by Katharine Range
Castlerigg Stone Circle, near Keswick in Cumbria, is one of the most beautiful stone circles in Britain. It stands on a superb natural plateau commanding a panoramic 360 degree view over the surrounding fells. The slightly oval-shaped ring is among the earliest raised in Britain; about 3000 BC during the Neolithic period. To give a bit of context, this was slightly after the construction date of Newgrange in Ireland, thought to be about 3200 BC and about the same time as the earliest phase of Stonehenge; several hundred years prior to the structure we know today. Cumbria is rich in the stone circle department, having some 50 in number which range from the dramatic, large circles, such as Castlerigg at just over 32 metres, to the diminutive Castlehowe Scar at just 7 metres. There are 38 stones in a circle approximately 30 metres in diameter. Within the ring is a rectangle of a further 10 standing stones. The tallest stone is 2.3 metres high. They are all un-hewn boulders, although some have fallen in the 5000 years since they were raised. It has been estimated there were originally around 41 stones, so Castlerigg is relatively well preserved when compared with other circles in the British Isles.
Castlerigg Stone Circle was one of the first sites to be covered under the Ancient Monuments Protection Act in 1888 and in 1913 it was acquired by the National Trust through the efforts of Canon Rawnsley. The circle was first brought to public notice in 1725 by the antiquarian William Stukeley, who recorded that the circle was “very entire, consisting of 50 stones, some very large.” But in 1849, in his Guide To The Lakes, Jonathan Otley reported the current 38 stones. The original purpose of the site is unknown. It could have been used as a trading post. Three stone axes have been discovered inside the circle. In the Neolithic period axes were made from volcanic stone quarried in the fells. Current thinking has linked Castlerigg with the Neolithic Langdale Axe industry in the nearby Langdale fells: the circle may have been a meeting place where these axes were traded or exchanged. Ritually deposited stone axes have been found all over Britain, suggesting that their uses went far beyond their practical capabilities. Exchange or trading of stone axes may not have been possible without first taking part in a ritual or ceremony.
Other possible uses include a meeting place for tribal gatherings, a site for religious ceremonies and rituals or even an astronomical observatory. It is important to archaeo astronomers who have noted that the sunrise during the Autumn equinox appears over the top of Threlkeld Knott, a hill 3.5 km to the east. Some stones in the circle have been aligned with the midwinter sunrise and various lunar positions.
Excavations in the inner ring in 1882 provided very little in the way of archaeological finds, although quantities of charcoal were discovered. What subsequently happened to the samples of charcoal is unknown, other than they are now likely to be lost or, if not, too contaminated to be worth modern scientific analysis. Nevertheless, Dover’s excavation is the only one to have been carried out at Castlerigg. A wide space to the Northern end of the circle, framed by two large stones may have served as an entrance to the site. In the early 20th century, a single outlying stone was erected by a farmer approximately 90m to the south west of Castlerigg. This stone has many linear ‘scars’ along its side from being repeatedly struck by a plough, suggesting that it was once buried below the surface and also why the farmer dug it up. It is not possible to say whether this stone was originally part of the circle, or just a naturally deposited boulder.
There is a legend that it is impossible to count the stones of Castlerigg; that each attempt will result in a different answer. However as with most legends, there is a small kernel of truth here. Over the years, smaller stones have “appeared” next to the larger ones.This is due to erosion of the soil around the stones through time and visitation by we humans. These stones seem to be “packing” stones, used to support the large stones when the circle was erected and would have been buried originally.
Another story involves one well-documented sighting of a strange light phenomena. In 1919, a Mr. T. Singleton and a companion watched as white orbs travelled slowly over the stones. Strange lights are a recurring theme at many ancient sites all over the world and may well have been one of the reasons our ancestors built monuments in specific places. Although there is plenty of speculation, it is thought to be most probable that they are caused by natural processes related to fault lines.
It has been noted that many of the stones of Castlerigg seem to reflect features in the surrounding hills, as though the landscape site is an interplay between the sacred space and the landscape beyond. Although open to criticism, it seems as though there are many features at Castlerigg that still have to be examined in the context of how ancient man would have experienced the site.
I have to remind myself, somewhat enviously, that ancient man was so much more in tune and aware of what was around him in nature. Even though he could master it, he was still part of it. Today most of us have no concept of that, caught up as we are as to whether we remembered to “check in” on Facebook while visiting Starbucks or Castlerigg. When I visit somewhere as breathtaking as Castlerigg, I am humbled. And this for me, is the heart of why these sites should be protected and cared for as most precious.