Why visit the amazing megaliths of the Midlands?

Rebecca Robinson 5 August 2022

Stonehenge may be our most famous stone circle but there are hundreds of these mysterious monuments dotted around the UK—and the Midlands is peppered with them

What is a megalith?

Callanish Circle in the sunset
Scotland's Callanish Circle

The Midlands is perhaps most famous for being the Kingdom of Mercia during the early Middle Ages, and for the important part it played in the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries—but its rich prehistoric past is perhaps less well known. 

The word "megalith" comes from the ancient Greek words mega, meaning "large", and lithos, meaning "stone". Mary-Ann Ochota, author of Secret Britain and Hidden Histories: A Spotter’s Guide to the British Landscape says, “The term is generally used for monuments constructed in the late Stone Age, or Neolithic period, from around 4500BC – 2400BC. Many of them are linked in intriguing ways to the landscape around them,” Mary-Ann tells us, “and they clearly represent a sophisticated culture able to work together on complex engineering projects.”

"If you ‘plant’ enormous stones in the landscape and say, ‘this is where our gods are,’ or ‘this is where our ancestors are,’ then you’re making a serious claim of belonging"

These sacred sites have long captured our imagination, and theories abound as to why they were built. Mary-Ann explains, “We’ll never know all the answers, but it seems clear that many of these sites had more than one purpose. Just like a modern place of worship, they could be used as gathering places, for the burial of groups or individuals, for 'curating’ the remains of the ancestors, for performing rituals and ceremoniesand even marking the passage of time as a calendar.”

Many sites line up with the solar calendar and the seasons and it is well-known that on the summer solstice at Stonehenge, the sun rises behind the Heel Stone and a shaft of sunlight shines into the centre of the stone circle. “They might also have acted as territorial markers,” says Mary-Ann. “If you ‘plant’ enormous stones in the landscape and say, ‘this is where our gods are,’ or ‘this is where our ancestors are,’ then you’re making a serious claim of belonging. Your ancestors, your land, your place.”

Why are there megaliths in the Midlands?

View of Arbor Low Stone Circle in Peak district
Aerial view of Arbor Low stone circle

Whatever the reason for their existence, megaliths have a captivating magic all their own and there are a surprising cluster of them in the Midlands. Why might this be?

“Partly it’s about raw materials,” says Mary-Ann. “The Midlands has good sources of stone for making monuments like this, and possibly there was a culture of big stone builders in the region. Also, in areas that became heavily populated, stones were broken up for building material, so the monuments have been lost.”

The stone circles of the Midlands make for a fascinating folkloric trip through the region's prehistoric past, taking in some stunning natural landscapes that are never too far away from lovely towns like Bakewell and Buxton, once the site of a Stone Age settlement called Lismore Fields.

Learn more by following Mary-Ann Ochota on Twitter

Which Midlands megaliths should you visit?

Arbor Low Stone Circle
The Arbor Low Stone Circle. Photography by Rebecca Robinson

Perhaps the most well-known of the Midland’s megalithic sites is Arbor Low Stone Circle (above). Sometimes called the "Stonehenge of the North", this ancient stone circle and burial mound is set high up in the moody moorlands of the White Peak. After a short walk through a farmer’s field dotted with cows, you are suddenly met with the impressive sight of 50 large limestone megaliths arranged in a circle, lying flat as if sleeping.

At the heart of the stone circle are six stone slabs that form a cove—something only seen in the most important of ancient sacred sites. The stone circle is nestled within a deep ditch and surrounded by panoramic views of misty rolling hills and juicy green grass. Also across the field is another site of historical importance—a Bronze Age burial mound called Gib Hill Barrow.

The Nine Ladies Stone Circle (below) is another megalithic site well worth a visit. High up on Stanton Moor, it is accessed through ancient woodland so enchantingly mossy and green it feels like a landscape from legend. As you emerge from the woodland, ten standing stones appear in a clearing surrounded by a haze of purple heather, with one stone, known as the King Stone, standing a little way outside the circle.

nine ladies stone circles
Nine Ladies Stone Circle. Photography by Rebecca Robinson

The stones are small, standing just under one metre high, and local folklore tells the tale that they are the petrified forms of nine women and a fiddler who dared to dance in the moonlight on a Sunday.

Dawn Nelson—author, storyteller, consultant, and creator of the Stories from Lore podcast—has a passion for connecting people with the land and nature through story and she tells us that, “many stone circles in the UK have the motif of dancing women attached to them. These women supposedly gathered on the Sabbath to dance and revel on this holy day. At some point during the story, the women are turned to stone for their misdemeanour and branded witches as a warning to all.”

"Many stone circles in the UK have the motif of dancing women attached to them"

“It’s likely that this motif originated in the 16th and 17th century”, she tells us, “as the puritans gained a hold on the Christian church, and forbade any kinds of work, dance, or celebration on a Sunday, other than that which involved worship in church. However, many of these stone circles are over 4000 years old and so their true meaning and symbolism will forever remain a mystery, which is perhaps why they retain such appeal, regardless of your spiritual leanings.”

Learn more by following Dawn Nelson on Instagram and Twitter

Grey Ladies stone circle
The Grey Ladies or Nine Stones Close. Photography by Rebecca Robinson

Another place associated with local folklore is Hob Hurst's House—an ancient burial chamber that sits atop Harland Edge on the remote Beeley Moor. Believed to be haunted by a mischievous goblin called Hob Hurst, five stones within an earthwork ditch and bank mark this site of prehistoric supernatural legend.

The Grey Ladies, or Nine Stones Close (above), is another stone circle situated up on Harthill Moor within an idyllic rural setting of gentle green fields punctuated with trees and woven with folk tales. Though just four stones make up the circle, they are unquestionably impressive as they are believed to be the tallest megaliths in Derbyshire, with some standing seven feet high. Apparently, there used to be more stones in the circle—see if you can spot one that was removed and used as a gatepost in a nearby wall!

"Believed to be haunted by a mischievous goblin called Hob Hurst, five stones mark this site of prehistoric supernatural legend"

An undeniably atmospheric spot, overlooked by the imposing Robin Hood's Stride—said to be the hangout of Robin Hood and his merry men—there is a hermit's cave hidden beneath the cliffs, and prehistoric cup and ring marks can be found carved into the rocks. Up on Robin Hood’s stride, you may also spy the beginnings of a "wish tree"—sometimes called a rag tree or a "clootie"/ cloth tree—where people have tied colourful strips of ribbon, tinkling beads, and tiny baubles. Each one a wish, a prayer, an offering.

Many thousands of years later, these beautiful, wild, and remote places are still believed to be sacred, and we are magnetically drawn to the mysterious power of megaliths.

Rebecca Robinson is a writer and poet, specialising in nature, creativity, and wellbeing. She is the author of Wildcrafted Words: Nature Poems for the Wheel of the Year, and creator of the blog Wildcrafted Words and The Dreamer's Path podcast. Through her writing, she inspires people to reconnect with nature and reweave a sense of wellbeing and wonder into their everyday life. Follow her on Instagram, @rrobinsonwriter.co.uk

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