Sunday 3 May 2015

Stonehenge ... epic!

There are few sights that are more commanding than this one: 

As I drive out of London, on my way home to Devon, I look forward to seeing it on my right as I make my way across Salisbury Plain. It marks the half-way point of my journey.  Sitting in the traffic on the A303 I often ponder the mysteries of those stones.  How did they get there? By means of one of Merlin's magic spells? Coincidentally by the movement of the melting ice-sheets  - glacial erratics, I believe is the term ? Or were they put there by the muscle-power of a race of men whose culture and beliefs have been lost across the span of time that separates their world from our own?

As you can see it's a place of mystery that inspires you to think outside the box of your everyday existence and to forget about the traffic.

I've been doing this journey for years, but I still get a thrill every time those stones come into view. There are two rings:  the larger sarsen sandstone slabs that were mined from local quarries, surrounding a smaller ring of bluestones. And the bluestones, where did they come from? Well, here's the thing, they were mined in the Preseli Hills in Wales, almost 200 miles way. Now bear in mind that, whilst they are smaller than the sarsen stones, these bluestone babies still weigh in at a cool 4 tonnes each, which makes the effort of our early ancestors 5,000 years ago in moving them across the landscape a truly impressive feat of engineering, organisation and endurance.

Now to be very honest with you one rock looks pretty much like the next to my untutored eye - unless of course you produce a sparkly rock, which is the point at which you can be guaranteed my full and undivided attention. But, putting my fascination with sparklers to one side, I've often wondered why anyone would be bothered moving 4 tonne boulders from one field to another one hundreds of miles away. After all they had some perfectly acceptable boulders lying around on Salisbury plain in the first place without carting this lot from far-away Wales.

It's been suggested that the colour of these bluestones may have caught the eye of the ancients. They're a sort of blueish/ greyish sludge colour with white spots of feldspar, so could it have been the novelty of their spotty appearance that captured our ancestors' imagination? At the risk of sounding a bit spoilt I have to say that the groovy spots theory suggests very little novelty-value pay-back for the Herculean effort involved in moving them. Could neolithic man really have had so little imagination that he would have fallen in love with something that is, let's be honest, pretty dull to modern eyes? No, I think there's more to it than that, a lot more... .

Since as long ago as the 12th Century folk like Geoffrey of Monmouth have been kicking this problem around.  And, for my money, Geoffrey came up with the most colourful explanation of them all. According to him Stonehenge was the burial site of 3,000 noblemen who had been slaughtered by the Saxons way back in the 5th century. 

King Aureoles Ambrosias, humbled by the sacrifice of so many of his finest warriors, wanted to erect a truly spectacular monument in their honour. After much deliberation, consulting with his wise men and reading the omens he sent his brother, Uther Pendragon, along with 15,000 of his finest knights and Merlin, the court sorcerer, to retrieve the Giant's Ring, a revered circle of standing stones from Mount Killarus in Ireland.

The Giant's Ring was so named because it had been built by Irish giants who had carried its magical bluestones all the way from Africa. King Ambrosias's warriors had, of course, to overcome the Gaels who weren't minded to give up their bluestones without a fight, but, when the battle was finally won, the victorious Britons found it impossible to carry the huge stones away. Try as they might with horses and oxen and ropes and all the skill and cunning they could muster, not one of those bluestones would budge. It seemed as though they were rooted to the soil of Ireland by a magical force.

Just when it looked like their trouble had all been for nothing, Merlin stepped forward and volunteered his sorcery in aid of the King's cause. Merlin, whose fame survives into the modern age, was the greatest magician of his day. His magic was more powerful than all the king's knights with their horses and oxen, servants and retainers working together and heaving in unison. The mighty bluestones came apart and were spirited away over the plains and mountains of Ireland, across the treacherous waters of the Irish Sea and over the green hills of Wales to the final resting place of the fallen warriors on Salisbury Plain. There they were arranged in two concentric circles around the dead.

In the fullness of time, when his days had run, King Aureoles Ambrosias was laid to rest beside his warriors within the embrace of the great stone circles, as was his brother, Uther Pendragon, father of King Arthur.

As theories go I think you'll have to agree that Geoffrey's is a corker. So great was its staying power that folk regarded his account as historical fact well into the Middle Ages. 

But way back then, when people didn't travel much and it was a perilous business getting across the Irish Sea, there was a tendency to use the notion of Ireland as a description of any land that lay to the extreme West. From this we deduce the nugget that Geoffrey may have got the direction from which the stones had come right.

Geoffrey also said that the bluestones had magical healing properties. This was why the canny Irish giants had carried them home from Africa in the first instance. According to Geoffrey, if the stones were washed with pure, clean rainwater that water would absorb some of their magic and would have special healing properties of its own. This belief was still held by the people of Salisbury Plain well into the Middle Ages.

And if we take a trip over to the Preseli Hills, where the bluestones originally came from, we find dozens of springs and holy wells rising out of the bluestone outcrops that were also believed to have magical healing properties. Many of them were excavated by the ancients to create sacred pools in which they could bathe. They revered the purity of the water coming straight out of Mother Earth, prizing it over the more accessible stuff further downstream. To this day many believe in the healing powers of the Preseli bluestones.

So, even to a latter-day sceptic like me, it seems to make sense that these stones might have been moved across such a great distance because of a strong belief in their magical healing powers.

And then there's another weird thing about the Preseli bluestones: a significant number of them are musical. No, I joke you not; and, no, I've not been hitting the vino this afternoon!

Normally when you bang on a stone it produces a dull thud that won't get anyone excited, but ten percent of the Preseli bluestones will ring like a bell. Just a word of warning, though: putting this theory to the test at Stonehenge today is a good way to get yourself arrested! But you can appreciate how an ancient people may well have held this quality in awe, and how it might have burnished the legend of the stones' healing powers. 

For myself I like to think that this was the final resting place of those ancient British warriors. Stonehenge is  a monument, set in a landscape, where everything is on an epic scale. And I can think of no better resting place for a band of heroes after their final battle has ended.

If you'd like to visit Stonehenge you can find all the details on the website here: Stonehenge.

All the best for now,

Bonny x


  1. Well that is one I can say been there done it & got them tee shirt.

  2. Hopefully you don't have to make that journey daily! It really is a sight to see. I have been there once back in 1973!

  3. How did they ever do this? Tom The Backroads Traveller

  4. I would love to visit this site one day. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Well that was fascinating. We were at Stonehenge last month and now I'm thinking it might have been worth a night in the clinker to test the melodic bluestones myself! PS I didn't get the T-shirt, just a little stuffed sheep. I found the sheep in the adjacent field quite charming. And, I think the ancients were way smarter than people give them credit for.

  6. Love the epic legend, haven't heard it before. Well worth a visit I would think.


  7. I would love to visit this marvelous place one day! :) I have been oohing and aahing at each and every photo, and I just love how you talk about this magical site. Thank you for the virtual tour, Bonny.

  8. Truly a fascinating and interesting sight. I loved the shots with the birds on them. We have our own (Stonehenge) here in Washington State which I've actually visited. You can check it out here: - Someday I'd like to see this one in real life.