Dotting the land all the way from Oxfordshire to Orkney, stone circles are one of Britain's great wonders, where our nature and history can be enjoyed to their full. Is there one near you?
Standing stones in the UK
The Men-an-Tol is a legendary holed stone on sweeping moorland in Penwith. It is said if you crawl through the middle you will emerge in a new reality, and over the years many have squeezed through it in hope of curing ailments. The Men-an-Tol might be an ancient tomb, as in Cornwall holed stones were often placed at the entrance to burial chambers.
This is a typically bucolic English village with a difference. Thanks to the Sarsen standing stones that cut a swathe right through it, Avebury is one of Britain's chief centres for paganism, wicca and druidry. The stones date back to around 2500 BC, the same time as nearby Stonehenge and Silbury- Europe's largest prehistoric man-made hill at 130-ft tall. Getting to grips with the realities behind the mystery of the site is the very informative Alexander Keiller Museum. Entry is £4.20.
Wales's towns are dotted with gorsedd stones- modern stone circles erected in honour of rituals enacted during the annual Eisteddfod Arts Festival. Wales's most significant prehistoric site though is Bryn Celli Ddu, whose name means 'Mound of the Dark Chamber'. Found on the rocky, eerie isle of Anglesey, it dates back to Neolithic times some four thousand years ago. Above the stone circle you can see the mountains of Snowdonia across the Menai Strait.
They lack the majestic height and breadth of a Stonehenge, but the stones of Castlerigg are one of the most impressive sights in Britain- thanks to its awe-inspiring setting on Chestnut Hill, with the highest Cumbrian peaks in the background. as well As being used for religious ceremonies, Castlerigg was probably a trading post and tribal gathering spot. The thirty-eight volcanic stones that form the circle were quarried from nearby Borrowdale.
On the wildest landscape of southern England, these standing stones are believed to date back to the Bronze Age. Legend has it the stones- there's actually twelve of them, not nine- were naughty local beauties who dared to dance on an important day of religious observance. You can find them in petrified dance mode just below the rocky pinnacle of Belstone Tor.
There were originally sixty stones on this isthmus between two lochs at a site near Stromness. Now there are just 27 left, but the Ring of Brodgar remains one of the most impressive early sites in Britain. It dates back to the third millennia BC, equivalent to the Archaic period of Ancient Egypt- incredible considering its remoteness from civilisation. Just down the road are the Stones of Stenness, including one sky-piercing, 16-ft tall slab.
Rollright Stones, Oxfordshire
The centrepiece of this cluster of megalithic monuments north-west of Chipping Norton is the extraordinary King's Men Stone Circle- a circle of gnarled stones thought to be a King and his seventy knights, who were planning to invade the country and were turned to stone by Mother Shipton, a local witch. Nearby are the Whispering Knights- five stone warriors who appear to be in a conspiratorial discussion outside the King's burial mound. The stone circles itself is said to be an area of strong convergent magnetic forces, attracting a host of enthusiasts with dowsing rods. Be sure to come at midnight when the witch's spell is lifted and the Knights come back to life to dance a little jig.
Arbor Low is a short drive from Bakewell, in Derbyshire's glorious Peak District. On its moorland plateau 375 feet above sea level there are 50 limestone blocks arranged in an oval shape. The term 'standing stones' doesn't really apply to Arbor Low, as- whether due to the actions of disapproving Christians or the subsidence of the soil- all of the stones are lying flat on the turf, many of them broken.
Anyone who watches Time Team regularly on the box will know that recent excavations on the hallowed turf have revealed England's most hallowed landmark was a cemetery. That probably won't stop the endless speculation that surrounds it though, and has led claims it is an astrological calculator, a temple and a landing pad for extra-terrestrials. The largest stones reach 21 feet in height, weigh up to 30 tons and were quarried from nearby Marlborough sandstone, while the smaller bluestones were quarried over a hundred miles away in South Wales- though how they were transported is another matter.
On Lewis, the northernmost island of the Hebrides archipelago, these monoliths form part of Scotland's most photogenic prehistoric site. They're made of gneiss rock and were dragged here to their lochside setting some time after 3000 BC. Christian myths claim the Callanish stones were giants who refused to be converted to Christianity by St Kieran.
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