Exploring Myth and Prehistory at England’s Rollright Stones

I loved visiting England's Rollright Stones. ©Ken Aikin

I loved visiting England’s Rollright Stones. ©Ken Aikin

There are few things I love better than poking about in prehistoric Britain. Located near several of the Cotswolds’ most beautiful villages are one of England’s most charming megalithic sites, called the Rollright Stones.  Not only are they magical, they’re surrounded by colorful stories to boot.

Because our vacation was free from the worries of driving on the left-hand side of the road, Ken and I arranged a taxi from the White Hart Royal Hotel  in Moreton-in-Marsh to the Rollright Stones, which consists of three monuments: the King’s Men stone circle, the Whispering Knights burial chamber, and the King Stone standing stone. Each was built hundreds or thousands of years apart, between 3800 and 1500 years BCE.

The King's Men stone circle in the Cotswolds ©Laurel Kallenbach

The King’s Men stone circle in the Cotswolds ©Laurel Kallenbach

We arrived in the midst of a drizzle, arranged for our driver to return in two hours, and followed the signs through the trees to the largest site, The King’s Men stone circle, where we stood beneath the trees and read the legend of the Rollright Stones from our guidebook.

The tale, which probably dates back to medieval times, goes something like this: A king and his army were marching through the Cotswold Hills when they were changed to stone by a witch—no doubt a wise woman who reasoned that the land was better off remaining as crop- and pastureland instead of becoming a battlefield. So, the crone turned the king into the lone-standing King Stone, his army into the King’s Men circle of stones, and his treason-plotting knights into the Whispering Knights standing stones. The witch then transformed into an elder tree, which supposedly still grows on the hill; if that elder is ever cut, the spell will break, and all the Stones will come back to life.

The King’s Men Stone Circle

The drizzle ceased, and we walked out into the open hilltop to a sweeping panorama of the Oxfordshire/Warwickshire countryside. And then we saw the beautiful King’s Men stone circle, the highlight of the Rollright Stones’ three sites. Dozens of pocked and craggy limestones—most less that six feet tall—stood in circular formation.

The King’s Men stone circle is one of the sites at England’s Rollright Stones. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The King’s Men stone circle is one of the sites at England’s Rollright Stones. ©Laurel Kallenbach

It was easy to see why they’re named for soldiers—many of the more upright stones did seem to have human shapes, although some of them were squat. Each stone possessed amazing character: each was weathered like an aged person’s face. In addition, the stones are covered by unique lichens in many hues—rust, ochre, burnt umber—and according to the info board about the circle, some of those lichens are 400 to 600 years old! The stones are surrounded at their bases by grass, moss, stinging nettles, and tiny field flowers.

Ken beside one of the tallest stones in the King's Men circle ©Laurel Kallenbach

Ken beside one of the tallest stones in the King’s Men circle ©Laurel Kallenbach

Ken and I were roaming alone among the stones, admiring their topography, when we were joined by a quartet of vivacious girls who skipped five or six times around the circle counting the stones.

There’s another legend about the King’s Men stone circle: the stones are supposedly uncountable. There are 70-odd stones, but in places it’s almost impossible to tell where one stone begins and the other ends because they lie in a cluster. Other stones barely show above the ground and the tufts of grass. According to the story, if you count the same number of stones three times, you are granted a wish.

These girls counted the stones in the circle—and got their wish! ©Laurel Kallenbach

These girls counted the stones in the circle—and got their wish! ©Laurel Kallenbach

After the girls had raced around the circle, we overheard them declaring to their mums that they got the same count three times, so they were all making a wish.

After the group left, I began counting stones but was distracted when I looked into the stand of trees that grew in a horseshoe around the circle. In the shrubbery, something shiny and colorful caught my eye, and when I went to look, I discovered that it was clooties—scraps of cloth or other decorations—tied to the branches.

Clooties at the King's Men circle ©Laurel Kallenbach

Clooties at the King’s Men circle ©Laurel Kallenbach

Clooties (also spelled “cloughties” or “clouties”) are a Pagan tradition for honoring trees and asking for healing, and they’re commonly found at sacred sites (like ancient standing stones) and healing wells across the UK and Ireland.

The Rollright clooties were made of ribbon, cloth, stalks of barley or wheat from the surrounding fields, daisy chains, and bits of colorful litter like candy and gum wrappers and a Pellegrino label that the makers probably cleaned up from the vicinity. I imagined that a Pagan group, celebrating Lughnasa just a few weeks before in early August, might have freshly decorated the boughs.

