Stonehenge Revenge?

4 July 2024

Stonehenge Revenge?

A true story.

By Neil Tidmarsh

It seems that attacking Shakespeare and Prokofiev wasn’t enough for them. (Stalin Junior and the New Puritans, Shaw Sheet issue 359, 07.09.23.) So last month they attacked Jonathan Yeo’s (admittedly awful) portrait of King Charles III – and abused Wallace and Gromit at the same time. And then they attacked Stonehenge. Stonehenge! And on the eve of the Summer Solstice, too!

The Times’ chief culture writer Richard Morrison wants them locked up. (In the USA, a woman who attacked a Degas sculpture at the National Gallery of Art was recently sentenced to 60 days in prison and 150 hours of community service; in France, the culture minister Rachida Dati is calling for a new law to deal with attacks on art; but in the UK, such attacks generally go unpunished by the courts.) He wants a tough legal approach and severe penalties here too.

But I suspect that might not be necessary…

Remember this column’s piece on the Western backpackers misbehaving on Mount Kinabalu in Malaysia? (I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, Shaw Sheet issue 6, 18/06/2015). Taking a lead from Wordsworth’s The Prelude, I suggested that the holy mountain may well have taken its own revenge on those insulting backpackers. And this month, taking a lead from folklore and personal experience, I’m suggesting that Stonehenge might well be capable of taking its own revenge on those junior Stalins and new puritans who recently desecrated it on the eve of its most sacred day.

Personal experience? Yes, what follows is a true story. Believe it or not.

A year ago, driving home to London from Devon, I stopped at the village of Stanton Drew in Somerset to visit the ancient monuments there.  They’re truly spectacular – huge megaliths and stone circles to rival Stonehenge or Avebury. But not so well known, so I had them more or less to myself. I was on my own and the few other visitors scattered across that vast site were practically invisible.

It was a perfect summer’s day. The sun shone on a beautiful village and beautiful countryside. It was only a day or two short of the solstice.

I parked by the church and began at the village pub, the Druid’s Arms. Not for a beer – after all, I was driving – but to check out the megaliths in its garden. There they were, three awesome stone giants which had been standing there for over four thousand years (well, one of them was lying down, taking a well-deserved rest after all that time). I put a hand on each of them, relishing the direct and intimate contact no longer available at Stonehenge.

Then I made my way, spellbound, through and round the stone circles ranged across the cow-grazed fields surrounding the village. There are three of them: one, in a big open field, is so vast that it’s difficult to appreciate from ground level that its stones actually form a circle; another one, smaller but more complete and with bigger stones, stands further down towards the River Chew, pretty against a backdrop of trees, with an avenue of stones leading to the water; the third is smaller still, and more intimate and overgrown, and hidden in its own little field enclosed by a thick hedge.

Legend has it that the three circles are wedding guests turned into stone for dancing into the Sabbath during a wild all-night party encouraged and abetted by a mysterious and diabolically-gifted fiddler. The two upright stones in the pub garden are the bride and the groom and the fallen stone is the drunken parson.

I went round all the stones, putting a hand on each and every one of them. And I counted them as I did so. I wanted to focus on them, and I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t miss any of them, so I counted them. But I should have known better.

Folklore insists that counting the stones in a stone circle is never a good idea. Taboo, indeed. At best, you’ll find that it’s an impossible task – you’ll get a different number each time you try. At worst, strange and sinister things happen. There’s the story of a baker who tried to count the Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire, for instance. He equipped himself with a basketful of little loaves and left one on each of the stones as he counted them, to make sure he didn’t miss any of them out or count any of them twice; but when he recounted them to check his initial tally he found that he had too few loaves – and on the next recount he found that he had too many. A similar story is told about the Countless Stones in Kent; the loaves kept disappearing and suddenly the Devil himself appeared, sitting on one of the stones and eating the loaves. The baker was frightened out of his wits.

