On my next trip to Britain, I’ll linger a bit longer at its many mysterious sights.
Even if we’ve had to postpone trips to Europe, I believe a daily dose of travel dreaming can actually be good medicine. Here’s another one of my favorite travel memories — a reminder of what’s waiting for you in Europe at the other end of this crisis.
On my first trip to Dartmoor National Park, back when I was a student, word of the wonders lurking just a bit deeper into the moors tempted me away from my hostel in Gidleigh. I was told of an especially rewarding hike that would lead me to the mysterious Scorhill Stone Circle. Climbing over a hill, surrounded by ominous towers of craggy granite, I was swallowed up by powerful, mystical moorland. Hills followed hills followed hills…green growing gray in the murk.
Where was that 4,000-year-old circle of stone? I wandered in a scrub-brush world of greenery, white rocks, eerie winds, and birds singing unseen. Then the stones appeared. It seemed they had waited for centuries, still and silent, for me to visit.
I sat on a fallen stone and my imagination ran wild, pondering the people who roamed England so long before written history documented their stories. I took out my journal, wanting to capture the moment… the moor, the distant town, the chill, this circle of stones. I dipped my pen into the cry of the birds and wrote.
That experience, 40 years ago, kicked off decades of my fascination with mysterious Britain. Dartmoor, Stonehenge, the Holy Grail, Avalon…there’s an endlessly intriguing side of Britain steeped in lies, legends, and at least a little truth. Haunted ghost walks and Loch Ness Monster stories are profitable tourist gimmicks, but the cultural soil that gave us Beowulf, King Arthur, and Macbeth is fertilized with a murky story that goes back over 5,000 years — older, even, than Egypt’s pyramids. With a little background, even skeptics can appreciate Britain’s historic aura.
There are countless stone circles, forgotten tombs, man-made hills, and figures carved into hillsides whose stories will never be fully understood. Britain is crisscrossed by lines, called ley lines, connecting these ancient sites. Prehistoric tribes may have transported these stones along a network of ley lines, which some think may have functioned together as a cosmic relay or circuit.
Two hours west of London, Glastonbury is located on England’s most powerful ley line. It gurgles with a thought-provoking mix of history and mystery. For the views, hike up the 500-foot-tall Glastonbury Tor (a grassy, conical clay hill capped with an old church tower), and you’ll notice the remains of the labyrinth that made climbing the hill a challenge some 5,000 years ago.
In AD 37, Joseph of Arimathea, Jesus’ wealthy tin-merchant uncle, supposedly brought a vessel containing the blood of Christ to Glastonbury, and with it, Christianity to England. (Joseph’s visit is plausible because back then, merchants from the Levant came here to trade with the local miners.)
While that story is supported by fourth-century writings and accepted by the Church, the King Arthur and Holy Grail legends it inspired are not. Those medieval tales were cooked up when England needed a morale-boosting folk hero to inspire its people during a war with France. They pointed to the ancient Celtic sanctuary at Glastonbury as proof of the greatness of the fifth-century warlord, Arthur. In 1911, his supposed remains, along with those of Queen Guinevere, were dug up here, and Glastonbury was woven into the Arthurian legends. The Camelot couple was reburied in the abbey choir and their gravesite is a kind of shrine today. Many believe the Grail trail ends at the bottom of the Chalice Well, a natural spring at the base of the tor.
In the 16th century, Henry VIII, on a rampage against the power of the monasteries, destroyed Glastonbury Abbey. For emphasis, he hung and quartered the abbot, sending his body on four national tours… at the same time. Two centuries later Glastonbury rebounded. In an 18th-century tourism campaign, thousands signed affidavits stating that water from the Chalice Well healed them, putting Glastonbury on the tourist map.
Today, Glastonbury is a center for searchers. It’s too out there for the mainstream church, but just right for those looking for a place to recharge their crystals. Since the society that built that labyrinth worshipped a mother goddess, the hill, or tor, is seen by many today as a symbol of the Sacred Feminine.
Along with its history, the geology contributes to the mystery of this land. Southern England’s shoreline is lined by famed white chalk cliffs. And that same white chalk is just below a thin layer of topsoil all across the region. Eons ago, all it took was a shovel and a little hard work to peel away the soil and transform rolling hillsides into works of art — or messages.
