Keep your eyes peeled and you'll spot bits of ancient heritage in a field near you. © 24 Hour Museum / Caroline Lewis
Some of the oldest relics of manmade heritage in the UK are not to be found in museums, but out in the fields and hills, standing weathered but monumental as they have done for thousands of years (actually, some have been re-positioned over the millennia).
Our prehistoric ancestors were a dab hand at somehow getting huge slabs of stone to stand up on their ends, without the benefit of any kind of motorised cranes or hydraulic haulage, leaving us these strange rows and circles of lichen-covered rocks, and earth covered barrows (burial chambers). Those that remain mostly date to the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age, about 4,000 - 5,000 years ago.
Their historical importance has been long recognised, and Stonehenge, Avebury and partners around the country were all designated Scheduled Ancient Monuments back in 1882. Here’s a trail around some of the key standing stones and stone burial chambers of Britain.
Starting in the far north, Orkney’s Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stennes date to 2900 BC. These tall, slender, tablet shaped stones are arranged in perfect circles, and are known as the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Moon, referring to the common feature of stones being positioned in relation of astronomical events.
Inside Maeshowe. © Historic Scotland
Nearby Maeshowe is a megalithic tomb with a stone-built passage leading to a burial chamber within a large earth mound. The entrance is aligned to the southwest, so that the back wall is illuminated perfectly at the mid-winter equinox when the sun shines straight down the passage.
In addition to its original purpose, the mound was used by Vikings later on, who left behind a great collection of runic inscriptions. Here's a webcam view of Maeshowe (only runs at certain times).
The Callanais (or Calanish) Stones on the Isle of Lewis are slices of silver-grey, hewn from Lewisian gneiss, but have their origins about 1,000 years after the similar construction on Orkney. At the centre is a ruined chambered cairn. Local traditions say that St Kieran created the stones from the resident giants of old, who refused to be converted to Christianity.
Calanais - rather imposing, wouldn't you say? Crown copyright reproduced courtesy of Historic Scotland
A little further south, Cumbria is blessed with a profusion of stone circles.
The 40-odd (mostly) standing stones of the circle at Castlerigg are set against a wonderfully dramatic backdrop featuring two mountains, Helvellyn and High Seat. Look the other way and there are views across to Skiddaw, Blencathra and Lonscale Fell – a suitably awe-inspiring spot for whatever rituals went on here. The circle and inner rectangle contain several astronomical alignments.
Staying in the county, the early Bronze Age Long Meg and Her Daughters at Penrith is the third largest circle in Britain (after Avebury, Wiltshire, and Stanton Drew, Avon). The 60-stone ellipse of Daughters stretches more than 100 metres across, with 3.5-metre tall Long Meg standing like a pillar 70 metres outside the circle, on the line of the midwinter sunset.
A local story goes that Meg and the daughters were a coven of witches petrified by a saint.
The stone circle of Castlerigg, in its picturesque setting. © www.cumbriaphoto.co.uk. Photo: Dave Willis
Penrith Museum is a good place to find out more about the stone circles of Cumbria and the prehistoric heritage of the Vale of Eden area. Contact the museum to find out about the Living Among the Monuments project, offering archaeological fieldwalking opportunities, a free brochure and more.
Arbor Low Stone Circle has a great setting on high Derbyshire moorland, but its 50 white limestone slabs are all fallen, and we’re talking about standing stones, not recumbent ones!
The Rollright Stones, Oxfordshire, have a nice bit of folklore behind them. The three groups, erected 4,000-4,500 years ago, are said to be a monarch (the twisted King Stone) and his courtiers petrified by a witch, though by the gnarled shape of them, you’d think it was the other way round. The burial chamber stones are known as the Whispering Knights.
The antiquarian William Stukeley poetically described the Rollrights as being “corroded like worm eaten wood”. Find out more about the knobbly weathered stones at www.rollrightstones.co.uk.
Wayland’s Smithy is also in Oxfordshire, on the prehistoric Ridgeway path. Although it’s a Neolithic chambered barrow, it has become more associated with the Saxon god Wayland (supposedly he moved in, and would re-shoe your horse if you left it there with some payment). Four massive sarsens protrude at the front of the burial mound, set in a peaceful beech tree glade.
Avebury's pillars of the community. Courtesy the National Trust
Shuffle southwest along the Ridgeway and you’ll reach Avebury, Wiltshire, where there’s such a large circle they put a village inside it. And a pub (The Red Lion). Great.
After your pint you might like to climb inside the concrete reinforced West Kennet Long Barrow and have a snooze. You won’t want to climb the largest man-made mound in Europe, Silbury Hill. Anyway, you shouldn’t, as it collapsed a bit in 2000 where some bright spark dug a 100-foot shaft down it in the 18th century, after it had stood there minding its own business for 4,500 years...
Silbury Hill © English Heritage and Skanska
Find out more about these close-by sites and the ritual landscape at Avebury’s Alexander Keiller Museum, and decide for yourself whether you think Silbury was actually created when the Devil couldn’t be bothered to carry a shovelful of earth all the way to Marlborough, where he really wanted to drop it.
For a really good overview of the county, with very fine Neolithic and Bronze Age collections including the Bush Barrow treasures set off down to Wiltshire Heritage Museum.
Another important museum visit that will give you an insight into the wider ritual landscape of Wiltshire comes courtesy of the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum, which is home to the Avebury Archer, Stonehenge Man and a remarkable collection of neolithic archaeological treasures.
Men-an-Tol. © Historic Environment Service, Cornwall County Council
South-west England also has a plethora of standing stones to wonder at. Mên-an-Tol – the stone with the hole – near Penzance, is an unusual example with rumoured curative properties, and there’s a perfect granite circle near Penwith, the Merry Maidens. Historic Cornwall’s field guide comes highly recommended for finding Neolithic and Bronze Age sites in the county.
Wales, too, is a rich seam for stone hunters. The Bryn Celli Ddu barrow (meaning 'the mound in the dark grove') in Anglesey proves that Neolithic man was no stranger to building over his heritage, though – it’s a tomb built on top of an old henge. Maybe they felt like re-decorating. Find out more about its missing stone at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff.
The heritage organisation Cadw looks after many monuments in Wales. Search the Cadw website for Bryn Celli Ddu and more.
The entrance to the huge La Hougue Bie, Jersey.
A lot of stone circles and megalithic tombs in Ireland were buried within a couple of thousand years of their being built – by peat bogs. Some of these have been discovered through peat-cutting, like the impressive Beaghmore complex in Country Tyrone. In Northern Ireland, the circles are made of small stones – the big ones were saved for tombs.
You want to see a big tomb? A really big tomb? La Hougue Bie, Jersey, is the one for you.
And how could we ever forget? Stonehenge, the mother of all stone circles, is like a lichen-covered magnet for tourists, druids, archaeologists and the curious. Hardly needing an introduction, all that remains to be said is that these whopping bluestone archways deserve their Mecca status. And just how did they get them from Wales to Salisbury Plain?
Stonehenge in the winter. © English Heritage
Some other web guides (because this trail is just the tip of the burial mound)
For a virtually comprehensive directory of megalithic monuments and a megalithic map, go to the Megalithic Portal, where you'll find news about ancient sites all over the world, books, comments and more. Also a good place to find detailed map references for the sites in this trail.
Julian Cope's Modern Antiquarian is a popular gazetteer of monuments - see the thriving website that accompanies it at www.themodernantiquarian.com.