This post started out as a piece about a visit to Stanton Drew late one afternoon in November last year where I’d taken some photographs; but the process of selecting the photos (amongst the text) set off a sequence of recollections about previous visits, and that in turn led to memory detours into different stone-made territories, and dowsing….
Stanton Drew is a large, but little visited group of three stone circles just south of Bristol set in the fields next to the River Chew; legend has that the stones sometimes go down to the river to drink, they must, after all, be thirsty after all their cavorting – these are wedding guests who were tempted by the devil to carry on dancing into the Sabbath and for their sins were turned to stone. The long ridge of Dundry Hill provides a backdrop to the north that includes the sculpted features of Maes Knoll Iron Age hill fort (see photos at end of post). On the day of our visit it had been dull and grey but brighter weather had been forecast for late afternoon so we set off hoping to catch the last of the sun before dusk.
By the time we arrived at the site – the only visitors at first – the sun was breaking through the clouds and long, sharp shadows were being cast by the stones, and, by us onto the stones. It was very still. Our visit, not the first by any means but some time since the last, was partly stimulated by a friend who’s working on a computer game for kids called Lux and the Shadowmaker; she’d been here recently and photographed these same long shadows, and I was enticed into going there again. I’m not a ‘mystic megalith’ devotee but I can’t deny the atmosphere that often pervades such places and have a strong memory of intriguing behaviour displayed by our first child in connection with standing stones.
When he was a baby, we were living on a shoestring, so an inexpensive entertainment was taking gentle strolls in Bristol’s neighbouring countryside where we’d often go and look in the churches scattered across the landscape – a combination of general interest in architecture and finding a baby-feeding / nappy changing place out of the wind, rain, or heat. I can’t remember how it started but we got into the habit of singing a cheery little rising and falling scale as we entered the empty churches just for the acoustic pleasure of hearing the echoes bounce off the stone walls, and before long our small child (of around 8 months or so – certainly before talking) began to join in, it became a kind of greeting to the building. Then he started to repeat this sound whenever he saw a church tower from the car as we travelled around. We assumed he’d recognised the tall towers and associated them with our visits so it became a kind of sound-sign for a church, and he got good at spotting them and didn’t seem to confuse them with other tall structures like grain silos – a kind of pre-language ‘I spy’ game.
Not long after this quaint custom had become a feature of our outings, we made a visit to Avebury stone circle. We approached the village from a small road that leads north off the A4 and gently uphill through wide open fields with a few trees – there are no other buildings in sight, but after a while the long avenue of paired stones that lead towards the main henge come into view. This is West Kennet Avenue and is thought by some to be part of a ritual processionary route. As we drove past the first of the stones, from the back seat of the car came the familiar chant of the ‘church recognition’ scale, repeated as we continued alongside the avenue. There are a lot of stones but they’re spread out and don’t look like a building; they are certainly large too but not silhouetted against the sky here in the way a church tower is; had he, over our visits to these country churches, recognised not just the shape of a type of building but some other quality as well – some kind of quality that also featured here in this prehistoric site? Clearly we will never know and I don’t think he remembers it now three decades later but it sent shivers of wonder through me on that car journey and still does when I remember it today.
Son two arrived and in addition to the more usual boy-centric pursuits of the 80s (amending and destroying toys – along with household items – playing Warhammer, and fighting frequently with your brother) visits to stone circles or similar continued to figure occasionally in our family outings and on the inevitable damp days of camping holidays when the kids were grumpy, we’d often find them (and ourselves) sparking back to life and humour with a race alongside a Dartmoor stone row, weaving a high-speed route through the stones of a roadside henge on the Welsh borders or charging round a quoit in Pembrokeshire or Cornwall – there did seem to be some energy-related phenomena going on in these places.
However, on this recent late autumn afternoon Stanton Drew’s multiple circles of pocked, grey and lichened rocks of several different types (being licked by the resident heifers), seemed to invite stillness rather than exercise. The fact that two previous visits there had been with people who have both since died may have added to this sensibility; we’d taken my brother-in-law there just after Christmas in 2000. It was a bleak, grey day with a punishing cold wind whipping round the stones after a snowfall had left a patchy white covering on the ground, but he’d been living abroad since the 1980s and was pleased to be in this odd, English place and delighted to see snow for the first time in over 20 years.
