Alfred Watkins, “Arthur’s Stone”

Transactions of the Woolhope Naturalists’ Field Club, 1928, 149–151.

There are many papers by Alfred Watkins that might be included here. This one was chosen to go with Graeme Field’s video of Arthur’s Stone on YouTube.



By Alfred Watkins, F.R.P.S.

(Read 26th July, 1928.)

This is the only example in Herefordshire of that type of prehistoric monument which was formerly called a cromlech, but is now termed a dolmen, so as to use the same term as the French authorities.

They are akin to, but not quite the same, as the chambered tomb in a long barrow.

Dolmens are scarce in England (several occurring in Cornwall), more scarce in Scotland, and plentiful in Wales, more than forty being in Carnarvon and Anglesea, and there are many in Western France and Ireland.

They are supposed to have been originally wholly or partially covered with a mound of earth or stones, although usually now bare or free-standing.

Photo of Arthur's Stone
Arthur’s Stone
The remains of the earth mound at Arthur’s Stone is, as you see, very evident, especially on the eastern side, there being a mass of earth much above the level of the surrounding ground. It must be kept in mind that the method of hoisting the huge capstone to the top of its supporters was almost certainly by a tall mound of earth, up which the stone was slid, either on wet clay or on rollers.

I do not attempt to define the original purpose of these monuments. It is certain from excavation that many, perhaps all, of them were used as burial chambers. But several highly skilled observers, as Sir Norman Lockyer the astronomer, and Admiral Boyle Somerville, have found by careful observations on a number of dolmens, that in their main axis they frequently align to sunrise on the longest or shortest day, or the equinox, or the half-quarter days between, these days being still celebrated by customs coming without break from pre-historical practices; and that the entrance usually faces in one such direction.

Lockyer surmises that they were observation caves of the cult of skilled sun-observers, who supplied early man with his calendar for seasonal cultivation. He points out, quite soundly, that their use (after-use, as he claims) for burial does not disprove this, for if so it can be equally proved that all our early churches were erected for burial only, not for worship, as all contain burials.

All these observers find occasionally that the alignments down the axis go to a distant hill-top, or standing stone, or barrow {150} on a height, thus linking up with the topographical alignments I have demonstrated as the “old straight track.”

Plan of Arthur's Stone
I must say at once that I have not found in this particular dolmen a seasonal alignment of its stone structure. Its axis, as shown by the rough plan made on the spot by Mr. W. H. McKaig, we made to be 24° west of true north, and this cannot point to sunrise at any season or to sunset. Here I must note the two curious notches cut in the western edge of the large flat stone, which stands 12 feet away from the cap-stone, and at right angles to the axis. I see similar notches in illustrations of other ancient stones, and without defining their exact purpose, I surmise their use to be for sighting observation. They are the only evidence I see of “working” on any of the stones here, and cup-markings are absent.

The plan shows what appears to be a corridor at the northern end, of stones on edge, bent round towards the west. Such an entrance, called by Lockyer a “creepway,” is fairly well known in chambered tombs.

As one side of the mound has not been excavated, it is possible that features not in the plan are there.

The cap-stone, broken in half some centuries ago, with a piece of its underside spawled off and fallen below, is 18½ feet long and 12 feet wide.

Seventeen yards from the monument, lying prone in the ditch, is a tall long-stone, probably a direction pointer. This is at an azimuth (or angle from true north) of 305°, and according to a table for the latitude of Hereford, which Admiral Boyle Somerville kindly drew up and sent me, this is the correct angle for Midsummer Day sunset, with an horizon at an altitude of 3½°, which is approximately the fact here. This alignment goes precisely to Castleton hill-point, whose tree-clump overlooking the Wye is a prominent sighting point.

Earlier observers speak of a ring of stones some eight feet from the monument, but they are not apparent now.

Now for a few topographical facts regarding the position of Arthur’s Stone. Although on a ridge, it is so placed as to be seen better from south and east than from north and west, not being quite on the highest point when crossing the ridge.

Members walking from the west (Merbage) will have noted that its mound aligns with the centre of the Green Way, the footpath curving round it and coming back in alignment beyond, where indeed the earlier narrow track can be seen in the southern ditch of the wide way. This alignment for one-sixth of a mile coincides with the present Green Way, and continued across country (azimuth 109°), passes to the west through Newton Tump, 1¾ miles away. In the other direction, it goes through several well-{151}known homesteads, the cottage near Clehonger bearing the ancient place-name Goldenpost, and to the centre of that circular and pre-historic mounded-up wood in Haywood Forest called Merryhill or Beechwood. To this strange site of Merryhill, there also comes the alignment down the mile-long Monnington Walk through Monnington Church, and a third alignment which lies on the length of Offa Street in Hereford, and passes through St. Peter’s Church and the Cathedral Tower.

Another present-day path can be seen coming up exactly aligned on Arthur’s Stone Mound from Dorston, its line being from Bal Mawr on the Black Mountains, through the Cross in Dorston Churchyard, and terminating at that well-known knoll above Bredwardine, called The Knapp. Its Azimuth is 15½°.

A third alignment through Arthur’s Stone is at an azimuth of 49½°, and this, according to the table by Admiral Somerville, is the Midsummer Day sunrise angle for an elevation of the horizon of ½°, which is about the angle the sun would make rising over the ridge here. This alignment starts. from the Cefn Hill (1,593 ft. point), and comes through a mountain cot called the Gold Post, through a field on the Dorston–Hay road called Standing Stone Field, the stone itself (recently illustrated in the Transactions), having been moved to make a gate-post at the field entrance. Then through the Golden Well in the Bell Alders (a spot probably giving name to the Golden Valley), Arthur’s Stone and Bredwardine Castle site.

A fourth alignment (azimuth 30°) comes through the tumulus near the church at Hay, the south edge of Mouse Castle Earthwork, the 998 ft. Ordnance point of Little Mountain, Arthur’s Stone, Garnons, the moat of Bishopstone Court, and the top of Credenhill Camp.

Thus it can be noted that although Arthur’s Stone has apparently no seasonal alignments in the structure of its chamber, it, as a mound, aligns topographically for the Summer Solstice or Midsummer Day, not only to sunrise as just given, but to sunset over a pointer stone.

There are similar dolmens, called Arthur’s Quoit, two in Carnarvon and one in Gower.

I have seen somewhere reference to, but not details of, excavations at this monument, which has been turned over to Government charge, and of stone mauls or hammers being found, but can find no reference to this in our Transactions, nor information about the whereabouts of the finds. The ground has been much disturbed and made difficult for future investigation, and it is unfortunate if no record of past digging is to be found.

I doubt whether the disfiguring, unclimbable iron fencing now round the monument is really necessary: it certainly is a great obstacle to examination.