‘It stands over us like a giant’s dining table’: on the trail of the UK’s ancient stones | Cornwall holidays

Up on Cornwall’s Penwith Moors time takes a strange quality. Here the landscape is a morass of knotted bracken and bristly gorse, a soft marigold tinge signalling warmer summer days. A grey smudge of cloud sags on the horizon and the wind whirs like white noise, a low and disorientating murmur. The topography is a palimpsest, with working farms etched over ruinous mines and prehistoric settlements. And at its heart is a scattering of ancient stones, the enigmatic quoits, barrows and stone circles that have captivated and confounded societies for millennia.

It’s an enchanting place just to wander, but to help me dive deeper into the mysteries of the moors, I am meeting artists and stone enthusiasts Lally MacBeth and Matthew Shaw. Almost immediately I feel underdressed in hiking boots primed with mud and a hardy waterproof – in Cornwall, we come perpetually prepared for the threat of showers. MacBeth, on the other hand, looks the part of an antiquarian in an emerald-green blazer and matching beret finished with a swipe of ruby lipstick. The only muted part of her outfit is a monochrome badge, the size of a small pebble, that reads: “The Stone Club”.

A distant view of Lanyon Quoit near Morvah.
Lanyon Quoit near Morvah. Photograph: Francesca Adkins

As founders of a community of stone fans, the couple are no strangers to a good stone stomp. What began in 2021 with a laptop and badge-maker in their living room in Penryn, Cornwall, has evolved into a network of almost 3,000 members. Although the pair run ad hoc walks and events, the Stone Club is mostly a forum for stone fans around the country to share tips and tales about their favourite formations (and with more than 1,000 stone circles in Britain, there’s plenty of scope). Members, who range from ages two to 80, advise each other on particularly fascinating routes, whether wellies are required and where the nearest watering hole or country pub can be located. The club also acts as an informal identification service where a grainy Polaroid from a long-ago walk is pulled from an attic box and posted to social media for other members to situate the stones.

Interest took off during lockdowns and has continued to blossom, says MacBeth. “People were desperate to get out and about again – they wanted to learn about their landscape and take pride in it. Many felt they had found a new community, that they had found their people.”

The route the Stone Club has curated for me today weaves past five landmarks because “connecting the sites gives a more meditative sense of the changing landscape and weather,” says Shaw as we skirt a path cratered with puddles. First we approach Mên-an-Tol, a cluster of four standing stones, one hollowed out in the shape of a broad granite ring. Known locally as Crick Stone, this has become a magnet for folklore, beckoning visitors due to its remedial powers. For rickets, legend says a baby must be passed through the stone three times; for a woman struggling to conceive, seven, bathed in the light of the full moon. We recount this rumour to a man who watches his teenage daughter laugh as she shuffles through the stone backwards. “Once is enough,” he tells her curtly.

Mên-an-Tol standing stones near Land’s End.
Mên-an-Tol standing stones near Land’s End. Photograph: Valery Egorov/Alamy

Further along the path we reach Ding Dong Mine, one in a constellation of mouldering engine houses studding Cornwall which trace its faded fortune. This mine, Shaw says, was favoured by the writer Daphne du Maurier, a patron of Cornish heritage. “This is the Cornwall many people don’t see – a landscape ravaged by mining – beyond the beaches of St Ives,” adds MacBeth. As Cornwall becomes more polished with the passing of each summer season, stones are a rare free activity – requiring only money for petrol or a bus fare, she says. Before moving on we peer once more into the vertigo-inducing mine shaft, searching for silhouettes of the past.

Soon after we reach Bosiliack Barrow, a tumble of stones thought to be a Neolithic tomb and a portal to a distant world. At first glance, their arrangement looks arbitrary, until I’m told that each slab was carefully positioned to face the winter sun. On the shortest day of each year, the stones are illuminated, dazzling with solstice light. It was in this spot that the idea for Stone Club was conjured, and it still symbolises much of its ethos. “History can’t just be studied in a linear textbook,” says MacBeth. “There are always oddities.”

The club formed at a perfect time, as political fissures tore holes through society in 2021. Brexit, culture wars, Covid vaccines – stones supersede these tensions. They are so old they are ultimately unknowable. They leave space for multiple interpretations – and going on a stone hunt adds another dimension to getting out into the countryside. Sure enough, as we turn to leave it’s as if someone has lifted a lid on the sky, and the sun breaks through the clouds.

Lally MacBeth and Matthew Shaw, founders of Stone Club
Matthew Shaw and Lally MacBeth, founders of Stone Club. Photograph: Francesca Adkins

We climb another hill to reach Lanyon Quoit, the majestic dolmen recognisable from postcards and fridge magnets across Cornwall. At about 1.5 metres tall, it stands over us like a giant’s dining table, though it’s more likely another prehistoric mausoleum. Iconic stones like these are a great talking point – an axis for engagements, friendships and gatherings. MacBeth knows a couple who matched, and are in a long-term relationship, because they both proudly listed Stone Club in their dating profiles. While puzzling over the quoit, we get talking to Wolfgang Lorenz, a German man who is touring Cornwall in his motorhome with his teenage son. For him, hunting old stones is a ritual that originated with his parents. He has visited prehistoric sites in France, Denmark and Holland, but retracing once-trodden routes brings something new each time. “Things change in your perception,” he says.

As we close our circuit, the weather turns. Our shoes go from squelching to sinking, our skips become large leaps over boggy ground. We come to our last stone, ​​Mên Scryfa, which means, simply, the inscribed stone. Shaw takes out his smartphone and overlays an illustration of the original stone on to its now mottled markings – a gesture of how seamlessly past and present knit together in the Stone Club.

After three hours on the moors, it’s time to retreat to the shelter of our cars. Once more we bump into Lorenz, who is battling the rain to see one more site, though this time without his son. “Puberty,” he shrugs, justifying his absence. We like to think his son will be back in 30 years’ time, retracing the steps he took with his father, knowing that the same stones will still be there, inscrutable and unchanged.
For more information and event details visit Stone Club. UK membership, £6

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *