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Sarsen stones were used to build the enigmatic landmarks of Wayland’s Smithy near Uffington (Oxon) and Avebury stone henge (Wilts) but there are special sarsen stones in many more locations along The Ridgeway. Their presence in the landscape has inspired famous artists, writers and musicians, as well as the names of pubs and distilleries! Read on below to find out more….

Thanks for contributions to this Top 50 from K Whitaker, Lambie family and T Wright, as well as numerous people who re-created The Sanctuary’s lost stone circles!

Huge boulders of sarsen stone have drawn the attention of people as far back as the Neolithic. A sarsen stone at Fyfield Down (Wilts) known as the Polissoir (see image gallery) shows grooves and a smooth dished depression where stone axes were ground and polished. These marks would have taken years to develop, with the best polished axes being high status gifts – imagine prehistoric people sitting for hours at this grinding bench making special objects. Later in the Bronze Age, people were knapping (shaping) sarsens to create saddle querns on Burderop Down, south of Swindon (Wilts). Querns were used to hand-grind cereals into flour until millstones in windmills and water mills replaced them.

Fyfield Down (Wilts) is nationally remarkable for having one of the highest concentrations of sarsen stones in Britain, but it once had many more. Smaller than Fyfield but still special, are the sarsen fields open to visitors to enjoy for free near Lockinge (Wilts) and Ashdown House (Oxon).

Sarsens on Fyfield Down were selected and moved by Neolithic people from their ‘natural’ setting to Avebury (Wilts) where they were used to construct the stone circles, avenues and barrows that make the World Heritage Site the special place it is today. The creation of stone circles at Avebury is thought to have followed on after the henge (bank and ditch) was created around 4,600 years ago. The outer circle and two inner circles originally comprised 100 stones, with the largest weighing at least 100 tonnes! The diameter of the outer ring (1,088 feet) also makes it the largest prehistoric circle of standing stones in the world. Sarsens also form the avenue of stones known as West Kennet Avenue which was once a continuous corridor linking the stone circle at Avebury to the circle of 61 stones at The Sanctuary which lies at the end of The Ridgeway beside the A4 Bath Road. A drawing (see image gallery) by the antiquarian Stukeley illustrates this ceremonial arrangement. However, today’s visitors will see concrete markers stones to show where stones have been lost from West Kennet Avenue and The Sanctuary.

Stones were lost from Avebury’s monuments in the 17th century because people sought to clear land for farming and use the stone for contemporary buildings. This destruction alarmed the antiquarian Stukeley whose drawing shown below illustrates how people levered up the stones to create a fire pit below. The heated stones were then rapidly cooled with water to cause fracturing into smaller pieces. A walk through Avebury village and other historic settlements along The Ridgeway will show sarsen was used to build homes, churches, barns and even gravestones. By 1800, quarrymen in High Wycombe (Bucks) had developed tools and skills to split boulders into regular shapes and sizes. Streets in Oxford (Oxon), Swindon (Wilts) and Reading (Berks) have sarsen kerbs and setts brought by rail and canal from Wiltshire and Buckinghamshire quarries. Such ‘stone stories’ inspired Ridgeway supporters to re-create the lost stone circle at The Sanctuary in 2023 to mark The Ridgeway’s 50th anniversary as an invitation to the public to discover less well-known places along the Trail – see this video.

Katy Whitaker’s map shows how sarsens can be found along the length of The Ridgeway. At the Wiltshire end of the Trail, sarsens are usually made of quartz sand, whilst at the Herfordshire end the stones are called ‘puddingstone’ and comprise larger pebbles. Being unusual in appearance, puddingstones have been used to mark locations as illustrated in Princes Risborough town centre and on the village greens of Cholsebury Common and The Lee (all in Bucks). People have long wondered how they are formed. The word ‘sarsen’ is thought to come from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘sar stan’ meaning troublesome stone or from ‘saracen’ meaning alien or stranger. Samuel Pepys visited Fyfield in 1668 and believed the stones were ‘certainly growing out of the ground’. A modern visitor more recently described Fyfield Down’sValley of the Stones’ or ‘Mother Jam’ as ‘the strangest and most intense place in all the natural world I have ever seen’.

Today it is thought that sarsen is a hard, silicified sandstone dating back to the Tertiary period and originating from a coastal location where sand was being deposited by rivers and deltas. Gradually the sands and pebbles cemented together as evaporation of groundwater left silica around the grains of sand. Some stones have holes called ‘fossil roots’ which were created by plant roots growing in the concrete-like material as it was being formed.

A sarsen famous for its holes is the Blowing Stone near Kingston Lisle (Oxon), although it is thought to have originally sat high on the hills near The Ridgeway. Local legend has it that in 871 AD, a battle call was sounded for the local militia to join King Ethelred to fight the advancing Vikings by blowing into a hole in the stone. The battle became known as the Battle of Ashdown and the man who made the call later became King Alfred! The stone is sometimes known as King Alfred’s Bugle Horn and many people have attempted to make the mournful sound of legend ever since. There are stories and drawings of the stone when it was located outside the Blowing Stone pub (not the same as the pub with the same name today) with a wooden hatch padlocked over the hole to stop people disturbing the peace – unless a payment was made to the landlord! You can hear the musician Simon Chadwick sound the stone here.

The Ridgeway’s sarsens have inspired the creativity of many and given names to local pubs and distilleries such as the Blowingstone Inn and Puddingstone Distillery! The painter Paul Nash felt a mystery around the stones of Avebury and produced a series of paintings called ‘Landscape of the Megaliths’. Stones at Avebury and elsewhere along The Ridgeway feature in Fay Godwin’s photographs too. The writer Thomas Hardy, often taking his bicycle into the countryside, would venture out into the downs sometimes as far as The Ridgeway and he wrote two poems associating sarsen stones with loved ones – The Revisitation and The Shadow on the Stone. Last but not least is the acoustic guitarist Matthew Watkins who often visits the area during the solstices and recorded ‘A Sarsen Shuffle’ on Fyfield Down (Wilts) in 2021 – enjoy!

Note: More information about Wayland’s Smithy, King Alfred, artists and photographers can be found in other Top 50 entries.

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