This henge and stone circle is entirely a reconstruction, improbably situated between a flooded gravel pit and a landfill site just south of the village of Stanton Harcourt to the west of Oxford. But this is far from a ‘Disney’ theme park site. The large circular enclosure is defined by a bank and internal ditch, which has entrances to the east and west. Within lies a circle of 28 local conglomerate stones, the Quoits, with one off-set on the south side.
The nearby village of Stanton Harcourt takes it’s name from the stone circle; Stan-tun, or “farmstead by the stones”. This nomenclature is also seen in other sites, such as Stanton Drew south of Bristol, and Stanton Moor in Derbyshire. The village became known as Stanton Harcourt after Robert de Harcourt of Bosworth, Leicestershire inherited lands of his father-in-law at Stanton in 1191. The manor has remained in the Harcourt family to the present day.
In the Second World War, the two remaining stones at that time were flattened (but recorded) as part of the construction of a wartime airfield, the henge and ditch having disappeared long before as the result of earlier agriculture. Thus the site had all but disappeared from the record with nothing remaining to be seen.
Excavations in the area first started in the 1980’s and have continued for over 3 decades, largely overseen by Oxford Archaeology. A report of findings has been produced, showing that the area has been in extensive use for habitation and ritual since at least the Neolithic, right through to the post Roman era.
With use of the site planned for gravel extraction, in 1996 Time Team recorded a dig here. In Season 3 episode 2, recorded in April 1995, the team unearthed evidence of remains of mammoths and other prehistoric animals. The conclusion was that the site had been in use since at least the Mesolithic period.
In 1846, the stones at that time were described briefly in “The wanderings of a pen and pencil” by F. P. Palmer and Alfred Henry Forrester:
…we turned our steed to the village, and inquired of the first juvenile upon the road the whereabouts of the stones in the vicinity, usually called the “Devil’s Quoits.”
“It’s over the field,” said the smock-frocked urchin, pointing westward, in the direction of the stream. At our bidding, and with the understanding of a compensation, we wagged his pair of cumbrous heels by the side of our vehicle, and became our guide. The first rude stone lies in a field to the right of the field road, and is of no great size. the second is in another in a “land” further on. The third, and the tallest, beyond that, in another ground.
“Them be the devil’s kites!” said the guide; “a many year ago they carried a bigger than all on ’em away, to make a bridge somewhere.” We alighted, and deliberately inspected them. They are of the sandstone common to the country, veined with a deeper shade.
By 1856, Dicken’s Dictionary of the Thames counts only two of the stones, and gives a brief mention of their possible origin.
Some half-mile from Stanton Harcourt are two large stones called the “Devil’s Quoits”, which are said, on doubtful authority, to have been set up to commemorate a great battle fought in 614 between the Britons and the Saxons under that Cynegil who was subsequently baptized by Birinus at Dorchester.
Lewis’ Topographical Dictionary of England (1835) also mentions this same battle (and may well be source of the quote above), adding that more than 2000 Britons were killed in the battle.
The name of the “Devil’s Quoits” pertains to another legend, outlined in the book ‘Oxfordshire Folklore’, by Christine Bloxham (tempus 2005), it is said that the Devil was playing a game of quoits and was told off by God, because it was a Sunday and there was to be no recreation. In a petulant fit of anger the Devil threw the quoits as far as he could and where they landed became the site we now know.
A different legend suggests the same devil was playing a game of quoits with a beggar, which the beggar lost. The quoit remained to form the henge we see today. One of the stones was reported to have been removed for a bridge over the nearby Black Ditch. However, the stone kept slipping and would not remain in place, so was returned to the circle.
But what of the monument today? Completely reconstructed, some would now dismiss it as a fake. Certainly, the ground inside the henge is strewn with litter and bones (and the smell!) from the nearby landfill, and the makeup of the soil being largely uncompacted suggest that it’s a relatively new addition. True, rabbits (a largely Norman import) have devastated the banks of the ditch despite all efforts to control them. And yet, standing on the raised bank of the henge, looking across at the altered landscape, this site has a certain something evocative of the past.