To give thanks for my regained mobility after hip replacement—which made it possible for me to travel to England for a walking holiday—I assembled my own clootie out of dandelions and a spray of leaves, and I tied them to a branch.

Last, I circumnavigated the circle again, counting the stones. I came up with 76, but didn’t have time to do a second or third pass; we still had two more sites to visit before our time was up, so I left it to the mystery.

This stone truly looked like a human outline in the King's Men circle. ©Laurel Kallenbach

This stone truly looked like a human outline in the King’s Men circle. ©Laurel Kallenbach

I did, however, take a moment to try to envision the stones with no gaps between them. According to historical and archaeological documentation, the stones may originally have numbered about 105, all standing shoulder to shoulder—even more like a militia than they look now. Over the millennia, many of the stones have fallen, and some were carted away in the last millennia for use in building bridges and whatnot.

In modern times, the Rollright Stones have been used to exhibit modern sculptures, including Anish Kapoor’s Turning the World Inside Out, and for plays, notably Mark Rylance’s production of The Tempest in1992. The Stones are also regularly used for private wedding and naming ceremonies and other celebrations, according to the Rollright website.

The Whispering Knights

Just a short walk past pastures of grazing sheep are the Whispering Knights. This trio of upright stones is aptly named because the stones lean into each other, so it doesn’t take much imagination to picture them as disgruntled knights furtively colluding against the king.

Three Whispering Knights at the Rollright Stones ©Laurel Kallenbach

The three Whispering Knights at the Rollright Stones ©Laurel Kallenbach

In reality, the vertical stones originally formed a Neolithic portal-dolmen, with these upright stones supporting a capstone, or flat “roof.” Sometime between 3800 and 3500 BCE, builders constructed this portal to lead into a communal burial chamber, which was used for human remains well into the Bronze Age, according to the sign posted at the site.

Today the Whispering Knights are surrounded by an iron fence to discourage people from climbing on the stones and damaging them or the lichens that grow on them. The Knights gaze over the farm fields and stands of trees as far as the eye can see. People toss coins into the crevasses of one of the fallen stones—for luck I suppose. Or perhaps to insure that they will return to this lovely place.

Another view of the Whispering Knights, part of a collapsed passage dolmen. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Another view of the Whispering Knights, part of a collapsed passage dolmen. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The mysterious stones seem to have captured the imagination of people in the region for centuries: There’s an age-old story that on New Year’s Day, the three Whispering Knights hoist their rocky bodies and “walk” down the valley to the brook for a drink of water. The church bells of the nearby town of Long Compton are also supposed to inspire this migration. If ever there were three stones with human personalities, it’s these three.

Other local folklore includes this story: A local farmer wanted one of the largest stones to build a bridge over a stream. It took 24 horses to drag the stone down the hill, and one worker was killed on the way. Eventually the farmer got the stone positioned across the stream, but by the next morning it had flipped over onto the bank! Each time the farmer moved the stone into a bridge position, the same thing happened. Then the area crops failed, so the farmer and his friends decided to return the stone to its original position. This time it took only onehorse to drag the heavy slab back up the hill!

The moral of the story? Don’t mess with ancient megaliths—and never underestimate their power or majesty.

The King Stone

We walked back to the road and crossed, passed through a farm gate, and wandered up to the lone King Stone, which rises sinuously from earth to sky.

 

The gate leading to the field where we found the King Stone. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The gate leading to the field where we found the King Stone. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Its lovely curve isn’t how the stone originally appeared; its shape is the result of centuries of human vandalism, now hopefully curbed by an iron fence with arrow-shaped spikes at the tops.

According to the sign, 19th century drovers and visitors chipped off part of the stone as good-luck charms and to “keep the Devil at bay.”

Bad luck, if you ask me. In fact, it’s a criminal offence to damage any monument stones like this in Britain.

There’s something lonely and exposed about the solitary King Stone, which looks as if thousands of years of wind passing over the hilltop had unfurled solid rock, sending it sailing skyward into the mottled clouds. Or perhaps the presence of adjacent burial chambers and cairns contributes to the melancholy atmosphere.

The time-swept King Stone ©Laurel Kallenbach

The time-swept King Stone ©Laurel Kallenbach

Or, maybe it’s the scale of time at the Rollright Stones: We humans have a lifespan of a hundred years if we’re lucky, whereas the King Stone has been a sentry over these Cotswold hills for more than 3,500 years. The Whispering Knights have guarded their secrets for almost 6,000 years.

