Stow on the Wold is a small Gloucestershire town, first established as a market by the Normans as it lay at the intersection of several major roads. The name is Old English in origin, showing that it was a place of some importance to the Anglo Saxons, and means “place on the hill” or “sacred place on the hill” depending on the interpretation.
The charming old Cotswold stone buildings that make up the bulk of the town centre streets are enough to pull in tourists during the summer looking for the quintessential English town, but as you'd expect – there's a lot more to an old town like Stow if you look closer.
Legend tells of a hermit that dwelt on the heath around the road called Edward that not only gave the town its name of “sacred place on the hill” but who became the town's patron saint and had the first Saxon church there dedicated to his name. In reality St Edward's church is probably dedicated to Edward the Martyr, a later Anglo Saxon King and political murder victim. Nonetheless, this lovely church, where the funeral of John Entwhistle from The Who was held, stands in a quiet corner of the town centre and attracts visitors down by its famous rear door. Flanked by a pair of huge yew trees, it is said by many to be the inspiration for Durin's Door at the Mines of Moria in JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. “Speak friend and enter!” - and hopefully leave a donation for it's upkeep. Seeing the door in reality it is hard to not see the connection.
The town square was once the site of a bloody massacre during the closing of the first part of the English Civil War. It was at the Battle of Stow-on-the-Wold that what was left of Charles's army under Lord Astley was finally finished off, the prisoners rounded up into the square and hundreds of them summarily killed while others were barricaded inside St Edward's church.
A five minute walk from St Edward's church takes the visitor to The Porch House, one of a few pubs vying for the title of “oldest inn in England”. A large section of the building does indeed date from 947 AD, which would make it contemporary with the aforementioned Edward the Martyr. Inside this fine establishment though is a feature from a later period which is even more fascinating. “Witch marks” were sometimes carved into fireplace hearths and surrounds during the later medieval era and beyond to keep the inn safe from hexes, curses and the work of witches. Some of these symbols and sigils are still there on the fireplace in the dining room, and apparently a 16thcentury shoe was once found inside a box stuffed inside another fireplace in the building – this was another common shield against witchcraft.
Leaving Stow-on-the-Wold and heading a little way along the A436 you near a group of monuments older than anything in the town. The Rollright Stones - consisting of The King's Men, The Whispering Knights and The King's Stone. The King's Men is a circle of limestone standing stones dating from the later part of the neolithic era, its style is unique in the area and it's thought that a tribe or group of traders from England's Lake District may have built it. Many stories are told of this circle...that you cannot count the stones and arrive at the same number twice...that they roll down to a brook to drink at a certain time of the year...but perhaps the best known take is that of their alleged construction.
An old witch, the “Elder Mother” once lived at the site of the Rollrights (some have her as Mother Shipton). A king and his band of warriors were passing and the old lady called out to them, saying that she would tell the king his future. The king bade the crone speak, to which she replied with a challenge.
“Seven long strides thou shalt take, and if Long Compton thou canst see, King of England thou shalt be.”
As they had just passed the village of Long Compton the leige readily accepted, ordering his men to form a circle around the hag while he took his seven strides. However, an undulation of the land blocked his line of sight and he realised he had been tricked.
“As Long Compton thou canst not see, King of England thou shalt not be! Rise up stick and stand still stone, For King of England thou shalt be none; Thou and thy men hoar stones shall be, And I myself an elder tree !”
With that the kind and his men were turned to stone where they stood - the witch noticed a group of other warriors who had gone on ahead, perhaps to plot against the king, she petrified them too. These became the Whispering Knights. In actual fact the Knights are what is left of a dolmen or burial chamber from a slightly earlier period that has collapsed on itself. Across the road is the King's Stone, the leige must have been very tall if the story is true! Probably a grave marker from the early Bronze Age and very visible from the road travellers and tradesmen would have used which may explain it's strange curling shape...these medieval travellers may have chipped pieces of it off for luck. What happened to the elder tree the seemingly suicidal witch became is unknown.
Indeed, such was the reverence this area of ancient sanctity held, the Anglo Saxons used the area around the King's Stone as a cemetery. This probably began while still pagan as a woman has been found there dating from the 500s alone in a large grave with some valuable artefacts, but crucially no Christian themed pieces. Today the Rollrights – the name has stuck to the main King's Men circle – is a mecca for modern pagans with clooties hanging from the trees around the site and a magnificent wicker sculpture of three witches set up nearby. The occultist William Gray developed and carried out a complex ceremony at the stones during the 1970s, more alchemical than pagan, which he described in his book The Rollright Ritual.
A walk around the Rollrights followed by lunch and a pint in Stow-on-the-Wold must be up there as one of the best ways to spend a Sunday in Mercia – assuming an end to the lockdown is in sight!
"Durin's Door" at St Edward's Church
Witch marks in the Porch House Inn
The Porch House Inn - dating from 947 AD
The door at St Edwards
A misty Whispering Knights
The King's Stone one foggy morning
Memorial to the Battle of Stow-in-the-Wold
Try as you may, you can't count the same number of stones twice!