Stonehenge and the Rollright Stones
By Dirk Vander Ploeg
In 1990 the British Tourism Board hired our company to write a story about Torbay, one of their most important and largest tourist areas. They referred to it as the heart of the English Riviera. Situated in southwest England, it comprises three towns: Brixham, Paignton and Torquay.
I will always remember this trip because I toured Torbay and related tourist areas in the middle of the winter. Ironically, I was there to write about sun, sand and surf and was plummeted by gale force winds and crashing waves whose spray towered 50 feet into the air and soaked everything and everyone nearby.
This was my first trip to England and one of the great things I had arranged prior to the trip was a Brit Railway pass. This allowed me to travel anywhere in the country by train.
The local British Tourism representative met me at my hotel and took me to all the local tourist attractions where I was able to photograph the scenery and interview individuals to provide background and color to the piece.
One of my favorite memories was of seeing a reproduction of Sir Francis' ship the Golden Hind. Unimaginably small was my first impression. It looked no larger than 50 feet long and 20 feet wide. And this was the pride of the English navy and the scourge of the Spanish Armada of 1558!
Later I visited Torre Abbey, Torquay's most historic building. The Abbey is set on a splendid piece of land with beautiful gardens, manicured green lawns with scattered trees and a tropical palm house. Behind the Abbey is a barn known as the 'Tithe Barn'. It is one of Britain's most complete medieval barns. In 1588 the barn was used to house 400 Spanish prisoners from the Spanish Armada and so it is rightly named 'The Spanish Barn'. This is where many prisoners died of dreadful disease and willful neglect. When I had finished my story I took a serendipitous train trip back to London and stopped in Salisbury to visit the famous Abby and experience Stonehenge firsthand.
I took a local bus to Salisbury Plain on which Stonehenge is built.
Some of the anticipated enchantment of Stonehenge was lost when our bus pulled into the parking lot and we walked through an underground tunnel before emerging to a procession of souvenir and concession stands. Ignoring the mundane I followed the path to one of my heart's greatest fantasies…standing in the presence of gigantic monoliths, perhaps made before the time of Man and one of the truly holy spots on earth.
This ancient circle, which some claim has druidic roots, is today roped off from the public. I yearned to caress the polished stones and absorb their ancient secrets through my fingertips. This was a travesty; it was like showing a thirsty man a cool sparking brook and forbidding him to drink. I should have jumped the ropes and entered the enchanted realm protected by the circle. It may be a portal to magical places or the wellspring of ancient knowledge, but I didn't.
Instead I thought I would observe the majesty of this collection of upright and toppled stones from where I stood. I tried to envision energy emissions radiating from the monoliths, like the patterns formed by metal fillings displaying magnetic fields. I strained to see King Arthur or Merlin in the circle but all I saw was untrampled grass and virgin earth through the forbidding ropes.
It was February and I was standing on a plain exposed to all of nature's elements and instead of experiencing mystic vibrations all I felt was the sting of a cold wind. The concession stands and the walk-through tunnel were no longer mundane but a sought after haven.
Many believe that Stonehenge is unique, but the British Isles has many examples of stone circles. During my 2002 trip to England I visited one other, but less known, stone circle. My wife's parents live in Bedfordshire, England, which is about 60 miles north of London. We took several trips from Bedford and one of the first was to the Rollright Stones. These stones also form a circle but the highest stone is only about 5 feet tall. It is said that it is impossible to accurately count the stones because the number changes on every count. I asked my wife and her brother Nick to join me in counting the stones and we all came up with a different total!
Unlike Stonehenge this stone circle has a legend surrounding its creation.
An ambitious King with the goal of conquering all of England led his army as far as the Rollrights. Here he met a witch. Her name was Mother Shipton of Shipton-under-Wychwood and she lived between 1488-1551. She challenged the King with these words, "Seven long strides shalt thou take And if Long Compton thou canst see, King of England thou shalt be."
On his seventh stride the ground rose up before him in a long mound sometimes known as the Arch-Druid's barrow. The witch laughed and declared, "As Long Compton thou canst not see King of England thou shalt not be. Rise up stick and stand still stone For King of England thou shalt be none; Thou and thy men hoar stones shall be And I myself an eldern tree."
And so it was that the King became the King Stone, his men the King's Men Stone Circle, and his treacherous and conniving knights the Whispering Knights, although some say that the knights were actually at prayer.
Legend has it that one day the spell will be broken and that the King and his men will return to life and continues their conquest of England.