Thatcher’s petrified children

As far as I am aware, there was only ever one bit of urban prehistory that crossed the consciousness of the late Margaret Thatcher, the Sighthill stone circle, located near Glasgow city centre. This rather surprising monument has recently been thrust back into public consciousness due to the threat by Glasgow Council to forcibly evict the stone circle from its parkland location overlooking the M8 to a location unknown, an act that may involve dynamite and the total destruction of this classic piece of urban prehistory. This will not be the only blog I will write about this monument and its fate, so please indulge me as I introduce the monument, and my first visit to it, and place it within its highly politicised context, from Thatcher to more contemporary political concerns. The fate of the circle in the coming months and years will be the subject of future updates.

general view low res

The stone circle is located in parkland, surrounded by the M8 motorway, industrial units, cul-de-sac canals and Sighthill, an estate in Glasgow that was part of the historic regeneration of the City’s east end in the 1960s, built in a location that was previously largely industrial. The stone circle itself had rather more peculiar origins, built using labour from a Labour government Jobs Creation Scheme in the city in 1978-79, and constructed as part of the amazingly named Glasgow Parks Department Astronomy Project under the leadership of Duncan Lunan. The site was supposed to be a ‘mini-Stonehenge’ or at least copy an existing stone circle, although in the end it was constructed bespoke for the location it ended up and arranged relative to the night sky in that position. It was intended to be explicitly an ‘astronomical megalith’, and the chosen location, overlooked by tower blocks, and overlooking the M8, has spectacular views over the city.

The raw materials for the circle were 22 stones (in quarrying terms, ‘hard rock’, aka whinstone) of varying size and shape sourced from Beltmoss quarry in Kilsyth to the north of Glasgow, and these were brought to Sighthill by a Ministry of Defence Sea King helicopter, watched by a crowd of over 1000 people.

helicopter over stone circle

Most of the circle had been constructed by the time of the general election on 4th May 1979, which of course the Conservatives won. This is when – perhaps mythically – Margaret Thatcher turned her beady eye northwards towards this unique piece of urban prehistory. Duncan Lunan recounted in a recent interview in The Guardian that:

‘Six days after the election, I remember our shop steward coming in and saying that he had just heard Thatcher on the radio: ‘we shall be restoring full employment by the end of 1980 and there will be no more nonsense like the Glasgow Parks astronomy project’’

With that, work on the stone circle came to a premature end, with unused megaliths lying near the circle, and the henge bank only partially completed. Thatcher got wind of, and put a stop to, a project that was viewed by the Tories as indicative of socialist, lefty, arty, waste-of-tax, self-indulgent activities, and thus showed herself to be an enemy of urban prehistory.

building scotland's future

There are few finer indications of Thatcher’s indifference to prehistory – and the value that it still retains for society even today – than the ongoing conflicts around Stonehenge solstice events, notably in the 1980s, culminating in the so-called Battle of the Beanfield in 1985. Investigative journalist Andy Worthington recounts:

‘..over 1,300 police from six counties and the Ministry of Defence, with the approval of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, used unprecedented violence, in a civil context, savagely attacking 450 new age travellers, green activists and festival-goers as they attempted to make their way to Stonehenge’.

In the space of six years, the Ministry of Defence had shifted from providing support to build a stone circle, to flexing its muscles to stop people congregating at a stone circle.

Battle of the Beanfield as captured by Alan Lodge
Battle of the Beanfield as captured by Alan Lodge

Since Thatcher’s death, it has become commonplace to use the expression ‘Thatcher’s children’ in a range of different contexts, and it could be argued that the Sighthill version of Stonehenge represents – monumentalises – the lack of imagination and humour that characterised the Tory administration of the 1980s, shutting people out, shutting things down, petrifying the children.

Subsequent landscaping altered the original vision of the stone circle, flattening the henge bank and burying too much of the stones thus diminishing their height. And to this date, Lunan has been unable to complete his vision. Recently, the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) carried out some survey work at the site, under their ‘Threatened Building Survey Programme’ and an excellent description of the monument by archaeologist Adam Welfare can be found in the National Monuments Record of Scotland (NMRS site number NS56NE 5025).

