July 2020, and the Covid-19 lockdown restrictions were finally lifted in Wales (see post #277). Our neighbours over the border had been travelling to mountain areas in England for a couple of weeks now and it was time to join them. Sadly, the actions of a selfish minority were hitting the headlines, and for all the wrong reasons, with wild locations and beauty spots being ‘trashed’ by so-called ‘wild campers’.
Wild camping is not legal as such in England and Wales (different laws apply in Scotland) but has been tolerated for decades where campers have behaved responsibly. Years of goodwill were ‘trashed’ in a couple of weeks, along with abandoned tents, chairs, clothing, food and other less-pleasant waste. Several weeks on, this behaviour is now more correctly being called ‘fly camping’ to associate it with anti-social fly-tipping.
Unfortunately, campervans have for some unknown reason been included in the generic ‘fly camping’ references. For years Chris and I have used our camper to visit quiet, wild places – we have enjoyed these places responsibly, leaving nothing more than the faint marks of our tyres, and often carrying out rubbish left by others. It was far too sensitive an issue to risk parking the van in a wild location for now, due to the risk of heavy-handed official enforcement or local vigilante action. We were going to have to use a campsite.
Some believe that campervan users who avoid campsites are too tight to pay campsite fees – for us, that’s not the case, and I would happily pay a local farmer to park up for the night in a quiet corner with a good view. I don’t like campsites because they have rows of vans and tents, like a small housing estate – not my idea of having a good time. Our problem was that camping was suddenly on everyone’s wish list of ‘things to do’ in the summer of 2020, and vacant places were not easy to find. In the end, we found a place near Keswick, not ideal but not as bad as some. As a bonus, it was near Castlerigg Stone Circle.
The day dawned in a grey, mizzly way, not at all uncommon in Cumbria – those complaining about the rain need to stop a moment to consider why the area is known as the Lake District! Still, there is a saying that there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing, so we set off with Border collie ‘Mist’ to Castlerigg Circle, all of us wearing our waterproofs, including the dog.
For those who are reading this and thinking that Collies are born with a perfectly good waterproof coat, that’s completely correct. In fact, they have two coats, a thick outer coat of coarse hair to keep out the worst of the weather, and a softer inner coat to insulate – the problem is, once ‘Mist’ is wet through, she stays that way for the rest of the day. Not a problem for the dog, but not very convenient in the confines of a camper. Our solution is a natty looking dog jacket that keeps off the worst of the weather. So, with the party suitably togged, we set out to step back in history.
Castlerigg Stone Circle was created about 4500 years ago in the Neolithic period (New Stone Age) and was built by Neolithic farmers. It is believed that they would have moved their settlements on a seasonal basis, spending winter in the low fertile lands and moving to the upland grazing in summer, a pattern followed in other farming communities throughout the world even today. However, they must have been highly successful farmers to have the spare capacity and resources to build monuments such as Castlerigg.
Why they built circles such as Castlerigg is a mystery and will probably remain so. There are more than 300 stone circles in Britain, most of them being later Bronze Age burial monuments, about 3000-4000 years old. These later Bronze Age circles often contain the remains of human cremations, but their earlier Neolithic predecessors in Cumbria such as Castlerigg, Long Meg and her Daughters and Swinside circles do not contain formal burials.
One suggestion is that the early circles were used for astronomical predictions. It has been plotted that at the autumn equinox, the sunrise at Castlerigg appears over the top of Threlkeld Knott, 3½ kms to the east. Some of the stones are aligned with the midwinter sunrise and others with positions of the moon. This again suggests a sophisticated community who had the time and vision to concern themselves with matters beyond mere subsistence farming.
Other research has connected Castlerigg with the important stone axe industry that thrived in nearby Langdale and was one of the earliest examples of organised industry. Stone axes started out as basic tools, but by the Neolithic period they were often made to be decorative and ceremonial objects. There was an important trade in these later ornamental items and Langdale axes have been found throughout Britain and Ireland and even as far as Continental Europe, and it is possible that Castlerigg was a meeting place where the axes were traded.
The trading of axes could also have been linked with early religious practices and Castlerigg was undoubtedly an important meeting place for the Neolithic farmers in their seasonal movements. So, take your pick – religious centre, trading post, community meeting place, astronomical calendar, Castlerigg Stone Circle could have been all of these and perhaps more. Even today it still draws visitors like a magnet.
By the 19th Century, the circle was so popular with visitors that action had to be taken to stop tourists chipping pieces off the stones to take away as souvenirs – perhaps anti-social behaviour by visitors is not such a recent problem! The site was taken into guardianship in 1883 and was one of the first ancient monuments to be given legal protection by being scheduled as such. Todays visitors seem happy enough to take just photographs away with them
The mizzly rain finished as we arrived at the Circle, but that was as good as it was going to get. Overcast and cloudy skies don’t always produce good photographs and the drama of a full-blown storm might have given better pics. I started by trying to get shots without people in them before the penny dropped – this was a place where our ancestors came to meet, and people would have been part of the scenery. What could be more natural than adding modern-day visitors to this timeless site?
Most of the images in this post are mine, with a little polishing to make them more presentable, but let’s face it, the star of the show is the Circle itself and has been for the past 4500 years.
Text and images © Paul Shorrock except where otherwise indicated.