Coming from the mid-north coast of eastern Australia, we are used to short daylight hours in the month of May, and this year the first of the winter weather came earlier than we had expected. We were wearing jackets and warm clothes when we flew out of Sydney. I’d looked up willy-weather for the UK before we left home and discovered that, even though it was the last month of Spring in England, their current daytime temperatures were about par with those we were experiencing here where we live in Australia. I had also assumed, that being England, northern hemisphere, cold gloomy country, fog and mists, rain three days out of every four, blah, blah, blah.. the nights would draw in quickly, and it would get dark very early. For us, May in England came as a surprise. During the day I needed only a light cotton cardigan to ward off any slight chill, and the hours of daylight in each day seemed to on forever. It grew light very early of a morning, and it didn’t get dark of an evening until about 9.30-10.00 o’clock of a night, and which goes to show me that one should never just assume anything.
Even though there had been a light drizzle on the Monday evening we arrived, for the whole of the next two days we had blue skies and sunshine. The Wednesday proved to be a beautiful day, and by the time we had said our final goodbyes to Mr and Mrs Parsons it was only 5 in the afternoon. The sun was still shining, and we still had hours of light left in the day. We decided not to waste one precious second of our trip by going back to our hotel in Woodstock to rest up, but to make hay while the sun shone so to speak, and to pay a visit to the stones that were said to be far better than those of Stonehenge.
We punched Rollright, Long Compton, into the GPS and set out from Fulwell. Afraid of getting lost and missing our opportunity to see these stones, we followed the directions given by the GPS and wandered around all over the countryside, and got lost. The mad woman in the GPS directory had no more idea of where we were than we did. We gave up on the mad-woman’s directions, switched her off because she was driving us crazy, and did our own thing. After turning down a few roads to goodness knows where, we saw signs pointing to Rollright, Little Rollright, and Great Rollright. We chose a road, flew straight past a small sign, and made a U-turn. We had found some of our stones.
Below: “The King’s Men Stone Circle,” which proved to be too large for us to photograph as a complete unit, is thought to be a late Neolithic ceremonial Stone Circle dating from 2500 to 2000 B.C. The stones in the circle are of local oolitic limestone, and are quite pitted and weathered. From what I’d been told, the track inside the circle has been made by the local witches doing their thing after dark of a night, and also by people who follow the age-old tale that if they walk three-times anti-clockwise around the circle without stopping and truly believe, then the fairies who reside under the stones will award them their dearest wish. I walked the walk in hope whilst keeping in mind that a wise old Anglo-Celtic woman I knew once told me, “Be very careful what you wish for in life because it just might come true.”
When I asked about the stones no one seemed to know much at all really. This business of not knowing much, and of being not being able to find out more, was absolutely frustrating. It made me desperate to know more. I decided that I would have to satisfy my curiosity by using the mystery of the ancient stones as a basis for a story. In Cold Blood Truman Capote wrote: “Imagination, of course, can open any door—turn the key and […] walk right in” (In Cold Blood 1967, p. 84). Below: looking out from the stone circle, the views out over the Rollright farms are simply magnificent. The crops of oil-seed rape touch the hills with gold, but the whole atmosphere within the stone circle is plain spooky; it is a place of mysterious beauty and subtle energy, and unseen forces. The earth and the sky seemed meet and I felt my skin goose-bump, and for whatever reason I felt that I simply had to step out of the circle.
Below: Across to our left, in the adjoining field, about 400 metres away from where we stood near the circle of stones, we spotted the “Whispering Knights” stones, a five thousand year old burial chamber, thought to be part of a late-Neolithic long barrow. The site has not been excavated, none of the sites have. No one wants any of the old stones disturbed, for to disturb them would be to destroy them, and a visible element and valued part of England’s ancient history would disappear forever. Strangely though, it has been observed that the stones that make up the stone circle seem to alter in number from time to time.
We left the stone circle and walked back up the short path to the road. Below: just before going back out through the gate we saw a number of large stones that seemed to belong to the same complex as the circle of stones. These stones looked like seats. We wondered if they had possibly been placed there by the same Neolithic people for their ancient council meetings.
