& the Amazing Double Sunset
Double Sunset at Leek, Staffordshire
by Kevin Kilburn, F.R.A.S.
Nothing lasts forever, so they say. This equally applies to one of Staffordshire's most notable curiosities, the double sunset seen from the churchyard of St. Edward the Confessor, at Leek in the Staffordshire Moorlands, north-east of the Potteries and a dozen miles south of Macclesfield, Cheshire. I began my investigations into the phenomenon in August, 1998, initially from an astronomical perspective. Within a couple of weeks, however, certain archaeological implications became so obvious that they could not be ignored. The result was a paper published in the February 1999 edition of Astronomy & Geophysics, the Journal of the The Royal Astronomical Society. This shortened version has been especially written for the Manchester Astronomical Society's web page.
The present church dates to the 13th century, although there are references to a building on the site in pre-Norman times that was destroyed by fire. Although there is no direct evidence in the form of artefacts, because the immediate area has never been excavated, there is circumstantial evidence that suggests that the hilltop on which St. Edward the Confessor stands may have been in use as a Neolithic place of reverence more than three and a half thousand years before the building of the church. This argument is immediately bolstered by the name of an old house nearby called Foxlowe. The placename, 'low', is commonly used in these moorlands to identify prehistoric sites, tumulii and burial mounds, which are usually on hills. There are archaeological records describing other Neolithic finds elsewhere in the town.
A detailed account of the double sunset can be found in Dr.Robert Plot's book, 'The Natural History of Staffordshire'. This was published in 1686 and dedicated to King James II. Dr. Plot was Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum and Professor of Chymistry at Oxford. He described how on midsummer's day the sun was observed from Leek churchyard to set behind a hill called the Cloud. It would then reappear and set again on the more distant horizon of the Cheshire plain.
"...This hill is so situated with respect to the Churchyard of Leek, that a spectator standing there of an evening three or four days before the 10th of June, beholds the disk of the sun gradually emerging from beyond the northward side of the hill, which is nearly perpendicular..."
Plot's date, 10th June, is that before the introduction of the present Gregorian calendar in 1752 which added eleven days to the date of the summer solstice, now 21st June.
The Cloud is six miles (11km) from Leek and about two miles (4km) east of Congleton, Cheshire. From the church the Cloud still presents a very distinctive profile, although not the same as in Robert Plot's day. Quarrying in the early nineteenth century demolished the northernmost side of the hill including a tall column known locally as 'Bully Thrumble'. It's stone was used by Thomas Telford in the construction of the nearby Macclesfield Canal and for the aqueduct built by William Crossley over the River Dane.
Plot proposed using the phenomenon to accurately monitor changes in the angle of the Earth's tilt. This is presently 23.5 degrees but varies either way. Since 3000BC the tilt has slowly reduced from nearly 24 degrees. In prehistoric times, the sun was about half a degree higher in the midsummer sky and at the solstice it set somewhat northward of its present setting point, just clipping the hill top. Since then, because of the changes to the tilt, the solstitial sunset has slipped southwards along the horizon and will continue to do so for many thousands of years before reversing. From the site of the church, the double sunset did not actually start until Iron Age times, ca 500BC.
Plot suggested measuring the portion of the sun reappearing from behind the hill with a micrometer eyepiece attached to a telescope. By making a series of such observations over several years, these could be used to deduce an accurate value for changes in the obliquity of the ecliptic as it reduced over time. For my own investigation, I used modern computer software to 'observe' the changing aspect of the Leek solstitial sunset, over a period of thousands of years, setting against a computer generated profile of the hill, itself checked against photographs taken from the churchyard.
In the May 1738 issue of the 'Gentleman's Magazine', the double sunset was discussed by Mr R. Brookes in a letter to the editor. A woodcut, showing the sun disappearing behind the hill and reappearing, was later used to illustrate further correspondence on the subject in the July issue. But setting aside the astronomical observations which had so obviously attracted the scientific curiosity of Dr. Plot, presumably because it was already so well known in the area; why should the occulted sunset be most readily observable from an ancient churchyard ?
Judging from the orientation of many Neolithic tombs and monuments, our prehistoric ancestors had a basic appreciation of the cycles of the sun and moon which was apparently associated with their reverence for their dead. The age of astronomy, between about 3200BC and 2500BC, saw the construction of monuments within so-called 'sacred' landscapes.
I suggest that the location of the church may indicate one such site. The precision of this natural alignment is much better than the famous midsummer sunrise above the Heel Stone at Stonehenge. Significantly, the alignment also matches the deliberate orientation, also towards the midsummer sunset, of Arbor Low, the "Stonehenge of the North", nine miles (15km) south of Buxton and about fifteen miles (24km) ENE of Leek. Arbor Low dates to approximately 2700BC.
I could find no signs of similar prehistoric sites on recent Ordnance Survey maps of Leek, but I did discover that there was another alignment, a completely new finding, that lends weight to the idea that Leek was a place of sun worship in prehistoric times.
In 1862, John Sleigh, in his 'History of the Ancient Parish of Leek, in Staffordshire', recorded that a large burial mound, "forty yards in diameter and six high" (38m x 5m), was excavated on what is now the Westwood estate. Cock Low has long since been obliterated by housing development but was near to the present playground in Spring Gardens. On 29th December, 1851, cremated human bones were found together with pieces of a burial urn. For many years, the urn was kept at Leek Art Gallery, in a room above the Public Library.
From Cock Low the double sunset was never visible, but four and a half thousand years ago the midsummer sun did set above a shallow depression in the horizon, immediately due south of the Cloud and exactly over the Bridestones, an even older Neolithic long barrow burial chamber which can still be visited today. I do not believe that this long-forgotten alignment is coincidence. It is typical of those in Neolithic 'sacred landscapes'.
In my opinion, Leek Parish Church occupies a very special place and one that may arguably have been a place of worship for five thousand years. Many visitors go to the churchyard on Midsummer's Day to watch for the double sunset but until very recently overhanging trees have obscured the view.
Now, thanks to Revd. Keith Jones, who has shown an interest in this investigation, the trees have been trimmed and the double sunset can once more be seen, weather permitting.
Unfortunately, ongoing reduction in the Earth's tilt is causing the midsummer sunset to move inexorably southwards. Eventually, after about AD2500, the sun will not reappear beyond the Cloud having once set upon the summit. Sadly, the double sunset will then cease to be visible from the churchyard for more than ten thousand years.
Footnote: With the permission of Revd Jones, the last double sunset of the millennium can be observed from Leek Parish Church on Monday, 21st June 1999. Weather permitting, this will allow photography of the phenomenon and a more accurate prediction to be made of the future observing prospects of Dr. Plot's amazing double sunset.
© Copyright (1999) Kevin J Kilburne-mail on the above subject is most welcome. firstname.lastname@example.org
All images © MAS / K Kilburn / John Barnatt / H Bode