The dew was collecting faster the longer we stood there, and my feet were quite wet, yet I did not care. The cold June air was pierced by the sounds of a wind from the channel and a pair of didgeridoo players under a dim spotlight from the midsummer’s moon. Around us in the wet, ankle-deep grass, stood the oblong shapes of the Merry Maidens, a circle of stones placed here who-knows-when by who-knows-who. This might have been an occult gathering, the five of us drawn magically to talk about a prehistoric ritual on one of the high days of the Pagan calendar. In fact, my wife, our cab driver, and I just happened to run in to the two musicians when we chose we desired to see the stones at night. True, I was riveted to that damp spot. Was it the songs, the rhythm of wind and primal instrument? Or could it happen to be a fantastic disclosure, as some long-buried memory surfaced? It was neither; I was transfixed, as have been numerous others before and after me, by the mystery of the stones.
England is loaded with these Interesting Legends, put into deliberate patterns, most often circles, and left in the plains from one end from the island for the other. They are usually in serene, isolated places, and rarely attract crowds of tourists. These locals, along with the ongoing mysterious atmosphere posed by the stones, means they are wonderful places to visit when getting away from the noise of civilization is foremost inside your plans. On my own first trip to England in 1989, I had a vague understanding of Stonehenge, and even less interest in it. But our visit began in Cornwall where lives, my novelist wife informed me, the soul of mystery and romance. She had arrived at do historical research for any novel set in 1807, but we soon became fascinated with a far older story.
Subsequently, we have joined the ranks of the countless people who have visited Neolithic stones throughout western England, and remain more fascinated than in the past. Better still, coming from a tourist standpoint, many of these sites are freely available. Most are on private property, and as landowners might not alter historic sites, it is customary to inquire about permission from your landlords before trodding to examine their charges. Stonehenge remains one of the few sites in which one must pay an admission fee; additionally it is one from the few sites that one might not approach closely.
The initial question asked by visitors or armchair Indiana Joneses is either “who built these structures,” or “what are they for?” Archaeologists have a variety of techniques available that let them give us a number of clues. For example, the most famous prehistoric monument of them all, Stonehenge, is found atop a chalk formation. Experts tell us that if you haul heavy objects, like, say, twelve-ton stones, across chalk, it is going to shatter. Based on their examinations from the chalk around the monument, these archaeologists tell us that all the stones were hauled in from one direction, over the same path, which was called “the avenue.” The stones are certainly not local, but originate from 35 or maybe more miles away. They needed to be cut carefully, shaped, and moved, all at considerable effort, suggesting both aesthetic sense and careful engineering. (I would also think “strong backs” goes listed, but since we really don’t understand how the stones were cut or transported…)
Stonehenge have been abandoned long before the Roman conquest of Britain, and lay unknown until rediscovered in 1130 A.D. With each passing century, hypotheses about its use and builders reflected more about the ideological biases in the questioners compared to identity from the architects. A pervasive and popular explanation held that this circle was built by Druids, and utilized for human sacrifices. Alas, this explanation is an additional case of exaggerated anachronism (as is Robin Hood’s Friar Tuck, a Franciscan in England about 150 years prior to the founding of the Order), for that Druids emerged many thousands of years after Stonehenge was built. This may not, however, mean they might not have used the ruins long after their creators had disappeared. Other colourful ideas suggest the circle was a terminal building for UFOs, or the tomb of any truly great leader.
Smaller stones have many different forms. Some, called quoits, are actually considered to be burial places. But others remain enigmatic despite all tries to have them to reveal their secrets. One, the Men-el-Tor in Cornwall is unique, the sole hollowed-out, round stone known in Europe. Nearby is surely an upright spire. Legend has it that by passing through the circle three times, you may be healed from many different ills. I will vouch it fails to work for all ills. My favourite explanation for this structure (and in addition, my own, personal hypothesis) is the fact that, back around 7333 B.C., Grog invented the wheel. He showed it to his brother in law, who replied, “exactly what are you gonna do with that?” Grog thought a bit, shrugged, and tossed the prototype inside the trash, close to another aborted invention, the axel (ah, had he but built two wheels first, how different might history be). More scholarly thinkers suggest that these paired stones were utilised in fertility rights. In reality, no one knows for certain.
If you value unknown, it is possible to hardly do better than try to fathom the stones. I had no desire for them until we actually arrived at a circle in 1989. The Merry Maidens, where my feet became dew-soaked, is really a circle where my wife and i also spent a lot of time, mainly because it is so accessible. It is also surrounded by a really casual attitude from the locals, who don’t seem thinking about commercializing the ruins. Our cab driver, a local of Penzance, was filled with lore about these prehistoric relics. My favourite was the story concerning the farmer who, around World War I, tried to eliminate the stones from his field. He hitched strong ropes around a stone, thence his plow horse.
Because the stone begun to move, the horse dropped dead from a cardiac event. Fascinating since this sounds, it is actually, like so many legends, unsubstantiated by facts. On my own first visit, I noticed a set of stones outside the circle that have been not mentioned within the guidebook. They lined up with a stone in the circle to point almost exactly north-northeast. I do not know what significance which has, but I used a compass to verify the direction. Entering the circle, my compass spun slowly in most directions, a phenomenon observed by my spouse and our guide. Outside of the circle, it worked fine. Whenever we tried a much better compass two years later, the outcomes were different, the needle pointing only a few degrees east of magnetic north. Up to now, this is the most mysterious thing we’ve encountered with a stone site.
Across the road and a short walk out of the Merry Maidens would be the standing Pipers. Legend has it that the Maidens danced towards the Piper’s music around the Sabbath, for which indiscretion these people were struck into stone. Vengeful gods notwithstanding, one approaches the Pipers with great care; from time to time a bull is grazing in their field. Whilst the Maidens form a highly-defined circle (with two outer boulders creating a “gun-sight”), the tall, rectangular Pipers are in a straight row, bandsmen eternally at attention. As though ttknrn early Briton had engaged in a prehistoric version of urban planning (“boy, five thousand years from the tourists are gonna eat this up!”), addititionally there is a medieval burial chamber simply to the west of the Maiden’s circle, and easily viewed from the center of the circle. Face for the east, and you also view the Pipers. Were they erected from the same people? Were their functions related?