Castlerigg, a 5,000-year-old stone circle

Castlerigg stone circle, Cumbria

Castlerigg stone circle, Cumbria

There are a lot of stone circles in Cumbria; about 65, in fact. Some are huge1, and some are tiny2. Some have massive standing stones that can hardly be missed from miles away as long as you have an eye line1 and others are so stumpy that you could literally trip over them before you realise they’re not sleeping sheep3.

Cumbria’s most famous, and most visited stone circle is Castlerigg, which is a pleasant 11/2 mile walk or few minutes’ drive from the centre of Keswick. It’s often been said that it’s Castlerigg’s sublime location that makes it so beautiful; on a flat-topped hill, surrounded by serious mountains including Skiddaw, Blencathra, Helvellyn and Lonscale Fell. To one side, there are open views into one of the Lake District’s classic ‘u’-shaped valleys with picture-postcard patchwork fields, a white-washed farmhouse and speckling of mature trees.

Castlerigg is believed to be about 5,000 years old4. That’s amazing, isn’t it? It’s old, even for a stone circle.The circle is slightly squashed, with a diameter varying from 33m to 30m, but it seems pretty round to the visitor. As well as the circle outline, it has what we have always called ‘the porch’ on the south-east side; this is a rectangular shape of ten stones projecting into the circle.

Castlerigg, view south

Castlerigg, view south

Opinions vary about the number of stones. This may sound like nonsense – especially as stone circles across Britain are often associated with the story of uncountable stones5 – but it can be difficult to work out whether a ground-level stony bit is meant to be part of the circle. Sometimes it is, as it’s a stone that fell over a long time ago, and sometimes – and this seems to be the case at Castlerigg – it’s actually a smallish stone that was wedged against another to hold it upright when the circle was first built. The National Trust’s current story is that it has 40 stones (you’ll hear anything between 38 and 48).

We don’t really know why our ancestors built stone circles, but we can hazard a few guesses. Quite a few people have invested a lot of time in establishing links between stones, visual landmarks and significant solar and lunar events, as we all know from pictures of people greeting the midsummer sunrise at Stonehenge. Cumbria’s own Long Meg is aligned with the midwinter sunset. Alexander Thom established that the tallest stone at Castlerigg aligns with the mountain-top of Higg Rigg at Imbolc/Candlemas, with other links for midsummer and midwinter7. David Barrowclough reports a more recent theory that Castlerigg is a rare example of a circle aligned with lunar, rather than solar, cycles8.

We also know that locally-made Langdale hand axes are found at Cumbria’s northern stone circles. It is perhaps overstating things to suggest that stone circles were made as marketplaces for the hand axe trade, but they are certainly found there; three were unearthed at Castlerigg – when people were allowed to burrow around for their own amusement! – in the 18th and 19th centuries9. I’ve written more about Langdale hand axes in this post.

Castlerigg 1843

Castlerigg 1843

Castlerigg probably wasn’t used for burials. In 1882, an early reporter10 said there were the remains of three cairns in the circle, although these have since vanished. There was also a buried fire pit in the ‘porch’ area. It’s not unusual for cremated remains to be buried at stone circles – but  in the Bronze Age, long after the circles were originally erected.

Until relatively recently in Castlerigg’s long life, we didn’t think it had any ancient carvings, like the ones you see at Long Meg. But we were wrong. One day in late September, 1995, a young lady called Hannah Casement was visiting the circle just as the sun went down. To her amazement, ‘I glanced behind me at the stone, and saw that it appeared to be glowing orange and had this huge spiral coming out of the rock…11. Two students succeeded in photographing it later that year, in low winter sunlight, in the presence of a number of archaeologists. It’s definitely there, but virtually invisible without the finest equipment or the blessing of just the right natural light.

And this, just in case you need to be told, is the reason not to climb on neolithic monuments. How many more pairs of scrabbling walking boots would it have taken to render this carving invisible forever? Just don’t do it, folks. But I’ll see you there on September 22nd, 2012.

 ©Diane McIlmoyle 06.06.12

NB. Please don’t pinch my photos, or I’ll go and count the stones at Long Meg 🙂

Castlerigg Stone Circle’s page at English Heritage (it’s owned by the National Trust but managed by English Heritage).

  1. Long Meg. It’s about 100m in diameter.
  2. Little Meg. A third of a mile from Long Meg, and about 5m in diameter.
  3. Gamelands. It might have a large diameter (about 44m), but I really did think the stones were sheep.
  4. The Stone Circles of Cumbria by John Waterhouse (1985)
  5. In fact, if you succeed in counting the stones at Long Meg and her Daughters, you will find out that they are witches, turned to stone for dancing on the sabbath. You have been warned.
  6. Prehistoric Cumbria by David Barrowclough (2010), p101.
  7. As reported in The Stone Circles of Cumbria by John Waterhouse (1985), p97.
  8. Prehistoric Cumbria by David Barrowclough (2010), p131.
  9. As reported in Prehistoric Rock Art in Cumbria by Stan Beckensall (2002), p71.
  10. As reported in Prehistoric Rock Art in Cumbria by Stan Beckensall (2002), p71.
  11. Prehistoric Rock Art in Cumbria by Stan Beckensall (2002), p70.
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23 thoughts on “Castlerigg, a 5,000-year-old stone circle

  1. It’s curious that there is a large stone avenue/complex at Shap, and at Gamelands at Orton, both on the limestone, but nothing obvious on the fell land immediately to the south-east, although there is an abundance of rounded granite erratics. Once, out driving my Fell pony, I met some people who had gathered to “feel the influence of the stones” at Gamelands – but when I thought about it I had to admit, I’ve never experienced even a twitch from my horses about any stone circle. Of course, we could just be very prosaic Cumbrians in that respect.

