History,  Megalithic sites

Castlerigg: out on the wild and windy moors

Castlerigg 32Sitting high on the moors above Keswick in Cumbria, Castlerigg must be one of the best known stone circles in Britain.

There’s a price to pay for fame, even for a 5,000-year-old monument, and the downside is that when you visit, you can’t really expect to enjoy the place all to yourself.

When we went there on a very windy Friday morning in March, cars were parked along the road in the small lay-by and quite a few people were putting their boots on for the short but bracing walk to the stones.   As we went through the gate, a film crew and two presenters were walking back to their car;  a party of visitors were arriving from the right;  and a few more were already scattered in twos and threes about the stones themselves, enjoying a flask of tea and taking in the views.

But after less than 10 minutes they had all disappeared.

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Castlerigg 72There wasn’t anything paranormal about this.  The wind was numbingly cold, barrelling down from the surrounding fells where patches of snow were the only highlights in a steel grey landscape.  It felt like a force nine gale, and you had to lean into it to stop yourself falling over.  Standing or sitting still wasn’t an option for very long.   After taking a few photos from various angles, even Colin gave in and retreated back down the hill.

Finding myself the temporary mistress of Castlerigg, I thought I would make the most of it, even if my fingers dropped off afterwards.  (I know this is possible, because I’ve been writing about polar explorers recently).

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Castlerigg 89Castlerigg 60I walked around the stones, weaving my way in and out, and giving them a little pat every now and again.  On the south-eastern rim of the circle, but still within it, is a smaller enclosure of stones about 24 feet by 11, roughly rectangular.  According to various websites this is called a ‘cove’, although I’m not sure whether this word is unique to Castlerigg.  For some reason, I didn’t want to walk in this at all, and found myself apologising to no one in particular when I stepped in it accidentally.   (Very soon they will be calling me ‘the mad woman of the stones’, and to be honest I certainly looked like one when I got back to the car.)

This is the cove, seen from various angles:

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Castlerigg is thought to have been built around 3,200 BC, making it one of the oldest megalithic sites in the UK.   It’s believed that there may have been 41 stones originally, of which 38 remain;  all are glacial erratics, composed of slate.  The tallest stones are well over nine feet high, and the site is about 35 yards across at its widest (it is a slightly flattened circle).   It lies 700 feet above sea level.

Some archaeologists have claimed to see the very faint traces of carvings on a couple of the stones, but you need to be persistent, and have the right kind of lighting, in order to see what they mean.  Perhaps an ant, making his leisurely way across the face of one of them, might find a gentle rise and dip like a wave on the sea.   There are some good photos of the possible markings at www.stone-circles.org.uk.

What I saw myself was that some of the stones have strata or natural lines of fracture that run around, up or across them, creating interesting patterns.

The edge of this stone looks to have been damaged, perhaps by frost, and a fresh surface of much darker slate has been exposed.   In this climate, lichens will soon take a hold.

Castlerigg - fractured by frost?

Glowering down on Castlerigg from all sides are some of the Lake District’s most famous fells – peaks with ancient names like Skiddaw, Blencathra, Clough Head and High Seat, and Helvellyn beyond.  It feels like a natural amphitheatre, but sadly the actors left the stage a long time ago.  An old name for it is ‘Keswick Carles’, suggesting that the stones represent a group of men who have been quite literally petrified; this idea crops up quite often in stone circle folklore.  (The Old Norse word ‘karl’ simply meant ‘a man‘ or a freeman). The ‘castle’ element may in fact stem from a mistake by the 18th century antiquarian William Stukeley, who misread ‘carles’ for ‘castle’, while ‘rigg’ is an old word for ‘ridge’.  Locally it is also known as the Druids’ Circle.

Stukeley had a slightly distorted idea about the creators of the site, but his description is still vivid:

“These desolate and hilly regions were the retiring places of the Britons from the power of the Romans;  which perhaps is the reason of the great number of temples scattered throughout the country;  for a mile before we came to Keswick, on an eminence in the middle of a great concavity of those rude hills, and not far from the banks of the river Greata, I observed another Celtic work, very intire:  it is 100 foot in diameter, and consists of forty stones, some very large.  At the east end of it is a grave, made of such other stones, in number about ten:  this is placed in the very east point of the circle, and within it:  there is not a stone wanting, though some are removed a little out of their first station:  they call it the Carfles, and, corruptly I suppose, Castle-rig.”    

