When is a mound of dirt not a mound of dirt? When it’s actually a mound of chalk! Ok, not a great riddle, but hang with us. We took a drive into the central south of England, into the area just north of Salisbury. UNESCO has named this area a World Heritage Site entitled “Stonehenge, Avebury and Associated Sites.” Because we can be contrarian to a fault sometimes, but also because in August the famous spots are swarming with visitors, we decided to visit the “Associated Sites” portion of the area, as well as a spot even further out that doesn’t even rate as “Associated.” But back to that later; first, let’s talk about this mound of chalk.
Let’s just start with the obvious, which is that it doesn’t look as cool now as it probably did 5000 years ago (give or take). Nobody knows why, but over time the white chalky soil of the area was scooped up and brought to this growing mound and, er… mounded. Archaeologists believe that it was in fact a stepped pyramid (think Chichen Itza) before it was eventually smoothed out. But back then, prior to ~2350 BCE, it would have been a gleaming white hill on what is, let’s be clear, a very flat plain. It would have been visible from far, far away. Not only was the mound erected, but then a vast moat-like depression dug out all around it – they don’t have clear evidence that it was fed by a spring or anything, but if you know much about English weather you can gather that the moat would have been filled for much of the year just from the rain. We keep using the word “moat” but there were no signs of other defensive fortifications; it’s just an analogous hole. (heh)
It was really an amazing experience to ponder this insane-seeming hill, but as you may imagine you can only stare at one single hill for so long before you’ve seen it, right? Especially since it’s been deemed too fragile to have tourists climbing all over, so other than viewing it from the provided vantage point and reading the signage, you’re done. Fortunately, that’s not all we had planned for the day. This area was only about 90 minutes from our spot in Dursley, so we had grace time to tool around a bit. Lisa had done her usual stellar job of digging up hidden gems, so we scooted off to a way less famous henge-like object that turned out to be a real treasure. Just outside the town of Chipping Campden, a lovely town by reputation that we didn’t spend one second in, are the Rollright Stones. We’ll get to the rocks in a minute; the first fascinating thing about the Rollright Stones is the way that they are managed.
Almost all of these sites we visit are either actively managed by the National Trust of the country that we’re in or are at least signposted and registered by them. As far as we can tell, the Rollrights are managed by community volunteers. There’s a donation box that explains that admission is £1, but there’s no enforcement, just a polite laminated sign. It seemed like a local brought their riding mower out to tend the grounds. For all of this, it is a very well-maintained site. There are three separate areas, one of which is separated by a road. Between the other two there is a rubber mat sidewalk thingy they’ve put in to give traction on rainy days – a courtesy none of the officially managed sites have ever had in our experience. The stones are left alone but the grounds are well-maintained and there was even a separate seating area for people who wanted to hang out. Seriously, the people of Chipping Campden are doing a heck of a job there.
But what about “the rocks” themselves? Pretty great! They do a good job of signposting them not just for location but for context. Predictably, there’s a heavy layer of folklore sitting on them now. In its earliest incarnation the story goes that Mother Shipton (a semi-famous figure in English folklore for witching and suchlike) came upon a king and, via witchy chicanery, tricked him into losing a contest with her resulting in he and his cohort to be turned into stone. Thus there is a stone for the king, a large circle known as the King’s Men for the troops he traveled with, and then a smaller circle known as the Whispering Knights who, for reasons I’ve yet to understand, were thought to be hanging back and plotting against the king.
Our meals on this trip haven’t always been noteworthy but we had a funny story this day. With the help of google maps we’d come up with a well-reviewed tavern not too far away. The Winterbourne has a lovely-looking menu and seems to be in a beautiful stretch of greenery. When we arrived, we learned from the local signage that the folk of the township actually purchased the pub when it was going to close and is now funded as part-pub part-community center. Really neat! They even had a grill set up outside, which seemed a little odd but sure, grilling is yummy. When we went in they found our reservation (we were predictably on the early side) and, smiling, “double-checked” that we knew that it was a barbecue night…? [note to foreigners from North America: over here, “barbeque” just means “grilled”, what Americans distinguish as BBQ is a whole ‘nother thing.] Why no, we didn’t know that. Their face fell a little, but we got it – this place has to get 95%+ business from within a mile of the joint; who shows up on barbeque night without knowing it? Anyway, instead of the modern, fusion-y menu we read about we got a sheet of paper with 4 options – chicken breast, burger, and 2 sausage-based options. We just laughed; of course we weren’t getting what we expected. It was fine, of course, and makes for a better story this way, but ye gods.