The Modern Antiquarian. Ancient Sites, Stone Circles, Neolithic Monuments, Ancient Monuments, Prehistoric Sites, Megalithic Mysteries

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Callanish - visit to Lewis 2013


Arrived on Lewis after experiencing the particular joys of a rough crossing over the Minch. Although slightly the worse for wear made my first quick visit to Callanish on the way to our holiday accommodation on Great Bernera (Friend stayed in the car as was still suffering the after effects of severe sea sickness). First visit was of our Callanish week was a bit wild and windy setting the tone for visits later in the week.
We had arranged to meet Margaret Curtis on the Monday so we spent a beautifully warm Sunday walking to Bostadh with its Iron Age House tucked in at the small sandy cove. The weather was a gift - we saw a pair of ravens straight off and at Bostadh a pair of white-tailed sea eagles circled over the cliffs. Our walk back took us along the narrow single track road and there on the ridge to our left sat a golden eagle – it took flight and flew directly over us before circling back to watch our progress from its vantage point on the ridge. A moment I’ll never forget. Later that evening we drove back to Callanish to try and catch the sun setting – it clouded over while we were there so we just wandered around the stones occasionally chatting to the few other visitors.

Monday … a complete change weather wise, in fact cold and windy, remaining so for most of the week. We planned to visit Callanish II, III, and what turned out to be IV before meeting up with Margaret Curtis -- as it turned out we did it backwards. Our first visit was to a five stone lichen covered stone circle we had seen on our drive past to and from Great Bernera. Wonderfully atmospheric on top of moorland overlooking Loch Ceann Huglabhig and standing in boggy water where the peat had been cut away.
Next we drove to Callanish III – Cnoc Fhillibhir Bhig. Still very much absorbing the unique atmosphere of Lewis, we walked up to the circle then down to Callanish II – Cnoc Ceann A’ Gharrah. (This site should really be visited first when walking from Callanish.) We kept our appointed time with Margaret, ending up spending four hours with her instead of the one we had budgeted for. She charges £30 per hour to explain the astronomical alignments she discovered with her first husband Gerald Ponting. Her early work is condensed in a small book written by Gerald Ponting and published by Wooden Books (I bought a copy of this after our session which has proved useful to help me recap).

Tuesday we visited North Lewis – Carloway Broch; the Blackhouse Village at Garenin (Na Gearrannan) and the Norse Mill and Kiln at Shawbost/Siabost Village by Na Muilne.

Wednesday, still cold and windy but bright with sunny intervals and massive cloudscapes. This was the day we decided to drive down to Harris and had invited Margaret along in lieu of payment for the extra time she had given us without charge. What wonderful company she turned out to be – her innate intelligence and deep knowledge of the island which is now her home added to our trip considerably. The mountains, aquamarine sea and white shell beaches make Harris a spectacular place to visit. We had magnificent views of Cailleach na Mointich aka Sleeping Beauty – the group of hills that resemble a sleeping woman, famously viewed from Callanish at the lunar standstill every eighteen and a half years. Margaret pointed out a burial chamber which stands secluded in someone’s front garden by Horgaborst beach and just a little further along the road we saw the Clach Steineagaidg Standing Stone which is all that remains of a stone circle overlooking the Sound of Taransay. In a way this was one of my highlights – Friend and Margaret stayed the car while I ran down to the stone with the bright wind blowing me along and the sea sparkling in front of me. I think its called being in harmony with the Universe.

Thursday was the one day when the elements kept us largely indoors for much of the day as the wind whistled and gales blew in horizontal rain and sleet.
We did venture out though, back down to Bostadh, though this time in the hire-car. Braved the the wind and rain for a short walk before visiting the Museum of Great Bernera at Braecleit near where we were staying. Small but very interesting.

Friday was quiet, the wind had dropped and it was quite warm - we drove down to Uig and spent some time shell/pebble hunting on the sandy beach at Cliff before heading back to visit the remains of Achmore Stone Circle which has amazing views towards the Sleeping Beauty hills. This circle was excavated by Margaret and her second husband Ron (now deceased). The fascinating information board up there which tells you so much more than is visible to the eye was also sponsored by Margaret and Ron Curtis.
We rounded off our last full day on Lewis by going back to Callanish for a wander around in the warm sunshine before calling into see Margaret to thank her for adding so much to our stay. She can be found at her house on the border of the villages Callanish and Breascleit; although now just over 70 and living alone with her many cats and a few chickens, I can guarantee spending time with her is a real privilege. She can also be contacted via the Callanish Visitors Centre.
Lewis is probably one of the most difficult places in the British Isles to get to from the south of England. For us it involved an overnight stay at Birmingham Airport, the flight up to Inverness and a hired car to drive across to Ullapool for another overnight stay (Balnuaran of Clava aka Clava Cairns visited along with stops at Rogie Falls and Corrieshalloch Gorge on route, made the drive from Inverness definitely part of the holiday). The ferry journey to Lewis is two and half long, the sea was rough that day; all in all quite a tiring journey. So very worth the effort though and a week I’ll never forget.

