This summer Dr A and fellow archaeologist Dr J were fieldwalking in the Cotswolds. I tagged along, fieldwalking being one of my favourite archaeological activities, and on an afternoon fieldtrip I finally had the chance to visit the Rollright Stones. I’ve been wanting to visit the stone circle, and it’s neighbouring monuments the Whispering Knights and King Stone since I was about 12, but somehow never made it.
It was blistering hot the day we visited and the Oxfordshire landscape was looking especially Powell and Presburger-ish. A couple were meditating/ sunbathing in the middle of the stone circle (although the arrival of a crowd of archaeologists soon scared them away).
The Rollright Circle (also known as the King’s Men) is a low, kerb-like circle of gnarled and weathered limestone. This circle and its neighbouring stones bring together a great many of the folk traditions commonly associated with standing stones and stone circles.
To do it full justice, I will take a few Fridays to recount the different tales.
No.1: It is impossible to count them!
A common belief regarding stone circles is that it is impossible to accurately count the individual stones. Count them once you will come up with one number, count them again and it will be different. Clearly some supernatural forces are at work – perhaps the stones are moving or muddling your senses. At the Rollrights, an enterprising baker is said to have tried to count the stones by placing a loaf of bread on every stone. However, “his loaves were not sufficiently numerous, or some sorcery displaced them” (BH Cowper 1853 Notes and Queries, Is. 7, 58-9). At this site, if you are clever or lucky enough to count the same number of stones three times three times you will be granted a wish!
Clearly, archaeologists with their sophisticated survey equipment will have little truck with this legend. Alan Garner neatly combines the rational and the supernatural in his book Elidor – in which the children are at one point trapped inside a stone circle, whose stones seem to be fluid in number. However, once they have escaped the circle’s bounds, the stones are easy to count.