A beautiful walk in the Cotswolds with a rich history and folklore.
Legend claims that these enigmatic standing stones on the edge of the Cotswolds are a local chieftain and his band of warriors, petrified by a powerful witch and fated to forever stand watch from their lofty location. However, this megalithic complex, which spans more than 2,000 years of Neolithic and Bronze Age development, has yet more mysterious stories to discover.
Natural chunks of golden Cotswold limestone, the characteristic stone used in local buildings, the great age of the Rollright Stones is evident in their pitted, weathered, and lichen-spattered surfaces. The standing stones known as the Whispering Knights are earliest, dating from between 3,800 and 3,500 BCE, the early Neolithic period. The King’s Men stone circle is late Neolithic, from around 2,500 BCE, and the single King Stone is from the Bronze Age, raised in approximately 1,500 BCE.
The Rollright Stones have been reported on throughout recorded history, attracting visitors from the local area and further afield. Antiquarian William Stukeley, who pioneered the scholarly investigations at Stonehenge and Avebury, made early studies in the mid-18th century, leading to their eventual protection as one of the earliest Scheduled Ancient Monuments in England.
The Whispering Knights
The Whispering Knights are the easternmost stones, so named as their position suggests a group leaning in conspiratorially, plotting against the one who would be king, and the oldest of the three formations at Rollright. It’s believed that they are a “portal dolmen”, a burial chamber that would have originally looked like a stone table (like something from The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe), and the entrance to an otherworldly realm.
Archaeological exploration of the chamber inside the stones uncovered the disarticulated bones of several individuals, along with pottery from early Neolithic, Beaker and Bronze Age cultures, suggesting this may be one of the earliest such monuments in Ancient Britain, and was in use by people over many centuries.
The King’s Men
The closely-spaced stones known as the King’s Men mark a ceremonial circle around 33 metres in diameter, and are reputedly uncountable. If you can make three circuits of the stones, counting the same number every time, you’re entitled to wish for your heart’s true desire.
There may have once been as many as one hundred stones, standing shoulder to shoulder in a near-perfect circle, with two stones on the outside marking an entrance portal opposite the tallest stone.
The design of the stone circle is similar to others in the Lake District and in Ireland, and may have been constructed by people originating from those areas for their ceremonial gatherings.
The King Stone
Standing alone, just below the crest of a low rise, the King Stone is thought to have been erected around 1500 BCE, marking the site of a Bronze Age burial ground. Excavations throughout the 1980s revealed remains of wooden posts marking the locations of human cremations in the surrounding land.
The unusual shape of the stone is only partially due to the erosion of the limestone. Souvenir-hunters and superstitious cattle drovers en-route to the mart in Banbury would chip off fragments as lucky charms against evil.
The Witch and the King
According to folklore, notorious witch Mother Shipton accosted a petty king out riding with his army on the edge of the escarpment, tempting him with the promise of greatness.
Seven long strides thou shalt take, says she
And if Long Compton thou canst see,
King of England thou shalt be!
The fighting men gathered in a circle to await the outcome of the challenge, while the knights gathered in close counsel. But the foolhardy chieftain, blinded by grand thoughts of king hereafter, took seven long strides, stopping just short of a low rise on the edge of the hill to the cackling of the witch.
As Long Compton thou canst not see, King of England thou shalt not be!
Rise up stick and stand still stone, For King of England thou shalt be none;
Thou and thy men hoar stones shall be, And I myself an elder tree!
It didn’t sound like that great a deal for old Mother Shipton; through possibly a preferable fate for a witch to being tortured, burned, or drowned. In later years the stones gained a reputation for fortune-telling; to dance naked through the stone circle and whisper to the old king would reveal the identity of your one true love.
Walk: The Rollright Stones from Long Compton
- Route length: 13km (8 miles) circular route
- Ascent: 245 metres (800′)
- Approximate hiking time: 4 hours
- Difficulty: moderate
The route starts in the Warwickshire village of Long Compton, by the Red Lion pub, heading east on farm tracks and bridleways, before ascending the escarpment to Great Rollright. On the edge of the village, the route joins a waymarked long-distance trail known as the D’Arcy Dalton Way, named for a local rights-of-way campaigner, to follow the ridge of the escarpment westwards.
After passing through woodland, you’ll see the Rollright Stones to your right. From this direction you’ll approach the Whispering Knights first, followed by the King’s Men, and finally the King Stone on the far side of the road. Retrace your steps to the D’Arcy Dalton Way, and continue on to the picturesque hamlet of Little Rollright.
This entire hamlet, once owned by one of the Oxford University colleges, was sold a few years ago; the manor house, rectory, five cottages, and a handful of farm buildings and barns were listed for a cool £18 million. One of the new residents is an award-winning cheesemaker, who produces a lovely-sounding, squidgy, stinky, reblochon-like cheese that I need to track down.
From Little Rollright head northwards following the waymarked Shakespeare’s Way long-distance trail, descending the escarpment back towards Long Compton.
Short sections of the route follow minor roads without a footpath, so care must be taken especially in late autumn afternoons when the sun is low. Sections on footpaths and bridleways can be muddy, and as they cross through farmland, be aware of grazing livestock, particularly if you’re walking with a dog.
Find details of this walk, including a route map, on my ViewRanger.
An alternative circular route to the stones starts and finishes in the village of Salford, near Chipping Norton, around 8km (5 miles) and ascending over a more gentle gradient. Parking is also provided on the roadside adjacent to the Stones if you prefer not to walk; the monuments are all within 500m of each other.
The Cotswolds are England’s largest Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), stretching across Gloucestershire, west Oxfordshire and south-west Warwickshire. The rolling hills lie between the river valleys of the Thames and the Severn, with an abundance of quaint towns and villages of golden stone houses nestled into their folds. The Rollright Stones are located on the Cotswold Edge, an escarpment on the northern edge of the hills, to the north of Chipping Norton.
3 thoughts on “A mysterious walk to the Rollright Stones”
Interesting! There was a programme about them on the Smithsonian Channel only the other week! (‘Mother Shipton. seems to be a bit off her beat, though. She was an actual person;; lived in Yorkshire, 16th Century)
Yes, I’d been aware of Mother Shipton’s cave near Knaresborough. She must have been especially notorious, or perhaps had a few sisters.
There is a nealithic site near here called Robin Hood’s Ball. I doubt, though, if Mr. Hood (if he ever existed) made it this far south.