‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.)
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.