Sunday 26 March 2023

The stones at Stanton Drew - by Sue Purkiss

I've been meaning for some time to visit Stanton Drew, where I'd heard there are stone circles. I'm interested in prehistory, and fascinated by all the discoveries that keep being made about early man - and I find these mysterious stones which are scattered across our landscape intriguing, and somehow meaningful in a way I can't quite grasp.

Stanton Drew is only half an hour's drive from where I live in Somerset. I'm on one side of the Mendips, and Stanton Drew is on the other side, in the Chew Valley - which is very beautiful, so it was a treat of a drive over there. 

Stanton Drew itself is an exceptionally pretty village, built of stone, clustered round its church, reached by a very narrow lane - which is perhaps why it's escaped lots of new building. I missed the circles at first and had to turn round and come back over a tiny bridge; if you visit (for the information of Scattered Authors: it's very close to Folly Farm), just head for the church and then follow the signs till you can't go any further. You'll find a small parking area among some houses; look behind you, and you'll see the path into the field where the stones are. The site is managed by English Heritage, but it's not remotely like their more famous site, Stonehenge, which, as you'll know, is a massive, very busy tourist attraction with a state-of-the-art tourist centre.

Stanton Drew isn't like that at all. There are a couple of information boards at the entrance, which is through an old, slightly battered-looking kissing gate. You look ahead: and there is a large meadow dotted with stones. It slopes slightly down towards the River Chew, and to the left, on the other side of the river, the ground rises up again, as you can see in the second picture. To the left, more fields, and the skeleton outline of a few trees. It was one of those days that alternates between bright sunshine and sudden downpours, with a sky full of dramatic clouds tinged with purple and grey.

There are three circles, estimated to have been constructed in about 2500BC - so within roughly the same period as Stonehenge. The largest one, according to English Heritage, is, at 113 metres across, one of the biggest in the British Isles. Some of its stones are missing, but many remain: some standing, some fallen. They are made of a stone called Dolomitic Conglomerate, which probably comes from just a few miles away, in the Mendips. It's a gnarled, heavily textured stone, colonised by lichens, with hollows filled by rainwater which gleams in the sunshine. 

Perhaps surprisingly, none of the circles have been excavated, but geophysics surveys show that in the large one there were once concentric circles of wooden posts, together with a ditch running round the outside. These circles took a lot of building: what drove the small communities that lived here to invest so much time and effort in creating them? Something to do with religion, surely: an attempt to make sense of life and death.

But legend has a different explanation. The story has it that long ago, on a Saturday night in summer, there was a wedding party in this meadow. Drink was, of course, taken: a fiddler played and the dancing grew wilder and wilder. However, at midnight the fiddler wiped his brow and said apologetically that that was it: it was Sunday now, and he must stop playing. The newly-marrieds and the guests cried shame, but the fiddler would not be swayed: he packed up his fiddle and off he went.

But all, it seemed, was not lost. For there, in the centre of the circle, another fiddler had suddenly appeared: a handsome stranger. With a grin, he declared that he would be more than happy to keep the festivities going, Sunday or no Sunday.

He played well. In fact he played so well that the music was irresistible. The dancing grew wilder and more frenzied; the dancers couldn't stop, until eventually, utterly exhausted, they fell to the ground, exhausted - and were turned to stone.

Then the stranger, still smiling, shed his handsome appearance - and revealed himself to be, in fact, the Devil.

Well, there was no sign of the Devil yesterday. Though the weather was wild, the scene was utterly peaceful. Quite magical, in fact. 

As I walked across to one of the smaller circles, I noticed a splash of crimson on one of the overturned stones. It was a single red rose. 

And when I reached the centre of the smaller circle - which appears to be more complete than the larger one - I saw little patches of white scattered among the grass. I thought at first they were some kind of flower, but as I looked more closely, I saw that they were rose petals: some red, but mostly white. Someone had been here before me. Someone who felt a special connection to this place. 

It's a feeling I can understand.

Incidentally, some of you may know that I am a huge fan of Elly Griffiths' Ruth Galloway series of novels. For fellow fans - Stanton Drew features in the 11th novel of the series, 'The Stone Circle'. Elly mentions another legend: that it's impossible to count the number of stones - or that if you do succeed, you drop down dead. Just to be on the safe side, I decided not to try.



Penny Dolan said...

Lovely post! Thank you, Sue. I'd never heard of Stanton Drew.

All the stone circles that rest simply in their landscape without any Heritage fanfare around them carry such a sense of timeless magic.

Sue Purkiss said...

Beautifully put, Penny.

Andrew Preston said...

It's lovely round there, though I was unaware of the stones at Stanton Drew. My brother married a girl from Norton Hawkfield, literally just up the road, and I believe the ceremony was in that church. I don't remember too much, as, to attend, I flew in from South East Asia, overnighted in a barn ( not the straw bale experience, it was a converted one ), went to church, wandered around in the aftermath, very jet lagged, and flew out again.

Although I've driven past Stonehenge countless times, I've only visited once. While on a computer contract in Salisbury, I rented a house in a village called Durrington Walls, just over the hill from Stonehenge. On a wet winter Sunday, my girlfriend dragooned me into taking her, her visiting sister, and brother in law to Stonehenge. Very commercialised/busy even then.

Quite intrigued to realise a couple of years ago, that the house I rented in Durrington was only yards away from the more recently discovered Durrington Henge. I'd never have known, though, when you view it on Google Maps, it's really obvious.