RCAHMS survey Feb 2013
RCAHMS at work

The circle consists of an outer ring of 16 standing stones, in a circular arrangement with diameter 13.75m. These stones are huddled together in four small groupings rather than spaced fairly regularly as one normally sees at stone circles. A single monolith stands in the middle of the setting, the tallest stone at 1.75m. The other stones range in height from 0.85m in height to 1.65m, and they come in a wide range of shapes and sizes. Concentric and trapezoidal settings of cobbles lie within, and outwith, the circle. The remaining unused megaliths lie just downslope from the circle. As noted before, this monument is concerned with astronomical alignments, something I may return to in a future blog, and this accounts for the peculiar arrangement of stones and cobble paths.

alignments diagram

This, then, by any standards of nomenclature, is a stone circle. It is not an old stone circle, not a Neolithic or Bronze Age stone circle, but it is a stone circle nonetheless. And what interests me is that it is used rather like stone circles probably were back in the prehistoric day. It is a focal point for the local community, for both positive social gatherings (such as solstice and music events) and also for antisocial activity such as drinking, as evidenced by the large quantity of bottles and cans strewn in the vicinity when I visited, and the graffiti daubed on the stones. The circle is a focus for fire setting and burning, and also has an astronomical character, albeit one only really understood by an elite few users, and the builder himself. It is not an old stone circle, not a Neolithic or Bronze Age stone circle, but it is a stone circle nonetheless.

sighthill postcard

I visited the site for the first time just last week (which is a bit embarrassing given I am the urban prehistorian). I visited in the rain, walking through wet and muddy grass to reach the circle. The first thing that struck me was the constant noise of traffic from the nearby M8, and I was more or less able to appreciate the views across Glasgow afforded by this location, even although it was a little misty. The sensory experience of this monument – the sounds, the sights, the smells – makes it a unique experience. The stones themselves are strangely shaped, some squat, others angular. Bold and bright graffiti adorns many of the megaliths, and beer cans were strewn around, and near, the monument. The central monolith had a small memorial at its base, consisting of a small cross and two candles. This is, to all intents and purposes, a stone circle, and the trappings of modernity do not diminish this sense. With no pre-knowledge, one would not know how old this circle was, or why it was built. Excavation would be pointless – we know what we would find, and it would be mostly cement – and yet even Stonehenge is nowadays largely held together by concrete. The ambiguity of this place is almost painful, urban prehistory that in some ways is neither urban, nor prehistoric.

slot view of stones low res

As I alluded to above, the Sighthill stone circle is threatened with imminent destruction. Those who know Glasgow know that the east end of the city in particular has been undergoing dramatic re-shaping in advance of the 2014 Commonwealth Games. The threat to this remarkable monument is slightly more obscure though, related to the city’s application to host the 2018 Youth Olympic Games. As part of this process, the long-awaited regeneration of Sighthill has been brought forward to support the bid (and so redevelopment will happen whether Glasgow wins these games or not). As part of this process, the stone circle apparently has to be removed to carry out ‘chemical checks’, to make way for a pathway, or sits in a location that is going to become a modern housing estate, depending on who you believe.

The new vision for Sighthill

What happens when a stone circle that is not an archaeological stone circle is threatened with destruction? Who speaks up for urban prehistory when it is not prehistory? Who are the advocates for 20th century megaliths? Certainly not Historic Scotland – this is not a scheduled ancient monument and probably never will be. Maybe RCAHMS who undertook the recent survey? Probably not, they simply record the threat as a matter of record.

This threat has not gone down well with the creator of the circle: Duncan Lunan has suggested the circle could only be removed by dynamite, due to the concrete base within which the stones are set which suggests that removal will be a permanent vacation and reduce the whinstone megaliths to aggregate. But this unfortunate series of events has spawned a campaign that has been established by the The Friends of the Sighthill Stone Circle group. They have an online petition that currently has over 3500 signatories and there has been a lot of high profile press coverage, and there are a good few well-known Glaswegian musicians, artists and writers who have spoken up against the circle’s destruction (as well as Julian Cope, the modern antiquarian).

summer solstice 2010

student tour image
A place of modern utility: solstice event 2010 (top), student tour (bottom)

