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Also known as the Carles, and suggested by Burl (1995) to be one of the oldest stone circles in Europe, Castlerigg is considered by many to be the ancient site to visit in the Lake District, set as it is amongst the fells. Thirty-eight stones remain in the circle, of a possible forty-two originally. 

There is a definite entranceway to the north, and a strange rectangle of stones within the east of the circle, known as the ‘Sanctuary’, whilst the faint outline of a possible barrow remains in the north-east quadrant. Three cairns were reported within the circle in 1856, but nothing now remains of these. The only finds reported within the circle were three stone axes uncovered in the late 1800s. An excavation of the Sanctuary in 1882 discovered a 1m deep pit filled with earth, stones and  pieces of charcoal. 

The northern entrance stones
The Sanctuary

Thom (1967) has identified Castlerigg as one of the most important sites for archaeoastronomers, having conducted extensive research here. 

To the west of the field is an outlier stone, thought to have been previously buried as there is significant plough damage visible. The stone was placed in its present position in 1913.

Surprisingly for such an ancient site, neither Grinsell (1976) nor Rowling (1976) attach any specific folk-lore to the stones here.

The site is extremely popular with tourists, situated as it is just a short distance from the town of Keswick. A major attraction of the site is the extensive views of the surrounding fells. Many people have mentioned the coincidence of the shapes of the stones when compared to the hills on the horizon, many seeming to mirror the distant peaks:

“I’ll never get over the setting here. The circle itself is too spectacular and wonderful for words but is still completely overwhelmed by the natural beauty of the surrounding hills.”

Moth Clark on the Modern Antiquarian
Reflecting the horizon

Two and  half kilometres south of the village of Shap, emerging from a railway embankment lie the six remaining stones of Kemp Howe circle. Described in 1769 as a ‘large circle’, the monument was cut through in 1844 by the building of the railway. 

Kemp Howe circle, courtesy of Bing Maps

One really does have to wonder at the mindset of the engineers at that time! There has been a suggestion that some original stones may still lie under the embankment, but I feel this is unlikely as the granite blocks could well have been used for building rather than just being buried. But then why leave the others out in the open? A mystery to be solved in the distant future, courtesy of a 21st century Dr Beeching perhaps?

The stones are composed of a lovely pink granite, local to the area, but none of the stones are what could be called ‘upright’. There are many smaller boulders around the large stones, whether these are packing stones or detritus from the building of the railway is not clear. The stones form an arc some 25m width, giving an idea of the original size of the circle.

Angie Lake on the Megalithic Portal identified one of the remaining stones as mimicking a distant peak to the NW, which may or may not be a significant alignment from the circle.

Kemp Howe circle denotes the southern limit of the Shap Avenue – an alignment of stones, many of which have been removed or destroyed over the years,  covering a distance of nearly 3km which includes the impressive Goggleby Stone and the Thunderstone.

A view from the Kemp Howe circle looking north was sketched in 1775 by Lady Lowther, wife of the Earl of Lonsdale. There is a good description of the circle and avenue in the Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society (PDF) which suggests there was an even larger circle a short distance to the north – of which nothing now remains.

Next time, we’ll visit one of the ‘Hollywood’ sites of the region (of which there are many, it has to be said!)

Located just yards from the M6 it’s difficult to understand just how this double circle survived the motorway construction works. In 1844 the circle was in danger from construction of the Lancaster and Carlisle Railway line, but this never came to fruition as a different route was chosen. Just a couple of miles north of Shap on the other side of the motorway, Gunnerkeld is relatively remote and peaceful despite the traffic nearby, and lies on private ground. Permission must be sought to visit.

It is described thus in the Heritage Environment Records (HER):

Gunnerkeld concentric stone circle is located 200m south-west of Gunnerwell Farm on the top of a slight ridge. The monument includes an outer circle measuring c.30m north-south by 24m east-west of 19 large granite stones, three of which are upright and just over 1m tall. There is an entrance on the northern side of the outer circle between two of these large stones. Within the outer circle is an inner circle measuring c.18m north-south by 16m east-west of 31 granite stones. This inner circle forms the kerb of an earth and stone cairn up to 1m high. Limited antiquarian excavation of the central cairn located a stone cist.

The name may have Old Norse connections – ‘keld’ denotes a water source or spring and Gunnar is a known name, so ‘Gunnar’s Spring’. There is a small stream nearby, and there was a large Viking influence in the area in the mid to late Medieval period.

The vast majority of the stones in the outer circle are prostrate, and Dymond (1880) gave his opinion on these: 

The question arises, with respect to the prostrate stones. Were they originally erect, and have they been overthrown ? I have no hesitation in expressing my belief that they were never set up on end ; and, if so, these rings are of a type differing, perhaps of set purpose, from the true peristalith. 

The stones in the circles are a mix of red granite and limestone, and are all considered to be local glacial erratics in origin. Although notoriously difficult to date, Burl (1976) has assigned a likely construction date of c2900-2500BC to the Gunnerkeld circles. Waterhouse (1985) suggests that the inner circle may indicate a later reuse of an earlier circle for sepulchral use. The design at Gunnerkeld bears some resemblance to the Oddendale circle, some 3 miles to the south, whilst the dimensional ratios are very similar to those employed at Castlerigg.

We begin our look at the Cumbrian circles with one just across the border in Lancashire, that holds sad memories for me personally. 

Some 5km south of Ulverston, and just 0.5km from the coast, on the SE side of Birkrigg Common lies the Druid’s Circle. There are fine views from within the circle across Morecombe Bay.

