Stanton Drew Circles and Cove

History of Stanton Drew Circles and Cove

The village of Stanton Drew preserves the third largest collection of standing stones in England. Yet perhaps because it lies off the beaten track, its remarkable prehistoric stone circles have not received the same level of interest and exploration as the more famous examples at Avebury and Stonehenge. This obscurity, and the lack of modern intrusions into their surroundings, have protected their solitude and character.

Part of the Great Circle at Stanton Drew
Part of the Great Circle at Stanton Drew

The Stone Circles

There are three stone circles at Stanton Drew. The Great Circle, at 113 metres (370 feet) in diameter, is one of the largest in the country: it has 26 surviving upright stones, although there may once have been up to 30.

The other two circles, to the south-west and north-east, are smaller. Both the Great Circle and the north-east circle were approached from the north-east by short ‘avenues’ of standing stones, most of which have fallen.

The Cove  at Stanton Drew, with the unusually shaped top heavy large stone in the foreground
The Cove at Stanton Drew

The Cove

In the garden of the village pub is a group of three large stones called The Cove, and to the north, across the River Chew, is the site of a standing stone known as Hautville’s Quoit. Their closeness to each other, and the alignments between some of them, indicate that together these stones formed a single complex.

Stone circles like these are known to date broadly to the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age (around 3000–2000 BC), and many examples are known. Such circles are believed to have played an important part in contemporary social and religious life, and there is evidence that some were aligned with major events of the solar and lunar calendar.

Plan of the Circles and Cove at Stanton Drew
Plan of the circles and cove at Stanton Drew

Antiquarians and Folklore

The circles were probably first noted by the famous antiquarian John Aubrey in 1664, and the first plan was published by William Stukeley in 1776. They remain very much as first recorded over 300 years ago. In the absence of many facts about them, the stones have attracted a rich tradition of folklore. The most persistent tale is that the stones are the petrified members of a wedding party and its musicians, lured by the Devil to celebrate on the Sabbath and thus being punished for their revels.

Interpretation by Peter Dunn of the wooden henge at Durrington Walls in Wiltshire
This interpretation by Peter Dunn of the wooden henge at Durrington Walls in Wiltshire gives some idea of how the wooden structures within the Great Circle at Stanton Drew might once have appeared © Historic England (Illustration by Peter Dunn)

Geophysical Survey

Recent surveys carried out here have yielded dramatic results, and helped to clarify our understanding of the site.

In 1997 English Heritage initiated a geophysical survey of the large field that contains the Great Circle and north-east circle. The survey used magnetometry, a non-invasive technique which picks up magnetic anomalies in the ground to indicate the presence of buried features such as pits, ditches and hearths.

The survey results were astonishing. At a stroke, they demonstrated that the remains at Stanton Drew are just the ruin of a much more elaborate and important site than had previously been imagined.

Lying under the pasture within the Great Circle are the remains of a complex pattern of buried pits, arranged in nine concentric rings within the stone circle, and further pits at the centre. It is difficult to make out individual features, but the pits seem to be about a metre or more across and spaced about a metre apart around the outer circle.

Just as remarkable was the discovery that the Great Circle is itself contained within a very large enclosure ditch, about 135 metres (440 feet) in diameter. This is about 7 metres (23 feet) wide with a broad gap or entrance facing north-east. Such enclosures, or henges, are a well-known feature of later Neolithic Britain, and are assumed to have been centres of ritual activity.

Several henges enclose stone circles, and some feature rings of pits. Sites that most resemble the patterns emerging at Stanton Drew include Woodhenge and Durrington Walls in Wiltshire. At these and other sites the pits are known to have held timber uprights, although it is not clear whether these were part of roofed or open structures. It seems likely that at least some of the pit circles at Stanton Drew once held massive posts. The circles are the largest and most numerous yet recorded at any site and surely indicate the investment of immense effort and enterprise in the service of prehistoric beliefs.

The geophysical survey of the north-east stone circle found at its centre a quadrilateral of four pits aligned with the opposing pairs of the eight stones that comprise the circle. These may be ritual pits, or might perhaps be the holes for stones that have since been removed.

Further Reading

Burl, A, Prehistoric Henges (Shire Publications, 1991)

Clark, AJ, Seeing Beneath the Soil (Batsford, 1996)

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