In Search of the Stone Circles of Cumbria

Castlerigg Stone Circle, Cumbria - www.worldwidewriter.co.uk
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It was one of those lucky mistakes. We’d got tangled up in the one way system through Keswick and ended up on the wrong road. We were about to turn back when I spotted a sign for Castlerigg Stone Circle. A stone circle? In Cumbria? We had to change our plans and go and have a look.

Castlerigg Stone Circle, Cumbria - www.worldwidewriter.co.uk
Castlerigg, one of the many stone circles of Cumbria

Thousands of Stone Circles

Of course I was familiar with the stone circles of Stonehenge and Avebury. And I thought there were one or two others in Britain. But I later discovered that there were once about 4,000 of these circles across the British Isles and Brittany, in northern France. And that around 1,300 of them are still standing, including fifty-odd in Cumbria.

Most of these monuments were built by farming communities in the Neolithic era or in the early Bronze Age. We don’t know their exact purpose but they are thought to have been seasonal gathering places or sites for religious rituals. In Cumbria particularly many of the circles are on high ground, or at places where tracks would have converged, making them suitable for meetings or the exchange of goods. But there may have been another function: sites such as Castlerigg appear to have had their stones carefully positioned for alignment to the sun, moon and stars.

Castlerigg Stone Circle

We arrived at Castlerigg in the late afternoon, when the sun was already starting to sink behind the mountains. This made the scene even more dramatic, a perfect ring of stones on a plateau surrounded by hills. Tourists have been flocking here since the 18th century, when the stones were first recorded by the antiquarian William Stukely. The poets Wordsworth and Coleridge visited in 1799, but reported that they had been “disappointed by the crowds”. Popular interest in Castlerigg continued to the extent that visitors eventually had to be stopped from chipping bits from the stones to take home as souvenirs! And it continues to attract visitors today, particularly around the time of the winter and summer solstices.

Castlerigg Stone Circle, Cumbria - www.worldwidewriter.co.uk
The Sanctuary (marked) is a small rectangle of stones within the circle

This is one of the oldest stone circles in Britain, about 4,500 years old. The circle consists of thirty-eight stones and there are a further ten stones forming a small rectangle inside the circle. These extra stones, known as The Sanctuary, were probably added later for an unspecified purpose. Apart from the astronomical features, there is a theory that Castlerigg was used for the sale or exchange of axes (there was a nearby axe production site in Neolithic times). Axes were dangerous instruments and it may have been necessary to incorporate some form of ritual into any exchange.

Other Stone Circles of Cumbria

Of course, not all of Cumbria’s stone circles are as spectacular as Castlerigg. Two others – Swinside and Long Meg – are complete circles, but many others are damaged or incomplete. One of them – Kemp Howe – even had a mainline railway built right through its centre.

Elva Plain stone circle, Cumbria - www.worldwidewriter.co.uk
The Elva Plain circle is interesting but not as spectacular as Castlerigg

We had a limited timescale so we only managed one other circle on this trip. This was Elva Plain, a rather less impressive group of stones in the middle of a farmer’s field (seen at a distance and through the mist!). In fact, it is likely that accessibility is one reason why the Cumbrian circles are less visited and, in consequence, lesser known than sites such as Stonehenge. The area is full of narrow, winding roads, making it impossible for tourist coaches to reach the stones. Another reason is the notorious Lake District weather: mists, rain and muddy footpaths do not always encourage large numbers of tourists. But for those who are willing to make the effort there are some fascinating places to explore.



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12 thoughts on “In Search of the Stone Circles of Cumbria”

  1. The Stone Circles of Cumbria sound like places that are valuable as much for the journey to get there as for the things themselves! I love those windy, narrow roads, where every turn reveals a new surprise.

  2. I am so fascinated by these installations and regret that we don’t know more about the reasoning and beliefs behind their placement. We stumbled on one such ring in Ireland outside Lough Gur, with contented cows munching all around it. The Stone Circles of Cumbria appear to be similarly off the beaten path. It’s so enjoyable when you have such places to yourselves. 🙂

  3. If accessibility makes the Cumbrian stone circles less visited, perhaps they will also stay better preserved? I recently drove past Stonehenge and tourists can no longer get very close to those stones.

    1. I have mixed feelings about this one – it’s true that there weren’t many people at Castlerigg, but some of the ones who were there were climbing on the stones. But I suppose they’ve survived thousands of years of weathering and mistreatment by tourists! And I’d rather go to Castlerigg than Stonehenge any day.

    1. You’re right – they were long before people began writing anything down (or anything that we know about anyway). So we’re always going to be left guessing to some extent.

  4. This is great inspiration to visit the Lake District and see more stone circles, in particular Castlerigg. It looks amazing. Now I just have to find Cumbria! (I’d never heard of this region.)

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About Karen

WorldWideWriter is owned and managed by Karen Warren. I have been writing and travelling for many years (almost 60 countries at the last count). I’ve visited every continent except Antarctica (I still hope to get there one day…), and my current favourite destinations are Italy, Spain and North America. This website is my attempt to inform and inspire other travellers, and to share some of the things I’ve discovered along the way.

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