Size matters…Yorkshire Megaliths & Cumbria’s Prehistoric Monuments

I recently saw this wonderful illustration of Yorkshire Megaliths. I contacted the author, Adam Morgan Ibbotson, and he kindly sent me a copy.

I was rather chuffed, Adam wrote one of my favourite books of 2021, Cumbria’s Prehistoric Monuments. It’s a lovely book, comprehensive, very readable with beautiful photographs, maps and illustrations. If prehistory and big old stones are your thing, you’ll love this. You can buy it here

Aubrey Burl

Last week I learned that Harry Aubrey Woodruff Burl had passed away at the age of 93.

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Sometime in the mid 1980’s I discovered a book in a second hand bookshop called The Stone Circles of the British Isles by Aubrey Burl. I bought it, read it and re-read it, it changed my world.

burl stone circles

Prior to finding Burl’s book, I had an interest in all things ancient and had visited quite a few prehistoric sites. My views were shaped by the writings of Janet & Colin Bord, John Michell and other writers of the alternative archaeology community. Burl’s book propelled me into the world of Prehistoric Archaeology and set me on a path that I am still happily travelling.

Burl’s field guide, A Guide to the Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany, is a must for anyone interested in the subject. My dog-eared copy has travelled the length and breadth of Britain with me. It has led me over fields, across bogs and empty moors, walking in his steps, seeking out the megalithic remains of our islands.

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Burl was my entry into the world of prehistory, once discovered my bookshelves soon started to fill not only with his works but books by Daniels, Hawkes, Bradley, Waterhouse, Thom, Barnatt and Piggott to name a few.

Daniels

Burl also taught me to look back to the work of the early antiquarians such as Aubrey, Stukeley, Camden, Ferguson and Borlase. I also sought out the work of more recent researchers, people who marked the transition from Antiquarianism into modern Archaeology such as Fred Cole, Sir James Simpson, Canon Greenwell, Collingwood Bruce and Frank Elgee.

Easter_Aquhorthies_stone_circle,_Fred._Coles_1900

When travelling to a previously unvisited area, I always consult Burl and mark my maps accordingly. I’ve explored Brittany using his Megalithic Brittany book as my guide, on my first trip to Avebury I used his itinerary to discover the stones, he has never let me down. Aubrey Burl was my teacher and my guide and I am sad that he is no longer with us.

It has been hard pleasure to see so many fine circles in Western Europe. They are one family, now dispersed, a megalithic confusion of parents, children, nieces and nephews, in-laws, second cousins, even some dubious offspring at the furthest edge of acceptability…They fascinate and perplex. Enjoy them.

A Guide to the Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Britanny. A Burl 1995

Gunnerkeld Stone Circle

Gunnerkeld – Sportsman’s Spring

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This beautiful concentric stone circle is situated a mile and a half north of Shap in Cumbria, an area rich in prehistoric monuments.

It is thought that the outer circle was erected during the Neolithic period. The circle is the same diameter as the famous stone circle at Castlerigg. Another similarity is the two large portal stones, a feature that can also be found at the Castlerigg circle. This leads to speculation that perhaps the two circles were erected by the same prehistoric architect.

The inner circle and a central cist were added during the Bronze Age, perhaps changing the use of the site from a place of ceremony and ritual to a sepulchral function, a place of the dead.

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Another remarkable aspect of this lovely stone ring is it’s proximity to the M6 southbound carriageway, which is just a stones throw away.  The soundtrack here is one of speeding traffic.

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Access to the site is via Gunnerwell Farm, this is private land, if you visit be sure to ask at the farmhouse, the farmer is very friendly. Also you need to cross a stream to access the field where the stones are located, wellies are advisable.

Sources

The Stone Circles of Cumbria – John Waterhouse 1985

Prehistoric Monuments of the Lake District – Tom Clare 2007

A Guide to the Stone Circles of Cumbria – Robert W.E. Farrah 2008

A Southern Excursion

Excursion – A movement of something along a path or through an angle

Avebury

This is an amazing collection of monuments, all of them excessive in size. There is a colossal earthwork enclosure with four entrances; the largest stone circle in western Europe surrounding the remains of the fifth and seventh biggest rings; and the remnants of two Coves, a holed stone and two avenues. Aubrey Burl. 1995

Even the most Gothic of poetry could not evoke the impact that this colossus has upon any mind sensitive to the lingerings of prehistory…As long ago as 1289 the earthwork was called Waleditch, Old English weala-dic, ‘the dyke of the Britons’. Aubrey Burl. 2000

Avebury postcard

Avebury Postcard. Reconstruction by Alan Sorrell. Dept. of the Environment 1958

GrotesqueThe monument we see today was excavated and reconstructed by Alexander Keiller during the late 1930’s.  A number of the stones, including the one pictured above, were reassembled using the remaining fragments.

I once took a holiday in Avebury, staying in the Keiller Room at the Red Lion pub allowed me to spend a couple of chilly November evenings and frosty mornings walking alone amongst the stones. I recently returned, sadly the Red Lion no longer takes guests.

The stones and the surrounding landscape have informed the work of Barbara Hepworth, John Piper, Paul Nash and many other artists.

The church, unlike the pub, sits outside of the henge. When siting the original church, it must have seemed futile to try and christianise a pagan monument of such magnitude. The Saxon baptismal font is thought to depict a bishop trampling on a pair of dragons.

Many of the stones were thrown down and buried by christians during the fourteenth century.  The stones were once again attacked during the mid-seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, many stones were smashed for buildings.

Herepath, the power of the name compelled me to walk along it to the Ridgeway.

At home, on the North York moors, my eyes are often cast downwards onto the margins of the path looking for flints. Here the track is made of flint, I felt quite overwhelmed.

I had set myself the challenge of finding a single, specific, stone amongst the sarsen drifts (Grey Wethers) of Fyfield Down.  Julian Cope calls this area The Mother’s Jam.

Polissoir – A block of coarse stone, sometimes as an earthfast boulder or natural outcrop, used for grinding and polishing stone tools.

The bowl and grooves of the sarsen polissoir are as smooth as marble. A potential polissoir has been found built into the fabric of the nearby West Kennet Long Barrow with another incorporated into the Stone Circle at Avebury.

Singing at Delling’s Door.

The Ridgeway, one notable landscape Archaeologist believes that it may have first been established as a trackway at the end of the last ice age.

Heading south along the Ridgeway, the summit of Silbury Hill reveals itself.

Silbury Hill is the largest man made mound in Europe.

The Barrow Cemetery on Overton Hill is crossed by the remains of a Roman Road.

 The Sanctuary is located where the Ridgeway meets the modern A4. The monument consisted of two concentric rings of standing stones, it was destroyed in the 18th century ‘to gain a little dirty profit’ (Wm. Stukeley 1724). Concrete posts mark the locations of the stones

The stones of the West Kennet Avenue led me back to Avebury.

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Sources

A Guide to the Stone Circles of Britain Ireland & Brittany. Aubrey Burl. 1995

The Stone Circles of Britain Ireland & Brittany. Aubrey Burl. 2000