Another visit a few years ago with a poorly friend (mentioned elsewhere in this blog) led to an irksome encounter one September day, when we found ourselves ‘sharing’ the site with a group of people practicing some form of slow movement routines around, and on the stones – undoubtedly an enjoyable place for such an activity, but…It’s good sometimes to just stand a little way from one of the stones and view it with its neighbours and the landscape, contemplating what might have gone on here. The stones here are very tactile too and running your hands across their surfaces is part of the experience. But on this occasion if we stood and looked, or approached a stone where one of these earnest enthusiasts was ‘performing’ (or whatever they were doing), their body language morphed from flowing self-absorption into postures of an over-assertive nature with hand-gestures that implied that we should leave – it was a Sunday afternoon, the site is open to the public but it felt as though it had been selfishly appropriated – they won, we left in irritation, the outing with our friend a little spoiled, though we laughed about it later. (See photo at end of post)
But, the most engaging visit for me was with a small party of German dowsers I took to the site in 1988. I’d been asked by a friend to step in at short notice to organise, for a small fee, a tour of ‘interesting ancient locations’ in the South West – something I’d never done before but I enjoyed such places and it seemed like an entertaining bit of work. I did some research, sorted out an itinerary, booked some B & B’s and met up with them for the first time in Bristol, after they’d arrived from a similar tour in West Wales. I think I was expecting a group of alternative / hippy types so it was a surprise to find that on the mini-bus the handful of men were mostly anorak-sporting and middle-aged, and there were only two or three women, one of whom was clad in a beige top and pink pleated skirt with white ankle socks and matching shoes – she greeted me warmly. I spoke no German and they had very little English but we muddled along for the few days we were together sharing jokes through sign language – they did laugh a lot. I’ve no idea what they were expecting me to be like but with my stereotypes demolished, or at least shifted, we set off to Stanton Drew, our first stop; as far as I could understand they had not heard of it but once we’d arrived and entered the field of standing stones they became very excited.
After twenty minutes or so of exclamations and expressions of wonder, I was manoeuvred into a position where I stood side by side with my Fraulein friend, and assisted in arranging myself so we had one arm around each others’ waists while with our free hands we each held the end of one piece of long, thin, flat and flexible plastic (yes, plastic, not the anticipated split hazel rod!). The other ends of the plastic were bound together with fine twine I think, and so we made a circuit – I was being shown how to dowse. I’d had a brief exposure to dowsing using bent coat-hangers and couldn’t make out if anything was really happening then or not, although the guy who was demonstrating then did impress me with his own technique of dowsing when he accurately identified the site of a rare wild plant that he’d never heard of but whose secret location I knew – he achieved this just using a map.
The split ‘rod’ we shared amongst the stones at Stanton Drew (after a brief Google search I can only find one reference to this style of dowsing device, it’s here) was held so it’s length was parallel with the ground but as we walked between the stones I could feel the tip apparently dipping towards the earth, then returning to a horizontal position as we left the circle – was my partner making this happen? Weaving in and out of the circle felt a little like a country dance (a dangerous echo of the stones’ legendary origins), but after a few of these turns and promenades I was encouraged to try it on my own, and the same thing happened, and though not as pronounced it was still an odd sensation.
After this devil-baiting, pendulum dowsing was demonstrated and I had a go with that too – less easy to define what was happening but something seemed to be going on. Because of the language problem I never learnt in depth what they were looking for, discovering, or hoping to find – various forms and flows of energy was as much as I could work out, but there was a strong sense that these people were tuning into something recognizable and very absorbing. The afternoon was quietly intense and made a lasting impression, intriguing in its odd mixture of being both down to earth (in several senses) and a bit otherworldly.
We went on over the next few days to, of course, Glastonbury, Avebury, West Kennet Long Barrow, Windmill Hill Causewayed enclosure and Silbury Hill. I had to leave them to visit Stonehenge by themselves as I needed to return home but the places that generated the most excitement – I think these were surprises for them too – were the Chalice Well garden in Glastonbury; The Sanctuary a little way from Avebury; the Devil’s Punch Bowl – a deep, tree-filled swallet on the Mendip hills (swalletts are holes in the ground where streams disappear, or as in this case did so in the past, into the porous limestone and re-emerge lower down the hill, as at Wookey Hole where the River Axe re-appears). Newly ‘minted’ crop circles had appeared next to Silbury Hill the night before our visit there which were a source of absolute fascination for the dowsers but top of the list was the 14th Century Lady Chapel at Wells Cathedral. The potency of whatever energy is at play there with the underlying springs had them reeling in astonishment. With the muted light from stained glass windows, fluted columns, foliate corbels and ribbed vaulting it does feel as though a small piece of forest, nourished by invisible streams, has been embraced by the cathedral and become delicately fossilised into stone; for this group of dowsers I sensed the place was a manifestation of some kind of sacred grove. Photos of some of our encounters with stone are at the end of the post.
As the sun dipped towards the horizon at Stanton Drew on our recent November visit (a shocking twenty four years after the dowsing quest), a couple of families arrived with young children who ran amongst the giant stones and their shadows, clambering on top of them wielding stick-swords in a way that had pleasingly familiar echoes. But the temperature was falling, the light was going and the lure of a hot cup of tea by the fire was strong so we headed back to the car and as we drove out of the village towards the bridge that spans the River Chew we turned for a last look back across the field to the henge circles. We had to stop and get out of the car one last time though to watch as a mist, rising from the river and the cold ground, crept through the gathering darkness towards the stones.
A few more pictures of Stanton Drew and nearby Dundry Hill featuring Maes Knoll fort, and a few vintage photos of some the other places mentioned in the text – click on an image to open as a slide show.