Now, anyone who knows anything about pagans knows that, if you don’t keep a close eye on them, they’ll be casting off their garments and frolicking in the altogether around stone circles. It’s just a thing we all do, right?
Oh. Guess that’ll just be me, then. I’m sure I read somewhere that… Oh, well, never mind.
Okay, well, as my favourite websitey collaborator Amalasuntha mentioned not so long ago, there’s quite an impressive array of sites from the Neolith… Bronze… Stone… oh, hells – I’m not the archaeologist around here, so probably best I don’t get all technical about these things. I’ll just end up pointing us at the wrong age altogether. (For similar reasons I never qualified as a proper childhood dinosaur nut as a small person: I couldn’t for the life of me tell you which was Jurassic, or Triassic, or Cret… That last one I can’t even spell. I could spell Ramphorynchus, though, so I wasn’t a total washout. And in my day kids hadn’t yet heard of the Velociraptor: the Tyrannosaurus Rex was still our dinosaur of choice, and we didn’t even call it ‘T-Rex’ back then.)
Anyway, back to stone circles. Up on a hill just outside the Peak District village of Middleton-by-Youlgreave, there’s an ancient circle of flat stones surrounded by a landscaped ditch and an off-circular banking (and yes, there are no doubt technical terms for these features as well). On the central flat area there are about fifty pitted and weather-worn limestones, which aren’t, strictly speaking, standing stones. I say this because, well, they’re all lying down. The reason they’re lying down isn’t clear. Local legend has it that the stones were pitched over at some point during the mediaeval period by Christians wishing to cleanse the site of its pagan associations. This is plausible, but it’s also been suggested that the stones might have been originally placed flat. Or, they may simply have fallen over the years – the site is now rather exposed (although it may well have been forested at the time the circle was constructed); though I’m not aware of any sources detailing the stones partially fallen, so collapse over time seems less likely.
English Heritage have had a go at drawing what the site might have been like when it was in use, you walk from the you are here arrow, (on the right, which is now a field boundary) and into the monument through the lower entrance (where the crowd of people are gathering)
It’s a bit clearer on an aerial photograph of the site, which is handily the other way up, you would walk from the track at the north of this picture, through the farmyard and SE along the field boundary to the gate:
The circle starts out quite unassuming, with a wobbly bank visible as you walk through the gate, having come through the farmyard (and paid your guest visiting contribution in the tin box):
It begins to look a little more promising as you move closer to the site and walk in through one of the two original entrances:
The Bronze Age burial mound is in the background to the left in the shot above, complete with person in pink…
And then you’re presented with the inspiring view that is Arbor Low.
Although there have been quite a lot of years involved. And this is where I get all awestruck by the place. The stone circle at Arbor Low is thought to have been constructed around six thousand years ago. Now I don’t know about you, reader of mine, but I have a difficulty getting a time period like that into my head – and I’m someone who’ll quite happily sit and think about the Big Bang. But the Big Bang was long enough ago that the exact time involved doesn’t really matter. There’s no point trying to fit 13.7 billion years into your head: it won’t fit. It’s just a number. But six thousand years is, paradoxically, a bit more manageable and therefore a lot harder to deal with. Six thousand years. Break it down into chunks: when Julius Caesar led the first abortive Roman venture to Britain, Arbor Low had already been in place for four thousand years. To the builders of Stonehenge itself, the construction of Arbor Low was history as distant to them as the life of Jesus Christ is to us. Doesn’t that just boggle your mind?
And while you’re getting used to that, just over to the southwest of the main circle site, there’s a barrow – a burial mound – called Gibb Hill, which is thought to date from 6,000 BC: another two thousand years older still. It’s actually two barrows, one round one (Bronze Age) built on top of a long barrow (Neolithic) around 2000 years after the first one was built. The round barrow contained a human cremation, animal bones and flint tools inside a stone burial chamber. It’s just an earthen mound now though, and the site of the stone circle is more likely to hold your attention.
But what was Arbor Low built for? The usual theories apply. The English Heritage information boards tell of ancient rituals and religious practices, and that’s certainly a possibility. The site may have been a trading centre; a meeting point for merchants and artisans from around the region. Or it could be the focal point of a community, linking the living to their ancestors and the land around them. We just don’t know. Personally, I’m of the view that the engineering work required to haul such stones and put them in place would – at the time – have been comparable to the sort of efforts medieval Christians and ancient pagans put into building temples and places dedicated to God or to the gods. It wasn’t just a marker – I feel sure it meant something. Was it a ‘place of power’? Was it a marker on a line of Earth energy? Maybe. Whether it was a place of power in the mystical sense, it is certainly a powerful place: when the clouds are gathering, and the wind carries a mist of rain over the fields and the mounds, the twenty-first century can start to seem distant indeed.