Stone circle is a category of monument that does not, in its definition, and despite what you might think, have a stipulated time period. There is no point beyond which a stone circle is no longer a stone circle. A circle of standing stone will always be a stone circle. I have written about this elsewhere in a short piece called Stone circle (21st century). These are some of my words:
The implication that we might consider building a stone circle as an active living tradition is not as daft as it sounds. You are unlikely to travel much distance by road in the UK without passing a roundabout with a stone circle inside it, while megaliths seem to be default landscaping elements when a gap in a new development needs to be filled.
Recently I visited two stone circles which very much belong to the 21st century (this century, not the BCE one). I encountered one by accident, the other by design. This reinforced to me that there are, in effect, endless permutations and purposes to the simple act of arranging stones in a roughly circular setting. (The circle thing is a bit of a misnomer if you are looking for geometrical perfection.) There is a kind of magic to this simple concept, transforming both the materials used, and the space defined, into something altogether different through a bringing together and re-arrangement of some geological raw materials. Under the correct circumstances making a stone circle might also change the maker, while there may be a hope that the stone setting will affect some or all potential users.
Megalith creation might be an act of decoration, of convenience, even of whimsy. Or it could be deadly serious, done with the purpose of remaking a place, engaging with people, offering a service, perhaps enhancing wellbeing.
This is what one might call stone-circling: verb, the creation of a stone circle. At any time in the past, present, or future for whatever purpose. It doesn’t get much more niche, or vague, than that.
During a recent visit to Mainsgill Farmshop on the A66 in the north of England, I noticed by chance when looking out of the upper floor window a bloody stone circle! My views of this monument shifted as I moved from window to window, creating a series of surreal vignettes, a juxtaposition of gift shop nonsense with a neatly organised circle of stones.
Framed – a triptych of stone circle views from a gift shop
The origins of the stone circle at Mainsgills Farmshop are not precisely known, its construction sometime before 2010.
This is a confection, a jumble of farm detritus, with random gateposts and, perhaps, lintels, gathered together and set in a circle. A stone lies recumbent in the centre, and picnic benches intrude on the northwest side.
The monument itself has its own page in the Megalithic Portal, categorised as Modern Stone Circle. Editor Andy Burnham quotes Andy Farrington who noted that this monument “is made up of old farm gate posts and has been built in the last 5 years as a tourist attraction for visitors to the farm shop and tearooms”. This would date this monument to the years before 2010, and since then the expanding farm shop has begun to encroach on the fringe of the circle as this photo of the monument, below, taken by Farrington in 2011, suggests.
This stone circle seems to me a superficial gesture to rurality in a highly commercial environment, part of an attempt to make this place as farm-like as possible. Slightly ruinous barns, muddy roads, animals, the faint whiff of shit in the air – are all part of the farminess of Mainsgills Farmshop. One can almost imagine a brainstorming session where stone-circling was conceived of as another layering of authenticity.
This contrasts with another modern stone circle I visited recently, this time as part of my Death BC project. This circle is equally recent in terms of its construction and also sits within a business premises, but could not be more of a contrast.
The stone circle at The Lost of Village of Dode, Kent, is part of a different set of transactional rural practices, built with marriage, death and other life landmarks in mind. The church itself was sealed shut during a bout of the old Black Death back in the 14th century. It was brought back to life by Doug Chapman in the 2000s, who lovingly restored the building. An income stream was found through this becoming a wedding venue, and things have evolved further since. The church itself is stunning.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Doug for the project about his barrow columbarium, built during lockdown.
This partially overlaps Dode’s stone circle, known as Holly Henge. This is – despite the name – a stone circle consisting of seven stones set in a circle with a single stone towards the middle. This was added to the church grounds as the services provided here expanded. It is now used for hand fasting and baby naming ceremonies, and memorial services. The additions of the barrow means that the major rites of passage in life can now all be marked at Dode.
Those marketing Dode make much of the potential prehistoric depth of these kinds of interactions with stone circles.
The Handfasting ceremony has its roots on Ancient Celtic Tradition and dates back as far as 7,000BC.
Traditionally a handfasting involved a couple, holding hands which are bound by cords and declared that there is only one life between them; much in the same way as vows are made now. The couple would then exchange a gift, most commonly rings or a gold coin, broken in half; a token of their love and commitment.
Where better to continue this meaningful tradition that at Holly Henge, the stone circle of Dode. To declare the significance of your relationship and future journey together, witnessed by your guests and the centuries old stone that has seen so much of the history of our world. (from Dode website, link above).
It is interesting that an appeal is made here not only a timeless human tradition, but also the timelessness of stone – the stone is ancient, and so therefore the stone circle has an ancient quality. These are appeals to perceptions of prehistory rather than any reality we can prove archaeologically but why should that matter? Doug’s stories about his time at Dode and online testimonies show that this, for many people, all works.
This says something about the mutability of the stone circle form and the spiritual benefits that stone-circling can bring. Yet my earlier example, bereft of emotion, shows another side of stone-circling – the creation of atmosphere. At both Mainsgill and Dode, the stone circle serves a purpose to evoke a certain kind of atmosphere – of the rural in one case, the pagan in the other. Stone circles therefore can be – and perhaps always have been – deployed to create a temporal jump, recalling some imagined, wished-for, past to serve a specific purpose. In that sense, stone-circling retains its important social purpose even today, and what’s more, folk relate to this, they buy into it, there is an unspoken contract that we all sort of know what stone circles mean. That is real power.
Sources and acknowledgements: I would very much like to thank Doug Chapman for showing Andrew Watson and I around Dode and for being interviewed. Thanks also to Andrew for accompanying me on the visit and helping with the interview and logistics on this project. Photos in this blog post with no attribution were taken by me.