Although I have no real sense of how the stone circle was used – or viewed – by the local community before it came under threat in 2012, it does seem that the Sighthill stone circle is now viewed as a genuine community resource, used for a range of events and regarded fondly by local people, and more widely, Glaswegians (at least those that know about it). I have no idea how much depth there is to this affection, but at least the voices raised in protest have prompted the Council to embark on a period of consultation on the plans including working out if it would be possible to retain the circle, rather than go ahead and just remove the stones as they were apparently set to do earlier this year. Nonetheless, the massive rebuilding of Sighthill is now underway, and on the day I visited demolition work had only just begun on a tower block on Pinkston Road, one of the few remaining remnants of 1960s Sighthill. It seems once again, as in 1979, the future of this monument to the past is in the hands of politicians.

circle and demolition low res

start of demolition 16th April

I suppose I am amazed by a few things here. Firstly, I am amazed that for 20 years I have driven past a stone circle that can be seen from the M8 and never noticed it. I am amazed that Glasgow has not made more of this bizarre and unique attraction, even although it is on the itinerary of some student tours. And I am amazed that in the rush to prioritise work on Sighthill as part of the bidding process for the Youth Olympics that the stone circle has been viewed as an impediment to change, and not a benefit to local people, visitors and the city. It would not take a good deal of imagination to visualise this stone circle as a centrepiece of the new housing and green spaces being constructed here, moving the megaliths from the fringes to the centre of this community, for the potential benefit of all. And I hope that the Council is now coming to that view as well.

I do hope that the ongoing consultation process and the campaign of the Friends will result in a more enlightened and imaginative future for this all too young stone circle. Frequently, as this blog is documenting, urban prehistory is forgotten, abused, invisible, built over or just ignored. At Sighthill there is a remarkable opportunity to use urban prehistory for the good of city dwellers.

Sources: Thanks to Gavin MacGregor for informing me of the stone circle, and the campaign to save it, both of which I was blissfully unaware of until late last year. For almost all information on the stone circle, I consulted the excellent website set up by Duncan Lunan, and I highly recommend it (link in the first paragraph of this blog). Duncan has kindly allowed me permission to reproduce a number of images from his website, which include the RCAHMS survey and solstice 2010 photos (Linda Lunan), the shot from the helicopter (Burnie) and the stone circle plan (by Richard Robertson). For reflections on the Battle of the Beanfield, I highly recommend that you look at Andy Worthington’s webpage (again, link in the blog) and his books on the subject (the former was the source of the quotation I used above). The Thatcher in Scotland image can also be found commonly online. For information on the Glasgow’s games bid, and current redevelopment plans, see the 2018 games website, and Glasgow City Council. The image of Sighthill post-development was sourced from The Glaswegian and is one of many aspirational images that can be found online. Information on student tours to the stone circle can be found at the Student Tours Scotland website, and this is where the student tour photo came from. The photo of the tower block being pulled down came from the Kirkintilloch Herald website. Please do take time to sign the petition.

I was accompanied on my first visit to Sighthill stone circle in the pissing rain by Jimmy Thomson, and it was he who took the opening photo in this blog: thanks for being there Jimmy, even with jetlag and wet shoes….

Updated 26th April 2013 to remove photo of police and miners at Orgreave and replace with an actual photo from the Battle of the Beanfield! Thanks to Welsh Andy for pointing out this error, and suggesting an alternative source of images, from a great account of the Battle by digital journalist Alan Lodge, whose image I have used in the blog.


The gorilla and the standing stone

The concept of a simian creature and a megalith would have brought to mind for me, until recently, the black monolith scenes near the beginning of Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001 A Space Odyssey. Yet during a recent fieldtrip to a garden centre in East Renfrewshire I experienced a very different and unexpected monkey / megalith juxtaposition. My initial objective had been to explore the enduring desirability of stone and rock that a garden centre / standing stone connection suggested, but I ended up finding much more than I bargained for.

2001 scene

People like to go to garden centres to buy stones. Big bags of aggregate and decorative stones, aesthetically pleasing lumps of granite and slate, slabs of concrete, paving stones, bricks and other building materials, or little flat pebbles with ‘welcome to my garden’ written on them.  This suggests that stone is a desirable material, even in the 21st century, and indeed it seems likely stone has always been a desirable material for people.

world of rock advert low res

In prehistory, stone was used to construct some of the most enduring and awesome monuments ever constructed, and it is probable that the rock used was prized for its physical and symbolic qualities. Large flat outcrops were selected for artistic doodlings in the form of abstract cup-and-ring marks, while still larger igneous intrusions and rocky hilltops became a focus for monumentality and deposition. Silica-rich stone such as flint and chert were much sought after for making tools that were carefully worked from pebbles found on beaches, sourced from surface outcrops, or recovered from deep under the ground in ‘mines’. And certain special rock types were highly desirable – gneiss, porcellanite, jadeite – and were shaped into polished stone axes, objects that likely drew some of their power from the mountainside locations the stone was sourced from and the deep colours revealed by many hours of polishing. It was not called the Stone Age for nothing.

