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, 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 more mysteries for you to discover.
Natural chunks of golden Cotswold limestone, the characteristic stone used in local buildings, their great age is evident in their pitted and 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, around 2,500 BCE, and the single King Stone is from the Bronze Age, 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 investigation of Stonehenge and Avebury, made early investigations 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 it was one of the earliest such monuments in Ancient Britain, and was in use 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 make three circuits of the stone, counting the same number every time, you’re entitled to wish for your heart’s desire.
There may have once been as many as one hundred, 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 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 to mark a Bronze Age burial ground. Excavations in the 1980s revealed the 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 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, the 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 thoughts of king hereafter, took seven long strides, stopping just short of a low rise on the edge of the hill to the cacking 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 preferable 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
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 a 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, reblouchon-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. The 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 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.
For many visitors, the historic university city of Cambridge is almost the definition of Englishness and academia (well, unless you have any kind of connection to “the Other Place*”). Imagine lounging around on college lawns; punting, poetry, and jugs of Pimms; cycling down cobbled streets in a cap and gown; late-night discussions on existentialist philosophy…If only it was possible to become intellectual by osmosis.
But the city, through the colleges and museums, inspired many residents to strike out for new horizons in search of adventure and new discoveries. Cambridge also received specimens, artefacts, treasures from around the globe, and journals filled with ideas that continue to inform and inspire visitors to look further afield, and make plans for their own expeditions.
So to help you get your bearings and set off on a successful expedition, this is my vagabond guide to spending time in Cambridge like a true old-school explorer.
*Oxford, I meant Oxford.
Punting on the Cam
If the sun is shining, there’s no better way to get an introduction to the historic heart of the city than from a punt gliding down the River Cam. These flat-bottom boats are the more accessible way to get out on the water (unless you’ve got great potential as a varsity rower), and propelled and directed with a long pole that pushes against the riverbed. It requires a bit of skill, and a lot of practice, to make it look as effortless as river guides manage to.
The Backs, the landscaped lawns of several colleges that line the riverbank, is the most popular destination for punters looking to soak up the scenery. You pass landmarks like the Bridge of Sighs at St John’s College, reputedly Queen Victoria’s favourite spot in the city, and the Mathematical Bridge at Queen’s College, a wooden bridge which despite appearing to describe an arch is constructed entirely of straight timbers. Float downstream and make the plans for your next expedition.
If you fancy the challenge of guiding your own punt, and have the balance to back up the romantic idea, the cost of hiring one is between £25 and £30 per hour, for up to six people (make sure you punt Cambridge style rather than Oxford style) if you don’t want to raise eyebrows and elicit a barely audible tut from observers). Or you can sit back and let someone else take the strain on a guided tour. It takes around 45 minutes and is usually between £15 and £20 per person, though you can often make a saving with advanced booking online. Many guides are students, and give an insight into the day-to-day life of the university and studying in such a historic setting.
If you’re tight on time or budget, a walk on the banks of the Cam and through the Backs is still recommended for the views of the colleges; honey-coloured stone bridges, outstanding classical architecture, weeping willow trees, carpets of spring blossoms, and students lounging around on the lawns (or sheltering from a wet and windy winter day).
It’s probably illegal to visit Cambridge as a tourist and not take in at least one of the university colleges on a tour, but with 31 constituent colleges I’d say the risk of historic building fatigue is real. Though each has their own character, I’d go with either King’s College or Trinity College (or both if you’re inclined). Check opening times in advance, as they can be closed to the public for reading weeks and exams.
King’s College Chapel
In a city of outstanding historic buildings, King’s College Chapel(£9 entry for adults, Cambridge students and alumni can bring in a couple of guests for free) stands out as the real highlight. The building is just spectacular, one of the finest examples of gothic architecture in the country, with a soaring fan-vaulted ceiling and magnificent stained glass windows. They were spared by Oliver Cromwell in the Civil War, and packed up into boxes during the Second World War for safety, though Cambridge (and Oxford) were said to have been spared the worst of bombing attacks in return for similar leniency toward the German university city of Heidelberg.