‘Itinerarium Curiosum or An Account of the Antiquities and Remarkable Curiosities in Nature or Art Observed in Travels Through Great Britain’, by William Stukeley MD FR & AS, 1776

Despite Stukeley’s optimistic suggestion of a grave, the only archaeological finds from Castlerigg consist of an axe head, picked up inside the circle, and a quantity of charcoal found within the ‘cove’.

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A mysterious presence?

Occasionally, visitors to Castlerigg have reported seeing strange lights moving from stone to stone, while others have heard chanting coming from within the circle.   In 1919 a Mr Singleton had a startling experience while walking close to Castlerigg late one night.  He describes seeing a rapidly moving light, as bright as a bicycle lamp, travelling at right angles to the road about 200 yards away from him.  Having crossed the road, it disappeared, but then a number of lights appeared slightly further away, moving backwards and forwards horizontally in the area of the stone circle.

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“Whilst we were watching a remarkable incident happened:  one of the lights, and only one, came straight to the spot where we were standing;  at first very faint, as it approached the light increased in intensity.  When it came quite near I was in no doubt whether I should stoop below the boundary wall as the light would pass directly over our heads.  But when it came close to the wall it slowed down, stopped, quivered, and slowly went out, as if the matter producing the light had become exhausted.  It was globular, white, with a nucleus possibly 6 ft or so in diameter, and just high enough above the ground to pass over our heads.”

(published in ‘English Mechanic’ magazine, via ‘Ghostly Cumbria‘ by Rob Kirkup)

More recently, in 2012, the Worsley Paranormal Group went there with radio receivers and conducted an EVP (electronic voice phenomenon) experiment.   Above the wind, they detected faint signals like a ‘tuning in’ around certain stones, and when they slowed the recording down it sounded a bit like human voices.

Some observers have thought that the shapes of the stones reflect the larger shapes of the surrounding hills, and this may not be a coincidence.  I myself noticed (even though my eyes were streaming by that time!) that the largest stone has a profile that resembles the hill to the south, in miniature.  But, of course, only when seen from a certain angle!

Writing in ‘The Stone Circles of the British Isles’, Aubrey Burl suggests that Castlerigg, like many other stone circles in Cumbria, was positioned on ancient trackways used by traders of stone axes:  “The Carles is magnificently placed for travellers coming northwards down Borrowdale either to go north-west along Derwentwater or to turn east towards the Penrith henges, themselves built at the focus of the mountain pass and river junction.”

Castlerigg 35At the autumn equinox, the sun rises over the top of Threlkeld Knott, a hill two miles to the east.  Other stones in the circle have been found to align with the midwinter sunrise and various points of moonrise and set.

One thing hasn’t changed about Castlerigg – it still attracts people to it, and they come from all directions, walking down from the fells as well as from the road.  It’s not a gentle place but it’s exhilarating, especially when your breath is being whipped away by the wind and your fingers are raw with cold.

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Photos copyright © Jo Woolf, 2015





No Comments

  • davidoakesimages

    A good read, I enjoyed it on this cold wet morning….Castlerigg is a regular place of commune when in Cumbria. Even with lots of folk about it retrains its magic. But believe it or not there have also been times when we have been the only ones there (and in good weather too, but mainly when it has been the usual Cumbria wet!). Every time I take a shot as the light is always different and adding to the thousands that must get taken by visitors each year. Click the link for one I used to mark the winter solstice https://davidoakesimages.wordpress.com/2014/12/21/winters-solstice/ Best wishes

  • Caroline

    I adore Castlerigg stone circle – I’ve been there several times over the years and I’m always quite overawed by its location. The people who built it clearly knew there was something special about that site, and it’s no surprise that 5,000 years later it’s still a place that attracts visitors.

    • Jo Woolf

      Yes, it’s a fantastic setting, Caroline! I had forgotten the views, possibly because it was raining last time I visited! I would love to know what drew people to create sites like these. I believe there was some energy in the ground that they could sense, and I would so love to have a glimpse of their wisdom.

  • Kathleen Sand

    Thank you for the morning time travel back to Castlerigg ! We have wandered there twice. The most recent visit with our daughter and grandson who was only 18 months old, was a misty morning in March twenty years ago. Timeless place !

    • Jo Woolf

      You’re most welcome! 🙂 Last time I was there was maybe 15 years ago, when the girls were younger (but old enough not to be bothered by piles of stones!) I squelched my way up there in the pouring rain and decided to leave it until another day. So finally, I made it back!

  • Denise O'Neil

    I love this place!…You mentioned ‘markings’ on some of the stones? I am not sure if the stone that lies outside of the circle….looking to the far right of the circle as you enter the field…its a small stone but it does have carvings on it. Maybe its a marker stone for something else, but the marks are quite defined. Great photos…and post….thank you!

    • Jo Woolf

      Oh, that’s interesting! I should have noticed that. I did read that perhaps one stone had been moved, maybe by a farmer, in fairly recent times, but I’m not sure if that’s the same one. I would have been interested to see the carvings on it. Glad you enjoyed it, and thank you as well, for the information! 🙂

  • Dancing Beastie

    Thanks for braving the weather for these beautiful photos to share with us. I remember we talked once before about that odd sense one can have in some stone circles, that certain parts are ‘private’ or unwelcoming. Other ancient circles or barrows might be benign yet still have an aura of some power, to those of us sensitive to these things.There is so much in the world that we can’t yet explain!

    • Jo Woolf

      I’m very glad you enjoyed it, and thank you! Yes, I do remember, and I think at the time I was hoping to get to the Rollright stones, which sadly didn’t happen, but they are still high on my list. There is certainly ‘something’ about these places, and I’d like to know whether it is some kind of energy that directed the builders to that particular spot, or whether it came afterwards, from the purpose it was used for. I’d like to have seen how the trees were growing, but of course there are no trees anywhere near Castlerigg! 🙂

  • Suzanne Dixon

    This is one of my VERY favorite spots in Scotland or anywhere! It IS, just as it is described in this article. However, my group and I had the place to ourselves. There were sheep in the pasture and we had to make our way through a sort of switch-back rock fence that we had to climb through. It was biting cold and very windy. It actually started snowing just as we were leaving.
    It was 1999 and I had, by then, devoured the first 4 books of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. Rest assured, that I wove in and out each and every stone (both ways) trying to re-create Claire Randall’s experience.
    Scotland was a very mystical experience for me. Visiting Glencoe, not too far from here, brought me to tears. It was just a very uneasy feeling I had. That feeling, actually, hit me as I was cresting a very large hill just prior to reaching Glencoe. (Like I’d been there before…) I still have that feeling sixteen years later. It wasn’t good feeling then and even now I feel heaviness in my stomach and chest, but I’d love to go back. I guess you could say that I feel a yearning to return for ‘some reason’.

    • Jo Woolf

      Thank you, Suzanne, for sharing your experience of Castlerigg! Sheep, wind, rain… sounds familiar! I felt the same when I first went through Glen Coe – dreadful sadness. The hills remember! 🙂 It is wonderful when you can enjoy sites like these to yourself, but I know that it’s not always possible. However, this is one reason why I wouldn’t return now to Stonehenge (I went there a long time ago, when you could still touch the stones). I hope that you will return to Scotland sometime!

    • Jo Woolf

      I’m sure you’re right, Lynne, they are probably quite different on a nice day. I have yet to see them in sunshine! 🙂 Somehow, the windy weather seemed to suit the stones and the setting. Glad you liked the pics – thank you!

  • tearoomdelights

    Wonderful photographs and intriguing stories. I know that feeling when you’re worried frostbite might get you before you’ve taken all the shots you want, but you did a great job. How nice to get the place to yourself, too, a well deserved reward for your persistence and determination.

    • Jo Woolf

      Thank you, Lorna! I couldn’t believe it when they all disappeared. I could have been abducted by aliens and no one would have noticed. Well, Colin probably would!

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