The Gowkstone

I was interested, then, to find out about the existence of a possible prehistoric standing stone within the unusual context of a garden centre, a place where stone is sold in a whole range of different forms. The standing stone is known as the Gowkstone, and is supposedly the centrepiece of the Braidbar Garden Centre, near Newton Mearns, part of the Glasgow-based Caulders chain of such establishments. Aside from all of the usual facilities one would expect from a garden centre, this place has an additional selling point, according to their website:

‘In case you are wondering Caulders Braidbar is built around the historic GOWKSTONE , a famous Covenanters meeting place.’

This is a relatively new garden centre, with construction starting in 2008. The building was designed by Crichton + Simpson architects, with an explicit connection made between the layout of the garden centre and the standing stone. The architect’s themselves  describe the garden centre as ‘Two simple building forms, arranged around the historical ‘Gowkstone’ creating a retail building and coffee shop’ suggesting that the megalith was a principle element of the architectural design process.

caulders logo

braidbar architect drawing with annotation

Yet when I visited the garden centre, I was struck by the lack of impact that the standing stone makes on the visitor. Far from being centrally located, it sits overlooking the central courtyard area of the garden centre, perched on a rocky prominence in long grass. It is inaccessible, not indicated by any signs and in some places quite difficult to see due to gorse and other vegetation. Despite the claims of the business and designers, there is nothing about the architecture here that draws attention to the Gowkstone. However, it is visible to a greater or lesser extent from more or less anywhere within the ‘outdoor’ part of the garden centre (some of which is actually under cover) for anyone who cares to look beyond the display of wooden garden furniture and shelves of garden products. But the megalith seems to fade into the background, and look like – to me – just another one of the weird decorative items that adorn the garden centre, which of course include the aforementioned gorilla.


One of the most striking aspects of this garden centre is the inclusion of a number of fibreglass animals in the undergrowth of displays, such as a cow and a giraffe, and most memorably, a big gorilla which lurks in some vegetation at the corner of the building which hosts the café. Disappointingly for me, the Braidbar gorilla stares impassively off into the middle distance with no apparent interest in the nearby standing stone. This is an obvious contrast to the hyperactive enthusiasm that the early hominids in 2001 A Space Odyssey display towards the mysterious black monolith that suddenly appears in their midst. I suppose we could mix up the movie metaphors further and note that chimps (which the hominids around the black monolith resemble) are the inquisitive, scientifically minded monkeys in Planet of the Apes and those who actually are archaeologists in the film, whereas the silverback gorillas are miserable gits with guns and are just the kind of ape who couldn’t care less about a megalith.

evolution cartoon

Coincidentally, 2001 A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes were both released in 1968, and recently archaeologist Mike Pitts has described both as great archaeology movies. He wrote, ‘both films explicitly feature archaeologists. They excavate a black monolith on the moon in 2001. And in Planet of the Apes, the chimpanzee Cornelius (“the ape with a spade”) is an archaeologist whose excavations have uncovered controversial evidence for early humans.’ (If nothing else, this does demonstrate the interesting and eclectic connections that urban prehistory can sometimes generate….)


But what of the standing stone itself? Very little is known about this megalith, although it has a few relatively modern associations, and I suppose there has to be some serious doubt that it is prehistoric in origin at all. Remarkably, this standing stone was only relatively recently added to the National Monuments Record of Scotland (NMRS site number NS55SW 228). The stone was added to the NMRS after it was recorded during a survey in 2009 undertaken in the area by the Association of Certificated Field Archaeologists. ACFA teams, notable Susan and Robin Hunter, have for some time been carrying out an exhaustive survey of the parishes in this part of East Renfrewshire and around Eaglesham (the Eaglesham Farm Project). They recorded the stone as being 1.6m high, with a girth of 1.1m at the base, tapering to 0.4m by 0.8m at the pointed top. The Hunters suggested that the stone was – ironically – a garden feature associated with the nearby Hazeldean House!

