On holidays and walks with my partner and our adventurous little girl, we often wonder these things out loud as we search for treasures and immerse ourselves in nature for a few hours. Visiting ancient sites offers an intriguing and tangible window on to the past which you just won’t find in any classroom - one which teaches children and grown-ups alike that sophisticated societies inhabited the British Isles long before the Celts, Vikings or Romans arrived. Learning about how past cultures observed earth energies and the cycles of the sun, moon and stars fosters a sense of our relationship to nature, highlights how quickly the world is changing and shows our responsibilities as caretakers of the planet. The atmosphere at some sites can also be quite moving, and always leaves me with a renewed sense of meaning and connection, which remains long after I return home. Luckily there are scores of prehistoric monuments scattered all around the UK, but here are a few of my personal favourites:
Just off the north coast of mainland Scotland, this vast World Heritage Site has something for everyone and lies in a spectacular natural setting among lochs, hills and the wild sea. Kids can scamper in and out of the surprisingly modern houses in the prehistoric village at Skara Brae, which lies next to the white sandy beach of the Bay of Skaill, and take in the magnificent Ring of Brodgar stone circle which feels, as it sounds, like a scene from Lord of the Rings. Entry to the chambered cairn at Maeshowe, a ritual monument which is perfectly aligned with the sun at the winter solstice, is by tour only (to book call Scottish Heritage on 01856 761606) and budding archaeologists will jump at the chance to visit an exciting real-life dig at the Ness of Brodgar, open from 8 July until 26 August, where ongoing excavations are changing how we understand Neolithic culture.
Where to stay: The authentic, sustainably built crofts at Orkney Crofts are located on an accessible part of the west mainland of Orkney; yoga and tai chi are also offered here for adults. From £325 per week.
Stonehenge and Avebury
Think of an ancient site and chances are an image of Stonehenge will pop up! It’s a cliché, but one which still captivates the imagination when you consider that the construction is estimated to have taken more than 30 million hours of labour to complete. Stonehenge forms part of a much larger, and highly complex, sacred landscape which is thought to have evolved over 5000 or more years. Over several days out in the UNESCO World Heritage Site it’s possible to wonder at the enormity of Avebury, the largest Neolithic henge monument in the world, to enjoy a picnic from the top of Iron Age hill fort Old Sarum, to explore the eerie ancestral burial chambers of West Kennet Long Barrow and to marvel at the size and mystery of the perfectly circular Silbury Hill, the largest man-made mound in Europe. The area is also well known for its crop circles during the summer months: man-made or otherwise, I always think they add to the mystical feel of the area.
Where to stay: Lower Shaw Farm in Wiltshire offers eco-friendly accommodation on an organic farm along with activities for the whole family, from yoga and crafts to cookery and circus skills. From £27 per night. 01793 711080
You are never too far from an ancient monument or settlement in Cornwall, and most sites are easily accessible for families. Wander the wild beauty of Bodmin Moor - keeping an eye out for its fabled beast - and discover three great stone circles known as The Hurlers, thought to have once formed part of an important processional route. The nearby Trevethy Quoit, a Bronze Age portal tomb, is known locally as ‘The Giant’s house’ for obvious reasons! Further west into the Penwith peninsula, local legend has it that if you climb through the peculiar holed stone of Men-an-tol nine times at sunset, all your ills will be magically cured. The impressive chambered tombs of Lanyon Quoit and Chun Quoit are just a few hundred metres away. As well as megaliths, Cornwall is famous for its sacred wells: Madron Well is the best known but in my opinion, the lesser-visited Sancreed Well, where you can hang votive wishes at the wishing tree, is the most enchanting.
Where to stay: Bosniver Farm offer regular ‘Wild Kids’ sessions and cost from £400 per week. 01726 72128
The island of Anglesey is home to two impressive chambered tombs, Barclodiad y Gawres with its unique spiral carvings, and Bryn Celli Ddu, meaning ‘mound in the dark grove’, which is perfectly aligned with the sunrise on the midsummer solstice. It’s possible to enter the womb-like, domed structures - but remember to bring a torch! Also on Anglesey, the Din Lligwy Ancient Village, found on a limestone plateau in a grove of trees, is well worth a visit. Nearby Snowdonia National Park is a treasure trove of ancient landmarks: bronze age cairn Bryn Cader Faner and Iron Age hill fort Tre’r Ceiri are two of the most stunning, but note that walking to them is only suitable for older, more confident children. Always check the weather forecast first.
Where to stay: Bryn Elltyd is a carbon neutral eco-guesthouse in Snowdonia National Park and is well placed for exploring North Wales. From £40 per night. 01766 831356
Set in a natural amphitheatre surrounded by mountains, hills and fells, Castlerigg is one of Britain’s finest and best preserved stone circles. Catching this scene at sunset in fine weather is a once in a lifetime experience; perhaps you’ll even be lucky enough to see the glowing white ball of light which is reported to have been spotted floating above the stones. About 40 minutes drive from Castlerigg, Britain’s third largest stone circle, Long Meg, is steeped in local folklore - it’s said to be impossible to count all of its stones and arrive at the same number more than once.
Where to stay: Inside Out Camping offers luxury camping in yurts and bell tents in the heart of the Lake District National Park. From £285 for a mid-week break. 07791 184271
READ Julian Cope’s book The Modern Antiquarian is a thorough text on the ancient sites of prehistoric Britain.
Caroline is a writer and mum-who lives close to the Sussex Downs. She blogs at talesfromtheseed.wordpress.com