List Words : Lyn Hughes | 19 June

Bold and beautiful: 12 of Britain's most mysterious ancient sites

With volcanic origins and royal relations, there's more to stone circles than meets the eye. Explore these iconic and lesser-known stone structures that are set in beautiful British landscapes...

1: Stonehenge

Stonehenge (Dreamstime)

Stonehenge (Dreamstime)

Amesbury, Wiltshire

With so much focus on the world famous stone circle it’s easy to forget that there’s a whole ancient landscape to explore here, and nearly 400 monuments. Walk around the site, ideally on an archaeologist guided tour, to discover its earthworks, barrows and burial mounds. You can’t go inside the stone circle itself without prearranged access, available at certain times. Book through English Heritage.

2: Stanton Drew stone circles

Stanton Drew stone circles (Dreamstime)

Stanton Drew stone circles (Dreamstime)

Stanton Drew, Somerset

These three stone circles are surprisingly little known. The largest, the Great Circle, is 113m in diameter, the second largest in Britain. A cove of three stones sits in the village pub garden; another standing stone, the Hautville’s Quoit, sits across the River Chew.

3: Rollright Stones

Rollright Stones, Oxfordshire (Dreamstime)

Rollright Stones, Oxfordshire (Dreamstime)

Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire

Reputedly a monarch and his courtiers petrified by a witch, the Rollright Stones complex consists of three groups: the King’s Men stone circle; the Whispering Knights dolmen; and the single King Stone. They were erected at different times over a 2,000-year period.

4: The Heart of Neolithic Orkney

Ring of Brodgar at dusk (Dreamstime)

Ring of Brodgar at dusk (Dreamstime)

Orkney, Scotland

Some of Orkney’s sites are more than 5,000 years old, predating Stonehenge. Highlights include two stone circles – the Standing Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar – and Skara Brae, a 5,000-year-old village of houses with stone-built furniture. Maeshowe is a magnificent chambered tomb.

5: Callanish Stones

Callanish Stones (Dreamstime)

Callanish Stones (Dreamstime)

Isle of Lewis, Scotland

Dating back to around 3000BC, the Callanish Stones make up one of the most unique prehistoric stone monuments in Scotland. Over 40 stones, forming the shape of a Celtic cross, are situated on a prominent ridge overlooking a sea loch. Its exact purpose is unknown, but it appears to have connections with astronomical events. There are several other stone circles and Neolithic sites in the area. And you may even have the bonus of spotting a sea eagle, Britain's largest bird.

6: Kilmartin Glen

Temple Wood Stones (Dreamstime)

Temple Wood Stones (Dreamstime)

Kintyre, Argyll, Scotland

With an exceptional concentration of around 350 ancient monuments, including intriguing standing stones, rock carvings and dolmens, Kilmartin Glen is mainland Scotland’s premier prehistoric site. The largest burial mound, Nether Largie South, is over 5,000 years old.

7: Long Meg and Her Daughters

Long Meg and Her Daughters (Dreamstime)

Long Meg and Her Daughters (Dreamstime)

Penrith, Cumbria

Dating from the Bronze Age, this is one of the largest prehistoric stone circles in England. There are 59 standing stone ‘daughters’; Long Meg is a 3.6m-high monolith of red sandstone to the south-west of the circle. There are many other circles, stones and tombs in the surrounding area.

8: Castlerigg Stone Circle

Castlerigg Stone Circle (Dreamstime)

Castlerigg Stone Circle (Dreamstime)

Keswick, Cumbria

Dating back to around 3,000BC, the Lake District’s circle of 38 volcanic stones is among the earliest in Britain. It’s worth visiting for its dramatic setting alone. Like many stone circles, it features significant astronomical alignments.

9: Grime’s Graves

Grime's Grave (English Heritage)

Grime's Grave (English Heritage)

Thetford, Norfolk

This large flint-mining complex, dating back to 3,000BC, consists of at least 433 shafts dug into the natural chalk to reach seams of flint. Only one pit is open to the public but it is possible to descend into it by ladder.

10: Pentre Ifan Burial Chamber

Sunset over Pentre Ifan (Dreamstime)

Sunset over Pentre Ifan (Dreamstime)

Nevern, Pembrokeshire, Wales

Pentre Ifan is one of the most spectacular Neolithic dolmens (burial chambers) in Europe and dates back to 3,500BC. It consists of a huge tilted capstone perched on three slender upright stones. A blocking stone obstructs the doorway. It’s set in a beautiful location with views to the Preseli Hills and over to Fishguard Bay.

11: Merry Maidens Circle

Merry Maidens Circle (Dreamstime)

Merry Maidens Circle (Dreamstime)

Between Newlyn and Land’s End, Cornwall

Arguably the best-preserved late Neolithic site in the UK, the Merry Maidens Circle consists of 19 granite stones that form a perfect circle nearly 23m in diameter. One legend has it that they were local girls who danced on the Sabbath and consequently turned to stone. Two larger stones, known as the Pipers, stand 300m away.

12: Avebury

Avebury stone circle (Dreamstime)

Avebury stone circle (Dreamstime)

Avebury, Wiltshire

Saving the best until last, this is my personal favourite. Despite being older and larger than Stonehenge, Avebury was little-known outside archaeology circles until the last decade or so. There has been a huge growth in visitor numbers, but you can still access the stones, and the size of the site means that you can escape the crowds.

As with Stonehenge, there is a whole landscape to understand and explore here. Uniquely, a gorgeous little village is nestled within the site. Buy some dowsing rods in the village shop and see how they react when you walk past the stones.