ACFA's valuable survey work in Eaglesham Parish
Taking a break from ACFA’s valuable survey work in Eaglesham Parish

This standing stone has a few other associations, although none of these appear to be especially strong. Online one can find connections being made between this standing stone and the Covenanters, or a so-called ‘speaking stone’ recorded in Bishop Pococke’s Tours through Scotland (1760).  But ultimately, we have no real way of knowing the age or provenance of this megalith without further research or invasive fieldwork.

The Gowkstone is marked on the 1st edition 6 inch OS map for this area (surveyed in 1856) and this map shows that the stone stands on an ‘island’ within an area that had once been a quarry: evidently the quarrying was not permitted to remove the stone (long before ancient monument legislation, this was probably a decision made by the landowner or the quarriers themselves), although rock extraction left a stone island of only about 10m diameter, leaving the megalith isolated, and in itself this act of mercy is no indicator of the antiquity of the stone. The garden centre abuts up against this artificial outcrop where enough rock was removed to raise up the standing stone, and adds another layer of connectivity between stone extraction and stone desirability. And indeed the peculiar landscape where the standing stone stands, and the garden centre nestles, is a product of quarrying.

And so it appropriate that the garden centre shares this hilltop location with an aggregates company, Braidbar Decorative Aggregates. As well as offering an assortment of colourful and practical aggregates for trade and public purchase, this company has a unique monument situated within their spacious car park – another standing stone.


This megalith looks almost identical to the Gowkstone situated a few hundred metres to the north, and is perhaps meant to mimic it, albeit in a darker rock type. This angular megalith sits atop, and within the centre of, a bizarre circular arrangement, from which radiate compartments filled with a range of different aggregate types, presumably those sold by the company. Each segment of this circle has a plastic yellow sign protruding from it, which I assume once had the name of the aggregate type and a price written on it, although this has long since faded. The whole effect is rather like a huge stone Trivial Pursuit counter. As I stood and wondered at this monument to aggregate commerce, a man in a van drove up to me, to stop and ask if I wanted to buy some gravel. It was with a heavy heart I said no.


The man in the van drove off, and I reflected on how everything had gone full circle, and my simple fieldtrip to a garden centre had developed into a whole series of entanglements and associations that I had not anticipated. What struck me most about Braidbar was the bizarre connections and overlaps evident here which more or less all draw on the enduring desirability of stone (except for the gorilla). This place has for centuries been associated with the extraction of rock and has been entirely re-worked because of this, and the selling on of the resultant material for a range of different purposes has accompanied this. And at two very different times in the past stone was celebrated in a different way with the lowering of a big lump of rock into a hole and standing it up.

The stone / people entanglements at Braidbar are evident in a range of different ways. Stone can be utilised for aesthetic purposes in gardens, for advertising bags of gravel, for adding a touch of class to a garden centre, or for all manner of pagan rituals. Yet ultimately the garden centre standing stone, the Gowkstone, looks a little lost and sad, on its unquarried prominence, perhaps itself little more than a garden feature for some long dead landowners. And for all the boasts that the standing stone is the garden centre centre, I am not sure how much this is appreciated by the visitors to the Braidbar garden centre as they browse through bedding plants and garden ornaments. Indeed I suspect the megalith loses out in popularity and impact to the Braidbar gorilla. Perhaps to enliven urban prehistory, more use should be made of great apes….

gorilla at balfarg low res
Balfarg henge and standing stone, Fife, with gorilla

Sources: Almost nothing has been published about the Gowkstone. The only archaeological engagement with this megalith is via the ACFA field survey of this area, and a brief report on this can be found in the National Monuments Record (CANMORE); the photo of ACFA fieldworkers came from their own website. The image of the architectural drawing of the Braidbar garden centre came from the webpage of Crichton + Simpson architects, while the 2001 movie image is available in many variants online. The evolutionary cartoon came from a blog which celebrates such images. The Caulders logo came from the webpage for the garden centre, while the World of Rock advert is a South African aggregate supplier.


