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When it comes to folklore memes at ancient sites, there are several stories which occur again and again around the country. But at most sites, these stories are singular. Stanton Drew in Somerset is a little bit different. A complex of features, known collectively as ‘The Weddings’ including the second largest stone circle in England, two further circles, an avenue, cove and nearby quoit (or remains of one) all add up to a rich vein, not only of a archaeology, but also associated folklore.
To the north of the three circles is Hautville’s Quoit. All that now remains is an unremarkable piece of a capstone by a hedge, which was once reputed to weigh up to 30 tons, but which has been broken up over the years for road building material. The stone was said to have been cast down off the nearby Maes Knoll, an Iron Age hillfort to the North, by the giant Sir John Hautville in bygone days. A feature known as the Tump, in the hillfort is supposedly made of earth dumped from the spade of another giant, who forgot why he was carrying it.
To the south west is the Cove, three large stones, one of which is fallen. These are supposedly the petrified remains of a bride, groom and preacher, turned to stone after their wedding celebrations continued overnight into the Sabbath.
Between these two are three stone circles; a small one to the southwest near to the Cove, the Great Circle consisting mainly of recumbent stones, and a northeastern circle. The stones in these circles are reputedly the wedding guests similarly petrified for dancing on the Sabbath, the musicians making up the Avenue in the northeast sharing a similar fate.
And finally, any attempts to count the stones on site are fraught with danger as a dire (but unspecified) fate apparently awaits anyone who is successful in this endeavour.
Given the location, with the River Chew to the north, and the local church being a short distance away in the soutwest, the only commonly recurrent theme that appears to be missing here is the one where the stones go down to the river to take a drink. Maybe the dancers just weren’t thirsty?
But does any other site have such a range of folklore attached to it?
It is well known that the vast majority of stone circles in the British Isles are not actually circles. In fact, there are very few that are truly ‘circular’ in the sense of having a regular, circular ground plan. The shapes can vary from circular, through regular ovals to ovoid, to flattened version of any of these. But there is one form of stone circle that doesn’t fit into any of these categories, that of the ‘Four Poster’.
Four Poster ‘circles’, as their name suggests usually consist of just four uprights, laid on the plan of a circle, sometimes with a fifth recumbent stone. The majority of this type can be found in Scotland, though there are several examples throughout England and some in Ireland. The stones in a true Four Poster are generally placed at the cardinal compass points. Those that have been dated were constructed in the Bronze Age. The English Heritage Monument Class definition describes them thus:
A four-poster stone circle is a rectangular or sub-rectangular setting of four or five stones which are, or were once, upright. The corner stones of the rectangle are usually placed on the perimeter of a good circle, aligned on the cardinal points and are graded in height. The rectangle varies considerably in size from 13m squred to 345m squared. Four-poster stone circles may be recognised in the field as ruined standing structures or from antiquarian sketches. Other components which may be present are cupmarks on one or more of the stones, outlying standing stones, and a mound or cairn within the stone setting.
Four-poster stone circles vary considerably in size, the area enclosed by the rectangle varying from 13m squared to 345m squared. Some appear to have been laid out as a rectangle, others as a circle and some as both. It is the circumferential siting of the stones of four-posters that justifies the otherwise paradoxical use of “circle” for what appears to be a square or rectangle.
Possible examples in Ireland can be found described under ‘Labbamolaga’ and ‘Lettergorman’ on the Irish Megaliths web site. There are also various entries on the Modern Antiquarian and Megalithic Portal web sites describing many of the Scottish circles, many of which are extant in Perthshire. Aubrey Burl, in his book “The Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland, and Brittany” is convinced that the Irish versions of the four-poster model have their design origins in Scotland. The dates for the examples in Perthshire are somewhat earlier than those in SW Ireland, bearing out the possible migration south of the building tradition for this type of ‘stone circle’.
So, the answer to the question in the title: “When is a stone circle not a stone circle?” would appear to be “When it’s a square!”
There’s a proposal for a new Stonehenge to be built just 6k from the original as a “homage” to it and as a major tourist attraction. It will be built using different-coloured stones from around the world and will last thousands of years. The entire structure will be polished and set into a floor of white quartz granite and surrounded by a white stone wall and will give “an opportunity to experience what our ancestors experienced when they went to the original one”! In addition there will be yurt huts for visitors to stay in, a planetarium and an observatory…..
It will cost £50 million but the organisers aren’t supplying the money. Private investment is currently being sought, with organisers expecting the attraction to make back the outlay within 6-10 years of it opening.
