Unsolved mystery of Bronze Age standing stones

All sunlit was the earth I trod, The heavens were frankest blue; But secret as the thoughts of God The stones of Stanton Drew. - Sir William Watson

All sunlit was the earth I trod,The heavens were frankest blue;But secret as the thoughts of GodThe stones of Stanton Drew. - Sir William WatsonTHE village of Stanton Drew is one of the loveliest in the Chew Valley. I best like to approach it from the Chew Magna road, passing the delightful Round House, a survival of toll-gate days, and then crossing the bridge over the delightful River Chew. Just beyond the bridge is Stanton Drew with its stately old homes and trim cottages glimpsed through circles of trees.Having succumbed to the village's charm and peacefulness one comes upon something that fixes Stanton Drew as a place with a brooding, unsolved mystery. To look for the first time at the field in which are the famous stone circles, is to be startled at suddenly meeting with anything so unnatural, so violent at this delightful spot. The huge stones, some upright, others staggered or half buried, seem strangely alive. It might be a scene of slaughter, a battle between giants in which the combatants were suddenly turned to stone.The countryside around Stanton Drew is typical of the Chew Valley, a pattern of fine, well-watered grazing land, richly interlaced with trees including, alas, many elms that will not show a leaf this year. Nowhere does one see such protuberance of rock as in the field in which stands Stanton Drew's miniature Stonehenge.The village has lived with it's great mystery for centuries and isn't unduly perturbed by it. One does not imagine it is ever a topic among the regulars who nightly quaff their beer at the Druids' Arms, but there would be more than a bit of a stir if the three stones in what has been named The Cove at the back of the inn, came thumping down the steps and into the bar and called for a round! A car run that takes in Stanton Drew provides our picturesque "lake district" round-about afternoon from this locality. A favourite route of mine is via Banwell and Churchill to Blagdon, where I take the left fork in the village of Butcombe, turning right at Butcombe opposite the inn, and then bearing right on the narrow byways to skirt the northern side of Blagdon Lake where at one point there is a splendid view of the lake with the Mendips beyond. On to Nempnett Thrubwell, bearing right for Chew Stoke on the road that passes the obelisk and where, at one point there is a good pull-in for viewing Chew Valley Lake. By taking the Bishop Sutton road out of Chew Stoke, one views the Chew Valley lake again skirting its leisure centre, and then bear away to Chew Magna, 'Queen' of the Chew Valley, and so to Stanton Drew.Continuing the round-about run it is not necessary to make for the A368 (Bath) road for Bishop Sutton by the shortest route. You can work around some left-fork byways to Sutton in the Knowle hill locality and probably some of you will get some hilltop views of the Chew Lake you have not glimpsed before. From Bishop Sutton the route lies through West Harptree, Compton Martin, and Blagdon, unless, of course, between West Harptree and Compton Bishop you want to shoot up over Mendip and drive homeward via Cheddar Gorge.Stanton Drew's stone circles are the work of Bronze Age folk who peopled the area about 2000 or 1400 BC. The stones were quarried at Dundry and Harptree. As with Stonehenge and Avebury there are indications of stone avenues also having existed in addition to circles. Many theories have been put forward about the use to which this massive handiwork of ancient times was put. Conclusions strongly urged is that they were linked with religious rites or in some way with the fixation of the calendar.Lurid imaginations have dwelt on their being the scene of Druidical sacrifices, but Stanton Drew certainly did not get its name form the Druids, despite the presence of the Druids' Arms! The village's name is derived from the Anglo-Saxon stan tun meaning the farm which stands near the stones. Drew was added to Stanton's name from the 13th century onwards when the Drew family became the local land-owners.The only archaeological find of interest at Stanton Drew was that recorded in 1666: "One of the stones being lately fallen, in the pit in which it stood were found the crumbs of man's bones, and round bell, like a large horse-bell, with a skrew as the stemme of it."The people who built Stanton Drew's circles were contemporary with the builders of Stonehenge and Avebury. Fortunately for the peace of Stanton Drew people its stone circles have not attracted so much public interest as Stonehenge. Stonehenge has getting on for 500,000 visitors a year, and the area has become so 'worn' by visitors that the Ministry has now fenced it in, an act deplored by one leading archaeologist who recently commented: "Surrounded at midsummer by coils of barbed wire like a prisoner-of-war camp, roped off to keep archaeologists at bay, and crowded with