The ‘circle’ is unusual in that it consists of two roughly concentric stone rings. The inner ring is some 8.5m across, and is made up of 12 stones. None of the stones are higher than 1m above ground level. The outer circle with a diameter of around 24m is much less distinct, composed of around 20 much smaller stones.

Excavations in 1911 identified that the area within the outer circle was paved with cobbles. Within the inner circle was a  second paved area, buried below the first.

Druid’s Circle plan, after Burl.

I visited this circle twice in 2005. The monument is easily accessible from the road, a fact which spoiled my first visit, around Midsummer. A family had set up camp, within the circle. Their van was parked within the outer circle along with their tent, and their family belongings were spread across the inner circle. Needless to say I didn’t stay, and in my naïveté failed to inform the authorities of the desecration. On my second visit in the October, the circle was clear, but there was a large bare patch in the centre with evidence of fire damage. Needless to say, the activities witnessed on both these occasions are highly irresponsible, and as the area is a scheduled monument, almost certainly illegal. 

Way back in the mists of time (2005!) I took a week’s holiday in the Lake District, and had my eyes opened to the plethora of prehistoric sites still remaining there. Of these, there are probably more stone circles than any other major monument type – over 50 (including cairn circles) have been recorded although I saw only a small proportion of those on my travels.

Screenshot courtesy of the Megalithic Portal

These circles date from the Neolithic through to the Bronze age, a period of over 1500 years. Generally speaking, the larger the circle and the larger the stones included, the earlier it is likely to be.

In 2011, we ran a short series here on the Journal, a ‘Focus on: Cornish Stone Circles’. Ten years on, a look at stone circles in other areas is well overdue, and so we shall be looking in the coming weeks at some of the stone circles of Cumbria, Lancashire and Westmorland that were visited during that trip sixteen years ago.

As well as our usual culprits for source material: the Megalithic Portal, the Modern Antiquarian and the Heritage Gateway, we’ll be using the following books for background material:

Stayed tuned…

Doll Tor, arguably the most picturesque stone circle of all, has been severely vandalised with at least one outlying stone uprooted to act as a seat and multiple fires set.

 

Stone circles are found all over the British Isles, singly (e.g. Avebury, Castlerigg, Swinside, The Rollrights) or in small groups (e.g. The Hurlers, Stanton Drew, the Tregeseal Circles or the circles at Lamorna). Often, one or more circles in a group may no longer be extant, but documentary evidence or other clues provide information as to the existence of the group.

When circles are grouped in this way, the individual circles are usually quite close to each other. However, there is one group of circles, in Devon, which are not necessarily intervisible but definitely can be considered as ‘grouped’. This group has been dubbed the ‘Sacred Crescent’ and sits to the northeast of the high ground of Dartmoor.

Seven circles are marked in red on the map above – Grey Wethers is a double circle, but in 2015, an eighth circle marked in blue was identified southwest of Sittaford Tor which extends the arc. Aubrey Burl reported the circles as ‘standing at intervals of a fairly consistent 2 kilometres’. As can be seen above, the level of consistency can be debated but the nature of the arc is undeniable.

Of course, the question to be asked is whether the placement of these circles is deliberate or random. The arc pattern contains 8 circles, of some 15 in the Dartmoor area – not counting cairn circles etc. This high proportion suggests ‘intelligent design’, but as many of the circles are not intervisible it’s difficult to imagine how the pattern could have been produced.

If any of our readers are intimately familiar with the area, it would be interesting to know if there are any candidate ‘clues’ as to other possible circles in the arc, either between the existing circles or extending either end of the pattern. Such clues could recumbent stones, appropriate clear level areas or even documentary evidence – a pattern of monuments, of which no trace exists, was once recorded close to the nearby Spinster’s Rock dolmen.

Back in 2010 we bemoaned the fact that so few prehistoric sites were in Britain’s tentative list for nomination as candidates for World Heritage status. So we suggested….

“If there aren’t going to be any specific prehistoric sites amongst the front runners, we’d probably support The Lake District – on the grounds that it includes many amazing prehistoric sites – and is anyway a marvellously strong contender for a host of other reasons as well.”

We’re delighted to say it made it! UNESCO has just announced The Lake District will be our new World Heritage Site. What with that and UNESCO formally telling Britain the short tunnel at Stonehenge is unacceptable it’s been a good week for heritage.

Sunkenkirk Stone Circle, Cumbria – (Image credit Tim Clark, Heritage Action)

As if to prove the theory that graffiti begets graffiti, one of the stones in the Nine Ladies of Stanton Moor has been carved into yet again. The damage was spotted on Wednesday by a local who has informed the Police.

May 2016 damage to a stone at Nine Ladies - Credit: Emma Gordon

May 2016 damage to a stone at Nine Ladies – Credit: Emma Gordon

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May 2016 damage to a stone at Nine Ladies – Credit: Emma Gordon

This is the third time in a couple of years this site has been targeted, yet again seemingly by an ignorant visitor to the site. Perhaps its time for the authorities to consider more proactive measures including cctv to stop such flagrant abuse.

The answer to our March Puzzle was ….

Mitchell’s Fold Stone Circle, Shropshire.

Congratulations to David Knell for the first correct identification (although his hypothesis that it was created “when a naughty witch was turned into stone for abusing a cow” is yet to be peer reviewed).

Full details of why some think the place is a fraud can be seen here

Look out for our April puzzle.

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