Two weeks ago I mentioned I was on holiday. Well, I’m back from Guernsey with a rather lovely stone circle to show you. Here you go:
Located in the extreme south west of Guernsey on the Pleinmont headland, it’s popularly known as the Pleinmont Fairy Ring, and there are many superstitions surrounding it. If you run round it three times and make a wish, it is supposed to come true (see here, for instance, under “coastal walks”). It is also reputed to have links with witches, as a meeting place, and elves (see here). You might be wondering what such a stone circle has to do with this blog, given that there are few obvious links between stone circles and transport, at least until such time as archaeologists finally give in and admit that Stonehenge is actually the remains of an early grade-separated roundabout…
This particular ring, however, has a lot to do with transport.
Despite the legends which surround it, and its faerie name, it is not nearly as ancient as it appears, although it is still pretty old by the standards of this blog. Its function is also rather more mundane than you might expect. It is actually – wait for it – a picnic table for highway engineers. Yes, really. It’s one of the most charming and picturesque examples of road management infrastructure I have ever come across and so is thoroughly deserving of a place in this blog. It’s in an absolutely super spot, too:
Its proper name is the Table des Pions. No-one is exactly sure when it was built, but it is thought to be in the late 1700s or early 1800s. It’s connected to the ceremony of the Chevauchée, a three-yearly inspection of the condition of Guernsey’s coastal defences and highways. This was carried out by a lot of high-ranking officials along their footmen, who were called “Pions”. Pleinmont was the point where the procession stopped for lunch. While the high-ranking officials had their (presumably) sumptuous banquets in their tents, the Pions had to make do with sitting on the ground. That wasn’t very comfy, so they built an earthen picnic table for themselves where they could take their refreshments. To demonstrate the concept in action, that’s exactly what this tourist is doing here, stopping for a drink of water on a walk along Guernsey’s southern coast (yes, all right, you’ve caught me out – the tourist is me):
The Chevauchée began no later than 1530, as that is when the first record of it can be found. So for around 300 years, the poor Pions must have just plonked themselves on the ground any old how to eat their lunches. I expect they all got indigestion. What the stones around the outside of the Table des Pions are for I have no idea, and nobody else seems willing to advance any theories either. I’m going to wildly speculate that they are the 18th Century version of “Mind the Gap” signs, designed to draw attention to the fact that there’s a ruddy great circular trench in the ground, just waiting to trip up the unobservant walker.
The Chevauchée last took place on an official basis in 1837, but there have been several re-enactments of the ceremony since. Where the alleged connections with witches, the faerie folk, and wishes being granted have come from is not entirely clear. I like to think that transport infrastructure is pretty magical, but that’s just me. It’s more likely the fact that there’s something slightly weird about man-made circles in the landscape, be they stone circles or earthen banks and ditches. The earliest ones represent humans’ very first attempts to impose constructed order upon the world. More modern ones tap into these dimly-felt ancient memories and accrete myths and legends without really meaning to. In this, rings and stone circles are similar to a lot of transport infrastructure, which is also an attempt to tame the world, and which attracts a cultural significance far beyond the mere bricks and mortar, or steel and glass, from which it is made.
Leaving aside the faerie folk and returning to the world of transport, the mindset of such careful inspection of the condition of Guernsey’s roads seems to have become ingrained on the island, even if the Chevauchée no longer takes place. Guernsey has some of the best maintained roads I have ever seen, and they are a credit to the States of Guernsey Government’s highways service. That’s magic of a different sort.
how to find the Table des Pions
Bibliography and further reading
Sources linked to above, plus…
Factsheet by the States of Guernsey Government’s Department of Culture and Leisure, here
A BBC interview about the site, via this webpage