Lay of the land
COUNTRYSIDE SPECIAL: ANDREW ANDERSON
Humanity’s ancient legacy is deeply embedded in the soil of the British countryside. Q&C’s new writer Andrew Anderson takes us on a fascinating journey around Great Britain to discover the ancient man-made sites which unearth the enchanting myths and secrets of our ancestors.
One of the things that always surprises me about exploring the British countryside is how deeply humanity’s legacy is imprinted in the soil. It always surprises me how, after much driving and walking, you can find yourself in a place which feels as if no other person has been there, only to turn around and come face to face with a pylon. Or a sign post for a gift shop. Or a Nandos.
However, it is the older relics of humankind which I take far greater enjoyment in exploring. Over the past few years I have developed a real interest in visiting ancient man-made sites around the British Isles. Places such as Avebury, Stonehenge and West Kennet Long Barrow. I even spent a few days this summer moving from ancient site to ancient site around the rugged coast of Anglesey, an expedition well worth taking if you haven’t done so. The sites on Anglesey, particularly the domestic ones such as Din Lligwy and Ty Mawr, help you to characterise the individuals who lived there, rather than conceiving of them simply as nebulous ancestors.
There is a site closer to home which has become increasingly important to me over the years, The Rollright Stones on the Warwickshire / Oxfordshire border, just above the village of Long Compton. The Rollrights are actually three different monuments constructed over a period of 2,000 years, from 3,500-1,500 BC. The site consists of a Neolithic stone circle, a single standing stone beside a barrow and series of three stones marking a burial chamber. A fairly busy main road runs in-between the barrow and the other two sites, which are on opposite sides of a crop field.
Before archaeology revealed the purposes of the sites, the three monuments became subsumed by an enchanting myth. In the tale, an invader, desperate to conquer England, met a witch on the hilltop. She promised him that, if he could take seven strides and see Long Compton then he would indeed be king. Buoyed by pride, the invader agreed and walked towards the hill edge. However, he had forgotten the barrow on the hill top and, on his seventh stride, was transformed into the standing stone we find there today. Thanks to that myth, the standing stone is now called the King’s Stone. The stone circle, who were the invading army, frozen where they stood, are known as the King’s Men, while the three stones marking the burial chamber are known as the Whispering Knights, a group who were supposedly plotting against their proud leader when he succumbed to the witch’s curse.
"The footprints we leave on our countryside go deep into our soil and we need to remember that they will still be there long after our season has passed."
As bewitching as this tale is, it probably only dates as far back as the 18th Century, although it does help to characterise the site very well. There is definitely a masculine energy about the place. Standing on the weather-beaten hill top, it is not difficult to imagine the stones are armoured knights, huddling together against the wind. In keeping with the charming tale of transformation, the witch who changes the King and his men into stones swore she would become an elder tree to keep an eye on her handiwork throughout history. Sure enough, the hedgerows around the stones are interspersed with elders. An old romantic might suggest that the Witch’s children are carrying on her work.
I have found that, one of the determining factors about visiting ancient sites is when I visit them. I’ve been lucky enough to go to Stonehenge at daybreak and it is a totally different experience from visiting at midday with a coach load of German tourists. Living near the Rollrights means that I can visit throughout the year and experience the stones in different seasons. This year I visited the site on Halloween. As a time in British paganism for honouring the ancestors, this felt particularly appropriate. The cold winds of autumn were just beginning to reveal the contours of the landscape and the sense of the site as a series of burial mounds was much stronger.
However, my favourite time of year to visit the Rollrights is the Winter Solstice, or shortly after at New Year. There is a bleakness to the hillside in the dark days at the end of the year which seems to echo with the masculinity of the site and makes me believe it is somehow more connected to activity at the Winter Solstice than has currently been discovered.
One of the other reasons I like visiting in the depths of winter may seem rather strange. It is because there are no leaves on the trees. Without the leafy barriers between them there is a far greater sense of unity and purpose between the three monuments. That sense of oneness, of community, feels very important to the site, and is not something that you really get in the summer months; at that time, it can feel very much like three charming piles of stones linked by a leafy stroll.
Unfortunately, while nature does its best to get out of the way at certain times of year, there is nothing to be done about the man-made intrusion at Rollright. Trees barren or leafless, there is still that road which cuts the place in half, where nifty little sports cars and whopping great SUVs whizz towards Hook Norton and Chastleton. I always think it is such a pity, when I am making my way to the King’s Stone, that someone put that road there and then surrounded it by enormous hedgerows to try and counteract its effect.
The stones, which have stood for over 5 millennia remind us that the things we do to our landscape have a lasting effect, perhaps beyond our expectations. We should not be like that proud, invading king, selfishly thinking of our own advancement, but consider our effect on past and future generations as we build on and change our countryside today. Someone may have had the imagination to create a tale around those ancient stones, but I’d like to see them try to explain away that road so romantically.
The footprints we leave on our countryside go deep into our soil and we need to remember that they will still be there long after our season has passed.