A cynical person has suggested it’s all flim-flam mixed up with the adjacent 1250-house development site that Wiltshire Council has proposed – and that once that’s in someone’s bag the whole Stonehenge thing will disappear and be replaced with a childrens’ play area. We don’t think that though, obviously.
It is strange to think of a time when a monument as beautiful as Castlerigg stone circle was virtually unknown beyond Cumbria. For some reason it wasn’t mentioned by the early antiquarians William Camden (1551–1623) or John Aubrey (1626–97) despite both having visited the area to study megalithic monuments and it subsequently fell to William Stukeley to “discover” it…..
“For a mile before we came to Keswick, on an eminence in the middle of a great concavity of those rude hills, and not far from the banks of the river Greata, I observed another Celtic work, very intire: it is 100 foot in diameter, and consists of forty stones, some very large. At the east end of it is a grave, made of such other stones, in number about ten: this is placed in the very east point of the circle, and within it: there is not a stone wanting, though some are removed a little out of their first station: they call it the Carsles, and, corruptly I suppose, Castle-rig.”
The above is believed to be the earliest account of Castlerigg, having been published in Itinerarium Curiosum in 1776, 11 years after Stukeley’s death and 51 after his visit. In the subsequent decades it increasingly came to the attention of the wider public and inspired the writings of both Coleridge (who visited in the company of Wordsworth) … “a Druidical circle [where] the mountains stand one behind the other, in orderly array as if evoked by and attentive to the assembly of white-vested wizards” (1799) and Keats “Scarce images of life, one here, one there,/Lay vast and edgeways; like a dismal cirque/Of Druid stones, upon a forlorn moor…” (1819)
By 1843 it appeared in “The Wonders of the World in Nature, Art and Mind” by Robert Sears which drew on an earlier description by Ann Radcliffe (a pioneer and populariser of the Gothic novel): “There is, perhaps, not a single object in the scene that interrupts the solemn tone of feeling impressed by its general character of profound solitude, greatness, and awful wildness.”
In 1883 the significance of Castlerigg was formally recognised at a national level when it became one of the first ancient monuments to be scheduled. In 1913, following a public fundraising campaign, the field in which it stands was purchased and then donated to the National Trust. Today it attracts thousands of tourists and is the most visited stone circle in Cumbria – and, in the eyes of some, the most magnificent one in England.
Having visited the Rollrights last weekend we thought we’d show a few changes, good and bad, that have happened there since the previous articles we did in May and June 2005.
On the downside the visitors’ hut has gone, burned down by a vandal. But on a happier note there is now a superb witch near the King Stone…..
In 2005 a unique new pram and wheelchair-friendly pathway had just been laid from the King’s men to the Whispering Knights…
Now, it has matured and blends in. (Note, it remains grassy not muddy despite it being winter. Might something like it be suitable for use at places such as Stonehenge and Avebury?)
In 2005 the previous year’s catastrophic paint attack was yet to be addressed…
now, there is scant evidence of it. Even the largest lichen, reportedly many hundreds of years old, now looks relatively unscathed….
In 2005 a number of notable people attended the opening of the new facilities including George Lambrick and Aubrey Burl, as shown in this photo by Heritage Action’s Jane Tomlinson
Also in attendance that day were Morris Men, King Arthur Pendragon and the local MP, one David Cameron. Sadly we don’t have a picture of the latter. If we did it would be kind of unique and we could caption it “Cameron supports heritage preservation” and everyone would laugh heartily!
In the end though we can report that thanks to the Rollright Trust, not Mr Cameron, the stones remain in good hands and good shape….
A Wicked Witch….
(David Gosling’s sculpture of the witch who turned the King into the King Stone)
A Musical Witch
…. and a lurking Wedding Witch (maybe!)
Not for the first time the setting of Duddo Stone Circle, said to be the most complete and dramatically situated of Northumbrian stone circles, has been under threat from a proposal to build a wind turbine.
Scottish company 3R Energy Solutons want to build a 74-metre, 800 kilowatt machine on farmland at Shoreswood, south of Berwick but the proposal has just been unanimously rejected by county councillors, following advice from the County Archaeologist that it would result in “significant and unacceptable” impact on the setting of the monument which is less than two miles away.
Case officer Frances Wilkinson said: “It is considered that the proposal would have a very damaging effect on the appreciation of the Duddo Stone Circle from the main approach and that its setting would not be preserved. Significant weight does need to be given to the benefits of the proposal, however, the harm to the setting of the Duddo Stone Circle SAM (scheduled ancient monument) is considered to outweigh these benefits. The proposal is consequently considered to be unacceptable.”
