A mysterious walk to the Rollright Stones

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.

rollright_1_smNatural 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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 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.

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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.

What to Pack for Day Hikes in the UK

This list includes everything I take on my day hikes in the UK (in summer conditions), plus a few extras for when I’m in different situations and have different purposes for my hikes.  It’s taken me a while to get my kit together, but it’s been worth getting a few items to ensure I’m safe and warm, and can do everything I want to do.

The biggest element of planning a hike in the UK is our predictably unpredictable weather.  Just because a day starts in sunshine, there’s no guarantee that it will end that way, and if you’re hiking hills, mountains, or munros on a drizzly day, there’s every chance you might emerge through the cloud layer into dazzling sun on the tops.

 

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I’ll often go hiking solo, so I’m solely responsible for taking everything I might need. I also lead small groups and hike with friends, but still take the same amount of kit.  I want to be responsible for my own welfare, and able to help out anyone else that might be having a issue.  I might also bring a few extra items if there’s more than just me, in the hope that others will share their sweets in return.

Which pack to pack?

Backpack

You’ll need something big enough to hold everything you need, but avoid the temptation to take something overly large.  If you’re like me you’ll just keep filling it up things that aren’t really necessary and weighing yourself down.  I’d recommend something with a 20 to 25 litres capacity, like my Deuter ACT Trail backpack (24 litres).

It’s worth spending a bit of time and money to find a backpack that fits you well, as a poorly-fitted pack isn’t just uncomfortable, it can strain your back.  I like a chest strap to keep the fit close to my back, and make steep ascents and descents more comfortable.

Dry Bags

I think small compression drybags in a range of sizes and colours are some of the most useful kit you can have.  They’ll keep my things dry, organised, and easy to find.  Ziploc bags are really useful too, for keeping phones, cameras and son on protected from the elements, and for a stash of dry toilet paper*

*Never leave used toilet paper out on a trail; it spoils the place for the others that follow.  Take an additional sealing bag to put it in until you get to somewhere you can dispose of it properly.

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A selection of different coloured dry bags lets you organise kit and find things quickly.

The Essentials

There’s no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes.  So get yourself a sexy raincoat and live a little. 

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Waterproof jacket

Even on the warmest day, I’ll pack a waterproof jacket.  This is a kit list for hiking in the UK, and there’s a reason why regions like Snowdonia, the Lake District, and Lochaber are so green.  Plus, with the drop in temperature you can feel higher up, it’s always good to have an additional layer.

Waterproof trousers

If you just can’t walk without the sound of swishing, these will be your jam.  And also they’ll keep you dry in the rain, break the wind to keep you warmer, and be an excellent sit mat to keep your bum dry when you stop for sit down to eat your picnic lunch.

Waterbottle

The amount of water you should carry depends on the length of your walk, the weather conditions (remember the heatwaves of summer?), and whether you’ll have access to refills on the way.  I’d usually take around 2 litres of water for a day out, and think it’s always better to carry more than start to get dehydrated.

In some areas you might be able to refill from streams.  I’ve been pretty happy to take untreated water from moving streams in upland areas around my part of the world in northern Scotland** (and in Norway and Iceland).  I’d filter, purify or boil water in lowland areas, and in Wales, the Lakes, and so on, as there’s likely to be more livestock in the area.

**After doing the “dead sheep check” of course.

Map and Compass / GPS

Unless I’m following a short trail in an area I’m familiar with, I’ll take navigation stuff with me.  Even then, I’ll often use the ViewRanger app on my phone to record the route I’ve followed.

Although I like technology, I am a bigger fan of using a traditional map and compass to navigate.  Being able to find your way with a compass is an essential skill for undertaking hikes in more challenging landscapes, and like all skills needs practicing.

I also like taking a map so I can look at a larger area than is displayed on a screen, letting you read the wider landscape, find interesting landmarks and scenic picnic spots, and plan any detours around eroded footpaths, broken bridges, and flooded fields.

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Some of the essential kit from my backpack for day hikes in the UK.

Safety Stuff

Phone

Disconnecting from technology on a hike lets you get closer to the wild feelings of physical activity out in a natural setting.  But a fully charged mobile phone is a useful bit of kit in case of emergency.  The emergency numbers in the UK are 999 and 112; both are equally effective.

More remote parts of the UK may only have weak or intermittent mobile coverage, or none at all, but you can register with emergencySMS, a system developed for the deaf or non-verbal, to send a text message to the police to raise a mountain rescue team.

Whistle

I’ve got a whistle attached to my bag, for drawing attention to myself if I ever need to be found.  It’s a worst case scenario, but it happens in that people get lost in poor visibility, stuck on a hard to follow trail, or become injured and unable to walk.

