Mother goddess, Tigh Nam Bodach, Perthshire
In a remote location beyond Loch Lyon (seven miles west of Cashlie in Glen Lyon), a twice-yearly seasonal ritual has taken place at the shrine of Tigh Nam Bodach since time immemorial. A low, turf-roofed stone structure houses a number of river-worn stones of vaguely humanoid shape, and these are brought out and placed in front of the shrine on Beltane (1 May). There they stand and keep watch over the land until they are returned to the shrine’s interior at Samhain (1 November) for the winter. The figures are said to represent the Bodach (“old man”) and the Cailleach, the Celtic crone goddess who presides over the land and brings the changing seasons. Open all year and free to access.
Arthur, legendary hero, Cadbury Castle, Somerset
The ancient hillfort known as Cadbury Castle – 500 metres from South Cadbury village – is believed by many to be the site of King Arthur’s legendary Camelot. Archaeologists have confirmed that the iron age hillfort was reoccupied and the defences strengthened sometime in the fifth or sixth century, when the historical Arthur is thought to have lived. His legend is still embedded in modern culture, and a few believers insist he never really died. Some say Cadbury Castle is where Arthur and his court lie in magical sleep in a hidden cavern beneath the hill, ready to awake and return at the hour of Britain’s greatest need. Freely accessible all year round.
A place of healing, Menacuddle Well, Cornwall
Among ornamental gardens on the outskirts of St Austell (400 metres north of the railway bridge on the B3274), Menacuddle Well sits beside a river and tranquil waterfall. The medieval stone well house is held to contain healing water in a deep stone trough, and the water flows freely around the well through shallow stone channels. Sick children and those afflicted with ulcers came here to be cured, and bent pins were thrown into the waters for divination and to bring good fortune. Its name is derived from maen-a-coedl which means “the hawk’s stone”. The well still has a magical atmosphere, enhanced by the ribbons and crystals hung around by visitors and pilgrims seeking healing. Freely accessible all year round.
Water spirits, Llyn Barfog, Gwynedd
In a remote spot in the hills above the Dyfi estuary, Llyn Barfog is said to have been home to the Afanc, a water monster that rampaged through the area, killing livestock, until it was eventually dispatched by King Arthur. He dragged it from the lake using magical chains, and some say he killed it, while others claim he took it to Cadair Idris and released it into the waters of Llyn Cau. A stone beside a footpath leading to Llyn Barfog bears a hoof print made by King Arthur’s horse during his fierce battle with the Afanc and is known as Carn March Arthur. The lake is reached by a one-mile trail from Happy Valley Road car park, 1.8 miles north of Aberdovey.
Celtic saints, Nevern churchyard, Pembrokeshire
The churchyard at Nevern is famous for both its ancient carved stones and its marvellous “bleeding” yew tree. Beside the church stands a four-metre-high Celtic cross entirely covered in intricate knotwork designs in a Scandinavian style. It dates from the 10th or 11th century and is sometimes known as Saint Brynach’s Stone. There is a legend that on Saint Brynach’s Day (7 April) the first cuckoo of spring would land on top of the stone and sing, and mass could not be held on the saint’s day until this had occurred. Saint Brynach was an Irish saint who is said to have floated over to Wales on a stone. The bleeding yew tree oozes red sap that looks like blood; one of many legends says a monk who was hanged from the tree cursed it to bleed for him. The tree is in an avenue of yews that forms a green tunnel leading to the church door.
Dropped by clumsy giants, Stiperstones, Shropshire
Rising above a windswept expanse of moorland, the Stiperstones form a long, jagged ridge of rocks, the highest of which is called the Devil’s Chair. It is here that a giant, or some say the devil, sat down to rest while carrying an apron-load of stone from Ireland. As he stood up again the apron strings broke and scattered the boulders, which still lie all over the hill. Another pile of stones forming a cairn was said to have been dropped by a giantess who later tried to carry some of the stones away. The stones lie two miles east of Pennerley on the Shropshire Way.
Animate stones, Bowerman’s Nose, Devon
The imposing granite stack known as Bowerman’s Nose has the air of an ancient megalithic idol as it gazes out over the landscape towards Hameldown Tor. Standing on Hayne Down, a mile south-west of Manaton village, its appearance is so unnatural that it was believed by some to have been created by the druids. Its base is almost perfectly square, while on top of the column is a grim “face” that appears to be wearing a cap. Local legend offers an alternative origin for this monumental stone: a hunter named Bowerman offended a coven of witches by disrupting their ceremony while chasing a hare (who was actually a witch in disguise). In revenge they turned the hunter into stone, and his dogs became the rocks of Hound Tor.
Norse and Anglo-Saxon myth, Wayland’s Smithy, Oxfordshire
The neolithic chambered long barrow known as Wayland’s Smithy was once thought to be home to an invisible blacksmith of legendary skill. The entrance is concealed in a small copse – just off the ancient neolithic track called the Ridgeway, one mile east of Ashbury, close to the Uffington White Horse – and is marked by a row of huge megaliths that hide a small stone chamber and a long, low mound stretching away behind. It was widely believed that the forge of Wayland the Smith, an Anglo-Saxon demigod of unsurpassed skill in metalworking, was in the barrow. Freely accessible all year round.
Fertility gap, Traprain Law, East Lothian
The rocky volcanic outcrop known as Traprain Law, 1½ miles south of East Linton village in Lothian, stands out starkly from the surrounding landscape. It was once the capital of the Romano-British kingdom of Gododdin and has been an important ritual centre since neolithic times. It is crowned by an iron age hillfort and on the very summit is a rocky outcrop from which a slice of rock has broken away, leaving a narrow gap. This is the Maiden Stone and squeezing into the gap is said to confer fertility and good fortune on any young woman who passes through it while touching both sides. Freely accessible all year round.
Wishes and divination, Fairy Steps, Cumbria
Cut into the rocks on the edge of Whin Scar’s plateau, a mile south-west of Beetham in Underlaid Wood, a set of steep stone steps ascends a narrow cleft. These are said to be haunted by the fairies who have been seen running up and down them. They will grant a wish to anyone who manages to walk up or down this narrowest of staircases without touching the sides – a task that is near impossible for all but the “little people”! The Fairy Steps are reached by an ancient trackway that passes through the twisted trees and limestone pavement formations of Whin Scar near Beetham village.
This is an edited extract from Magical Britain – 650 Enchanted and Mystical Sites by Rob Wildwood, published by Wild Things at £18.99; available to Guardian readers at a 20% discount and free P&P with code Guardian22