Weird Walk sits at the intersection of the techwear scene and the folklore revival. Between football casuals spending their stadium-ban Saturdays on Snowdon, and a reaction against the kind of toxic nationalism peddled by the Brexit mob. Inspired by the conflicting desires for reconnection with the land, and disconnection from the chaos of urban life, a new generation of ramblers are finding themselves subliminally drawn to standing stones, ancient trackways and Neolithic burial chambers. The epitome of a Weird Walk combines miles covered on foot with a scout around a stone circle or similar vibe-filled relic of our pagan past. And if you can end the day at a haunted boozer? Well, then you’ve achieved rambling perfection.
Less than eight miles from Bristol city centre, the Somerset village of Stanton Drew could be on another planet entirely. Centred on a magnificent – yet little-visited – stone circle complex, The Drew (as nobody calls it) features a host of historic buildings alongside an aptly-named pub: The Druid’s Arms. “Druid burgers” are served with red-onion jam and the cider flows all day (booking advisable).
The pub is suitably haunted and regulars tell of a spectral child named Grace who has spooked the locals for decades. It is, however, in the pub garden that you get the first indication of the village’s main attraction: the garden is home to three mighty megalithic stones known as “The Cove”.
After lingering there, head out on to the road and follow the route round to the right, where a footpath eventually begins and cuts through Church Farm. Resist the temptation to run and hug the stones on your left. All in good time.
Before long, Stanton Drew Sewage Treatment Works will come into view on your right. The smell may motivate an uplift in pace, so it’s down to the River Chew for a section of the walk that largely follows a path alongside the water. We’ve traversed many riverside sections over the years and never tire of this kind of walking – the distinct lack of hills is a killer incentive for the knackered.
Although often more of a stream than a river, the Chew flooded to a remarkable extent in 1968. The scale is made clear when you veer off from the river and head into the village of Pensford, with markers on walls showing the water peaking above head height.
Pensford has a fine village lock-up or “blind house”: an octagonal 18th-century example, no less. The Georgian equivalent of the chill-out tent, they were used to detain local drunks until they sobered up and were once a firm fixture in the public imagination. There’s one on the Everton FC crest, while the Castle Cary lock-up in Somerset is said to have inspired the design of the police helmet. Fitting, really: following the rise of the more secure Victorian police station, these lock-ups were surplus to requirements and have been put to all kinds of weird and wonderful uses ever since.
As you walk on, notice the imposing Pensford Viaduct, which closed after being damaged in the aforementioned Great Flood. Then it’s on through Culvery Wood with its veteran oaks, before the stones eventually reappear. Now is their time.
Stanton Drew’s stone circles may not vibrate as wildly in the English consciousness as their easterly cousins at Stonehenge, however, they remain seriously impressive pieces of Neolithic kit. Three circles, alongside other monuments, are dotted around the village. The Great Circle is the second largest in England and has 26 of its 30 stones still in place. First recorded by John Aubrey in 1664, the stones are thought to have been erected around 5,000 years ago. Recent surveys have revealed them to be part of a complex ritual landscape.
One of the first things you notice about the stones is their coloration. Some range from deep reds to blacks, while others sport weathered greys or almost bluish hues. Standing amongst these stones, it comes as no surprise that many tales swirl around them: they cannot be counted; they weep and groan when the moon is full; they are rooted so deep that no human could ever dig them out. But our favourite tale tells of how they came to be here at all.
The lore holds that on a Saturday long ago, a wedding party assembled in Stanton Drew with the best fiddler in Somerset hired to play at the feast. The music was pumping, alcohol flowed, and the wedding guests filled the floor. It was some hours before the parson moved away from the crowd and whispered in the fiddler’s ear that it would be unwise to continue the dancing past midnight and into the Sabbath. The superstitious fiddler agreed and set aside his bow. However, when the music stopped the bride and groom became enraged, declaring, “This dance will persist even if Hell must provide the fiddler!”
Out from among the guests a tall man appeared, dressed in a top hat and a fine red tailcoat. He held a fiddle and began to play the hardest set of bangers the wedding guests had ever heard. The dancers became a blur of motion, a pulse of energy that eventually, upon the rising of the sun, shivered and stuck. The tune that rang out across the county of Somerset that night has long since faded, but they say that the guests remain, petrified as the stones of Stanton Drew.