Stonehenge may be a magnificent prehistoric monument that attracts visitors to England in their thousands, but there are other stone circles in England that are just as inspiring. Some are larger and more accessible, and others are small and charming, tucked away in fields or on bleak moorland.
Myths and legends surround these circles; some are said to be maidens turned to stone for dancing on the Sabbath, or petrified soldiers who come to life at midnight. One thing is certain: nobody really knows why they were constructed – were they ancient meeting places, astronomical clocks, alien landing sites, or marking points for leys, or earth energy lines? Whatever their purpose, they are worth seeking out to experience their unique energy and atmosphere.
Avebury Stone Circle, Wiltshire
Avebury, the largest stone circle in Europe and a World Heritage Site, is arguably more impressive than the famous Stonehenge formation and was also built during the Neolithic period, at around 2600 BC. Encompassing a whole village, this magical henge monument consists of three stone circles, with the largest outer circle being a colossal 331 metres in diameter. There would have originally been 100 sarsen stones in the outer circle, but in the Middle Ages superstitious villagers buried or destroyed many of them, and they were even used for building material. Alexander Keiller re-erected many of the stones in the 1930s, and there are now approximately 30 in the large outer circle, with concrete markers in place of missing stones. An enormous henge at an impressive 420 metres in diameter with a deep ditch surrounds the circle.
The complex is truly awe-inspiring, especially when glimpsing the giant stones for the first time when driving through the village – it feels as if you are entering an alien landscape with stones up to 6 metres high suddenly towering above your head. The West Kennet Avenue, an avenue of standing stones, snakes off across the fields from the south eastern entrance of the circle. Other nearby sites in the complex include West Kennet Long Barrow and the mysterious Silbury Hill.
At Avebury you can walk freely amongst the stones unlike at Stonehenge, and entry is free. While you are there, visit the Alexander Keiller Museum and the Red Lion pub which also offers B&B – it’s not often you can say you’ve had a beer in the middle of an ancient monument.
Avebury is located 25 miles from Stonehenge and 6 miles from Marlborough. There is a National Trust car park just a short stroll from the stones.
Castelrigg Stone Circle, Cumbria
This spectacular stone circle is all about the setting. Situated on a plateau with a backdrop of some of the highest peaks in Cumbria including Skiddaw and Helvellyn, it’s magical, romantic and beautiful. Archaeologist John Waterhouse stated that it was ‘one of the most visually impressive prehistoric monuments in Britain’. Constructed around 3200 BC, the Castelrigg stone circle is possibly one of the oldest in Europe.
There are approximately 40 stones in the circle with some nearly two metres high. Castelrigg is over 30 metres in diameter and has a large gap at the north of the circle which could have been used as an entrance; it was possibly a ceremonial site with some of the stones aligned to the winter solstice sunrise. There is also a rectangle of 10 standing stones within the circle known as a cove.
If you beat the crowds (this is the most visited stone circle in Cumbria) then you will experience solitude and nature at its best in a timeless landscape.
Castelrigg is located about 1.5 miles south east of Keswick. It’s free to enter, but there is limited parking and the lane is narrow so choose your time well!
The Rollright Stones, Oxfordshire
This atmospheric complex in the Cotswolds on the Oxfordshire and Warwickshire border dates back to the Neolithic and Bronze Age and consists of a stone circle known as the King’s Men, a monolith called the King Stone, and a 5000-year old burial chamber called the Whispering Knights.
The stone circle is made up of approximately 77 close-set gnarled and weather-beaten stones of oolitic limestone (which are said to be uncountable) with a diameter of 33 metres. Legends abound here: a witch is said to have turned the king and his men into stone, the king and his men are said to occasionally drink at a nearby spring in Little Rollright and sometimes dance in a circle at midnight, and faerie folk are also said to live underneath the circle. Whatever you believe, there is certainly an undeniable presence at this calm, pretty and peaceful site.
Sit amongst the King’s Men to soak up the energy or have a go at dowsing – there are said to be concentric rings of energy radiating out from the circle. Cross the road to see the King Stone east of the circle, considered to be a marker, then walk the processional route to the Whispering Knights, visible from the King’s Men, and gaze back across the field at the near-perfect circle of stones.
The Rollrights are located in a field near Long Compton village, two and a half miles from Chipping Norton – park in the layby and pay the £1 entrance fee to the Rollright Trust who maintain the site.
The Hurlers, Cornwall
This group of three stone circles dates back to the Bronze Age, around 1500 BC. The circles are set in a line and are located in a remote, moody setting on Bodmin Moor. Each circle contains a different number of granite stones and each one is over 30 metres in diameter; the southern circle contains nine stones (it was partially destroyed by a cart track), the largest central circle (or rather an elipse) contains 14 with a recumbent central stone, and the northern circle consists of 15 stones. There are also two standing stones called the Pipers situated to the west of the circle. The circle is said to be a group of men turned to stone for playing the game of hurling on the Sabbath; the same fate must have happened to the Pipers for their musical accompaniment.
On a clear day, the Cheesewring can be seen from the circles, a prominent and spectacular natural granite formation on the top of Stowe’s Hill to the north – but if it is foggy or rainy, as it often can be on these moors, you won’t see very far in front of you – it’s sometimes difficult to work out which direction you have come from! But that just adds to its distinctive atmosphere.
The Hurlers are located in the village of Minions, 4 miles from the town of Liskeard. There is a car park in the village, and you can see the stones from there.
Long Meg and Her Daughters, Cumbria
Long Meg and her Daughters dates back to the Bronze Age, and this oval stone circle is the third largest in the country. Consisting of 59 stones (27 still standing), the circle which is a massive 109 x 93 metres in diameter sits on a sloping hillside in a pretty valley that leads to the River Eden, close to a ditch enclosure to the north. It is famous for its rock carvings – the 3.6 metre high outlying monolith known as Long Meg is decorated with cup and ring marks, spirals and figures. Meg, located 18 metres from the south west entrance of the circle, aligns with the midwinter sunset when seen from the centre of the circle. Folklore surrounds this atmospheric circle, with stories telling that the stones were once a coven of witches petrified by a wizard – the profile of Long Meg even resembles a witch from certain angles. As well as her rock carvings, Meg stands out from the other stones as she is made from red sandstone, whereas her daughters in the circle are made from granite.
This circle is a tranquil and magical site, and due to its relatively remote location, lack of facilities and limited parking, it doesn’t attract tons of tourists like some of the other circles, allowing you to recharge your batteries in its calming energy.
Long Meg is 6.5 miles north of Penrith and 0.5 miles beyond Little Salkeld along a track, just off the A686. Limited parking is possible along the track.
If you have time, more superb stone circles worth seeking out in England include Stanton Drew in Somerset (the second largest in the country), Merry Maidens in Cornwall, Boscawen-un in Cornwall, and Arbor Low in Derbyshire.