Monday, January 12, 2009
Great Rollright, Oxfordshire
All the king’s men
Going over to Oxfordshire the other morning for lunch with some friends, I decided to make a short diversion and visit the Rollright Stones. This stone circle on the Oxfordshire-Warwickshire borders is one of my favourite ancient sites and I’m not its only fan. The small site can get busy, but it was a cold, foggy day and I thought the stones would be deserted and atmospheric, and so they were.
The Rollright Stones are some 70-odd lumps of limestone arranged in a circle about 31 metres across. The stones are not very big (few of them are higher than about 1.2 metres) and, as they’re limestone, they’ve eroded into a wonderful range of shapes – the standard cliché in books and websites compares them to rotten teeth, which does them no favours at all. They’re hard to date, but I think archaeologists refer to them as late Neolithic or early Bronze Age – in other words around 2100 BC. Of course, no one knows exactly how they were used, but such circles were clearly religious sites.
The stones have their fair share of legends. The most famous story tells of a king and a group of knights who were marching across the countryside. They met a witch hereabouts, who told the king that he would be ruler of all England if, when he took seven strides, he could see the nearby village of Long Compton. The king strode forwards – but the village, which should have been easy to see, was shielded from his gaze by a hillock. Then the witch turned the king and his men to stones – the knights became the stone circle, while their leader became the so-called King Stone, a megalith that stands across the road from the main group. In another legend, the stones regularly leave their field to walk down to a local spring and take a drink, while another tale says that the stones are impossible to count.
Looking at the stones on a misty morning, a sharp wind blowing and the sun struggling to get through, it’s easy to believe how legends formed about this place. It’s easy too, to understand how people still see the circle as a sacred space. Those who had left sprigs of ivy and mistletoe and a holly wreath on top of some of the stones clearly felt the same way. There are some fine druids in West Oxfordshire, as my friends told me over lunch.