It wasn’t until I was taking a last look at the biggest of the three circles that I noticed an English Heritage information-board, mounted (admirably unobtrusively) quite close to the ground. After the usual archaeological facts came this note:

Beware the stones! Any attempt to count the stones at Stanton Drew is fraught with danger. It’s said that anybody who tries will fall ill or even die! …Do you dare to count the stones?

I felt a moment’s uneasiness and then I thought “Yes, well, I know that. I know the folklore. It’s just superstition, just the suspicion that there’s no place for mathematics at mysterious and spiritual sites like this, that a rational and materialistic attitude here is dangerous because disrespectful and even sacrilegious.” I turned to go. It was time I was back on the road.

And then, less than five seconds after reading that warning, before I’d taken even three paces away from that board, a terrible pain suddenly shot through my right foot. Excruciating, agonising. It felt like I’d trodden on a broken bottle. Or been bitten by a snake. I looked down, aghast, expecting to see torn leather, shards of glass, blood, bared fangs, writhing coils… But no, nothing, my right shoe was intact, undamaged, as stout as ever. Strange. But perhaps a wasp or bee had got inside it (though the pain was more than a mere insect could have inflicted). I sat down on the grass and took off shoe and sock. But there was no bee or wasp. Just my right foot looking absolutely normal. No blood, no open wound, no sign of any sting, no puncture wound. Very strange.

And then, as I watched, my big toe turned bright red – a deep and angry scarlet – and started to swell up. It grew bigger and bigger and redder and redder.

I wondered if my toe was about to explode. I wondered if I’d have to drive home bare-footed. I wondered if I’d be able to drive at all. But somehow I managed to get my sock and shoe back on and hobble and limp back to the car. Then the pain began to subside. It faded to a mere discomfort as I drove away from the village. It had completely gone by the time I got back to London.

Once home I googled ‘big toe red swollen’ and the screen filled with image after image exactly mirroring my own big toe. All suffering from… gout. Gout? Surely not! But the symptoms and those images offered me a perfect match. Yes, gout it undeniably was.

The stones’ revenge? Absurd. And yet what other explanation could there be? I’m the unlikeliest candidate for gout – I’m skinny and somewhat underweight, I don’t drink much and I follow a simple gluten-free diet. But if it was the stones, then I reckon I got off lightly. There are worse ailments than the relatively trivial and comical gout. And the pain soon passed and the swelling soon went down and neither have returned (though I do still get the occasional twinge). And I didn’t come face to face with the Devil himself and I didn’t crash the car on the M4. So perhaps it was just a warning shot, a mere slap on the wrist (‘ok, but don’t do it again’)? Perhaps the stones were just playing a joke on me, laughing at me as I sat there, shoe and sock in hand, bewildered and alarmed?

And if it was the stones of Stanton Drew punishing me merely for counting them, just imagine what their even mightier cousins at Stonehenge could do to the vandals who desecrated them on the eve of the Solstice itself, when those megaliths must be at their most powerful. Have those vandals gone down with something much worse than gout? If so, should we feel sorry for them? No. It would serve them right. They should have known better. Just as I should have known better at Stanton Drew.

PS Folklore might claim that it’s impossible to accurately count the stones, but did I in fact manage it? I can’t say, as it happens. Because I can’t remember what tally I ended up with – that pain completely wiped those numbers from my mind. And even if I could remember, there doesn’t appear to be an official, objective tally to check them against; my guidebook (the Megalithic Portal’s The Old Stones) says that one circle contains “up to 26” stones and another contains “between 9 and 12” stones. So perhaps no one has managed an accurate and consistent count, after all!

PPS The earliest reference I can find is from an eighteenth-century antiquarian called John Wood, who wrote this in 1749: “No one, say the Country People about Stantondrue, was ever able to reckon the number of these metamorphosed Stones, or to take a Draught (ie sketch) of them, tho’ several have attempted to do both, and proceeded till they were either struck dead upon the Spot, or with such an illness as soon carried them off.” Yes, I reckon I got off pretty lightly.

Cover page image: Neil Howard / flickr / creative commons

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