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The Devil's Quoit - information and guide

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Sunday 21st February 2010
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Latitude: 51.7400 Longitude: -1.4059
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Map
Heading west on the A40 away from Oxford, turn left onto the B4449 at Eynsham. Follow this road until you pass Stanton Harcourt, looking out for the recycling centre signposted to your left. Take this turn, and follow the road until you reach the public recycling facility. Drive slowly past, keeping it to your right, and you will see a small parking area to your left with an "assembly point" sign. Park here, and follow the footpath to the monument.

The Devil's Quoit is a reconstructed stone circle and henge, originally dating from the late Neolithic period. It was built between 2900-2600BC, and consisted of a 115m diameter earth bank and internal 2m deep ditch, with entrances to the east and west. The 75m diameter stone circle occupying the interior consisted of 28 conglomerate stones, with one additional stone standing slightly offset to the south. Given its size, it would have been a site of great significance, visible from Britain's oldest road - the Ridgeway.

The site derives its name from a formation myth. Folklore tells how the devil was playing a game of quoits one Sunday, but was chastised by God for defiling the day of rest. In anger, the devil cast aside his quoits, throwing them as far as he was able. Where one quoit fell, the henge now stands.

Most of the monument - along with the surrounding barrow graveyard - was destroyed by farmers during the middle ages. By the early 20th Century, only three stones remained standing, and the earthworks were barely visible. Two other stones remained standing closer to the village, but it is believed that these had been relocated at some point and originally belonged to the stone circle. In the 1940s, the three remaining stones were removed when an RAF airstrip was laid through a substantial segment of the henge.

By 1985, the runway had been removed and the surrounding area was being used for waste landfill and gravel extraction. Around this time, the landowner, the waste management company, and the Oxford Archaeological Unit were able to reach an agreement to preserve the site, which allowed the OAU to carry out further excavation work. Remarkably, further negotiations resulted in a plan to restore the monument to its former glory. Work began in March 2002 when the earthwork was rebuilt and the ditch excavated. It was decided that the beginning of the Roman period should be used as a basis for the restoration, as a full restoration would run the risk of destroying deeper-lying archaeology. The bank in its restored state rises to half its original height.

From the stone circle, three original stones were known to remain. A further five megaliths had been discovered during commercial work at the site, and these had been placed aside for preservation. Originally, the plan had been to mark the missing stones with concrete or wooden stumps, but locally quarried conglomerate stone was eventually sourced to replace them.

In October 2005, work began on re-erecting the circle. Care was taken to keep the reconstruction as authentic as possible, with consideration being given to the location of the original stones. Evidence suggested that the larger uprights may have been placed at the opposing entrances to the henge, and this information informed decisions regarding placement, with the hope being that the surviving stones may have been restored to their original positions. By 2008, all the stones were in place, and the site was opened to the public in September.

I visited this site in February 2010 with some slight trepidation. Photographs of the site painted an impressive picture, but this was still a restored monument that some might regard as a fake. There was also the consideration of the surrounding quarrying and landfill activities. Nevertheless, I remained cautiously excited.

The Devil's Quoit really lived up to my more optimistic expectations. The earthworks and circle are absolutely stunning. The scale of the monument is striking, and the sight of a complete circle within the henge visually compelling. I found it hard to hold in mind the fact that this monument was a reconstruction. It looks and feels utterly authentic - an impression much aided by the knowledge of the care taken during the process of restoration. Knowing that the positioning of the bank, trench and the stones is authentic makes it impossible to dismiss this monument as a modern conceit. It feels more like resurrection than a re-creation.

Much of the surrounding quarrying and waste management activities are shielded from view once inside the henge. Even where visible, they actually lend something to the atmosphere. The fact that this site survives at all is remarkable, and the incongruous setting enhances the sense of wonder. Additionally, despite the bleak intrusion of the modern world, the henge is also surrounded by beautiful countryside. The lake to the north-west offers a tranquil backdrop, and the constant calls of its diverse bird-life enrich the atmosphere of the quoit. Trees have also been planted at points surrounding the henge, and one can only imagine that the setting will be further improved in future years when these have matured. Overall, this is a really stunning site that deserves the highest recommendation.