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.
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.
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.
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.English history • prehistoric sites