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You cannot visit a stone circle, not even a little one, without being impressed. Think about it: there are around 1,000 stone circles in Britain and each one would have taken a supreme effort – both willpower and muscle – to build. Stone circles are a mysterious feature of the late Neolithic/early Bronze Ages and perhaps represent a shift in religious practices. Almost certainly, they were used for ceremonial and meeting purposes – maybe bringing different tribes or family groups together.
Another thing that might strike you is that they are often located in places that, even today, are relatively remote. Swinside Stone Circle, on the south-western edge of England’s Lake District, is no exception. Unlike its better-known cousin to the north, Castlerigg near Keswick, it’s a bit more off the main tourist track.
About 2½ miles west of Broughton in Furness on the A595 is a turning to Broadgate. Find somewhere safe to leave your car – parking is very limited – and walk north through the hamlet along a single-track road. After about ½ mile, you’ll come upon a trackway forking off to the left, leading into the hills, Swinside Farm and the Stone Circle – which you will find on your right about ¾ mile further on. The circle is in a slight hollow and emerges into vision gradually. Turn toward the farm and you can normally access it via a five-bar gate. I wonder why they chose this place? Surely, it cannot be random? Not being privy to the criteria for siting stone circles, it strikes me as a relatively unremarkable location, but it is a very pleasant spot when the weather’s being kind, if a little lonely (though there is a farm nearby).
Swinside Stone Circle was constructed from local slate slabs on a foundation of packed pebbles some 5,000 years before you were born. The stones are up to 10 feet (3 metres) high and form what appears to be virtually a perfect circle, with an entrance on the south east. Here, sometimes, you’ll find some flowers – perhaps a gift to the Gods; perhaps marking the time of year. There are 55 stones and the circle is about 93 feet (27 metres) in diameter.
Every now and then, you’ll find Swinside referred to as Sunkenkirk. Local legend is that nearby villagers tried to build a church, but the Devil kept knocking the stones down. Similar stories are found elsewhere in these islands; maybe these intriguing, but elusive, pieces of folklore come from a time when early Christians were trying to persuade obstinate pagans to change their ways? Or perhaps there’s a church buried beneath the circle…