After two hours at the Rollright Stones—which slipped by in the blink of an eye—our taxi driver returned to whisk us along the country roads and back to our hotel, which has been operating as an inn since the 1600s. Such is time in the ancient lands of Britain.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

The entrance fee to the Rollright Stones is just 1£. For more information, including instructions to get to the site, visit RollrightStones.co.uk.

More about megaliths:

The circle at the Rollright Stones in the Cotswolds ©Laurel Kallenbach

The circle at the Rollright Stones in the Cotswolds ©Laurel Kallenbach

 

Musings from Cotswold Trails (Day 3): Naunton & Guiting Power

We hiked along the Gustav Holst Way on today's Cotswold trek. ©Laurel Kallenbach

We hiked along the Gustav Holst Way on today’s Cotswold trek. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Day 3 of our English countryside walking adventure (arranged by Cotswold Walks)  happened to be my birthday, and the 6.5-mile route from Bourton-on-the-Water to Guiting Power held many delights.

Much of our path during the day followed the gentle River Windrush, which sometimes seemed to be more of a brook than a river.

At the beginning of our morning ramble, a swan flapped over the field we were walking through as it descended for a water landing. The air on the magnificent white bird’s great wings made a hollow, whooshing sound. I don’t recall ever seeing swans flying before, so this long-necked bird seemed like a good-luck omen for the day.

That was fortunate, because about an hour later Ken and I encountered gigantic cows with sharp horns. They grazed peacefully on the opposite side of a wire fence and the Windrush, which had dwindled to ditch size, but their gazes seemed hostile. We stopped to take a picture, but a mean-looking bull took offense and started advancing toward us as if he meant business, so we moved along quickly.

The hills overlooking Naunton ©Laurel Kallenbach

The hills overlooking Naunton ©Laurel Kallenbach

Today the terrain became more hilly and scenic, and flat fields gave way to woodland. And imagine our delight when we discovered that we were walking on part of the 35-mile trail way called the Gustav Holst Way, named for the composer who’s best known for The Planets. Born in the Cotswolds, Holst spent much time—like us—ambling through the hills and countryside of this region, which he memorialized in his pastoral “Cotswolds” Symphony in F major. (I’m listening to it as I write.) I got so carried away singing the Dargasson jig tune from Holst’s St. Paul Suite that we missed one of our turns.

The sign to Taunton ©Laurel Kallenbach

The sign to Naunton ©Laurel Kallenbach

We didn’t go far off course—less than 50 yards, thanks to the detailed instructions provided by Cotswold Walks—so we quickly got back on track again, and soon I was humming the “Greensleeves” theme that weaves through the end of that piece. (Yes, the Cotswolds Way has great appeal for classical music geeks like us!)

A Rest in Tranquil Naunton

Hiking up and down hills offered us the chance to take in the impressive vistas of medieval villages from a higher vantage point. We met a couple, who were also doing the Best of the Cotswolds circuit, so we hiked with them for about half an hour on the trail that morning. Just before noon, our little group spotted Naunton and decided to have a quick look-around at this town of about 300 people.

A house beside the River Windrush ©Laurel Kallenbach

A house beside the River Windrush ©Laurel Kallenbach

As we arrived on foot, we first saw a large dovecote, a structure with 1,176 dove-sized holes that dates back to the 1600s. (The Cotswold Walks guidebook said that back in the day, the meat of young doves was a dish for the wealthy, so that accounts for the popularity of names like “Dove Cottage” and “Dove Lane.”)

Black Horse pub, Naunton ©Laurel Kallenbach

Black Horse pub, Naunton ©Laurel Kallenbach

Naunton sits in the valley beside the River Windrush, and there’s a very pretty path right along the water with willows and lots of lovely riverside cottages to admire.

Ken and I sat along the banks for a rest and nibbled on snacks, then we wandered over to the Black Horse Inn, a traditional pub where our friends decided to have lunch. We didn’t eat there because we’d planned to have a late lunch at the next village.

Keep on Trekking

Refreshed, we continued on toward Guiting Power. Ken and I crossed through a pasture where a horse followed us all the way to the gate. I think she was hoping we had a treat, but we’d already eaten our snacks. For a while, we had a light drizzle—almost more of a heavy mist—that warranted our rain jackets for 10 minutes or so.

