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Etched in stone: History of the Rollright Stones

Posted by Katy Peck on 27 June 2019
Related property: Buckland Court
Etched in stone: History of the Rollright Stones

About 35 minutes from Buckland Court, you’ll find a real piece of history.

The Rollright stones are an ancient complex of megalithic monuments, with three sites spanning from the early Neolithic period to the Bronze Age. Made from huge boulders of Jurassic oolitic limestone – the same stone that makes up the Cotswolds’ famous honey-coloured cottages - it’s thought that the rocks used to construct the stones were collected from within 500m of the site, all at different points in history.

There are three main sites at the Rollright Stones; the King’s Men, the King Stone and the Whispering Knights. Each has its own history and legends, so it’s worth taking the time to admire all three during your visit.

The King’s Men is a ceremonial stone circle erected around 2,500BC, although its exact origins are unclear. Today there are approximately 70 old, weathered stones arranged in an irregular ring about 31m across. It is thought that the number has changed over the years, with people having taken them for building materials. The King’s Men were first protected as an ancient monument in 1883, when the owner claimed that they had replaced all the fallen stones to their original positions. However, by examining the stones we know have remained standing since the 17th Century, we can see this is not the case. In fact, the stones were probably initially arranged in an accurate circle... it's just not completely clear why!

The King Stone is found a short distance away, not far from the crest of a nearby slope. It’s believed that it was erected much later than the original stone circle, as a marker for the nearby Bronze Age burial ground. Many people think that the name may have been chosen even later still, to mark the stone as an important meeting place during the Saxon period.

The King Stone has a very unique shape, which has been compared to a seal balancing a ball on its nose. This isn’t simply down to the effects of the elements – during the 19th Century, tourists had a habit of chipping off parts of the stone as souvenirs. Cattle Drovers are also said to have taken small pieces in an attempt to keep the devil away. This kind of damage is why legal protection for ancient remains was announced in the late 19th Century - the Rollright stones were some of the first monuments in the UK to be put under this protection.

Last but not least, the Whispering Knights, around 400m east of the stone circle, is a ‘portal dolmen’ burial chamber made up of four upright stones and one capstone, which is believed to have fallen during the 18th Century. It’s thought that the Whispering Knights predate the stone circle by over 1000 years, making them one of the earliest funerary monuments in Britain. The chamber would have been the resting place of several people – pottery from the Early Neolithic, Beaker and Bronze Age has been found in the immediate area, suggesting the tomb was considered sacred through many centuries. Furthermore, a piece of bone washed out from the chamber has been radiocarbon dated to approximately 1700BC.

Of course, there are many legends and myths tied to these ancient stones – the most famous of which is the petrification legend which some believe gave the stones their name. This story tells how a King was marching across the Cotswolds with his army, when he came across a witch. The witch said to him, “Seven long strides shalt thou take and if Long Compton thou canst see, King of England thou shalt be”. When the King took seven steps, a mound of earth (which can still be seen today) rose up and blocked his view of Long Compton, a nearby village. The witch cursed the King and his men, turning the King into the King Stone, the army into the King’s Men and another group of Knights, who were away planning treason, into the Whispering Knights. It is said that the witch became an elder tree, which still stands nearby today. If the tree is ever cut, then the spell will break and the King and his army will spring back to life.

Another legend says that it is impossible to count all of the King’s men, and that anyone who manages to count the same number of stones three times will have their heart’s desire. One story tells how a baker swore he could count the stones by placing a freshly baked loaf on top of each one, but the bread was stolen away by the fairies when his back was turned, ruining his plan. Make sure to have a go at counting the stones yourself should you pay them a visit!

Today, the Rollright Stones are a popular stopping point for visitors and walkers. They rest close to several walking routes, making them a pleasant diversion on a sunny day. They are also popular with stargazers, having become a Dark Sky Discovery Site in 2014.

Another more recent highlight of the site is the addition of some beautiful natural sculptures. In 2017, Banbury-based sculptors David and Adam Gosling completed a temporary sculpture of three fairies dancing, made from woven hazel, ivy, willow and lime. Previously, David Gosling also placed a similar sculpture of the Rollright Witch on the site, although it has since yielded to the elements.

The site is open to the public daily – if there’s not a warden manning the entrance, an honesty box system is in place for visitors. Entry is a reasonable £1 for adults and 50p for children, with all money going towards the upkeep of the site. Dogs are welcome on the lead, and there are plenty of places to sit and enjoy a picnic, or just take in the rolling hills and beautiful views.

The Cotswolds are full of hidden gems like the Rollright Stones. With a stay at Buckland Court, you’re perfectly located to discover everything on offer. And after a long day out and about, there’s something special about returning to a charming holiday cottage to relax and relive your adventures.

Find out more how you can stay at Buckland Court here, or order a brochure.

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Katy Peck

Katy Peck

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