The Rollright Stones are one of the most important stone circles in England. They are less dramatic that Stonehenge, and less vast (but less trashed) than Avebury but they are accessible and enriched with dozens of legends and myths. The smallness seems to add to the mystery: they are not vast and dominating, but they instil a curiosity and wonder in the visitor. They stand alone, out on the ancient Cotswold Ridgeway, very close to Moreton in Marsh and Chipping Norton.
As with every group of standing stones in Britain, no one knows why they are there. Different theories pass in and out of fashion--suggestions that the megalithic monuments were temples, calendars, observatories, art galleries, magic amplifiers, or memorials--but no one really has a clue.
The Rollright Stones are known locally as The King's Men, because of a legend about a witch turning them to stone. (The King himself stands apart from the circle, about fifty yards away.) The area has always been known for witches and witchcraft, especially around the village of Long Compton.
Dating back to about 2000-2500 BC, the late Neolithic monument is made up of 77 stones (local limestone) in a perfect circle 104 feet across. They have not survived smooth and intact. William Stukeley described them as "corroded like worm eaten wood, by the harsh Jaws of Time". They are small: none of the main circle stones are more than four foot high, and some of them barely break through the turf. They look like bad teeth.
About 400 yards away is a small cluster of stones, The Whispering Knights Dolmen, and a long barrow (burial site). The name comes from their shape: they seem to be leaning together, plotting against the King.
The strange shape of the lone King stone is partly down to the weathering of the limestone, but more to do with the old habits of chipping bits of the rock off to act as a charm against evil. This was particularly bad in the 19th century, around the time that megaliths were romantically assumed to have been built by the Druids. This stone is of an unknown age.
The number of stones in the main circle seems to have varied over the years, and in perception. Just before the 1882 Ancient Monuments Protection Act, drawings show about 25 stones in the circle. It is said that the local land owner at the time replaced old fallen stones. (This was done with great care at sites like Callanais, but seems to have been rather haphazard at Rollright.)
Counting the stones is a common game to play with children, and other easily baffled visitors. It's part of the legend of the King's Men: they are uncountable. Walk around, and count the stones. Walk around again, and recount them. It is very rare to come up with the same number twice. Once upon a time, a baker tried to check their number by placing a loaf on each stone. Sadly, he ran out of loaves before he got around the circle.
It drove me crazy as a little kid, especially when my parents told me that I was not allowed to mark them with paint as I counted.
The site is open from sunrise to sunset all year around, and entrance will cost you a huge fifty pence.
TheLady: You can contact The Rollright Stones Trust, a charity set up to help preserve the stones, if you want to book the place for an event. They don't own the land, but do look after the stones.