‘Wilful damage to the monument is an offence’ (English Heritage ‘safety’ warning)

Driving on the M6 past Penrith, from the comfort of your car it is possible to spot one of the largest prehistoric monuments in northern Britain, Mayburgh Rings henge monument. This site consists of a truly massive bank created from hundreds of thousands of rounded, water worn pebbles which defines a circular area some 90m in diameter with a single standing stone in the centre. The bank itself is huge, up to 45m in width and almost 8m high, dotted with trees protruding from the grass that now covers the monument. Built on a natural knoll, from outwith in particular, this is a an awe-inspiring monument and what strikes me most about Mayburgh is its sense of timelessness, of stasis, as if it has not really changed since first constructed 4000 years or more ago (other than being gradually overrun with weeds). The scale of the banks ensures that the modern world barely encroaches on the senses, other than a house roof peeking over the bank on the western side of the henge, and the incessant noise from the M6 located just 100m to the southwest.


The impression of being in a truly ancient place dissolves when one looks out through the single entrance on the eastern side of the henge, for through this narrow gap one can make out field boundaries, walls, roads, buildings and – another henge! But this henge – known as King Arthur’s Round Table (or henceforth, KART) could not be more different from Mayburgh in a whole range of different ways, not least that a series of modern interventions have pulled this henge out of shape and out of time. Yet as with most urban prehistory, this is a place with a story to tell, and once upon a time, this was also a place where one could take tea in a proper china cup.

air photo of henge from visit cumbria website

KART is located at the southern side of the village of Eamont Bridge, near Penrith, and is squashed into the corner former by two roads, the A6 which has removed part of the bank on the eastern side of the henge, and the B5320 which intrudes more seriously onto the north side of the earthwork. Alongside the road runs a stone wall and a fence, both of which cut across the henge on the east and north sides, and a war memorial stands at the road junction, sitting on the remnants of the henge bank. A series of other modern interventions have been added to the henge’s northern interior area including two gates in the wall, a brown road sign, a bus stop sign, and the deeply unhelpful English Heritage noticeboard.

a henge transformed colour

This, then, is a prehistoric monument that has been adorned with many of the fineries of the 20th century, yet the name of the site suggests an alternative non-prehistoric narrative had before this become attached to this monument. In about 1538, Leland recorded that this earthwork was known locally as ‘the round table’ or ‘Arture’s Castle’. The site was first recorded properly by Sir Willian Dugdale in the 1660s; his drawing depicted a henge with two entrances, as well as two standing stones. The megaliths were gone by the time William Stukeley visited this site (and Mayburgh) in the 1770s; this ‘theft’ was the first of many indignities that this monument would suffer.

stukeley drawing
Stukeley’s drawing: KART is the enclosure on the left

round table painting


The true origins of the name for this henge are lost in time, although it seems unlikely that anyone thought this was literally once the location of a big wooden table with knights sat around it chivalrously passing the salt to one another. In a short discussion of the folklore associated with this henge in the journal Folklore (volume 64, 1953) Charles Thomas noted that jousting traditions were attached to one of the henges at Thornborough, Yorkshire and it may be that these sites became somewhat entangled in folk tradition. Stukeley went a long way to mythologizing KART in his depiction of the monument: he believed that the henge was so-named because if was once the location for jousting (tilting) or single combat (he wrote of KART that it was a ‘British wrestling place calld King Arthurs Round Table’) and it likely that this is the ‘round table’ association as Thomas suggested. The current English Heritage noticeboard, depicted above, bizarrely utilises Stukeley’s drawing – which has nothing to do with the prehistoric origins of the henge – to illustrate the monument for the benefit of visitors to the site. The text is unhelpful – no useful (and some inaccurate) archaeological details are given – and the site is called (as with the brown road sign on the north edge of the henge) simply Arthur’s Round Table.

