Ghyston would do all the digging. Ghyston wasn’t too enamoured with that idea, and proposed draining the great lake that used to stretch across from Bradford-on-Avon to north of Bristol (perhaps some residual memory of the melting ice after the last Ice Age), by digging a great gorge.
They started digging at Clifton, and very soon Ghyston had dug out most of the Avon Gorge. Realising that this could only ever be a memorial to Ghyston, Goram was stirred into action, and began his own gorge, here, three miles away, at Henbury, hoping that the resulting Hazel Brook Gorge would drain the lake before Ghyston’s was finished. Being a lazy giant, however, he saw to his own relaxation before anything else. He created a lake there, simply by stamping his foot on the ground, and smaller pond next to it, called Goram’s Soapdish, so that he could have a nice wash. He also carved a throne, Goram’s Chair, in the cliff face, so that he could rest after his exertions.
These sights are in the Blaise Castle Estate, which is open to the public. A path leads down into the gorge, past the lake: though it has sometimes been confused with Goram’s Chair, his Soapdish is in fact the small pond next to the main lake. Going down the gorge with the lake on your right (north), the chair is almost directly above on the left (south), though (in summer, at least) the beech trees clinging to the very steep gorge-side mask it almost completely. A little further down, though, is a corridor up the slope where the undergrowth has been cleared. If you can scramble up to the top there and then double back, you will find yourself at the top of the chair – and what an extraordinary thing it is: two flat-topped walls of solid rock, sticking out from the cliff, looking astonishingly man- (or giant-) made.
The alternative, more romantic version of the story, is that the giants began their respective labours at Clifton and Henbury as a way of competing for the love of the beautiful Lady Avona, the female personification of the River Avon, and perhaps the memory of a Neolithic goddess of this name who was worshipped in the locality. Lazy Goram, having carved out his chair, sat drinking in it until he fell fast asleep. Industrious Ghystson baulked no such delays, and finished the gorge at Clifton: down crashed the waters, rushing down to join the Severn Sea at Avonmouth, and all but draining the lake, leaving only a relative trickle to flow through Goram’s Hazel Brook Gorge.
Ghyston was happily married to Avona, who gave her name to his gorge – the Avon Gorge. Goram was furious: some say that the lake was in fact caused by him stamping his foot in rage. Coming back up the path from the gorge, you will find another path doubling back up the gorge’s north side, leading to the Gothic folly of Blaise Castle. On the way up you will pass an exposed patch of flat limestone, on which are a number of holes that look very much like larger-than-life footprints: these are said to have been where Goram stamped his feet in a tantrum of lovelorn rage. Of course, the ‘footprints’ here are of a considerably smaller entity than the one that would have sat in Goram’s Chair: with giants, you have to accept that the same giant can be imagined in several different sizes, ranging from anything than just bigger than a normal man, to towering right up into the clouds.
Continuing up the path to the folly, there are fine views across the gorge through the trees, and you should be able to see Goram’s Chair clearly.
Goram was remembered here by the Goram Fair, a funfair, held in 1954 and sporadically up to 1996, in Henbury. In 1993, Marc Vyvyan-Jones (with Roland and Linda Clare), wrote a mumming-style play based on the story, that was first performed by Rag Morris at Blaise Castle on 20 March 1993. And if you want to venture onto the Lawrence Weston housing estate, immediately north-west of Henbury, you can see the Giant Goram Pub on Barrowmead Drive, so-named, I gather, since the 1950s.
On the way to the Avon Gorge, you can wend your way through Bristol’s modern suburbs to find the Druid Stoke dolmen, in the grounds of a
private house, ‘Cromlech’, Druid Hill, Bristol: turn right off the A1462 and go along Druid Hill: the house is the second on the right after you have crossed the junction with Druid Stoke Avenue. The dolmen is in the flowerbed to your left as you peer through the gateway: if you want to take a closer look, ask the owner’s permission.
The suburb, created in the early 20th century, takes its name from the Rev. John Skinner’s notion that druids once performed rituals at this Neolithic long barrow, that Skinner first discovered here, on the slopes of Durham Down, in 1811. The tale Skinner heard from a local farmer was that the rivalry between Goram and Ghyston had developed into a fight, Ghyston hurling the rocks he was hewing from the Avon Gorge across at Goram, and Goram returning fire from Henbury: the capstone of this long barrow is one such rock, that fell short of its target: curiously, it is of a dolomitic conglomerate that is found in Henbury, which may indeed be where it originated.
