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

 

Walking in the Cotswolds Day 2: The Beautiful Slaughters

Day 2 of our Cotswold Walks idyll: Stow-on-the-Wold to Bourton-on-Water (via Upper and Lower Slaughter)

Lower Slaughter, a village on the banks of the River Eye ©Laurel Kallenbach

Lower Slaughter, a charming village on the banks of the River Eye.  ©Laurel Kallenbach

Yes, the names of Upper and Lower Slaughter—which we visited on our second day of walking in the Cotswolds—sound alarming, but if you’ve read Bill Bryson’s The Road to Little Dribbling or Notes from a Small Island you already know that English country towns often carry strange appellations. (And for the record, “Slaughter” comes from the Old English word for a wetland—“slough” or slothre—meaning a “muddy place.”)

The trails were well marked throughout our English walking vacation. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The trails were well marked throughout our English walking vacation. ©Laurel Kallenbach

During our second day walking the “Best of the Cotswolds” loop, the highlight of our 7.5-mile hike was our arrival at these two villages. The walk began with a trek through farm after farm, field gate after field gate, dodging cow patties the size of hubcaps.

How is it possible we were walking across private farmland? In Britain, the Countryside and Rights of Way Act gives people access to “mountain, moor, heath, or down”—within reason, of course. We were almost always on established trails, and usually we could see where other hikers had already plodded across or on the edge of fields. We were respectful of the livestock and crops—although the corn and hay had already been harvested by late August.

The Old Mill in Lower Slaughter ©Laurel Kallenbach

The Old Mill in Lower Slaughter ©Laurel Kallenbach

Waiting for us after all the farm crossings were two jewels of Cotswold villagedom. First we came to Lower Slaughter, a small village populated by stone cottages built along the slow-moving River Eye.

Lower Slaughter is best known for its 19th-century flour mill with its picturesque waterwheel and chimney. The Old Mill is now a museum and gift shop—which also happens to sell some wonderful ice cream. We had lunch outdoors at the River Café and watched the ducks as we slurped our soup and tucked into sandwiches.

The steeple of the 13th-century Anglican church, St. Mary’s, presides over the town, and its clock bells add to the village’s timeless feel. An occasional bench makes a nice place to sit and take in the scenery. We could hardly take a dozen steps without snapping a photo, especially after the sun peeped out.

St Mary's Parish, Lower Slaughter ©Laurel Kallenbach

St Mary’s Parish, Lower Slaughter ©Laurel Kallenbach

There’s something irresistible about willow trees beside the water and Cotswold-stone cottages with flower boxes full of bright blooms.

(Cotswold stone is honey-colored sandstone that’s been quarried in the region for centuries and used to build houses and churches.)

At one pretty cottage, a couple was hanging swags of international flags for the upcoming Bank Holiday Village Fete.

After enjoying the views of Lower Slaughter, we continued our walk—yes, through more fields—to Upper Slaughter, a little less than a mile away. Along the way were some glorious trees, including age-old oaks and horse chestnuts that looked like massive green haystacks with pendant nut pods.

Cottage in Upper Slaughter ©Laurel Kallenbach

Cottage in Upper Slaughter ©Laurel Kallenbach

This village was—is it possible?—even smaller and a bit more posh than Lower Slaughter. Every cottage had climbing roses and flowerboxes; every stone was perfectly situated.

We wandered about Upper Slaughter and ambled into the Norman St. Peter’s church, where the list of priests/clergy stretches back to the 1200s.

We returned to Lower Slaughter to continue on our route to Bourton-on-Water, and in the process of passing through a kissing gate we noticed a plaque commemorating the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana in July of 1981.
Charles and Diana plaque, Lower Slaughter©Laurel Kallenbach

It was a bit sad considering it was just a week before the 20th anniversary of Diana’s death. Ken and I shared a smooch at every kissing gate we passed through during our trip, and we thought about how much happier we were than that infamously unhappy royal couple.

