Tuesday, 13 December 2016

A Scattering Of Stones

In the Diary that he wrote in the 1660's, my old mucker Samuel Pepys recorded his visit to an ancient monument: 'Three great stones standing upright and  a great round one lying on them, of great bigness, although not so big as those on Salisbury Plain. But certainly it is a thing of great antiquity, and I am mightily glad to see it.'

So where in the realm was Pepys wandering? Not Wiltshire, that much is certain from his own words. The lofty moors of Cornwall and Devon, perhaps? Remote isles off the Scottish coast? The Lakes or the Peaks?

None of them. He was writing about Kit's Coty, a Neolithic burial chamber in North Kent, part of a cluster of prehistoric monuments known as the Medway Megaliths.

The Megaliths form two distinct groupings on either side of the Medway valley. On the western side, Kit's Coty, Little Kit's Coty/The Countless Stones, the White Horse Stone and the Coffin Stone sit within easy walking distance of each other while on the eastern side, the remnants of two longbarrows lay in close proximity.

Together, they form the only surviving megalithic complex in Eastern England and, although they are all in various states of ruination, their survival in an area of intense agriculture, riverside industrialisation and heavy transport links is remarkable. They can also, provided one is armed with the knowledge of their exact locations, be visited in a single day.

White Horse Stone

From behind the Cossington Services on the southbound A229, a track crosses a bridge over the Eurostar line and follows the Pilgrim's Way toward the North Downs. Between the track and a field can be found the White Horse Stone. There once existed a Lower White Horse Stone to the west, but it was destroyed in 1823 and its site is now covered by the road. When the Eurostar line was constructed, the site of a Neolithic longhouse was excavated at the point where the railway enters a tunnel, and a now lost monument known as Smythe's Megalith - named after a local antiquarian who investigated it in the 1820's - once stood in the field.

A scattering of smaller stones are strewn across the undergrowth immediately to the west of the stone. I suspect that this monument is a collapsed burial chamber, the main relic being a capstone that has been propped onto its side, and the others its supports.

A scattering of stones
According to the writings of Nennius and the Venerable Bede, the Battle of Aylesford took place in this area, and local mythology has connected some of the Medway Megaliths with this event. It was supposedly fought between the Anglo-Saxon invader brothers Hengist and Horsa and the Briton princes Vortimer and Catigern, sons of King Vortigern. Horsa was killed in the battle and, according to the legend, laid out in state upon the White Horse Stone. Another casualty was Catigern, and his legend is associated with the next site I visited... the site about which Pepys scribbled his review, and which stands about 400m to the west on the other side of the A229.

Kit's Coty

Pepys was not the last notable figure to visit this monument, standing on the southern slope of Bluebell Hill with extensive views across the Medway valley. It was sketched in 1722 by the antiquarian William Stukeley, who also noticed a low, 70-yard mound extending to the west... evidence that Kit's Coty formed the entrance chamber of a longbarrow. A rock known as the General's Tombstone stood at the end of this mound, but this was destroyed in 1867 and the remnants of the mound have since been ploughed away.

Stukeley's sketch of 1722
George Orwell visited in 1938, and reported it as 'a druidical altar of some kind.' It had been classified as a Scheduled Ancient Monument in 1885 and by the time of Orwell's visit had been railed in for several years.

Kit's Coty from the NW
The word 'Coty' seems to have been a local dialectal term for a house, and the 'Kit' a shortening of Catigern, the British prince who died fighting the Saxons in this area and who, according to local custom, is buried underneath it - although archaeological exploration has sadly failed to comfirm this legend.

At the bottom of the hill, opposite the entrance to a vineyard, sits my next destination.

Little Kit's Coty/ The Countless Stones

Apparently destroyed in the seventeenth century before they could be recorded by antiquarians, there are about twenty sizeable sarsens piled in a sprawling heap, showing that the monument must have been visually impressive in its day, perhaps similar to the longbarrows on the other side of the valley.