Of course, the building is just a backdrop for the world-famous chapel choir. Hear them sing at evensong daily, twice on Sunday, and rejoice, or just marvel at the acoustics of the space. (If you miss the performance, you can catch up at Christmas Eve with the broadcast of the Nine Lessons and Carols.)
The roof of King’s College Chapel is said to rate very highly in The Night Climbers of Cambridge, an anonymous work from the 1930s that inspired the first urban explorers and placers of traffic cones in high places. Experience the thrill of the night climbers with a trudge up the top of the tower of Great St. Mary’s Church (£4 adults; open until 17.30/16.30 winter). A 123-step spiral staircase leads to a panoramic view across the college rooftops, and the chance to catch the winter sunset over the city.
Cambridge has an abundance of exceptional museums, catering for almost every interest, but a true explorer would be most interested in those that inspire with stories of adventures and reveal insights into our understanding of the earth, the creatures we share our planet with, and our own beautiful and diverse cultures. All listed below are free to visit.
Mural at the Scott Polar Research Centre depicting the earth viewed from the south pole
Mural at the Scott Polar Research Centre depicting the earth viewed from the north pole
Polar Museum at Scott Polar Research Institute
In 19012 Robert Falcon Scott and his team reached the South Pole, only to discover that Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had reached first, almost five weeks earlier. Scott and his entire polar party died on their return trek to base. The Polar Museum is part of the Scott Polar Institute, founded from part of the relief fund established in the wake of that fateful expedition as a memorial to the explorer, and now a global leader in the fields of climate science and glaciology.
Mural at the Scott Polar Research Centre depicting the earth viewed from the north pole
Mural at the Scott Polar Research Centre depicting the earth viewed from the south pole
If, like me, you’re a fan of tragic explorers who had to eat their boots to survive an icy death, this is your spiritual home. It gathers together artifacts and material that tell tales of hostile conditions, tireless tenacity, and survival against the odds (balanced with stories of heroic failure), focusing on the feats of the likes of Scott, Shackleton, Franklin, Peary, Amundsen, and Nansen (my hero). The collections include photographs and sketches, clothing and equipment, journals and letters.
Alongside the relics of exploration and discovery, the museum holds a collection of items revealing the material culture of Arctic peoples. Scrimshaw (etched bone or ivory)from Siberia. A knife with a reindeer horn handle, a harness and traces for a reindeer-drawn sled, and skis from Sápmi (Northern Scandinavia and the Kola Peninsula). Beaded and embroidered kamiks (soft-soled boots) stitched from sealskin, a kayak covered with drum-tight skin, and several examples of tupilak, figures carved from walrus ivory and inhabited by a magical lifeforce, from Greenland.
But by far the most affecting items** are the letters written by the expedition chief scientist, Edward Wilson, to the family of Lawrence Oates, and from Scott himself, to his wife and young son, Peter.
Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman.
Robert Falcon Scott
**I’m not crying, you’re crying.
Sedgewick Museum of Earth Sciences
The oldest and most traditional of the University of Cambridge museums, the Sedgewick Museum was established in 1728 and looks as though it hasn’t changed since. Think tweed, dust, and glass-fronted cabinets filled with curios that take you through the 4.5 billion year history of time, Darwin’s favourite rocks, dinosaurs, Mary Anning‘s interesting things, and a metre-long model of the Burgess Shale Hallucigenia***.
***If the words Cambrian Explosion don’t make you just a tiny bit excited, are we even friends?
Museum of Zoology
Recently renovated, this museum is filled with collections that reveal stories of survival and evolution, exploration and extinction across the animal kingdom. These include specimens gathered on expedition by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace, creatures amassed from hydrothermal vents by ROV, and the strawberry-pink deep ocean Goblin Shark, harvested from your worst nightmares. The highlight is the awesome, in the truest sense of the word, skeleton of a Fin Whale, its 21 m (70′) length suspended over the entrance to the museum.
Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
This small museum gathers together a diverse selection of art and artefacts from the nearby and faraway, long ago and right now, to tell fascinating stories from human history. Among the most interesting is the collection of material from the Pacific voyages of Captain James Cook in the 1770s, which sits alongside more contemporary items from the region to illustrate the movement and migration, and relationship with the environment, of Pasifika peoples.
This fabulous museum is stuffed with art and antiquities from around the world, and an excellent way to while away a rainy day. The galleries hold thousands of treasures ranging from illuminated medieval manuscripts, sculptures from ancient Mediterranean civilisations through to Barbara Hepworth, works by Dutch Masters, French Impressionists, and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and an extensive collection of watercolours by J.M.W. Turner.
Explore by Bike
After hours poring over museum exhibits, journals, and artifacts to feed your travel inspiration, you may well be in need of some fresh air. Cambridge is Britain’s leading cycling city, with miles of dedicated cycle lanes, riverside and canal paths, and virtually no hills. The council website has maps available to download.
To get around the city there’s a couple of inexpensive cycle hire schemes, such as Mobike and ofo, with plenty available in central locations. Download the app for your chosen scheme, find a bike, scan the code to unlock it. Once you’re done, park the bike up and lock it. Simple.
For adventures further afield, there’s a couple of places where you can pick up a bike for a day’s hire to see more of the Cambridgeshire countryside. The chalk downland of Gog Magog and Wandlebury Country Park may cause you to re-evaluate the idea that there’s no hills in the area, but they make up for it with the view from the top.
Or follow National Cycle Network route 11 to Wicken Fen, a spectacular National Nature Reserve that’s one of the oldest in Britain. The wetlands sparkle in summer with dragonflies and damselflies, butterflies, moths, and an inordinate number of beetles. Look out for herons, hen harriers, kingfishers, and the hardy Konik horses. When the season is right, listen for booming bitterns, drumming snipe, and the plop of a water vole sliding into the water.
Eat and Drink
Aromi, on Bene’t Street, is an awesome Sicilian-Italian bakery, with huge pizza slices, fresh foccacia sandwiches, and an abundance of yummy things. Sit in and linger over a coffee, or pick up a picnic to eat in the park.
Mediterranean Falafel, in the market, makes the tastiest wraps from their awesome falafels. I visited with a vegan Israeli friend who raved about how good the food was, and I feel they are particularly qualified to know good falafel and hummus.
Michaelhouse Café, in a converted medieval church is great for breakfasts and lunches, with a good selection of sandwiches, soups, quiches, and casseroles. Close to the city centre, and a perfect coffee and cake stop between museums and colleges.
Fitzbillies, just over the road from the Fitzwilliam museum, has been a Cambridge institution since the 1920s. Kirsty, the Cake Manager****, suggested I try their famous Chelsea buns, sweet and sticky, and made on site to the same traditional recipe since the first days of Fitzbillies. They also do a full brunch menu and a very sophisticated afternoon tea (with or without a glass of bubbles) of finger sandwiches and scones, but it’s likely you’ll have to wait a while for table space.
The Eagle, a pub on Bene’t Street, is well-known as the place where regulars Francis Crick and James Watson announced that they’d “discovered the secret of life” (sidelining Rosalind Franklin and her vital work in the process). A blue plaque on the wall commemorates the event, as does a beer called DNA.
The Mill, a picturesque pub on the banks of the Cam near the punting stations, has a great selection of craft beers, traditional pub food, and board games.
The Maid’s Head, on the village green in Wicken, is a traditional thatched pub dating from the 13th century. It’s the sort of place to drink real ales, tuck into a ploughman’s lunch and watch cricket being played.
****Cake Manger #lifegoals
Have you visited Cambridge yet?
What would you recommend that visitors should see or do?