I live near one of the places called Arthurâ€™s Stone. Itâ€™s on one of the long ridges that run roughly northwest/southeast along the ancient glacial tracts that swept this region of what is now Herefordshire and the Welsh Marches. In the last glacial the glaciers didnâ€™t go any further south than about Bristol so this is part of the southern edge of the glaciated lands. Arthurâ€™s Stone is what the archaeologists call a Neolithic chambered tomb, or dolmen, dating from 5,700â€“ 4,700 years ago. The ridge it sits on looks down into the Golden Valley on the southwest side and the Wye Valley on the northeast. A mile or two back east along the ridge from Arthurâ€™s Stone are the 6000+ years old â€œHalls of the Deadâ€ â€¦ theyâ€™re older than Stonehenge! Iâ€™ll talk about them in another post but it helps to show just how old and how complex, cultured and refined was the pre-farming civilisation hereabouts.
But Arthurâ€™s Stone is an incredible place in itself. The stones were originally buried within a mound which was aligned north-south. The mound was about 25 metres long with an east-facing entrance and a south-facing false portal. The mound is now gone and the capstone broken with a large section fallen into the chamber and blocking the original entrance passageway. To the north, there was once a cup-marked stone called the Quoit Stone but you canâ€™t see it clearly any more, and folk now call a stone to the south the Quoit Stone although it isnâ€™t and doesnâ€™t have the cup-marks.
The huge capstone thatâ€™s said to weigh more than 25 tonnes and rested on nine uprights. The entrance passage is curved, about 4.6 metres long, and was roofed to less than one metre high so you had to crawl down it. The whole stone structure was enclosedÂ in large earth banks, and post holes that were found at the edge of the banks which suggest some sort of post-circle enclosed it as well. As usual, few bones or burial remains were found in this big structure.
When I first visited it, sixteen-odd years ago, I was very much struck by the shape, and the entrance passage. In fact, it reminded me ofÂ the vagina, leading to the womb. Here is a photo I took from the entrance passage going into the stone chamber.
What could it have been for? Why did our ancestors build it? Why are so few bones found?
I sat there, sensing into it, feeling the place, and wondering.Â The womb-image stayed, got stronger. I decided to try crawling into it down the passage. Although it obviously wasnâ€™t dark as it would have been there was still a strong feeling of being enclosed. Iâ€™m claustrophobic and although there was no stone and earth roof over me I still had to keep feeling my breathing in order not to panic. Indeed, I got a sense that I would smash my head on stone if I tried to stand up. It was as though I was no longer in my own 21st century time.
I got to the end of the passage, where I would originally have been entering the chamber, and my progress was blocked by the fallen piece of capstone but I was determined I was going to get in by crawling. I had to crawl out to the right and then squidge myself in over the top of the fallen capstone and then I lay there, panting. The sound of my breathing seemed to echo off the stone above and around me. I shut my eyes and just listened to it. The stone was cold under my back and my hands felt its rough smoothness, the chamber felt bigger than Iâ€™d thought when I was looking from outside.
I lay still. To my shut eyes it seemed to get darker until it was pitchy black, and all around me I could hear breathing.
The sound slowed, and it also en-huged, it wasnâ€™t just me breathing, something far, far bigger was breathing along with me. â€œWho?â€ I whispered and that seemed to echo round me too. There were no words to answer me but I got the sense that the big breathing that wasnâ€™t me began to chuckle softly. Pictures began in my head â€¦ a cauldron, a woman stirring it, first she was old and grey and cobwebbed then young and slender with golden hair, she morphed between the two. Then the shadows behind her moved, like tree branches, but no, not that, they were antlers. Somehow, in the darkness, I saw a human face crested with huge wide antlers, eagleâ€™s eyes stared at me without blinking, golden coloured, and he smiled.Â The words birth and death swam though my mind. The cauldron of birth and rebirth, and the guardian and keeper of souls who guides us home. Ceridwen and Gwyn ap Nudd.
I donâ€™t know how long I lay there, dreaming and daydreaming. I was otherwhere for that time, and it was a time out of time. But soon or late I realised I was only listening to my own breathing again, the hugeness had gone, I was lying on a stone under another stone with the low winter sunset peering in at me from across Hay Bluff. I crawled out again, stood up and looked into the sunset.
Sitting and thinking over a drink of water it thought that was what we used this place for, and other places like it. We would crawl back into the womb, listen there for the Old Ones to speak and show us things, and then crawl out, back into everyday life. Yes, there may well have been bones there, ancestral bones of the spirit-keepers of our people perhaps, there to remind us who we are and what weâ€™re doing in that ancient place.
Stories go that up to the mid-19th century, we used to hold celebrations Â at the stone and dance there. Maybe, one day, weâ€™ll do that again. I work there now, and take my students there to crawl in and lie on the stone, speak with the Old Ones. Itâ€™s interesting how often they feel they must speak their name before they go in and, as they come out, they find theyâ€™re given a new name. That concept comes in so many of our old songs and stories, that no one who enters the wood, enchanted forest or wherever, comes out as they went in.
A Europe-wide, perhaps worldwide, concept is that you go into one of these places, like what we call sensory deprivation chambers, and come out again dead, mad or enlightened! Iâ€™ll leave you to judge which of those happened with me 🙂