Monday, May 12, 2008

Arthur's Stone, Dorstone, Herefordshire

Above the east Herefordshire village of Dorstone the lane rises, flattens, bends, and rises again. You know, when you’ve visited a few Stone Age burial chambers, that your goal is likely to be at the top of the last rise, on a ridge, with views for miles. And so, after another short rise, here is Arthur’s Stone, and beyond it views of the Herefordshire hills and the Welsh hills too.

This late-Stone-Age monument is a burial mound without the mound – in other words, it consists of the stones that line and cover the burial chamber and entrance, the earth mound that covered them having eroded away. The large capstone is about 20 feet in length and lifting it must have taken all the manpower and technology that the builders of 3400-2400 BC could muster.

Burial sites like this were among the grands projets of prehistoric England, and the people who built them weren’t going to hide their light under a bushel. Such a mound, the result of long labour, was a conspicuous memorial to those buried there, as well as being a major landmark. You don’t have to believe in ley lines to appreciate that hill-top barrows provided a good way of orienting yourself, as well as being powerful symbols of community and place.

The symbolism could get a bit mixed up in later centuries though. I don’t know when this place became known as Arthur’s Stone, but associations with King Arthur are not uncommon with hill-top monuments, especially in the south and west. It’s not hard to see why the Arthurian associations could multiply hereabouts – the king demonstrated his royal rank by pulling a sword from a stone, and he and his knights might be sleeping in such a burial mound, waiting for the time when they will return to supply England’s need. More prosaically, the mound was said to mark the site of one of the king’s battles. All evidence that Arthur’s Stone – technologically, scenically, mythically – is a place with the power to make us wonder.


Peter Ashley said...

Dear Alfred Watkins talks about this stone in his 'Old Straight Track' and on page 12 deplores the spiked iron railings around it. I assume from your pic. that they have been replaced by more comfortable wooden post and rails. If the old railings are still in the undergrowth I'll borrow Diplo's pick-up and get down there.

Philip Wilkinson said...

No railings are anywhere to be seen now – the little patch of grass on which Arthur's Stone is situated is surrounded by a wooden fence. English Heritage have provided some information panels, but these have faded in the sun, one almost to illegibility, as if the environment is re-imposing the air of mystery that surrounds the place.

Neil said...

Once the Arthurian legends really got going, from the 9th century onwards, all sorts of prehistoric monuments and landmarks received Arthurian names. The folklore of such sites is very fluid. A man named Joseph Gwynne told Francis Kilvert in 1878 that one of the stones bore 'the marks of a man's knees and fingers . . . made by King Arthur when he heaved this stone up on his back and set it upon the pillars' (quoted in Roy Palmer, The Folklore of Hereford & Worcester, 1992). Ella Mary Leather's The Folklore of Herefordshire (1912) tells us: 'According to some, Arthur's Stone is so-called because "Owd Artur" fought a desperate battle there with another king, broke his back, and buried him under the stones. Others say it was a giant whom Arthur slew, and that the stone on the left approaching the dolmen from Bredwardine, under the hedge, is yet marked by the giant's fall; the hollows now visible are called the marks of the giant's elbows, and others, again, declare the impressions were made by the knees of Arthur himself, when he knelt on the stone to pray. This stone, which seems more important in the legend than the dolmen itself, is also called the "Quoit stone," having hollows for the heels of the players.' By the time Leslie Grinsell was gathering information in 1958, for his book Folklore of Prehistoric Sites in Britain (1976), the rival king had been forgotten, the stone with impressions of the giant's elbows appears to be a different stone to the Quoit stone, which is said to bear the marks of either Arthur's knees as he knelt to pray, or his thumb and fingers while he was playing quoits. Grinsell then adds a completely new explanation: 'These hollows are said by others to be where Jesus knelt to pray.' This Christian interpretation may derive from - or have inspired - the custom of holding a Christian service at the site on the fourth Sunday in July, which Grinsell says dates back 'some years'. This site suffered depredations in the 19th century, when some of the stones standing in a circle around the grave were broken up and carted away for building work; a practice stopped by an enlightened landowner, Velters Cornewall, the owner of the Moccas estate. In 1901 the site was excavated and some stones set back in position. Leather writes, 'During the work of excavation, stone hammers, heavy mauls for dressing the stone, and chips were found, and not a single metal tool of any kind was discovered, indicating so far that the stones were erected previous to the bronze age. The mauls were heavy, unpolished, and not fixed in handles.' Note that even before the Bronze Age, British workmen were evidently unwilling to undertake heavy work without chips.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Many thanks for that fascinating synthesis of legends, Neil. Arthur's Stone seems to offer an object lesson in the way these traditional beliefs accrue and transform – and then get overlaid with Christian ones too. The only bit I knew about in all this was the 19th-century robbing of some of the stone and the discovery of stone artefacts when it was excavated and restored. (I hadn't heard about the chips!)