Castlerigg Stone Circle is probably the best-known prehistoric stone circle in North West England, perched on the slopes to the east of Keswick inside the Lake District National Park. We will probably never know what our ancestors were doing, building these things. Perhaps if you visit Castlerigg when there are few other people about, the stones will talk to you. This could be a challenge, given the rarity of chattering stones these days, coupled with the fact that Castlerigg can get as busy as IKEA on a Saturday afternoon. But the location is superbly dramatic, surrounded by the Cumbrian Fells, so it is worth dropping by for that alone. To the north towers Blencathra; to the west, Skiddaw, to the south, High Seat. Standing inside Castlerigg Stone Circle has been described as like being in a natural amphitheatre; anyway, get the right light and it is an atmospheric place.
I have visited it several times and include a selection of photographs here in an attempt to illustrate Castlerigg’s moods at different times of the year. One day, I’ll get there in typical Lake District weather, when the sun is blazing down…
Somebody went to the considerable bother of setting up Castlerigg about 5,000 years’ ago; and it can’t have been easy. There are said to be around 1,000 stone circles in the British Isles – a feature of the late Neolithic and early Bronze Ages – and Castlerigg is one of the earliest. It’s roughly 100 feet (30 metres) across, not a perfect circle, and used to consist of forty-two ancient, local, stones. There are only thirty-eight of them now, and they vary in height above ground from 3¼ feet (1 metre) to 7½ feet (2.3 metres). That said, some folk will tell you that the number of stones varies…and in 1919, a climber is said to have seen strange balls of light moving among the stones…in ideal conditions, you could spot large, pink, bunny rabbits.
Within the circle is a group of a further 10 stones in a rectangle forming what is known as the sanctuary, or cove – the purpose of which is unknown. At the northern end of the circle, two larger stones flank what was probably an entrance. Three stone axes, now in Keswick Museum (and originating from a Neolithic axe factory on Great Langdale nearby) were found in 1875 and the sanctuary was excavated in 1882, revealing nothing but charcoal. The site has never been extensively excavated, however. Curiously, the earliest known record of Castlerigg Stone Circle only dates back to 1776, in an account by the antiquarian William Stukeley, who visited it in 1725. Intriguingly, Stukeley mentions another circle in a nearby field – but no trace of this has ever been found.
There may be significant astronomical alignments in the construction, which might have meant something to the builders in around 3,000BC. Or maybe they intended it as a meeting place, for trade or ceremonial purposes – or both. All jesting aside, we can but visit these places and wonder.
Castlerigg was one of the first scheduled ancient monuments in Britain in 1883. It is owned by the National Trust and cared for by English Heritage. Or maybe it’s the other way round. Anyway, you’ll find it about 1½ miles east of Keswick on a minor road, signposted from both the A591 and A66. There is limited parking in a lay-by. Take stout shoes – it can be wet and muddy.