A country lane, full of dandelion clocks and horseshoe prints, leads to a simple wooden gate, fallen on its hinges. Below us, the moorland is criss-crossed with stone walls and the slow moving dots of sheep; there is the occasional tiny flash as a faraway car catches the sun. In farmland nearby, cows moo lazily in the heat and lumber around looking for shade. Through the open gate, the path narrows, fern and wild burdock brushing at our legs. Almost hidden in the embrace of a tree, a sign reads, “This ancient burial chamber is protected as a monument of national importance under the Ancient Monuments Act 1913-53 – Ministry of Works”. The sign is blotched green, camouflaged into the landscape. It’s the only notice of any kind that we are about to stumble into the ancient past.
The Bridestones, the ancient burial chamber of the sign, was once a vast cairn, huge slabs of stone built into a giant mound and packed with soil. In the 1930s the site was excavated, and the cairn stones stand now huddled in groups, jutting towards the sky, their surfaces covered in the same mossy green that almost hides the announcement of their importance. They seem set in place now, as though stone roots have grown into the moor. They share the space with yew trees and wild flowers, and with any walker who discovers them.
This privilege – of coming across ancient stones, alone and undisturbed, unfiltered by tourist hype, cameras or audio guides – is typical of the many ancient sites that litter the Staffordshire Moorlands around the pretty market town of Leek. Although I was born in Leek’s cottage hospital, I only discovered the richness of the pagan landscape when I began seriously researching my novel Foxlowe, which was in part inspired by the local phenomenon of the so-called “double sunset” which can (with luck and good weather) be viewed from under a certain tree in Leek churchyard on summer solstice. Far from the crowds of Stonehenge, the solstice in the Salisbury Plain’s quieter, much less famous cousin of the Staffordshire Moorlands passes mostly unnoticed, as the sun appears to set twice in a trick of the eye that re-occurs as a kind of natural ritual, and ancient stone circles, burial chambers and rock formations across the region peacefully mark the earth’s turn.
In 2013, not for the first or last time on this novel, I got stuck. I’d been writing from half-memory fused with an imagined version of the landscape, and so my draft was woefully vague. A local historian, Robert Milner, kindly agreed to show me around the Staffordshire Moorlands and visit some of the sites, so off I went to spend a sunny June week in the place my imagination just couldn’t leave alone. Before going to meet Robert, I ate Staffordshire oatcakes, savoury oatmeal pancakes filled with lava-like cheese, in a friendly bed and breakfast. I asked my host about the ancient sites: he told me about excellent climbing sites over the moorland, and the fantastically named Thor’s Cave, a limestone crag inhabited during the Stone Age. But what, I asked, about the other pagan sites? Oh, he replied, shrugging, there must be thousands of them.
Robert was an extraordinary guide, telling me stories of local legend – moor spirits who made promises with hidden stings, will o’the wisps, headless ghosts, spooky whispers said to be heard near ancient gibbet sites – as he showed me ancient stones that carried some significance now lost to us, only carrying some whisper in their names, passed down over the centuries: The Bawdstone, The Hope Stone, The Devil’s Ring and Finger, and the dramatic, craggy formations of Sharpcliffe, The Roaches and Ramshawe Rocks. Almost everywhere I found the same strange silent stillness, a feeling that these treasures had only just been uncovered.
While some may decry what appears to be a lack of historical awe in the region, the way these sites lie open, covered in moss, sometimes surrounded by mist, and almost always entirely empty of other people, is the source of their particular charm. As a fully-fledged adorer of old rocks, I am used to sharing space, shuffling along, flicking through guides, dialling the right number on the audio guide. And I love it. But it’s only in this part of the world – the small moorland lacking the fame of its Dartmoor or Yorkshire counterparts, yet that is home to an extraordinary array of pagan sites – that I’ve ever felt the beguiling sense that the years have fallen away, and understand why people used to believe that a stone circle could do something magical.
In Foxlowe, the community of lost souls that becomes a cult uses a place called The Standing Stones for rituals, healing, and getting high. In the novel, it’s also where the double sunset can be seen on the summer solstice, which is one of the many fictionalising liberties I’ve taken with the landscape, as well as borrowing Foxlowe’s name from the lovely arts centre in Leek. What isn’t fictionalised, though, is the feeling of serenity at the real stone circle The Standing Stones are based on, near the village of Ipstones. Known locally as Ludchurch or the Ipstones Sun Temple, it sits on a sloping part of the moorland called Summer Hill. The circle is aligned with other sites across the moor, some ancient stones thought to mark Sahmain, others the midnight moon on winter solstice.
If the Bridestones’ sign is an example of the minimalist approach here, these Standing Stones are even less the subject of fanfare. To reach them, we walked on little-used footpaths full of long grasses that we stroked as we walked, or picked and knotted into braids (in Foxlowe, the child characters play a game called Maze-making in these long grasses, in the shadow of the stone circle). Over a stream, an ancient stile guided us to a grove of trees surrounded by the region’s ubiquitous stone wall.
There in the shady copse are the Stones: vast, seemingly immovable, and, like their sister stones at the burial chamber across the moorland, covered in moss. In the quiet of the grove, with only the moorland stretched below us, we wound between the stones and into the centre of the circle, and there was no “imagine when...” exercise to play, the thought game of every tourist at an ancient place. There was no one there but us, and the eerie quiet, the sun streaming through the rocks, unmoved all these centuries, the stillness, made this confirmed atheist feel a moment of true empathy with those ancient believers.
At summer solstice, as the double sunset can be seen from Leek Churchyard, here at Ludchurch the sun sets directly over what’s known as the Sun Stone, and it’s believed that grooves cut into the rock would have collected water, dazzlingly reflecting the solstice light. Witnessed by birds and the odd lost walker, here, far from the madding crowds of solstice parties from Stonehenge to Goa, in a wooded grove over an empty field, is our ancient ritual past, quietly revealed summer after summer.
• Foxlowe by Eleanor Wasserberg is out now, published by 4th Estate at £12.99