With the sudden sunny weather that has broken out here recently, it’s been a perfect time to visit some interesting places in Oxfordshire. At the weekend, I went for a walk to the Rollright Stones, an ancient stone circle, with a walking group I belong to. After a few miles of walking through fields and woodland, with the sun blazing overhead, we eventually spotted the Whispering Knights, a small cluster of stones that mark a burial chamber, before climbing a little higher up the hill and arriving at the main stone circle. I liked the way that the circle is shaded by trees on one side and seems slightly hidden away from the world, as if you just come across them by accident. The darkness of the small grove of trees behind really adds to the atmosphere. Although there were a few other visitors there at the same time as us, including a motorcycle gang, it still felt very quiet and peaceful.
The stones themselves are very odd-looking, twisted and gnarled into strange shapes. Before the walk, I read a little about the various legends that have developed around them over the centuries. The largest stone, the King’s Stone, is a king that was turned to stone by a witch, and a little way behind him on the hillside are the Whispering Knights who were conspiring against him (also transformed by the witch!). The main circle is called the King’s Men, and there is a legend that if you try to count them, you never get the same number twice (I didn’t try this because I am too superstitious, even though I try not to be…).
Recently I have become quite interested in ancient sites like the Rollright Stones. I have visited Avebury which was beautiful, but rather too crowded for me, as it was the spring equinox. I hope to go another time when it’s quieter, maybe in autumn, when perhaps I can feel the atmosphere and imagine the past a little better. I am curious about the theory that stone circles or burial mounds were built at these particular locations because their original creators could sense they were special places. Or the reverse: that the places have become meaningful, and developed a certain ‘feeling’ that can be sensed by visitors, because of their history and the ways they have been thought of as sacred over the centuries. I would like to know more about all the writers and artists who have been inspired by the ancient pagan history of Britain.
The next day I paid a visit to a very different kind of place. My mum had come to stay so we decided to go to Blenheim Palace, an amazingly grand and ornate stately home and the birthplace of Winston Churchill. First we explored the very pretty village of Woodstock, right next door to the palace, and went inside the church there, which has a beautiful carved Norman door made of orangeish stone and some odd little carved faces peering out of foliage on the pillars inside. Then we had a lovely afternoon visiting the formal gardens and park at Blenheim.
In the gardens of the palace, we managed to find our way to the centre of the maze. The maze is quite large and takes around half an hour to complete, so that you really do feel slightly lost and disorientated along the way! What really surprised me was the end of the maze; when we reached the ‘centre’, I thought we would have to spend another half an hour trying to find our way out, but actually we just stepped through a gap in the hedge and were suddenly outside the maze. It gave me quite a strange feeling! After all this wandering, which had taken place in typical English fashion with the sun beating down overhead, we decided we needed a reward of Earl Grey and marmalade flapjack in the cafe before we headed to the butterfly house. The temperatures outside were already almost tropical, but it was even more sweltering inside the glass house where the butterfly collection is kept. There were some beautiful butterflies inside, all swooping around at high speed, brushing against people and busily feeding on all the colourful flowers: huge black-and-white butterflies, a little orangey one that we decided was a ‘ginger’, and delicate pale yellow swallowtails.
After leaving the butterflies behind, we walked through the park and saw the small Grecian temple where Winston Churchill proposed to his wife, which had a lovely view over the lake. We wandered through the arboretum, past warm red beech trees, beautiful dark cedars and silver birches, and then arrived at the main destination of our walk: the Grand Cascade, a man-made waterfall which we watched crashing down on the rocks below. I think it’s interesting the way the garden designers created the landscape, trying to improve on nature and aiming to create a certain feeling in the viewer. These gardens are beautifully designed and are well worth a visit. While wandering through the park, I was dreaming of being able to come and sit with a book looking down at the lake whenever I wanted! At least I don’t live too far away and so I will try to make sure I come back and see the park in all the seasons of the year.