henge with jousting drawing

In the 19th century, the process of shrinking and reworking the henge had begun in earnest regardless of the grand associations the monument had in local tradition. The henge was, remarkably, given a complete makeover in the decades leading up to 1830. William Bushby was the innkeeper and owner of the Crown Inn, located just 25m to the north of the henge. According to a local source who remembered these events (the 83 year old Abraham Rawlinson) Bushby and his son decided to establish a tea garden within the henge. This involved a general tarting up process: the ditch was cleared out and deepened, the bank was raised in height and given a flat top, the causeway tidied up, and a raised sub-circular platform created within the interior of the henge. This platform was the location of the tea garden, presumably consisting of some tables and chairs, and perhaps a gazebo-type structure. Excavations over a century later discovered lots of broken china in this location. The conversion of a henge to a tea garden may well be unique in British archaeology, and is an illustration of an early attempt to monetise such a monument. Sadly, valuable archaeological evidence was lost or moved during this process, scrambling the stratigraphy of the monument and making it look a bit strange, the henge equivalent of too much plastic surgery. Furthermore, by the time the henge was recorded by CW Dymond in 1889 (it is he who picked up on Rawlinson’s tale), the roads had encroached on the monument, destroying the northern entrance.

bushby sign

The Crown today

Despite the Bushby intervention, excavations in the first half of the 20th century did manage to shed some light on the monument and its true antiquity. It was only this work that firmly placed the monument in prehistory, although it would still be some time before it became associated with the henge tradition. The first of these excavations occurred in 1937, undertaken by the famous historian and philosopher RG Collingwood. He dabbled in excavation, although it would be for his philosophical work that he would have more influence in archaeology decades after his death. Collingwood’s excavations were, it would seem, not that good. He became ill and the work was completed in summer 1939 by the German archaeologist Gerhard Bersu. Bersu had previously been invited to Britain to carry out some excavation in southern Britain, but when war broke out, he was interred in the Isle of Man as an ‘enemy alien’. (The impending war may also have impacted on Collingwood’s excavations: a blog on Eamont Bridge history suggests that the ‘digging came to an abrupt end when photographs of some of the bridges in the area were found in the Crown Hotel bedroom of a German member of the team’.)

Gerhard Bersu

excavation photos

Bersu’s work at KART therefore came just a few months before his internment, and the fine excavation report – published in the Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society volume XL (1940) – must have been written while he was on the Isle of Man. Bersu was a brilliant and clever excavator, but his work at KART revealed little about the nature of this monument, although a pit or grave containing a cremation was found within the interior of the henge. He concluded the site was a Bronze Age sepulchral monument and may at one time have been a mounded barrow.


I have visited KART many times over the past decade, usually in conjunction with Mayburgh, and it always strikes me as a peculiar place. When visited just after Mayburgh, it is tempting to be disappointed by the authenticity gap between these henges. It is easy to lose oneself in Mayburgh, disappear into the past, but no such luxury is afforded at KART. Here, one enters the monument not through an impressive monumental gap in the earthwork, but through a wooden ‘kissing gate’ after negotiating a surprisingly busy B road. Once inside the monument, the impression is of order and symmetry, the henge a wide open green space that looks nicely manicured (probably because it is sometimes grazed by sheep), almost as if ready for use as a tea garden again. (Or maybe something else: on my last visit a few weeks ago, I found the detritus of a McDonald’s meal.)



KART illustrates well the sometimes painful journey prehistoric monuments have had to go through to get to their current state. The location of this henge on the fringes of a small village has been both a curse and a blessing for KART – the site has not been forgotten even if it has been altered and denuded. This monument has maintained a relatively high profile for centuries now in a range of different guises, as a place with a mythological Arthurian connection, a pleasant place to have a cup of tea, the location of excavations by two important 20th century characters, and now a rather bland visitor attraction. And this seems so much better to me than a pristine, authentic Neolithic earthwork surviving in the middle of nowhere than no-one ever visits or takes the time to give a silly name. So if you are going to go to a henge in the near future, I recommend you go KART.

Sources: The historical information on King Arthur’s Round Table was largely gathered from Bersu’s 1940 excavation report, and a paper by Pete Topping entitled The Penrith henges: a survey by the RCHME, from the Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society volume 58 (1992). (The annotated plan is based on the RCHME survey of the henge.) The other images come from a variety of different sources. The painting of the Arthurian round table is a Wikipedia commons image. Stukeley’s drawing is widely available online, although English Heritage claim copyright on their website, while the jousting drawing was sourced from the Cumbrian Stone Circle webpage; I am not sure about the true origin of this image. The Bushby sign and Bersu photo can be found in various places online. The air photo of the henge was one of many available online, and came from the Visit Cumbria webpage. Bersu’s photo is commonly reproduced online, while the excavation photos comes from his 1940 report.