The Avon Gorge, Clifton
The Clifton Suspension Bridge dominates the Avon Gorge. The hills on either side are the sites of (possibly opposing) Iron Age hillforts: there is one at Henbury too, and indeed all the places linked to these giants are places of ancient human habitation, lending some weight to the idea that these legends themselves may date back to the Iron Age. On the Clifton side of the gorge, the cliffs are known now as St Vincent’s Rocks, but were more anciently linked to Ghyston. Here, indeed, we can see the mighty gorge that Ghyston carved out to win the hand of the lady Avona. In the sheer cliff face is a cave, ‘the Gyston or Giant’s Cave’, where Ghyston lived. A narrow tunnel of steep steps leads down to the cave from inside the Observatory: presumably Ghyston himself got in by climbing up the cliff face.
In the Middle Ages there was an image of Ghyston, in terra portraiatum, ‘portrayed in the turf’, somewhere on Clifton Down. John Clark drew my attention to this reference by William of Worcestre (1415-c.1482) in his notes on Bristol, now in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge (quoted in F. Neale’s The Topography of Medieval Bristol, Neale, Bristol Record Society, 2000). It must have been similar to the images of Corineus and Goemagot in the turf at Plymouth Hoe. Worcestre writes about ‘Ghyston Cliff’, which, says Clark, is ‘on the Clifton side of the Avon Gorge, close to the site of the Clifton Suspension Bridge’, just below the site of the hill fort there which, Worcestre wrote, was ‘founded before the time of William the Conqueror by Saracens or Jews, by a certain giant [called] Ghyst’. It is a shame that no more seems to be known about this lost giant hill figure.
The next chapter in the story concerns the death of Goram. In the first story – the one in which they were both intent on building monuments – they are said to have shared a single pickaxe, throwing it back and forth as needed. Once, however, when Ghyston threw it from Clifton to Henbury, Goram had fallen asleep in his chair: the axe struck him on the skull and shattered it.
Goram was dead: some say his body was buried under the barrow tumulus on Charnborough (alias Charleborow) Hill near Holcombe, about 22 miles south of Bristol: sadly, this has been much reduced by ploughing, and is little more than a bump.
However, that is only one version of how Goram died.
This beautiful Iron Age hillfort stands just to the north the village of Norton Malreward, about 4 miles south-east of Clifton. It is reached by a footpath that continues the lane that runs up to its base from the village. The fort is thought to date from about 250 BC, though like many hillforts, the site may well have been occupied since the Neolithic. Its name comes from the British word maerc, ‘boundary’, the ‘maerc’ concerned being Wansdyke, the ditch that starts on the fort’s eastern slope and runs across to the next hillfort, Stantonbury, and then on east to the Savernake Forest on the Marlborough Downs. Wandsdyke is considered to be a Dark Age boundary, perhaps linked to the Roman-British attempts to halt the Saxon advance. The name is Saxon, alluding to the belief that it had been built by their god, Woden. The story that it was created by Goram or Ghyston dragging his pickaxe along behind him as he walked along is presumably a later addition to the older corpus of giant legends.
The giant concerned was probably Goram. The second version of the giants’ story, in which they competed for the love of Lady Avona, and Goram lost, imagines him wandering about in grief – quite possibly dragging his pickaxe along behind him – until he came here, to Maes Knoll. Some say he created this hill in the first place (or just ‘the Tump’ on top of it): one version says that, in his grief, he tripped over ‘the Tump’, an odd, high bank on the western edge of the hill.
An alternative version is that, in his grief, he jumped deliberately: his body, at any rate, was propelled east, and landed, splash, in the Severn, where he drowned. His head and shoulder were never submerged: they can still be seen, as the islands of Steep Holme and Flat Holme. This part of the story is peculiar: standing on top of the Tump, you can see across to Wales, but you cannot see the Severn Sea, and therefore not the two islands. However, form another hill fort, Brent Knoll, further south-west down the coast, you can see the islands beautifully (ands they do (with a little imagination) look like a submerged giant.
There was also a stone-throwing story here, but one now attributed not to the giants, but to Sir John Hauteville or Hakewell. John Aubrey’s Monumenta Britannica (1664) tells how he threw a great rock from the top of Maes Knoll, that landed a full half mile away, and for this the king gave him Norton Malreward: the stone is called Hauteville’s Quoit, and lies in the hedge of Quoit Farm (on the B3130, just east of Stanton Drew).
In the first version of the story, in which Ghyston accidentally killed Goram, he is said to have built the Wedding Circle at Stanton Drew, as a memorial to him. This is just south of the foot of Maes Knoll, and each can clearly be seen from the other.
That this circle of huge sarsens should have been imagined to have been giant-built is no surprise: the story links this impressive ring into the matrix of local giant legends. It should be noted that the story also says that this act of filial penance did not assuage Ghyston’s guilt fully, for he went on to build Stonehenge and the Giant’s Causeway, too: but these, I think, are later additions to the story, and not part of the original at all. After his building activities, however extensive they really were, Ghyston went back to Clifton and died, of exhaustion, in his cave overlooking the Avon Gorge.
(C) copyright Anthony Adolph 2012, revised 2018