Travelers to this day are entertained by giant white figures popping out of these grassy green slopes. Many are creations of 18th- and 19th-century Romantics acting out against the coldness of the Industrial Age, but a few of these figures have, as far as history is concerned, always been there. One figure is particularly eye-catching: The Cerne Abbas Giant, armed with a big club and an erection, is hard to ignore. For centuries, people fighting infertility would sleep on Cerne Abbas. As my English friend explained, “Maidens can still be seen leaping over his willy.”
And fixed like posts into that same chalk subsoil are stone circles, more souvenirs of England’s misty, distant past. The most famous stone circle, Stonehenge, is an hour’s drive from Glastonbury. Built in phases between 3000 and 1000 BC with huge stones brought all the way from Wales, it still functions as a remarkably accurate celestial calendar.
A study of more than 300 similar circles in Britain found that each was designed to calculate the movement of the sun, moon, and stars, and even predict eclipses. These prehistoric timekeepers helped early societies know when to plant, when to harvest, and when to party. Even in modern times, when the summer solstice sun sets in just the right slot at Stonehenge, pagans boogie.
Curiously, some of the particular “blue stones” used in Stonehenge were found only in distant Wales. Why didn’t the prehistoric builders use what seem like perfectly adequate stones nearby? Consider those ley lines. Perhaps a particular kind of stone was essential for maximum energy transmission. How might these massive stones have been transported in a pre-industrial age? Various practical explanations have been suggested, but there’s no consensus among experts. Imagine instead congregations gathering here 5,000 years ago, raising thought levels and creating a powerful life force transmitted along the ley lines. Maybe the stones were levitated in Wales and rocketed a hundred miles to this spot. Maybe psychics really do create powerful vibes. Maybe not. It sounds unbelievable, but at one time, so did electricity.
Not far away, the stone circle at Avebury is 16 times the size of Stonehenge and about one-sixteenth as touristy. Visitors are free to wander among 100 stones, ditches, and mounds, and ponder these curious patterns from the past. Near Avebury is the 130-foot-high pyramid-shaped Silbury Hill. More than 4,000 years old, this man-made mound of chalk is a reminder that you’ve only scratched the surface of Britain’s fascinating prehistoric and religious landscape.
More Neolithic wonders lurk in England’s moors. While they inspire exploration, beware: you can get lost in these stark, time-passed commons. Directions are difficult to keep. It’s cold and gloomy, as nature rises like a slow tide against anything human-built. A crumpled castle loses itself in lush overgrowth. A church grows shorter as tall weeds eat at the stone crosses and tilted tombstones. Over the centuries, the moors have changed as little as the longhaired sheep that still seem to gnaw on moss in their sleep.
One of England’s wildest and most remote regions is in the southwest corner of the country. It’s Dartmoor — that wonderland of powerfully quiet rolling hills that inspired me long ago. Near the Cornwall Peninsula in the county of Devon, it’s crossed by only three main roads. Most of this area is either unused or shared by its 34,000 villagers as a common grazing land — a tradition that goes back to feudal days. Ordnance Survey maps show that Dartmoor is peppered with bits of England’s mysterious past, including more Bronze Age stone circles and enigmatic megaliths than any other chunk of England. It’s perfect for those who dream of enjoying their own private Stonehenge without barbed wire, police officers, parking lots, tourists, or port-a-loos.
Returning to Dartmoor on my last trip, I sat peaceful and alone on the same mossy stone I warmed the day I first experienced Scorhill Stone Circle in 1978. I recalled that day, at the age of 23, when I realized how many wonders in Europe were still undiscovered…hidden and unheralded. I remembered how, hiking home that evening, I decided that my calling was to find these places and to share them. That was the day I became a travel writer.
(This story is excerpted from my upcoming book, For the Love of Europe — collecting 100 of my favorite memories from a lifetime of European travel. It’s coming out in July, and available for pre-order. And you can also watch a video clip related to this story: Just visit Rick Steves Classroom Europe and search for “mysterious Britain”.)