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Quoit a resurrection

05 Jul 2008 / in Oxfordshire, stone hugging

Neolithic and bronze age ancient monuments have been destroyed down the ages. Medieval farmers cleared them from fields, christians tore them down for being pagan, and now they are neglected and damaged by modern farming practices. We seem only to value the Aveburys and Stonehenges.

But the story I want to tell you is a beacon of hope for our ancient past.

The Devil’s Quoits at Stanton Harcourt (just down the road from where I live) was once the eighth largest stone circle of the hundreds we have in Britain, part of a huge ritual complex. Down the centuries it was deliberately trashed as the work of the devil, its stones raided for building material. At the end of the 19th century only three stones still stood in their original positions at the Quoits. And in 1940, when Winston Churchill ordered the building of a wartime airbase whose runway cut straight through the monument, it seemed as if, after 5,000 years, it was game over for the Quoits. After the war, the airfield became a gravel quarry and now it’s the county landfill site. But the Quoits is a site that refuses to die.

Excavations in the 1990s (I think) revealed some of the original stones and the positions where they once stood. And visionary plans were made to rebuild the stone circle and its remarkable henge (a bank and ditch). For the past seven years, I have been watching the work progress steadily and slowly.

I watched as the massive henge earthwork was rebuilt in March 2002:

I watched as some of the original stones were piled up in November 2003

I watched when in October 2005 some of the original stones were moved into position:

… and new stones were erected to replace lost ones.

And last month, I watched as freshly dug post holes appeared…

My kids live about 800ms away from the site and take their dog for walks around the bottom of the lake next to which the Quoits stand every day. On Wednesday afternoon Cleo walked Jas up to the Quoits and was surprised to see men working at the site and that as far as she could see, all the stones were up!

So yesterday me and Rupe took Jas for a walk and found this:

A complete stone circle! As well as the stones going up, the henge had been mown and looked all ‘coifed’ and magnificent, and the hundreds of rabbits I saw last month were all gone.

We paused by the biggest of the original stones – it was thrilling to see it back up again, looking just like in the 1882 photo by Henry Taunt.

I took a photo, as the shadows looked remarkably similar to that in Taunt’s picture.

As we were leaving, two blokes wearing florescent yellow jackets and hard hats from the portakabin at the dump approached us. They had seen us as we walked round the top of the bank. One wore a tie and had clean hands (obviously the site manager) and the other wore a sweaty T-shirt, big shit-kicking boots and had dirty hands (obviously a workman). They asked what we were doing there as there is no public access. I told them the dog gets walked up there every day as we only live ‘over there’ points towards the village. I enthused about the stones and how excited we were to see the stones go up.

The man in the tie gently told me off for being there: “there’s no public access” (which I knew, but dog-walkers, bird-watchers and small boys wanting to make dens can’t be kept down). He also told me that once it was open, they planned to limit access to it with a fence “like at Stonehenge”, he said, to stop people walking all over it, wearing it down and to prevent rabbits recolonising it and denuding it. “Like hell that’s going to happen” I thought. He said that all the rabbits had been gassed last week and they were keen to keep them off – they were damaging the ditch and bank very badly, which I could see for myself.

I asked the man with the dirty hands if he was part of the team who put the stones up. He was! He said it felt pretty special to be part of it, which I thought was nice.

To my knowledge this complete reconstruction of a site using what is left of the original stones, plus some new ones, is unique. Interesting that it’s not English Heritage, the so-called guardians of our past, who have made it happen, but the painstaking excavation and enthusiasm of both Oxford Archaeology working with site owner Hanson. Congratulations to them for having the vision to plan it and resurrect it! Bloody marvellous.

Please remember the Devil’s Quoits are on private property. An official opening is planned for August or September, apparently and ‘official’ access to the site will be from the top of the lake by the recycling centre.

Photos: me, Moth Clark, Alan S, RiotGibbon

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