Below: we found the “King’s Stone” standing about 500 metres away from the stone circle, behind the hedgerow, on its own, in a field on the other side of the road, and in a different county. The “King’s Men Stone Circle” and the “Whispering Knights” dolmen stand in Oxfordshire, almost on the border of Oxfordshire and Warwickshire. The “King’s Stone” stands in Warwickshire. The purpose and age of this weathered monolith is not altogether clear but it is believed to be of middle Bronze Age origin. What is known though, is that in the 19th century shepherds and other country folk chipped small pieces from its surface to carry as lucky charms and to ward off evil. Looked at from various angles, the stone seems to take on a number of different appearances. I suppose that, in a way, this not unlike any person. Looked at from various aspects as it were, a person can seem to take on various different appearances. There is rather a lot to any person, really. We humans are complex beings–it’s the nature of the beast.
Regardless of other versions, the local legend goes something like this: a witch got into this King’s castle. He didn’t know she was a witch, and she charmed the Bronze-Age fellow silly. So, nothing new there, it’s just man-woman stuff really. What is a tiny bit different though, is that this witch was after a man who was honest and true all the through to his very soul, and a King amongst men at that, and she wasn’t prepared to settle for anything less. What is a bit more different again, is that the witch was very good at human psychology, and knew just what she was looking at in the King from the word go. What she saw was a hunk of a man who was very handsome, very egotistical (he was, after all King), and secretly very greedy–she felt he wanted to have even more of what he already had, and wouldn’t be satisfied until he had the lot.
Now, this witch, who never assumed anything, wanted to find out if her theories about the King’s nature were correct (I suppose in today’s terms she might possibly have made a good researcher). Unknown to the King, this witch owned all the lands as far as the eye could see and further, in a place called Rollright (which wouldn’t, of course, have been called Rollright back then rather “Hrolla-landriht,” the land of Hrolla). But wanting to put her King to the test, the witch told him she’d heard that “Hrolla-landriht” belonged to a very powerful witch, and that if a King were to stand on the very top of the hill in “Hrolla-landriht,” he would be able to see the whole of the land spread out before him, as far as the eye could see and further, and in so doing he would expand his kingdom: he would automatically take ownership of the land from the witch, and who would then lose her magical powers. But, she said, she’d also heard that the King who wished to succeed in getting to the top of the hill had to be very fast, he had to outrun the witch before she could realise what he was up to.
In the local legend, this particular Bronze-Age King set out for Hrolla-landriht (which is now Rollright), and when he spied the top of the hill, wanting the whole of the lands for himself, he took a run for it. But the witch was angry at being proved right about the King’s true nature. So, just before the King reached the top of the hill, and not seven strides away from him being able to view all the lands as far as the eye can see and further, his witch turned him into stone; and there he stands to this very day, in all his rocky glory (even though, due to possible weather erosion, he could be showing his age).
In a peculiar way, on one level, the witch’s act of turning her King into stone seems to me to almost give proof to a line in The Mourning Bride (1697) by William Congreve, a line which apparently has often been misquoted, and which is sometimes misattributed to William Shakespeare: “Heav’n has no rage like love to hatred turn’d/ Nor Hell a fury, like a woman scorn’d.”
Below: the view out over the land from the “King’s Stone.” The eerie atmosphere of the place together with the hint of coolness in the air seemed to combine with the sheer loneliness of the place. My imagination went wild. Shivers ran up my spine.
What fascinated us at Rollright also, was the way that the local farmers of today use stones. Below: the gate to the field in which the “King’s Stone” stands, closes automatically behind you by means of a weight-stone on a wire. The wire is tied to the gate on one end and threaded through a drill hole in the weight-stone, and then secured to a large rock on the ground on the other. Bob examined it from all angles, and said, “That’s really clever.” I just hope he doesn’t want to put the method into practice on our gates at home for to do so would result in some kind of tacky imitation of the real: it wouldn’t have the atmosphere of the original, and it wouldn’t carry the same meaning.