The Longstone, on downland above the tiny village of Mottistone, Isle of Wight, has as many moods as there are days in each year, in the perpetual cycle of death and rebirth that plays out here around the ever-turning wheel of each year, over which it has watched since Neolithic times.
Probably the oldest and finest sacred site on the Island as well as one of the most southerly in England, The Longstone is the remains of a long barrow with one 12ft stone remaining upright and another fallen, altar-like, at its feet. Archaeologists believe that the two stones, of local greensand, were the original uprights at the revetted entrance to the great barrow mound, now mostly organically assimilated back into the lovely sculpted downland landscape. The fallen stone is reputed to have been moved by a local squire, curious to see what was underneath, although he found nothing.
The Longstone faces the rising sun in the East and at its back are the now near-flattened remains of the chamber and its perimeter ditch, excavated in 1956 when Neolithic pottery remains were discovered. Round bowl, bell and disc barrows of different periods dot the hillsides above, where rises Five Barrows Down (although, in fact, a total of eight barrows are to be found there).
It seems certain that the village of Mottistone with its picturesque ancient manor, an enchanting short walk down through a gorgeous dell-dappled bluebell wood and with lovely gardens occasionally open to the public, was named from The Longstone and its time-honoured use as a place of solemn community meeting and perhaps, also, of judgment. The Old English motere means public speaker and a mot (or moot) was a meeting so it seems likely this was an important meeting place and the site itself, the local speaker’s stone.
The ancient Brythonic Druids are believed to have met at The Longstone, the most central of their Island sites, before their banishment farther North and West. In Roman days it is claimed to have been a widely-renowned centre of the military Mithras bull-worship cult, visited from near and far. And the Saxons and Jutes who later dominated the area are also believed to have used the site as their local parliament. Through the Dark Ages, it also played an important part as a sacred place of meeting and counsel for the Island.
Today, Pagans are drawn to this spot at each festival and many handfastings and rites of passage are celebrated here. One local Morris side has a regular fixture at The Longstone and simply turns up annually at dawn, unadvertised, with its traditional barrel of beer, its delightful music and dance, to pay its own particular form of homage.
Although not directly under threat and only a couple of hundred yards from an isolated National Trust-owned cottage, the site is beginning to suffer from erosion to its sandy soil from its many thousands of annual visitors and the stones themselves from damage to their age-old lichen, as a result of being climbed and clambered on by the misguided. Offerings are almost always to be seen on or around the stones, usually mercifully biodegradable but sometimes regrettably not.
The greatest tribute a visitor can pay to this beautiful and unique sacred site is to tread gently and to respect the sanctity of the stones, leaving The Longstone exactly as they found it – and might perhaps hope to find it if, or when, visiting again, in this or another lifetime.
- Maurice Paul Bower