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Winter Ridgeway walking ...


Today for the first time I walked the Hackpen Hill to Avebury part of the Ridgeway - for those who want a car free walk you can get off the 49 bus (from Swindon or Devizes) at Broad Hinton and pick up the White Horse Trail immediately beside The Bell pub. I was with my Cotswold-Walking-friend who lives in a village north of Swindon so had a car lift up to the small parking area by the Ridgeway near the Hackpen White Horse. Mist hung over the Ridgeway and downs, the winter sun was putting up a valiant effort to make an appearance, still ice covered puddles and remnants of snow snaking along the edges of the path ahead. We set off having decided beforehand to walk quietly taking in any wildlife in the hedgerows we might encounter – we were not disappointed, fifteen minutes into the walk a barn owl rose from its repose on a fence and flew silently off.

I wanted to show my friend the Polisher (Polissior) stone – the astonishing sarsen stone used by Neolithic people for sharpening axes, quite easy to access if you know where to look as there is now a gate into the field. By the time we reached this point the mist had descended again and the triangular landmark stone – normally just visible from the Ridgeway had disappeared from view. We picked our way towards the Polisher and it was with great pleasure I showed this unique and ancient stone to my friend [entry by Baza on TMA in 2003: The stone`s description as it appears in the SMR (N.M.No.33951): A recumbent tabular stone 1.4m in length includes grooves and a dished area consistent with its use for the shaping, whetting and polishing of Neolithic stone axes. Excavation around the stone in 1963 demonstrated that it had originally been upright, whilst an iron wedge and a coin showed that it had been split in the 13th century AD.]

I could not visit the Polisher without recalling my very first visit a couple of years or so back when, one hot day in summer, Pete Glastonbury led me up there along the Herepath from Avebury. I have a fond memory of the 'look behind you moment' when the Red Arrows flew past just as Pete took a photo. He's gone off the radar now, as people sometimes do – busy, I believe, with his family and a personal project he's been working on for the past year. I hope he knows there are quite a few people, myself included, who will always feel gratitude for the knowledge about the Avebury landscape he so freely imparted.

Back to today (live in the present while studying the ancient past is my motto for contentment) as mist still hung heavily over the Totterdown slopes it seemed unwise to go looking for the cup-marked or holed stone that are hidden amid the scatter of greywethers. We picked our way downhill diagonally through the dips and grassy tufts, I was heading for the stile by derelict shepherd's cottage near Fyfield Down. Once over the stile we decided to stop for a bit; I'm embarrassed to say that even at my venerable age I remain determinedly undomesticated – my good companion produced a flask of hot water, teabags and food. We used a flat greywether to balance our lunch while the sheep watched on unperturbed – then that downland magic happened. The mist rolled back from the hills towards Overton and bright winter sunlight lit up the landscape with an almost other worldly light.

We continued our walk around the beech clump and into Totterdown Wood, an amazing little ancient place full of moss covered sarsens, then back out into the sunlight to follow the bridle path leading back towards the Ridgeway. Many more large sarsens lying in the hedgerows and one lone stone near the centre of a field. Lots of birds, (green woodpecker; family of long tailed tits spotted) and many nameless more enjoying the pale warmth of the afternoon. Back up on the Ridgeway, still a shiny bright afternoon with mist hanging in the distance – we saw only one other person throughout the duration of our walk. I have to say that, as I looked back down the Ridgeway into the sun infused mist covering the downs, this is the place where my spirit belongs.

I will always come back to it.

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Avebury and hills at summer solstice


Having taken the deliberate decision to avoid Avebury over the summer solstice weekend, today I headed out there with a friend who hadn't visited for quite some time. It was hot, a perfect summer day – still loads of people sitting outside the Red Lion and strolling around with backpacks; also a visible and at first disconcerting police presence. However, the sunshine seemed to be bringing the best out in everyone.

The friends we were meeting turned up at the arranged time and we headed off by car to the Knap Hill car park, where quite a few people were still peacefully camping in the sunshine. We walked up Knap Hill, mainly for the benefit of my friend, where we enjoyed the spectacular views including the ever puzzling Picked Hill. Today the landscape was dotted here and there with the bright red splashes of poppy fields.

Back downhill, then a walk up to Adam's Grave – the highest longbarrow in Wiltshire where we sat again and just took in the landscape, the heat haze giving the far horizons a misty appearance. Finally we walked up Milk Hill to speculate a bit on the scatter of sarsens up near the roundbarrow. One stone in particular appeared to have been worked and seemed to be aligned with Adam's Grave.

Later back at Avebury we had various refreshments on the grass by the Great Barn before heading off on our separate ways. To round the afternoon off I took my friend up to Windmill Hill; walking up the white chalk track was a peaceful experience, we didn't need to talk much just listened to the skylarks in the fields. Again sitting for a bit, this time on one of the round barrows taking in what must be my favourite view of Silbury tucked into the Avebury landscape.

