The squeaking continued pretty much all the way, as we drove through the Yorkshire Dales, through the northern Edge of Lancashire and finally into Cumbria. The landscape here is amazing in any weather, but with the snow laying thick on the hills and the colours of autumn below the snowline, it is simply breathtaking. We were still taking the long way round, though not as long as I would have liked with roads like Kirkstone Pass nagging away at memory.
Instead, we drove the lakeside route to Keswick where, I was assured, lunch would be worth waiting for. It was too. There is something truly comforting about traditional fish, chips and mushy peas, with a slice of buttered bread and a pot of properly brewed tea the colour of mahogany…it is just perfect on a cold and wintry day.
Keswick is a lovely little Lakeland town, nestled beside its lake in the valley, but I didn’t take a single picture. We weren’t there for sightseeing… or at least, not to look at buildings. Our goal was Castlerigg, a stone circle over five thousand years old and one of the earliest that remains. It is also set in possibly the most beautiful location you could imagine.
On a small plateau held within the hollow of the hills and ringed with snowy majesty, you are immediately transported out of time. You could be any-when… there is little but you, the mountains and the stones…and the inevitable sheep.
Castlerigg is one of the most visited of circles and even on a snowy afternoon as the light was fading and the ground sodden with meltwater, there were other people there… but not for long. The bitter cold prevented lingering and we were soon lucky enough to have the place to ourselves.
It is an incredible site and would be without the amphitheatre of hills that surround it. Yet the peaks of Blencathra, Grasmoor, Helvellyn and Skiddaw and the surrounding fells seem to frame the circle and their peaks are shadowed in the forms of the stones.
It seems superfluous to give dimensions, when the place seems to be a whole universe in itself, but the scale of the site is difficult to show on the photographs. It is difficult to get a shot of all the stones together…around forty of them, each weighing up to an estimated 16 tonnes… as the slightly flattened circle is over a hundred feet wide. The tallest stone… unmistakable for is vivid, vital presence… stands around seven and a half feet high and looks rather like a throne.
There is an outlier too, moved now from its original position and scarred by years of ploughing. It is thought it may have played a part in astronomical calculations, but being displaced that is impossible now to verify. Old records also mention another circle in a field close by, but no trace of such a circle has been found.
The purpose of the stone circles is still unknown. Were they simply meeting places as some have suggested? Trading grounds? Or sacred centres? I wonder if there needs to be an ‘either/or’ here. In medieval times, the churches were all of these things and more. Even today, our stadia are multifunction venues. We may never know the entirety of their stories, but the ancient stones will always hold a fascination for us.