Last Photographed: Wednesday 11th July 2007
Other Names: The Dancing Stones, Dans Maen
The Merry Maidens is a perfect circle consisting of nineteen evenly spaced granite stones (all around 1.2 meters high) approximately 23.8 meters in diameter. It was restored in the 1860s, at which time three of its stones were re-erected.
The Merry Maidens are known locally by their Cornish name - 'Dans Maen' ('The Dancing Stones'). This name derives from a typical origin myth, which tells how 19 maidens were distracted on their way to church by the music of two pipers playing in a field. They abandoned the Sabbath and took to dancing, only to be struck by a thunderbolt and turned forever to stone. The two musicians were similarly struck, and a pair of stones known as "The Pipers" can be found in a field a quarter of a mile away.
The Merry Maidens are often referred to as a 'complete' circle, and if the gap in the Eastern perimeter is assumed to be an entrance rather than a missing stone, then this may well be the case. That would mark the site out as one of particular note, since complete stone circles are something of a rarity. It's certainly the best preserved circle in Cornwall.
I was pleasantly surprised by the Merry Maidens. Their relative fame had led to me imagining droves of tourists coming and going in regular waves. In reality, we found the site to be reasonably quiet. During our visit, their were a few other people who came and went, but none stayed for long. I was quite happy with having a few minutes here and there to photograph the circle in an empty field.
My reaction to the Merry Maidens was mixed. I wasn't keen on the proximity to the road - but then the road was quiet. I guess I'm a bit of a 'seclusion snob' and prefer my circles to require a little effort to find. The setting also left a little to be desired, but although the field and the surrounding views were bland, there was nothing inherently displeasing about the landscape. And somehow the perfection of the stones detracted from their antiquity - why is it that we find ruins more romantic?
And yet despite these niggles, I still found myself connecting with the circle. Even with the proximity of the road, there's something about being in Cornwall that makes me feel constantly isolated from the rest of society. The whole of the county feels secluded to me!
While the setting can indeed be described as bland, it's also on some level unspoilt. Yes, it's still an agricultural landscape - not the uncompromising wilderness of Dartmoor - but it's still pleasing to be surrounded by so much greenery with little sign of the modern world in evidence.
And while the perfection of the circle can be slightly distracting, it's still a pleasure to see a stone circle that's survived in such remarkably good shape. If you stare for long enough at the stones, you can almost see the circle start to gyrate before your eyes - at which point it becomes easy to understand where all the connections between stones and dancing come from. Especially when fuelled by local cider!
Overall, I think the Merry Maidens is the most conflicted stone circle I've visited. It'd be easy to be under-whelmed, but equally easy to be enchanted. It's very much a circle where you'll take away with you that which you bring. Personally, I loved the place. I'm sure my antisocial nature would have reacted differently if I'd found the site to be particularly busy, but as it was, I came away with happy memories. There's something innocent and untroubled about these stones that really won me over.