  2. Funnily enough, Sue, I once met somebody who led a dowsing group out to Gamelands – perhaps it was the same one!

    The set-up at Shap is quite something, given the avenue. It’s surprising it hasn’t gained more attention, but then people have only recently started saying that Mayburgh Henge/King Arthur’s Round Table was probably a major centre at the time. Perhaps we should be grateful, given the tourist merry-go-round at Stonehenge.

    People who ‘do’ these things say that some stone circles have more energy than others. Personally, I love Long Meg, and it’s hard to say why. I like the connection with the people who carved the stone, and I like the location. Or perhaps the witches are whispering in my ear 🙂

    Thanks for coming over.

  3. Brilliant information and good to know, thank you very much very interesting. I do like doing the walk up from Keswick only a couple of minutes from the streets and your in the lovely forest. Keep ’em coming. 🙂
    Christine

  4. I love the peace and beauty of Castlerigg. I’m due to be in Keswick for 22 September, so I may see you there in and amongst the stones!

    • Hurrah! Let’s hope for a good sunset so that we can catch that rare glimpse of 5,000-year-old art!

      It is a cracking place, but then quite a few of Cumbria’s stone circles are pretty impressive.

      Thanks for coming over!

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  6. We went to Castlerigg a couple of years ago and got a really lovely photo of it with a rainbow behgind it. The surroundings are beautiful, there’s something very magical about the whole area. REading this makes me want to go back and wait for the right light. I’d love to visit some of the others too.

    Great post, thank you 🙂

    • It is great, isn’t it, Tracy? I can see we’ll all end up at Castlerigg at the end of September!

      I really like Long Meg, too, but then it’s very near to where I live and a bit less over-run by visitors. Swinside is another one that people particularly enjoy. But there are loads 🙂

      Thank you very much for coming over!

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  8. Hi Diane, you know somebody some time ago went to Castlerigg, and failed to see the barrows within it. He wrote that they had gone, and that piece of wisdom has been copied and repeated ever since. It’s not true. They are small (maybe 2m across, or slightly larger), but are still quite visible if you make a little effort to seek them out. I have a photo I took of the clearest one a few years ago. I enjoy reading your posts, keep it up! Patrick.

    • That’s interesting! I’d heard that someone once said that there were ‘barrows’ there, too, but given that farmers hereabouts have been dumping soil and inconvenient boulders inside stone circles for a couple of hundred years, I didn’t get too excited about that observation. I shall make an effort to look more closely next time – I guess I could try now whilst grass is growing fast or hope that we get a very dry phase, when it’s easier to see that there’s something under the surface.

      This is one of the many funny things about stone circles – because they are so ancient and dramatic, we assume that they’ve been archaeologised to death, when in fact, these northern circles generally haven’t been much looked at since the early days of the antiquarian adventurer. Thank you so much for coming over – and for the juicy information! 🙂

      • Actually, you might have a better chance when the grass is cropped by the cows. The most obvious barrow still has a clearly defined ditch – not just a cropmark. It’s right next to the ‘cove’. If you want a copy of the photo to help you find it, I’ll send you one.

        • Brilliant – I will check it over!

          If you were able to email the pic (lowest res would be great – I’m on BT’s incredibly slow internet service 😦 ) that would be ace. esmeraldamac @ btinternet.com

          [edit. @6pm: Patrick kindly emailed the pic. There’s definitely something there. I feel a trip coming on!]

  9. Interesting post. We recently visited the Druid’s Circle, at Birkrigg Common (another limestone area), near Ulverston, which is a double circle, but quite small, (the stones themselves and the diameter of the ring) and very weathered, and it is extraordinarily difficult to count stones. As you say, it is not clear whether some of them (especially in the outer ring) are part of the circle, or just random rocks. Perhaps next year we’ll see Castlerigg…

    • Well done for making it to one of the lesser-known circles! They certainly vary a lot in scale and diameter and the only one that looks like Stonehenge is… Stonehenge (which seems to surprise a lot of people!). As well as Castlerigg, I’d recommend Long Meg stone circle, east of Penrith. It’s one of the largest (in diameter) stone circles in England and the actual stones are quite hefty, too. It also has an outlying stone – the one we call ‘Long Meg’ herself (there’s a witch story!), which is about 9 feet high. Ya can’t miss it 🙂

      Thanks for coming over.

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