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  • Writer's pictureSean Callery

Rock of ages

People have flocked to the high, isolated spot where the Rollright Stones stand in the Cotswolds for thousands of years. Why? It's a mystery.

The Rollright Stones is actually three sites separated by an ancient ridgeway. The best known is a stone circle of 77 slabs, although there were originally more, erected to form a solid ring. This space has seen pagan rituals for millenia - and still does: gowned figures enact ceremonies here all through the year, leaving offerings in the centre of the circle or hanging them from the surrounding trees. An evocative willow sculpture of three swirling figures (dancers? witches? spirits?) is a lovely recent addition close by.

The circle has stood for about 4,500 years. A few hundred yards away, and a thousand years older (dating from before Stonehenge), stands a burial chamber where the giant slabs seem to be leaning conspiratorially towards each other. It's now known as the Whispering Knights.

Across the road, and a mere youngster at 1500BC, is the King Stone, a massive block of rock whose shape has been likened to a giant seal balancing a ball on its nose. Mind you, this is partly because 19th-century visitors chipped off chunks to take as souvenirs. It stands in a field that has been used for cremations and burials for millenia, so the ground holds the dust of countless bodies.

The three sites are linked by a story first printed in 1586 and possibly told for many generations before. King Rollandri (Roland the Brave) was on a mission to conquer England and met a witch on a windswept hill above the village of Long Compton. She told him:

If Long Compton thou canst see

Then Kind of all England thou shalt be

The eager king took seven strides forward before the witch cackled:

As Long Compton thou canst no see

King of England thous shalt not be

Thou and they men hoar stones shat be

And I shall be an elder tree.

Right then the king and his men were turned to stone. The monarch stands all alone (the King Stone) ahead of his resting army (across the road), while his knights mutter in each others’ ears (the chamber).

You can’t escape JRR Tolkien at mythic sites in the Cotswolds, and the Rollrights are said by some to have inspired the Barrow-downs in The Lord Of The Rings, when the hobbits are trapped by a malevolent wraith that haunts a burial mound.

This report comes from Offbeat Cotswolds, the guide to surprising facts and sights in the area. I include the Rollright Stones in my Cotswolds tours.

A few miles from the Rollright Stones lies the beautiful village of Great Tew. Read about some of its history in Cornbury Festival's 3 Ps: present, a play and a painting.


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