Headtorch

This isn’t always needed, but in late autumn and winter daylight hours are short, and any delays or detours in a hike could mean returning in the dark.  I sometimes like to start hikes early and/or finish late, to watch the sun rise or set from a hill top, and a headtorch helps prevent sprained ankles, or worse.

Knife or Multitool

I take my  multitool on all my hiking trips.  It’s a Leatherman Wave and it’s so useful.

String

I always take a length of string with me (perhaps as 15 metres of green paracord was drummed into me as a kit list essential from my time in the TA).  It can replace a broken shoelace and make ] a temporary repair for all kinds of gear. On longer hikes, it’s even a useful drying line for airing out clothes.

Personal Welfare

Food

Depending on the length of your hike, think about whether you need just a few snacks or a packed lunch.  I’d usually take sandwiches or a sausage roll, some fruit, a couple of chocolate bars, and maybe a piece of cake*.  I’ll aim to take things with minimal packaging, and make sure that I take everything back home with me**.

Even on shorter hikes, I’ll stick a couple of snacks in my bag.  A pack of trail mix, maybe some chocolate, and a piece of fruit.  And haribo, always haribo.

*almost always Soreen malt loaf.  British hiking staple.

** I mean everything.  I can’t stand that people think its ok to throw fruit peel, bread crusts and so on because “its biodegradable”.  Banana skins have no place in the mountains; please take them home and dispose of them properly in a bin or the compost.

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Kvikk lunsj and Tunnocks caramel wafers: two of my favourite hiking snacks.  They don’t usually last for long.

Flask with hot drink

A friend and I always say that we’re packing a flask of weak lemon drink to go hiking. I now have no idea where the reference comes from, but it’s stuck indelibly in our outdoor routine.  A hot drink on a long day, especially when you’ve been out in the wind and cold, feels marvellous.  My Kleen Kanteen insulated bottle can keep drinks hot for up to 20 hours, but it’s either blueberry juice or black coffee inside.

Extra warm, dry clothes

The British weather is notoriously fickle, and it’s not unheard of to experience all four seasons in one day.  On top of that, the temperature drops between 1°C and 3°C for every 300 metres (1000′) of height gained, so the top of Ben Nevis can be around 10°C colder than Fort William.  I’ll pack a warm hat, gloves, and a fleece or insulated jacket in a dry bag inside my daysack, and usually at least one spare pair of socks (which can double up as emergency gloves if needed).  I also add a few extra things to my kit list in autumn and winter.

Sunblock and sunglasses

The sun does shine, even in Scotland, y’ know.  Clouds aren’t as effective at blocking the sun as they might appear, and in the hills there’s often little shelter to get out of the sun.

First aid kit

My first aid kit is a work in progress, as I continually find new things that work for me.  I pack plasters and small dressings, compression bandages and a triangular bandage, ibuprofen and paracetamol; things to treat cuts and grazes, sprains and strains, and other minor injuries.  My most valuable recent addition is a special tool for removing ticks safely, something that’s been essential this summer.

Blister kit

I have had the worst blisters ever; taking part in an endurance hike a few years ago, both my heels, little toes, and the pads of my feet melted and tried to escape from my shoes.  So if I’m anticipating hard going or start to feel a hotspot, I’ll use moleskin or smooth zinc oxide tape to protect my feet.  I also take small scissors, alcohol wipes, and padded dressings.

The Extras

Some hikes may need a few extra items, such as:

Bothy bag or bivvy bag

If I’m heading out into a more remote area, then I’ll probably pack my Alpkit Hunka bivvy bag as an emergency shelter to get out of the wind and rain for a short while.  If I’m taking others with me, then the Rab bothy bag I have is big enough for five of us (more if we get super cosy) to squeeze into for respite from the rain.

Sit mat

I have a perfectly bum-sized foam mat that came included with my super cute Fjällräven Kånken backpack.  Ideal for a nice cup of tea and a sit down.

Stove

I love tea, but flask tea never tastes quite right*.  So I’m a huge fan of taking the time  to make a fresh brew, especially if you’ve got a lovely view to enjoy it with (an a sit mat to keep your bum dry).  I love my Jetboil.

*Possibly because of the weak lemon drink** previously in the flask?

**Was it Dwayne Dibley that had it?

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Perfect time for a cuppa.

Trekking poles

Hikers are often split about whether or not to use poles, but I have a shady knee from an old injury and find that they’re quite useful for descents, reducing the impact on my knee and giving me some additional stability.  (I’ll also use them as Nordic poles for long-distance running and trekking).

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Trekking poles have many benefits, including helping take the impact off knees, ankles and feet.

Camera and tripod

Photos, or it didn’t happen.

Do you hike regularly in the UK?  Is there anything you think I’ve missed? 
Let me know what you can’t hike without in the comments below.