However, this is unlikely to be the end of the matter as the developer has said it will be lodging an appeal. Given that the balance between the need for energy and the need to preserve heritage comes down to personal opinion there is no certainty that the Inspector won’t reverse the decision.
The Four Stones are situated in the centre of the Radnor Valley or Walton Basin in Powys, an area surrounded by hills and exceptionally rich in prehistoric heritage including two cursuses, six standing stones and the largest neolithic enclosure in Britain. Small wonder that the area attracted the attention of Alfred Watkins and indeed the monument and its surroundings were central to the development of his theories about ley lines.
Watkins suggested that six lines could be drawn from The Four Stones and he was particularly impressed by one he believed could be drawn from the Stones up to the churchyard of St Stephen’s in Old Radnor…..
The church and churchyard contain several features that have been cited as pointing to possible pre-christian usage including a massive font hewn from an erratic bolder that some say may have been used in prehistory, traces of a round churchyard and possible standing stones built into its boundary wall. Most intriguing of all is this stone, carved as a gravestone in the twentieth century but of unknown previous origin.
Nowadays there’s no direct line of sight from that stone to The Four Stones down in the valley as a modern house has been built at the crucial point. It is quite likely there could have been previously though – here is the view from a few yards nearer the church….
The trouble is, considerable zoom had to be used on that image and “in the flesh” you would need the eyes of a hawk to spot the monument – even if there were no intervening trees (which is quite an assumption in itself). The essence of the theories proposed by Watkins (the original ones, not the New Age interpretations!) was that sites could be seen, one from another. However, while St Stephen’s church can certainly be easily seen from The Stones it’s less certain that any prehistoric structures around it would have been – and it is clear to all who look that The Stones themselves would be very hard to spot in the opposite direction.
Last month, we set our first ever prize competition: to name 12 stone circles in England from images taken from Google Earth.
Unfortunately, no-one managed a full set of correct answers. So to put you all out of your misery, the correct answers are:
Circle 1 – Boscawen-Un, Cornwall We thought the circular hedge and central stone may have been a give-away here, and were right. The largest number of correct answers.
Circle 2 – Fernworthy, Devon Much trickier, and only a few people got this one right.
Circle 3 – Stanton Drew, Avon The dual circle was the main clue here.
Circle 4 – The Rollright Stones, Oxfordshire Another easier one, the closely packed stones and closeness of the road being good clues.
Circle 5 – Arbor Low, Derbyshire The classic ‘clock-face’ of the fallen stones made this another easy one to identify.
Circle 6 – Castlerigg, Cumbria The internal cairn was a good clue, but offset by the presence of a visitor, which some thought may have been a stone.
Circle 7 – Swinside Sunkenkirk, Cumbria This caught quite a few people out, despite the nearby track and tightness of the stones to each other.
Circle 8 – Mitchell’s Fold, Shropshire The most difficult one. Very few identified this.
Circle 9 – Stanton Harcourt, Oxfordshire Recently reconstructed, and featured in a recent article.
Circle 10 – Scorhill, Devon We thought the sets of three stones might be a clue here, but only a couple of people got it.
Circle 11 – Stannon, Cornwall Another difficult one, with no real visual clues. This caught a lot of people out!
Circle 12 – Long Meg, Cumbria Another easy one, and a popular answer. the road through and the outlier stone (Meg herself) were the main clues here.
And the winner is…
…to be drawn at the Megameet in Avebury next month. A total of six names will go into the hat for the prize of a £20 Amazon voucher, those being the people that got most answers right (10/12). The prospective winners have been notified of their inclusion in the draw, and we hope they will be able to attend in person on the day. Many thanks to all those that took part, and commiserations to those whose names will not be going into the draw.
All images taken from, and copyright of, Google Earth.
We’ve not had a competition here on the Heritage Journal before, but that’s all about to change! Shown below, courtesy of Google Earth, are pictures of twelve stone circles in the British Isles, as seen from above. Quite simply, your task is to name all twelve.
All correct answers received to our email address (See our Contact Us page for the address) before publication of the answers next month, will be entered into a prize draw. The winner will receive a prize of our choosing. The editors’ decision is final, no warranty implied or intended, blah, blah, blah.
…and that’s all there is to it! How many can you name? Don’t forget to email us your answers.
All images taken from, and copyright of, Google Earth.