‘In the Oxford country there are great stones, arranged as it were in
some connection by the hand of man. But at what time this was done,
or by what people, or for what memorial or significance, is unknown.
Though by the inhabitants that place is called Rollendrith’
With Chris, David and two dogs, I made the long(ish) journey down to the
Cotwolds to pick up my new Barefoot caravan – how excited was I?
This new addition to the team will provide a base for fieldwork and
study, especially into lovely Wales, to complement my MA studies and
research. Imagine my delight when I found out the Rollright Stones
were only down the road ! Mollie (for that is her name after a
favourite friend of my Grandma’s) was on her first field trip! One
of the mechanics at Watsonian (for they make sidecars for motorbikes
there too) told me the local tradition of counting the stones three
times as each time you count, you will get a different number. I
asked him why this was and looking very serious said ‘because’
they are magic!’
So down through leafy Oxfordshire we trundled, Mollie in tow, picnic in
basket, dogs grinning and eager for a run. These monuments are on the
Warwickshire/Oxfordhire border in an area ripe with tales and
folklore. It is years since I have been to the Rollrights and they
never disappoint. My interest comes from the many
legends of petrification often attached to megalithic
rings such as the Merry Maidens in Cornwall and Mitchell’s Fold here
in Shropshire. There are ancient beliefs in the protective and
healing properties of stone and, even up until the 19th century, some
believed that stones grew in the soil and pushed their way up to the
surface. There are a least five thousand years of history connected to
the stones which are thought to have been in constant use throughout
the Bronze and Iron Age. There are three known
parts to the complex: The Kings Men, The Kings Stone and the
Whispering Knights. Suffice to say with so much history and
folklore attached to this landscape to prepare ourselves we promptly
sat down on the grass for a ‘light lunch’: local sausage
rolls, Hereford Hop cheese and Lemonade.
Today I concentrated on the ambience of the place, the sun, the warm
stones and the dogs running on the cool grass. Folk must have
witnessed similar scenes for millennium. The
folklorist Katherine Briggs tells how fairies once danced around
the King Stone and there’s a story, at least 500 years old,
about the king who had camped with his army on the
hill, encouraged by a witch who promised that if he reached the top of
the hill in seven strides and could see the village of Long Compton, he
would be the king of all England. The witch cheated and raised a
mound to block his view. He and his men turned into stones and she
changed into an elder tree!
As Long Compton thou canst not see
King of England thou shalt not be.
Rise up stick, and stand still, stone
For king of England thou shall be none;
Thou and thy men hoar stones shall be
And I myself an eldern tree.
They say that one day the spell will break and the king and his knights
will conquer England.
The elder has long been thought of as the witches tree. Katherine
Briggs reminds us, as all hares are not witches, not all elders are
suspect but this elder witch has been located in different
locations; as one tree dies another grows! Elders bleed if
cut and at Midsummer people would gather around the King Stone while
a man cut the eldern witch. As she bled the King Stone moved his
head. Elders were believed to be witches trees and bleed
if cut. It is rarely burnt and was thought unlucky to make furniture
with, especially cradles. It is a good tree to shelter under away
from flies but be careful as fairies will hide here from witches (not a good idea given that witches can turn into elder trees…..).
So the Kings Men form a large circle of stones thought to be from about
2250 BCE. There are around 70 stones, maybe once there were 150, and
as I was told are famously uncountable and tested, later confirmed by David!
They are looked after by the Rollright Trust and are very similar to
circles found up in the Lake District. Some say the circle stones
sometimes dance in the air…..
The Whispering Knights are a short walk away and one of the earliest
funerary monuments in Britain being much older, around 3800 BCE. It
is a ‘portal dolman’ and has a fallen capstone. It was used for
hundreds of years as indicated by early Neolithic, Beaker and early
Bronze age pottery found in it’s vicinity. It got its name as it
appears like a group of knights whispering conspiringly against the
king. The go down the hill to drink in the little spring in the
Rollright spinney. Opinion seems divided as to whether they do this
every night or on certain holy days. Young women were said to visit
the Whispering Knights to hear the name of their future husbands.
The Whispering Knights
The Kings Stone is found across the road, on the crest of the rise which
stopped the king from seeing Long Compton. There is a Bronze Age
barrow close by and it’s now thought this stone may be
a memorial for an older burial ground. It may also have been so
named to mark an important meeting place. In the early 1700’s it
was recorded as a place here ‘young men and maidens
customarily meet and make merry with cakes and ale…’. It is
thought that it was around this time that folk started chipping bits
off the stone to use as a talisman against ‘bad look’. Allegedly, Welsh
drovers were the worse culprits on their way to the Banbury cattle
market! Why they were worse than anyone else is anyone’s guess.
This practice is responsible for its leaning shape and
eventually led to it being the first monument to be scheduled as a
protected monument in 1883 to protect against further damage!
So we have fairies dancing around the King Stone, eldern witches,
walking stones, prophecies of kings rising to take back the land,
stones that change, dance and disappear. It was a meeting place, for
trysts, drovers, picnics, dowsers and still all these things.
These stones continue to be visited, continue to sing their songs and
inspire and comfort those who walk among them. People had left
offerings on the stones amongst the Whispering Knights, sacrifices of
pennies and silver change. We may never know all their secrets, some
things have changed but others never will as long as people come to
hear their stories and dance their tunes!