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.

12 comments:

Erin said...

I've only just started reading your blog, but just wanted to say I have enjoyed what I've seen.

Very interesting stuff!

Peter Ashley said...

Such atmospheric pics., thankyou. My first visit here was on a winter's afternoon, with smoke curling up from the chimney of the little cottage in the trees they use as a pay kiosk / postcard shop. But whatever the weather I always get a slightly odd feeling when I stand inside the circle.

Thud said...

i have no time for the fake hippy style druids that haunt Stonehenge but I admire those that are quietly in tune with rhythms of our past.

Neil said...

My late friend Leslie Grinsell writes in his Folklore of Prehistoric Sites in Britain that the Rollright Stones "has associated with it one of the richest collections of folklore of any British prehistoric site. The essential legend of the witch, the king, and his men was in existence at least by the 17th century. One reason for the likeness of the stones to rotten teeth is natural weathering, but another is the practice of removing bits of stone for luck, which seems to have been common in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Notes and Queries noted in 1859 that the King Stone "is daily diminishing in size, because people from Wales kept chipping off bits to keep the Devil off". What the significance of the Welsh connection is, I don't know. I love stone circles, Avebury being in my view the very finest, but funnily enough I'm not very fond of the Rollrights, despite all this interesting folklore, and their appearance in books such as Katharine Briggs's Hobberdy Dick and Penelope Lively's The Whispering Knights. Something about them spooks me.

Neil said...

The Grinsell quote above ends with "prehistoric site", all the rest is me!

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thanks for all the comments. Fascinating that some of you find the stones spooky.

The removal of chunks from the King Stone is perhaps why it's surrounded by rather ugly iron railings.

Some scientists went and did various measurements among and on the stones a few years ago – magnetism, radioactivity, and so on. They didn't pick anything much up out of the ordinary, I believe, although they did find abnormally high radioactivity along a 100-yard stretch of the adjacent road. Something in the hardcore, I expect...

Neil said...

Interestingly, the Rollright Stones are divided by a county boundary - the main circle (the King's Men) and the group of five large stones (the Whispering Knights) are in Oxfordshire, while the King Stone is in Warwickshire. Which prevented me noticing in Leslie Grinsell's book the detail that chips were particularly taken from the King Stone by soldiers going to war. I imagine this was not because they wanted to be turned to stone just at the moment they hoped to achieve victory, but because they believed in the legend that the petrification is only temporary, and that at some future moment the witch's spell will be broken, the king and his men will come alive again, and he will overcome his enemies and become, as he dreamed, king of England.

Eigon said...

The Rollright Stones were the location for one of the Tom Baker Doctor Who stories, in the Key to Time sequence - and it really was impossible to count the stones accurately then, because the BBC added a few!

There was a wonderful production of the Tempest put on there once, too, by Mark Rylance, who was about to go on to become the director of the Globe. Very atmospheric.

And there's a wonderful Victorian brewery just down the road at Hook Norton!

Philip Wilkinson said...

I wish I'd seen The Tempest there. Prospero among the stones would have been something.

One of the first posts on this blog was on the Hook Norton brewery. A wonderful place. Cheers.

Philip Wilkinson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Philip Wilkinson said...

I meant to say that the Hook Norton Brewery post is here.

TIM said...

Thank you for the pictures of the Rollright Stones it brought back great memories of when i was between 5 and 9 years old when i used to try and count them, and always counting to a diffrent number. I grew up in rollright and have very happy child hood memories there.

Tim Shaw