PS: What’s a kissing gate? It allows people, but not livestock, to pass through it. The hinged gate swings between the two sides of an enclosure, so only one person can step through it at a time, and they can kiss across the gate.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Read more about my Cotswold hiking trip:

More about my travels in England:

Farmhouse on the edge of Upper Slaughter ©Laurel Kallenbach

Farmhouse on the edge of Upper Slaughter         ©Laurel Kallenbach

This cottage was decorated for Lower Slaughter's Bank Holiday Fete ©Laurel Kallenbach

This cottage was decorated for Lower Slaughter’s Bank Holiday Fete ©Laurel Kallenbach

 

Cottages in the Cotswolds: Old Minster Lovell

Thatched cottage in Old Minster Lovell, Oxfordshire Cotswolds © Laurel Kallenbach

Thatched cottage in Old Minster Lovell, Oxfordshire Cotswolds © Laurel Kallenbach

As it snows outdoors, I’m reminiscing about sweet, sunny August in western Oxfordshire.

The beautiful old cottages in this part of England’s Cotswolds are lovely beyond belief. A stroll through its villages takes you back in time to the 11th and 12th centuries.

I love half-timbered houses—especially when they have rose trellises. ©Laurel Kallenbach

I love half-timbered houses—especially when they have rose trellises. ©Laurel Kallenbach

My favorite for cottage-spotting in this area is Old Minster Lovell, a picturesque, one-road village along the River Windrush. (Could there be a more poetic name for a river?)

Half-timbers and thatched roofs greet you as soon as soon as you cross the one-way bridge. My husband and I found a parking space near the parish church on a sunny day and walked down the lane snapping photos of hollyhocks and roses.

We put in our name for a lunch reservation at the Old Swan Inn. With an hour to explore before we ate, we walked the footpath up to Minster Lovell Hall, a ruined, 15th-century manor house that’s right by the river.

Remnants of towers and arched windows made a pretty setting amid the lush grasses and trees. On this Sunday afternoon, families with young children picnicked on the lawns among the ruins.

Sunday at Minster Lovell Hall ©Laurel Kallenbach

Sunday at Minster Lovell Hall ©Laurel Kallenbach

Teens kicked soccer balls to one another. I just couldn’t imagine a better place for relaxing and drinking in the beauty of the Oxfordshire countryside.

After our exploration, we enjoyed a lunch of potato-leek soup and delicious goat-cheese salads. The Old Swan has been around for more than 500 years, but this gastro-pub has a 21st-century kitchen that serves seasonal, local ingredients creatively combined for full flavor.

We ate lunch in the Old Swan Inn, more than 500 years old. © Laurel Kallenbach

We ate lunch in the Old Swan Inn, more than 500 years old. © Laurel Kallenbach

The pub’s interior was as charming as its ivy-covered stone exterior: its Old-World half-timbers, cockeyed windows, and stone walls made me feel every century of its heritage.

Though the meal was fantastic, what I will always remember about Old Minster Lovell is its cottages—and dreaming of what it would be like to live in one of them.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Read more about my travels in England:

A hollyhock in Old Minster Lovell, England. ©Laurel Kallenbach

A hollyhock in Old Minster Lovell, England. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Bampton, England: Film Location for “Downton Abbey”

St. Mary’s church in Bampton, Oxfordshire, is a film location for the Downton Abbey TV show. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The spires of Highclere Castle set the elegant tone of the PBS Masterpiece TV series Downton Abbey (see my post: “My Pilgrimage to the Real Downton Abbey”) but fans of the show want to know more. Anytime one of the show’s characters has business in Downton village, the Oxfordshire town of Bampton gets its turn in the spotlight.

So far, a fair, two weddings, and a funeral are among the big events filmed in Bampton, just 20 miles west of the city of Oxford. When my husband and I discovered that the National Trust cottage we rented for three days was just 15 minutes away, we were ecstatic that we could see another piece of Downton Abbey lore.

A Photogenic Church

We arrived in town just about teatime, parked in the market square, and had tea and scones at the Bampton Coffee House. There we got directions, but as we left, the church bells began tolling exuberantly.