Our summer solstice Avebury afternoon closed with us sitting outside the Red Lion for a bit waiting for the bus back to Swindon. It was enjoyable to mingle with the gathering of assorted and colourful people who seemed there for the rest of the evening, though it has to be said one or two were the worse for wear - no doubt suffering from too much sunshine. From where we were sitting I could see a lad climb on one of stones. A man sitting nearby stood up and shouted at him to 'GET OFF THE STONE'. The lad slid down, gave a little wave and went on his way.

Happy summer everyone! Here's to light and life.

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Walking to the Merry Maidens and Pipers (or how not to do it).


Sunday 18th April dawned as bright and warm as any summer's day – the first full day of my week in Penwith. Friend and I wandered down to Penzance bus station next to the harbour with no definite plan for day. The Information Office was closed until Monday so we couldn't get a bus timetable, however, there was by chance a convention of veteran Western Greyhound green buses taking place with free bus rides across West Cornwall. We chose to hop on the bus going to the village of Paul which is situated uphill from the picturesque fishing village of Mousehole – a gentle stroll down to the harbour for the mandatory crab sandwich and a drink before setting off on the walk to the Merry Maidens.

Armed with Ian Cook's little guide book containing his hand drawn instruction of 'how to get there without a car' it all looked fairly straight forward – me leading the way we headed back uphill out of Mousehole picking up the footpath as directed. We walked through three fields apparently heading for the village of Raginnis; this is where I learnt my first important lesson about walking in hitherto unknown countryside – equip yourself with an ordinance survey map and a compass. We actually walked round in circle and came back out in Paul … doh!

Undeterred(ish), we walked diagonally across a field and came out in the peaceful hamlet of Sheffield where I asked a local resident for directions. He looked faintly amused and said we were on the right road if we were feeling energetic. So off we set again, along the B3315 – I'm not at all keen on road walking but compared to Wiltshire roads this was one was relatively quiet and passing cars slowed down to give us space. Just outside Sheffield we passed a lovely holed granite stone set just back from the road, not sure about its antiquity though.

Before too very long we found ourselves in the beautiful wooded slopes of Lamorna valley where we stopped for a bit by a peaceful, shady stream which ran over moss covered stones on its course to Lamorna Cove and the sea.

Onwards, past the turning for Lamorna Cove we came to Rosemerryn – where the Boleigh Fogou is; tentatively we made our way along the track to the main house. A truly lovely setting in the afternoon spring sunlight, the doors were wide open, dogs barking from somewhere inside the house but no one appeared to be at home – we wandered around the back (friend muttering something about the Hound of the Baskervilles) where we saw the open wood shed with axe in situ; decided to leave it for another day and ring ahead first.

Fairly soon the first Pipers menhir came into sight – we clambered over a stone stile (possibly a wall) into the field of the leaning menhir – what a spectacular view over the surrounding farmland. I left friend to light one up while I trundled off to the next field and the other menhir.

Finally, past a ploughed field with its single standing stone and onto the Merry Maidens – easily accessible for anyone with a car; for us, however, it was something of an effort so reaching it was doubly satisfying. We climbed over the first gate we came to so did not discover until our second visit later in the week that there was a bus stop outside the official entrance. The single stone just outside the circle was intriguing and it did seem as though the circle may be aligned towards the Pipers menhirs.

Friend was flagging by this time so we retreated back to Lamorna Pottery where we had earlier passed a bus stop, we made it with minutes to spare before one of the infrequent Sunday buses back to Penzance arrived. Would you believe it, an open top bus – an exhilarating ride back to Penzance with wonderful views of Newlyn harbour as the bus went down the very steep hill into Penzance – a fabulous start to the week.

PS: Thanks to 'thesweetcheat' (Alken) for all his enthusiasm and helpful information which basically was the inspiration for the trip.

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Stonehenge; the Circle of Rephaim; and Giants


This perhaps belongs in Folkore but I can't see how to submit - perhaps someone would be kind enough to point me in the right direction.

Have just been reading about the CIRCLE OF REPHAIM or Wheel of Giants a massive circular constuction of concentric ring design in the Golan Heights. Believed to have been built 3000BC it is not a burial ground, nor a standard stone circle but is thought to be connected to star worship - specifically Sirius. There are also hundreds of dolmens in the general region similar in appearance to those in northern Britain and France.

Then there is then a jump into the mythological world of Giants and suddenly references to them all over the place and I recalled being up in the West Highlands in the summer when someone said the huge solitary stones that appeared on the sides of the hills and in fields were thrown there by giants who had fallen out with each other.

Reading on, googling a bit, I discovered there are some popular myths around Stonehenge and giants. My favourite is that the stones are petrified dancing giants caught in a sunbeam - the 'Giants Dance'.

Geoffrey of Monmouth in his 'History of the Kings of Britain' states the stones were originally brought from Africa to Ireland by a race of giants. Later, Merlin the wizard moved them from Killaraus in Ireland to Salibury Plain as a monument to the nobles that had been massacred by the Saxons.
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Nature; stone circles and all ancient sites that involve walking through unspoilt countryside/being near the sea; islands around the the British Isles, especially those with ancient monuments.

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