Writer's retreat

Writer's retreat

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Stone Circle Hunting in Winter

When an opportunity arose to greet the sunrise at Stonehenge, I jumped at it. Never an early riser, the winter months appeared to give ample time to welcome the light at a reasonable hour. As the date grew closer, a welcoming bed and breakfast was booked in Salisbury and we began to think of where else we wanted to visit either side of our morning access to Stonehenge. Avebury and Glastonbury came to mind, with the possibility of local Iron Age hillforts if weather and time allowed.

We sought the less travelled route of the Fosse Way, following it down through Cirencester and then heading to Swindon and finally Avebury, where we stopped for a late lunch.

The village of Avebury lies within a circular earthwork, 400 m wide, with a deep external ditch whose circumference is over 1200 metres. Inside is a 400-metre diameter circle of immense standing stones, and inside that there are two more stone circles each 100 metres in diameter. The village clusters inside the circle. To reach the impressive sandstone sarcens you have to go into four different fields and cross the busy road – not an easy task in the Wiltshire rush hour!

Wandering inside the circle, our thoughts turned to the original function of Avebury. The stones were quarried from the Avebury hills some 2-3 km eastwards and were first brought to the site from about 2800BCE. It is thought all the stone circles, earthworks and stone avenues were constructed during the following five thousand years.

We reasoned such a project would not have been achieved merely for religious reasons but for the entirety of people’s lives. The circles may well have housed temples and the avenues led to burial chambers and places of inner devotion at the sanctuary. The stone’s alignments gave people access to calendars and weather reporting and other knowledge necessary for successful agricultural pursuits which in turn provided means of sustenance for the people. The stones also offered meeting places and opportunities for trade and exchange not only of goods and services but knowledge and training, as well as the sharing of joy and sorrow throughout the wheel of both the year and of life itself.

Light was fading fast, so we left Avebury and drove out to West Kennet Long Barrow. The five-chambered long barrow is one of my favourite places, but I have always visited it in summer when the corn is high and the barrow seemingly enclosed within fields. It was a revelation to visit in winter, reaching the summit to look out from the barrow over the surrounding countryside.

Inside the barrow, five chambers lead off from a central gallery, all built from huge sarsen stones. It is thought the barrow was first used as a burial chamber around 3700-3600 BCE and was closed about 1200 years later. At the time of sealing the barrow, a row of huge sarsens was placed immediately in front of the entrance in the manner of blocking stones.

The majority of the barrow was damaged by grave robbers and local farmers hunting for stone, so it is difficult to imagine how the entire barrow would have looked during the time it was in constant use. Sketches in the Avebury museum suggest that skeletal bones from the barrow would have been paraded during major ceremonies. The theory is that such bones would have been carried around the boundaries of a tribe’s land to show ownership and also to connect the tribal chieftain with the ancestors and provide him with a valid base for leadership.

Next morning began before 7am with the realisation the sun had risen without us and was shining with a rose tinted light on the walled garden whilst we ate breakfast. We reached Stonehenge just after 8 am, along with eighteen other foreign nationals who had come to visit the most publicised stone circle in Britain.

There is no doubt of the impressive and imposing nature of Stonehenge. Viewed from the hilltop overlooking the site, you could imagine the awe and fear struck into the hearts and minds of tribespeople coming towards the open plain. The inspiration and fortitude of the original architects and builders was quite incredible – to achieve such a construction by bringing stones from Wales to mount upon Salisbury plain is truly amazing.

All I felt, was cold. Not just the freezing, biting wind of winter blowing through our clothes and chilling our bodies, but the dearth of laughter and joy throughout the circle. This was not a place of commerce and sharing, but of power and fear. I sensed death within the circle, not something I have felt in any other stone circle I have visited.

There was something about the straight, worked stones which felt very different from the roughly hewed cones and lozenges of other circles. There was nothing personal here, nothing to link the individual with the energy of the stones, it was a place to fall and cover your face as the sun touched the tip of a stone, bathing it in orange light.

We did not seek to remain longer than our allotted hour. We were chilled through and through. It took quite a while to stop shivering and draw in the heat from the car as we turned towards Glastonbury, away from the plain.

At Longleat, we met cars covered in snow. Nearby Cley Hill was also sugar coated in the morning sunlight, accentuating the steps of the iron age enclosure with hut circle settlement and hillfort with mediaeval strip lynchets around the side. At the top there is another round barrow, but it was far too cold to consider climbing up to see it!

The trip to Glastonbury took us over an hour, but the sight of the Tor as we came into the town along the river was truly impressive. We also passed lots of mistletoe balls hanging from bare branches, something I had not seen since visiting Oregon. It was good to know it was growing somewhere in England, as I have never been able to successfully promote growth from berries in my trees, either apple or oak.

A dark cloud was just starting to cover the sun when we girded our loins, changed our shoes and set off to walk up to the top of the Tor. The steepness of the slope and the biting wind made us stop at frequent intervals to admire the view. Even the inside of the tower on top of the Tor afforded no refuge from what now had become snow flurries, but we eventually found shelter against the south west face. Here we watched the rooks trying to take off against the wind and failing. Eventually, we walked down to the Chalice Well, drawing comfort from the peaceful gardens, before returning to the car on quivering legs, exhilarated by our short pilgrimage.

We were sad to leave the ancient city on Saturday morning, but broke our journey at the Rollright stones not far from Long Compton in Oxfordshire. These are my “local” stone circle, but I had never visited the Whispering Knights, a collapsed Neolithic Dolmen (single chambered burial mound) before. The circle is built from local Cotswold stone and is showing the pockmarked signs of age as a consequence. The stones (The King’s men) are much smaller than the other circles we had seen, but no less impressive in their own way.

The Rollrights is the circle furthest south on the trade route from Axe Mountain in Cumbria. Swinside and Castlerigg stone circles are two others built in the same manner. Neolithic stone axes have been found in several circles, suggesting they were places to store and trade goods in very early times.

The stones have many local legends. It was said someone wishing to become King of all England was on his way to London when he chanced to meet the local witch, Mother Shipton. Of course his plans came to nothing, with the man being turned into the King Stone, his men into the stone circle and his Knights into the Dolmen. It is also said her spell is released at midnight, when the men come to life again and dance in a ring and the Knights go down to a spring at Little Rollright Spinney to drink.

This latter part of the legend echoes the one of the Whittlestone in Lower Swell, another sarson guarding a roundbarrow, which goes down to the Lady Well to drink when Stow on the Wold clock strikes twelve. It is interesting two such similar stories should be attached to stones not ten miles from each other!

Too soon, our brief excursion into a different world was over. We returned to our respective responsibilities refreshed by our experiences hunting stone circles in winter.


  1. I printed this off(along with the poem) and took it up to bed to read. I've been to Avebury and Stonehenge but not to many of the other sites you mention. I'd love to spend a couple of days exploring Glastonbury and also see the Rollright Stones. I've always wanted to drive down the Fosse Way too, it sounds so romantic though I don't suppose it is with all the modern traffic on it. These are areas I've not really been to so perhaps I should try and do something about that this summer. Really interesting post.

  2. That sounds a fascinating trip. I still haven't managed to visit either Stonehenge or Glastonbury but I must make it my mission to do so!