The Civic Society column with David Winpenny

Part of the Avebury circle in Wiltshire. (Copyright - David Winpenny)
Part of the Avebury circle in Wiltshire. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

Stone is one of the essentials of many buildings – and this column deals, almost exclusively, with architecture.

But stone can also have religious overtones; Jesus Christ himself was spoken of as ‘the stone which the builders rejected’ who became the ‘cornerstone’.

William Stukeley's idea of the 'Serpent Temple' at Avebury.

William Stukeley's idea of the 'Serpent Temple' at Avebury.

The Temple in Jerusalem is a stone structure that has always held a great sway over the Jewish people. And our cathedrals and churches, synagogues, chapels and gurdwaras – and other places where the faithful meet – are often stone-built edifices.

But stone has been invested with ritual significance for many millennia.

Anyone who read Clive King’s ‘Stig of the Dump’ as a child will recall the final chapter in which the eight-year-old hero Barney helps his stone-age friend Stig as his community moves a huge rock into position as part of a Stonehenge-like trilithon. Barney later explained to his sister Lou that ‘it was the heave-ho that did it’.

Stonehenge has always been the most famous of Britain’s prehistoric monuments, though not always understood for what it was – if indeed it is today.

The Romantic Movement meets Stonehenge ' the Druid's Temple at Ilton. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

The Romantic Movement meets Stonehenge ' the Druid's Temple at Ilton. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

In 1620 King James I and VI asked the renowned architect Inigo Jones to investigate the site.

He came to the conclusion that it was a Roman structure, built in an early form of the simple Tuscan order of architecture.

He also decided that it was an open-air temple dedicated to the classical god Coelus – whom Jones saw as a version of the Christian God. Jones’ pupil John Webb published these ideas, along with Jones’ conjectural reconstruction.

Inigo Jones was unusual in his interpretation of Stonehenge; until then, and for long after, it was thought to have been a druidic temple - an idea that modern-day solstice events have not yet entirely banished. And it wasn’t just Stonehenge that had supposed druidical associations; in the 1740s the antiquarian William Stukeley wrote about the great stone circle and the subsidiary circles at Avebury, claiming that with the avenues of processional stones, the site was laid out by the druids in the form of a giant serpent.

There had, of course, been druids in ancient Britain; the last of them were wiped out after there were proscribed by the invading Romans in AD 54. They made their last stand on Anglesey.

The Roman historian Tacitus described them as issuing frightful curses their hands raised high to the heavens’, while ‘between the ranks dashed women dressed in funeral black like the furies, with flowing hair and carrying torches.’

The druidic order was not revived here until the late 18th century; today’s druids claim several important historical figures as belonging to the order, including the poet and artist William Blake, who drew both Stonehenge and druids. But if the Druids vanished, and the true purpose of Stonehenge was unknown, the monument was still famous.

In 1660 an old tale was published about how Stonehenge (or ‘Stonage’) was known abroad better than to a native Briton: ‘A wander wit of Wiltshire, rambling to Rome to gaze at antiquities, and there skrewing himself into the company of Antiquaries, they intreated him to illustrate unto them that famous monument in his country, called Stonage. His answer was, he had never seen, scare heard of it: whereupon they kicked him out of doors and bade him go home and see Stoneage.’

It is not just Wiltshire, of course, that has its standing stones. We have our fair share in Yorkshire. Over at Rudston in East Yorkshire is Britain’s tallest monolith, almost 8 metres above ground.

Its weight is estimated at between 29 and 40 tonnes, so would have required much of Stig’s ‘heave-ho’ to get it upright.

When Christianity came to the area, the church was built next to the stone, which seems to have been regarded as already of mystical significance; the name of Rudston is probably a corruption of ‘Rood Stone’ – the cross stone.

Even nearer Ripon are the Devil’s Arrows at Boroughbridge.

Stukely knew them, too, writing that here was held ‘the great Panegyre of the Druids, the Midsummer meeting of all the country round, to celebrate the great quarterly sacrifice; accompanied with sports, games, races, and all kinds of exercises, with universal festivity.’

When John Leland visited the Devil’s Arrows in the first half of the 16th century he noted that there were ‘foure huge stones, of pyramidall forme, but very rudely wrought, set as it were in a straight and direct line’; bits of the now-missing fourth stone, said to have been pulled down in search of treasure, are now in various place in the area, including part used as a bridge. There may have been even more; one writer claims to have seen five, while John Aubrey conjectured that they are the remains of a stone circle, sketching his ideas in his notebook.

When the Romantic Movement embraced all things ancient and druidic, it was no surprise that they also took to erecting their own standing stones – though very few stopped at a single monolith.

There are pretend stone circles in several places, including at Weston Rhyn in Shropshire and, formerly, at Bierley near Bradford.

In at least two locations – Henley-on-Thames and Budleigh Salterton – there are real prehistoric stone circles that were moved to be garden ornaments.

But, of course, we are fortunate to have what is probably the best of these reconstructions – based partly on Stukeley’s description of Avebury’s Serpent Temple, at Ilton – where the Druid’s Temple of 1802 is magnificently and eccentrically part of the Neolithic revival.

William Danby was right in the fashion when he ordered its construction.

Such stone constructions may not be architecture in the truest sense, but they are undoubtedly impressive, whether they were put up with prehistoric ‘heave-ho’ in ancient times or by 18th and 19th century romantics.