disinterested gum-chewing visitors, it is scarcely a place for scholarship where one can appreciate the grandeur and majesty of the most celebrated prehistoric monuments in Europe."It is odd that Stonehenge attracts so much interest as compared with the nearby stones at Avebury, which are 20 times as big and the grandeur of which has been reckoned, in comparison with Stonehenge, like that between a cathedral and a church.As at Stanton Drew, excavations at Avebury some years ago unearthed a skeleton. At the base of one of the great stones were found the remains of a woman who had no doubt been put there at the same time as the stones, with her hands clasping her face and her knees drawn up under her chin. Also found at Avebury were quantities of deer horns and shoulder blades of oxen which obviously had been used to shovel the earth. An intriguing legend is linked with Stanton Drew's stones. At the beginning of the 18th century they were known as 'The Weddings' and were marked thus upon maps of the period. A comment in 1743 by Stukeley was: "This noble monument is vulgarly called The Weddings and they say 'tis a company that assisted at a nuptial, solemnity thus petryfy'd. In an orchard near the church is a cover consisting of three stones ... this they call the parson, the bride and the bridegroom. Other circles are said to be the company dancing: and a separate parcel of stones standing a little from the rest are called the fiddlers, or the band of musick."In 1869 a Bath theatre presented a play by George Nelson and W Way entitled 'The Fairy Ring', a Legend of Stanton Drew, or the 'Wicked Wedding Party' who were turned to Stone for Dancing on a Sunday.It is fatal, it seems, even to try to count the number of stones at Stanton Drew, for John Wood in his Description of Bath, written in 1749, stated: "No one, say the country people about Stanton Drue, was ever able to reckon the number of these metamorphosed stones, or to take a draught of them, though several have attempted to do both, and proceeded 'til they were either struck dead upon the spot, or with such an illness as soon carried them off."Viewed from the road near Quoit Farm on the Chew Magna-Pensford Road (B3130) and shown on the Ordnance Map is a huge stone embedded in the side of a field known as Hauteville's Quoit. It is thought to have been in some way linked with the Stanton Drew circles, but legend has it that a Sir John Hauteville, whose wooden effigy is in Chew Magna church, threw it from Maes Knoll which can be seen to the north - it was certainly some throw!One can add, too, that in Sir John's time the stone was much bigger than it is today. Since his time large lumps have been knocked off it for road repairing.Sir John appears to have been a playful sort of chap who on one occasion demonstrated his strength by carrying three soldiers up the tower of Norton-Hauteville church. Unfortunately the men started to wriggle and to maintain his grip on them he squeezed them so hard that when he got to the top they were dead!The 'Wedding' or 'Fiddlers and Maids' story linked with Stanton Drew circles concerns a Saturday wedding at which the festivities went on all day in the field in which the stones today stand. When midnight came the fiddler left off playing, declaring it was the Sabbath day. He refused the bride's request to continue. She became angry and declared: "I'll have a fiddler if I have to go to hell for one!"As she spoke a smartly dressed stranger entered the field. He had a fiddle under his arm."Did I hear someone asking for a fiddler?" he enquired."Yes! On with the dancing," cried the bride.The fiddler began to play - enchanting music the like of which the company had never heard. It made them dance whether they wanted to or not. Round and round they flew for hours. The fiddler was untiring. Many of the dancers, though, had had more than enough but found they could not stop. They implored the musician to leave off, but he would not, so spellbound by the music on they flew. The next morning the wedding party had disappeared. In their places were stones, and under the hedge half dead with fright was the local fiddler who had refused to play after midnight. He told of the moment when the fiddler stranger had suddenly left off playing and the bride and bridegroom and the wedding guests were turned to stone exactly where they were - some still dancing sprightly, others almost bowed to the ground with fatigue, and a few flat on their faces.This must be one of the most intriguing of Somerset legends - but for the fact the Aubrey Burl in a new book, Prehistoric Avebury, just published, makes the point that although we may let our minds run on horned priests dancing between the stones of Avebury by torchlight to the beating of drums, even as far as Peshawar stone circles are again and again explained as people turned to stone for dancing!* This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on June 22, 1979

You may also want to watch:

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter