Everyone in the world has heard of Stonehenge. Many Brits (particularly in the South West) spent school trips visiting the stone circle. It’s an icon of these isles. If you’re ever in that area, you should also check out the nearby Avebury (which is actually the largest megalithic stone circle in the world). The only issue is that they’re not super-quick to get to…
But if you want to see the second-largest stone circle in England, you barely have to leave Bristol. Drive down into Somerset to the village of Stanton Drew, and you’ll find not one, not two, but three stone circles! The largest of the Stanton Drew stone circles is the Great Circle, stretching 113 metres in diameter with 26 surviving upright stones. Some recent surveys have even revealed the circles to be part of a far more elaborate ritual site.
Believed to have been built about 4,500 years ago, Stanton Drew stone circles have failed to attract the interest that Avebury and Stonehenge get. But they should. It’s likely that they were built as ceremonial monuments. The Great Circle would have looked very different back then, filled with nine rings of wooden posts standing several metres tall – which would’ve made it the largest and most complex timber monument in Britain.
Of course, it doesn’t hold up to the incredible monument it once was, but the Stanton Drew stone circles are still impressive today. It makes for the perfect wintery walk, especially if you end up at the pub afterwards. Pop into the aptly named Druids Arms in Stanton Drew, where in the garden is another group of three large stones called The Cove. If you want something longer, walk from Pensford and return to The Rising Sun – which has one of the best beer gardens in England.
What were Stanton Drew stones circles for?
No one can be quite what the “purpose” of the Stanton Drew stone circles was. When surveyed by the architect John Wood the Elder in 1740 he believed the layout of three stone circles corresponded to the solar, lunar and Earth cycles. (It was this thinking that influenced his designs for The Circus in Bath!) And he saw the stones as some sort of ‘Druid’s university’ site.
Other Stanton Drew theories connect it to ley lines – which is a bit too complicated and not interesting enough to get into here – while one theory suggests it was linked with funerary rituals. We’ll likely never know what happened here in 2000 BCE. But we do know of some more modern-ish stories surrounding these Neolithic stones.
What are the local myths?
It’s said that anybody who tries to count the stones will fall ill or even die. When John Wood tried to do so, it was followed by a violent thunderstorm that locals blamed for his attempt. Apparently, a local baker also left loaves of bread on each stone to help him count, but they mysteriously disappeared each time he turned away.
One local legend says on the sixth day after a full moon, the stones come alive at midnight and drink from the nearby river. While another suggests the stones are the result of a wedding party dancing on a Saturday night. When the fiddler stopped playing at midnight (not wanting to play on a Sunday), The Devil in disguise took over – playing faster and faster until the dancers fell over and turned to stone.