Bampton’s church has been the setting of Grantham family weddings. ©Laurel Kallenbach

We simply followed their sound as we wandered down pretty Church Street until we arrived at St. Mary the Virgin, a 12th-century parish church with Romanesque architecture. No doubt about it: this was the church where Lady Edith took Matthew sightseeing during Downton Abbey’s season 1—when she was hoping he would woo her instead of her sister Mary.

The church’s TV-land alter-ego is St. Michael’s and All Angels, and its interior and exterior have appeared on American tellies most famously as the scene of Lavinia’s burial (season 2), Mary and Matthew’s nuptials (season 3), and Edith’s jilting at the altar (also season 3).

On the August afternoon we visited, the church bells were pealing for a real wedding. We watched as the bride and groom had some last photos taken before braving the gauntlet of rice-throwing wedding guests and into a vintage Rolls Royce.

I’m standing at the gate where Lady Mary entered the churchyard for her wedding to Matthew Crawley. ©Ken Aikin

Then Ken and I wandered inside the church as the wedding candles were extinguished and the flower arrangements carried away. The sanctuary has a lovely pipe organ, elegant stone arches, vaulted ceiling, stained glass, and ornate pews. (We also picked up a free, photocopied guide of Downton Abbey locations in Bampton, which helped us with the rest of our impromptu tour.)

Outside, the little churchyard is dotted by lichen-covered tombstones and a few red-berried hawthorns. We speculated that Matthew and Mary would be wed in this church—but we had to wait until January 2013 to confirm that.

Strolling with the Granthams and Crawleys

Churchgate House, the exterior film site for the Downton village home of Isobel Crawley. ©Laurel Kallenbach

All the Downton Abbey scenes filmed in Bampton are confined to the picturesque Church View lane, a row of old buildings, houses, and stone walls. Right beside the church is Churchgate House, which serves as the exterior for the Crawley house where Isobel and Matthew lived in seasons 1 and 2. (The interiors are filmed elsewhere.)

This bench shows up in a number of Downton Abbey episodes. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Just outside the churchyard walls is the church green—with a huge tree and park bench that often shows up in the TV series. This area was the setting for the fair, which was featured in a season 1 episode in which Mrs. Hughes, the housekeeper, met an old beau.

Next comes the Bampton Library, which for TV’s purposes sheds its literary facade and poses as a medical building. The library is the exterior for Downton Hospital where Dr. Clarkson treats villagers and the wounded soldiers during WWI.

Bampton Library, just down the block from the church, serves as the exterior for Downton Hospital. ©Laurel Kallenbach

So, when Mrs. Hughes walks up to the hospital for her cancer checkup, that’s Bampton’s library you see. If it’s open, visitors can go in; the library sells souvenir postcards there.

Finally we ambled down Church View Road, noticing doorways that become the Downton Post Office and the Dog & Duck pub. It’s fun seeing locations that look vaguely familiar…but not quite. After we returned to the States, we watched reruns of the early episodes and paused the DVD player so we could see spots where modern fire hydrants were covered by bushes or fake postboxes to complete the early-20th-century look.

Bampton’s Church View Lane gets used in numerous shots. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Before the Downton Abbey craze hit, Bampton was a sleepy town known for its morris dancers (traditional folk dancers who wear bells on their shins), its May flower-garland festival, and the colony of swifts that nests in the village every summer. Bampton was quiet when we visited, but with the show’s popularity, occasional tour buses now stop there.

Bampton, in Oxfordshire, is a beautiful village. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Bampton, one of England’s oldest towns, has a number of pubs, inns, and B&Bs, so it would be a nice place to spend a few days. (It’s within an easy drive or bus ride from other quaint Oxfordshire Cotswold villages such as Burford, Lechlade-on-Thames, and Minster Lovell, so there’s plenty to do in the area.)

Who knows, if you visit Bampton this spring, you might be there during the next season’s filming!

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

For more information, check out Visit Oxfordshire’s website.

Read more Downton Abbey posts: