Albion, ancient sites, Art, Don and Wen, sacred sites, TOLL, travel

Castlerigg – spectacle and speculation

cumbria-castlerigg-22Castlerigg was not always known by its more modern name. Once it was better known as the Carles… and a carl was a ‘free man’. The name Carl also has associations with royalty. ‘Rigg’ simply means ‘ridge’…  Perhaps it was the Ridge of Kings? The Royal Ridge? Maybe the whole thing is an ancient valley of the kings… or a ‘royal road’…But that is pure speculation.


There are all the usual legends of the circle being men turned to stone and, in the changing light and the silence of the winds, you can see their faces and forms in the stones, seeing how the legend may have begun. In this magical place it takes little imagination to see the stones as the bodies their mystics left behind as they journeyed to the Otherworld. Above the hills the clouds shift and swirl, dancing figures that blur and fade, telling half a story and hinting at things unimagined.


In places the stones themselves seem to fit into the hollows of the distant hills as if withdrawn from their physical place on the plateau. It is impossible to give a true sense of scale with the camera. The land falls away around the stones into a deep valley, held and sheltered by the fells. The utter magnificence of the land, a patchwork of jewel colours against the pristine snow, is a wordless wonder while the vast arc of the sky shadows forth a glimpse of eternity. “Then I was standing on the highest mountain of them all , and round about beneath me was the whole hoop of the world. And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being.” Black Elk.


It is hard to stay ‘with’ the stones. Their presence is tangible, yet they seem to be an anchor… a spar for the roaming mind to cling to and remain rooted in earth while vision soars. Yet it is the stones we had come to see and the attention comes back to them, only to soar once more. Had it not been so bitterly cold, I would have liked to sit on the stone that is shaped like a chair and let my mind roam free.


Next to the Throne stone, there is a curious feature… a roughly rectangular enclosure within the circle formed by ten stones and labelled as the sanctuary. Early antiquarian excavations found nothing but charcoal, though it is not known to what extent they dug there. Although often referred to as the ‘cove’, the feature does not resemble the coves found in other circles which are generally isolated structures within the inner space. This one is attached to the circle itself and is, I believe, one of only two circles with a similar feature.


We have noted at other ancient sites the resemblance of this shape to that of the stone axes that were used for more than practical purposes. There was once a place, high in the hills, where these axes were made, thousands of years ago. These were prized objects, traded widely across the land. Some have been found with signs of obvious use, but many seem to have been purely decorative or symbolic, the stone often too fragile for use, a mistake that would not have been made by those for whom stone was a specialised technology.


Perhaps they were symbols of wealth or position… maybe they held spiritual significance as many of them were made from stones found only in the high places. At least one was found close to the circle. It seems conceivable that their shape had significance, in both the axes and the land, when we see it repeated over and over at the ancient sites.


Another thing that is repeated is the controversy about astronomical alignments. Many in the established sciences dismiss such ideas, while others, such as Professor Thom, bring scientific enquiry, engineering and mathematics to the study and present convincing arguments. At Castlerigg, the sun rises during the Autumnal equinox over the top of Threlkeld Knott and a number of other significant solar and lunar alignments have been noted. I need no convincing… you only have to stand and watch the movements of the sun and moon at significant points of the year, seeing how and where they rise and set, to be convinced that our ancestors knew just what they were doing.


It is too easy to think of our Stone Age ancestors as simple folk, dressed in skins and wielding clubs. It is, after all, pretty much what we are taught. Yet Castlerigg was built in the New Stone Age… at around the same time that Egypt was building its monuments. We find no difficulty in recognising an advanced civilisation in ancient Egypt, but because of the difference in the style of the monuments and artefacts here, all raw power instead of elegant sophistication, the temptation is to think this was a primitive society.  Given the sheer scale upon which our ancestors worked throughout the land, I am not at all sure that is a fair assessment.


Castlerigg is unquestionably prehistoric… yet that term alone is misleading. Prehistory refers to the time before written records and the Stone Age left us no such record. Or did they? The petroglyphs, mysterious symbols carved in stone, may be indecipherable to us today, but that does not mean they were unreadable to their makers. The very earliest forms of writing were just symbols and prior to that the stories and wisdom were passed from mouth to ear, growing with the telling in the manner of the indigenous peoples, knowledge of whose cultures before the advent of ‘civilisation’ still remain part of our recent history.


In spite of speculation and controversy, one thing is absolutely certain… whatever your definition of magic may be, Castlerigg is a magical place. Whether your interest is in the ancient peoples and their lives, the tales of the strange balls of light seen at the stones, or just the natural beauty of the place, Castlerigg is special. When we left, frozen to the marrow and beaming, we were agreed that it is one of the most spectacular circles we have ever seen. It was a feeling that was to endure… and then we found another…

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