 The idea that the stones cannot be counted is a familiar motif with Neolithic and Bronze Age sites. Similar legends exist at the Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire and at Long Meg And Her Daughters in Cumbria, to name but two.

Stukeley's sketch proves that the monument was demolished prior to 1722
The vineyard across the road shelters the final site of the eastern Medway cluster.

The Coffin Stone

Although a public footpath obliquely traverses the vineyard, direct public access to the Coffin Stone does not exist at the moment, although the landowner hopes to provide access in the future. The uppermost stone was recently placed in its position by the farmer, the original Coffin Stone now underneath. It looks to me very much like a collapsed burial chamber, perhaps very similar to Kit's Coty.

Although the western cluster of Medway Megaliths are only a couple of miles away on the other side of the valley, the River Medway is planted firmly in the way so I have to use my car, making use of the A229 and the M20 as well as a couple of country roads, in order to reach the village of Trottescliffe.

Coldrum Long Barrow

The barrow stands in a pretty spot east of the village, which is pronounced 'Trosley'. It overlooks broad farmland, with the North Downs rising across the fields. As can be seen from the above picture, the stone-built chamber has suffered from slippage, and many of its stones have tumbled down the slope. The mound is surrounded by smaller kerbstones, known as a peristalith, and the spot is popular with practitioners of the Earth Religions - the tree behind the barrow is often festooned with clouties and offerings.

Tumbled stones at the foot of the mound

Archaeological investigations over a century ago uncovered the remains of seventeen individuals, interred over two occasions during the Early Neolithic, some five thousand years ago. The skeletons showed signs of excarnation and dismemberment before being deposited within the barrow.

Bone assemblage from Coldrum
The site's popularity with neo-Pagans means that rituals take place here at all of the major festivals, including Morris Dancing which takes place here at dawn on May Day. Sadly, it seems that some visitors like to build small campfires on the centre of the mound, akin to the tealights which can sometimes be found at monuments such as Wayland's Smithy and West Kennet Longbarrow. Most pagans and megalithomaniacs would severely censure this practice.

Addington Park Longbarrow

Stones from the chamber

Little more than a mile from Trottecliffe sits the neighbouring village of Addington, which contains the remnants of two Longbarrows. The first, Addington Park, is easy to find as a road originating in the village goes right over the top of it.

The chamber lays north of the road, with peristalith stones visible on both sides
Sarsen stone found in various buildings in the village suggest that the barrow has been quarried for building materials in the past, and no skeletal remains have been reported. Some recent subsidence on the road crossing the monument was found to have been caused by tunnelling rabbits.

Perstalith stones south of the road
Chestnuts Longbarrow

This monument is difficult to spot from the road, as it sits in the rear garden of a property called 'Rose Alba'. It is possible to contact the owners and arrange for a guided tour of both Chestnuts and Addington Park, which takes about an hour and involves dowsing.

Archaeological exploration has recovered the remains of nine or ten individuals, although the acidic nature of the sandy soil upon which the monument sits means that quite a lot of organic material may have been destroyed. It was found that deliberate attempts had been made to damage the barrow, probably by zealous Christians - a medieval practice which has damaged many prehistoric monuments in the past, most notably the great complex at Avebury, Wiltshire.

©Adamsan at Wikipedia
As well as the usual prehistoric finds, archaeologists also found clay pipes dating from the seventeenth to the ninteenth century, stone and clay marbles, and bottles from the nineteenth centuries. This was taken to confirm local reports that the Chestnut Longbarrow had, for centuries, been a popular picnic spot for sightseers.

And for this sightseer, another quest is over. The Medway Megaliths, this scattering of stones across a river valley in the Garden Of England, have been visited in a single afternoon and, as I make my way home in the deepening darkness, I realise that there is, after all, an advantage to living in South Essex.

It's close to Kent!

Previous blog articles that included megalithic monuments:

And The White Horse Looked On

Rough Circles

On Going A Journey

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