Hollyhocks in front of a cottage built from Cotswold stone ©Laurel Kallenbach

Hollyhocks in front of a cottage built from Cotswold stone ©Laurel Kallenbach

Right at 2:00, the Warden’s Way path took us through a cornfield where the tassels were as tall as Ken. When we emerged from the stalks, we caught our first glimpse of the crenelated tower of Guiting Power’s Anglican church, St. Michael and All Angels, which dates back to Norman times. Sheep were grazing in the surrounding pastureland, and though it was tempting to stop and admire, we vowed to return later because we were famished and in need of a beer.

We checked first at the Farmers Arms, a traditional-style pub that served things like fish-and-chips with mushy peas and steak-and-kidney-pie, but the kitchen was already closed. So we kept walking up the hill to the Old Post Office, which has a café, but it didn’t serve hot food after 2:00. So we vowed to return at teatime and continued up the road to the Hollow Bottom Inn, located on the edge of town with views over pastoral fields that were bordered by traditional, drystack-stone fences.

The postmistress took a break at the Old Post Office in Guiting Power. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The postmistress took a break outside the Old Post Office in Guiting Power. ©Laurel Kallenbach

This more contemporary gastro-pub serves some chef-inspired creations. We started with a local microbrew ale and then ordered a perfectly spiced (with tarragon, we surmised) Coronation Chicken Wrap and salads filled with the bounty of local gardens in late August. (Many restaurants in the Cotswolds serve local and organically produced food.)

The menu also offered an interesting story about the origin of the phrase “wet your whistle.” Apparently during the Middle Ages English pubs served ale in ceramic mugs that had whistles baked into them. When you needed a refill, you blew the whistle so the barmaid would come and “wet your whistle.” True tale or just pub lore? Either way it’s a fun story.

St Michael's and All Angels presides of the village of Guiting Power. ©Laurel Kallenbach

St Michael’s and All Angels presides over the village of Guiting Power. ©Laurel Kallenbach

While we were eating, the couple we’d hiked with that morning checked into the inn. Whimsically, we wished we were doing the same, but because it was the day before Bank Holiday weekend, Guiting Power’s modest number rooms were booked months in advance, so we were being picked up by a taxi and returned for the night to Bourton-on-the-Water at 6:00.

(There were pros and cons to this arrangement. On one hand, it was more efficient because we didn’t have to pack up our suitcases before departing on our morning walk. And we didn’t waste time settling into a new hotel or B&B. However, we also didn’t have the experience of spending the night in this distinctly cute town.)

A pretty doorway in the town of Guiting Power ©Laurel Kallenbach

A pretty doorway in the town of Guiting Power ©Laurel Kallenbach

The Glories of Guiting Power 

After lunch, Ken and I explored Guiting Power, a sleepy, two-street village with just a few shops, the two pubs, a town green, the café/tea shop/post office, and a handful of pretty stone houses. The “tourist” description of Guiting Power is that there’s not much to do there other than have a pint and a bite, but the fact is that we love little towns like this that slumber under the sun on a late-August day.

In fact, I will say it: When I’m in love with a village, I just know I belong there, and Guiting Power stole my heart that afternoon.

Maybe it was the way hollyhocks and roses and purple flowers framed the doorways and windows of those stone cottages, attracting buzzing bumblebees and flittering butterflies.

Toasting my birthday at the Old Post Office ©Ken Aikin

Toasting my birthday at the Old Post Office ©Ken Aikin

Maybe it was the sheep grazing in the pastures around the church as we sat in the cemetery and gazed upon the countryside.

Maybe it was the joy of having chocolate cake and a birthday cappuccino at the outdoor table at the Old Post office while watching the locals  walk their dogs. We bought some stamps and basked in the sun and wrote  postcards.

Really, that’s about all Guiting Power had to offer—and it was heaven. No traffic. Very few tourists. Just the simple joy of spending a quiet afternoon in the prettiest of Cotswold villages. And lots of beautiful flowers.

