Views over the Herefordshire countryside from Arthur’s Stone. The legendary hero picked a good spot for a bit of giant slaying…

Today I had a multiple-purpose outing into the landscape of Herefordshire – one of the parts of England I am least familiar with. I was taking a day out of my annual leave for three purposes: (i) to see a superb dig investigating some fascinating Neolithic monuments and halls, (ii) have an archaeo-scheming lunch (with beer) with archaeologists from either side of the border about a potential new project and (iii) visit a Neolithic chambered tomb: Arthur’s Stone.

I used the train journey between Wrexham and Leominster to read through parts of the second proofs of my forthcoming edited book on early medieval stone monuments. At the station I was picked up by one of my partner-in-archaeo-scheming, CPAT Director Paul Belford in his Mazda MX-5 convertible. We then zoomed through the Herefordshire countryside in search of Dorstone Hill, site of Manchester University/Herefordshire Archaeology excavations directed by Professor Julian Thomas and Dr Keith Ray. In classic archaeological style, we didn’t use as sat-nav or OS landranger maps, we used topography and directions from our other co-conspirator Keith Ray (mainly by landmarks such as bridges and pubs) to navigate our way!

Soil sampling the possible floor surfaces of the hall built on the hill-top and later capped by a Neolithic tomb
In the fourth week of excavations in their fifth season, this view shows the Manchester University’s excavations of a Neolithic tomb/monument built over a monumental timber hall that had been burnt to end its life. A fabulous instance of memory-making through fiery transformation?

We found the dig site on top of Dorstone Hill where we zoomed into the field dramatically in Mazda-style, exited in a nonchalant fashion and proceeded to explore the excavations. In addition to Keith and Julian, we met various celebrity archaeologists young and old working with a team of students and volunteers to investigate this phenomenal site. My brief visit coincided with a visit from English Heritage inspector Bill Klemperer and we got a tour of the dig plus the immediate surroundings, including earthworks nearby.

The features being uncovered date to the early Neolithic period (early to middle 4th millennium BC), although precise dates have yet to be secured for the sequence of two halls replaced by two long-cairns. Headlines were made two years ago with the report that Professor Thomas and his team uncovered these fabulous remains on a stupendous ridge-top with extensive views west and east over Herefordshire. Read about discoveries up to 2013 here.

I’m looking forward to more on the website/blog/Twitter for the public to learn about the latest findings from 2014 and 2015.

This is a dig that is all about memory work through the media of fire and stone, so it is of great interest to me. I guess I can only look forward to reading more about it in due course when the latest discoveries become publicly available.

Next up, was a pub lunch involving steak burger and fries. There was beer, Speckled Hen. There were also wasps. Schemes were concocted, plans were hatched, dark impenetrable dialogue was uttered about things that once were, and things that might be. Secret plots. So again, no public dimension to report.

Arthur’s Stone; surrounded by one of the most hilariously undulated fences in English Heritage history
The heritage board usefully shows the original orientation of the Neolithic monument and situates the site in relation to other Neolithic finds on the ridge and the Dore valley. Demarcating the dangerous folkloric element, the story of Arthur’s Stone is in a white box bottom-right

Then, a brief visit to another Neolithic site; the unexcavated and rather buggered-up chambered tomb known as Arthur’s Stone. Before it was the place where Arthur slew a giant (i.e. sometime before the 13th century when the tale is first recorded for this monument), it had been a chambered tomb accessed by a right-angled passage from its side. It has a 25-tonne capstone and 9 upright stones survive creating the chamber. This is a fabulous and early instance of an Arthurian association with a megalithic tomb and I am frustrated about how little is mentioned about this monument exists in the standard online resources.

I then headed back to Leominster via Mazda and via Arriva Wales to Wrexham, aware that I had visited a long-standing English Heritage monument and a major research excavation, neither of which have any adequate web presence and certainly not the virtual profile they deserve.

Arthur’s Stone with its right-angled passage

Incidentally, en route back I had 35 minutes to kill in Shrewsbury (pronounced Shrews-bury). Shrewsbury railway station is a formidable Victorian nightmare of a structure built in 1848. I marvelled at its horrors and purchased a Still Vimto for £1 from the adjacent newsagents. I walked around a shopping centre and found shops with nothing I wanted to buy. I also paid my respects at the war memorial on platform 3 to the staff of the LNWR/GWR joint railway in the First World War and an additional plaque beneath commemorating a hymn’s composition and reflecting Shrewsbury’s Welsh dimensions as an historic border town. A fundamental contrast between the kinds of memory work revealed in the Manchester excavations and Arthur’s Stone? Well, at least the war memorial has a vaguely decent online presence via the Imperial War Museum inventory here.

Shrewsbury railway station
Platform 3 memorials – a very different media of memory to that encountered in Herefordshire