Flowers Guiting Power ©Laurel Kallenbach

Brilliant flowers in the village of Guiting Power ©Laurel Kallenbach

Guiting Power was exactly what Ken and I had dreamed of when we were planning our walking trip through the Cotswolds: and here we were at this perfectly perfect village on my birthday! I can’t imagine a better present.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Read more about my Cotswold hiking trip:

More about my travels in England:

I couldn't help but hum Bach's "Sheep May Safely Graze" when I beheld this view. ©Laurel Kallenbach

I couldn’t help but hum Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze” when I beheld this pastoral view on the edge of Guiting Power. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Wandering the “Venice of the Cotswolds”: Bourton-on-Water

The banks of the River Windrush are lined with restaurants in Bourton-on-the-Water. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The banks of the River Windrush are lined with restaurants in Bourton-on-the-Water. ©Laurel Kallenbach

My husband and I arrived by foot from Lower Slaughter in Bourton-on-the-Water—yet another lovely town in the England’s Cotswold Hills. It was 4:30 p.m., which seemed to be the tourist rush hour. All the tea shops were overflowing with people sipping Orange Pekoe or cappuccinos and forking down fresh-baked cake. An entire busload of visitors was huddled en masse to get their picture taken on one of the picturesque footbridges that arch over the River Windrush. Their guide was wading in the river, hamming it up. What had we stumbled into?

Hydrangeas, Bourton-on-the-Water ©Laurel Kallenbach

Hydrangeas, Bourton-on-the-Water ©Laurel Kallenbach

While it’s true that Bourton-on-the-Water is a popular spot, I have to admit that once again, town emptied out by 5:30, and everything got a lot quieter—and considerably prettier and more enjoyable.

A bit footsore, Ken and I found a bench with a lovely view of the river with its bridges, which give this town its “Venice of the Cotswolds” name.

We watched little kids play in the sleepy river. A miniature boat race—featuring homemade crafts constructed out of leaves and anything folks could find—was taking place.

It felt wonderful just to sit and drink in the ambiance of the place. No rushing, no worries, no ponderous thoughts—other than wondering where we would eat that night.

Ken just loved the regionally brewed beer at the waterside Kingsbridge Pub. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Ken just loved the regionally brewed beer at the waterside Kingsbridge Pub. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Soon our stomachs propelled us in search of food and drink. After checking menus at several of the many eateries, we settled on the riverside Kingsbridge Pub and thoroughly enjoyed a fantastic Hobgoblin IPA (from the Wychwood Brewery in nearby Oxfordshire), which we sipped on the outdoor patio. Although the Chicken Tikka Curry wasn’t quite as memorable, the views of the water in the golden light of early evening more than compensated.

Our accommodations in Bourton-on-the-Water were at The Lawns B&B, hosted by the affable owner, Angie. We had a spacious room, which was quiet and restful, despite the B&B’s location by a fairly busy highway. (It was also a 10-minute walk from the center of town, which wasn’t a problem, but we were a bit tired of walking by that point.) Some aged sheep in retirement—put out to pasture, so to speak!—grazed right outside our window.

Angie’s delicious English breakfasts were cooked to order—a Continental breakfast was also on the menu—and everything was served in the home’s cheery dining room.

A tradesman's sign for the town goldsmith. ©Laurel Kallenbach

A tradesman’s sign for the town goldsmith. ©Laurel Kallenbach

It was a pleasure to spend two nights at The Lawns, especially because we had space to spread out. It also meant we didn’t have to unpack and pack again in the morning. Because it was nearing Bank Holiday, when inns and bed-and-breakfasts fill up, we walked to the next village, Guiting Power (see my next post), and were picked up by a taxi service and returned for the night in Bourton-on-the-Water.

Click here for more information about Cotswold Walks, the company that arranged our delightful village-to-village walking vacation. For general information about the Cotswolds region, visit its tourism site.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Read more about my Cotswold hiking trip:

More about my travels in England:

A boy watches the River Windrush drift by. ©Laurel Kallenbach

A boy watches the River Windrush drift by. ©Laurel Kallenbach

New Uses for England’s Old Phone Booths

During my walking vacation in England’s Cotswold Hills, I was glad to see that the iconic red British phone booths were still located in the villages. But now that everyone carries a smart phone, people have had to be creative—and they’ve given the old phone booths new lives and new purpose.

The phone booth in Upper Slaughter now houses a defibrillator. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The phone booth in Upper Slaughter now has medical applications. ©Laurel Kallenbach

One booth in Upper Slaughter, Gloucestershire, now housed a defibrillator. You can use your phone to dial 999 for an ambulance, but you can’t jumpstart your heart with your mobile device.

Stanton now sports a bright-red Information booth. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Stanton now sports a bright-red Information booth. ©Laurel Kallenbach

In Stanton, another beautiful village in Gloucestershire, the red phone booth—located right outside the Old Post House—was now acting as a miniature Tourist Information Center. Step inside and you can pick up brochures on local attractions and find contact information for area restaurants and hotels.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Read more about my Cotswold hiking trip:

More about my travels in England: