Dating back 5000 years, to the late Neolithic period, Castlerigg is not just one of the oldest stone circles in Britain, it’s among the oldest in Europe. It’s partly this antiquity and partly its fantastic location that makes it a big draw for tourists: it sits on a small, grassy plateau watched over by mighty Skiddaw, Blencathra and the northernmost summits of the Helvellyn range. At dawn and dusk, it becomes a truly breathtaking sight, particularly in winter when the sun is low in the sky and the stones cast long, sinister shadows.
The first written record of the circle was that of the antiquarian and Anglican clergyman William Stukeley. When he visited in 1725, he counted 50 stones and claimed there was a second, even larger circle in a neighbouring field. However, no evidence has ever been found to back this up.
As with many other prehistoric sites throughout the world, nobody’s really sure what the people of the New Stone Age would have used the circle for, although theories abound. It may have had astronomical or religious significance. Or maybe both? Archaeological excavations at the site have been limited but the discovery of a Neolithic stone axe, from Great Langdale, in the nineteenth century suggests it may have been used as a trading centre. The two massive uprights guarding the northern entrance to the circle seem to confirm that it was some sort of meeting place. It continues, today, to be a place of gathering – with people meeting here for the summer and winter solstices.
The circle is 100ft in diameter and consists of 38 stones, varying in height from about three feet tall to almost eight feet. Just inside the eastern end of the circle is a group of 10 stones forming a rectangular enclosure known as ‘The Sanctuary’. This mysterious feature is found only at one other stone circle in Britain – the Cockpit near Pooley Bridge in the eastern Lake District.
Castlerigg Stone Circle is located in a field less than two miles from the centre of Keswick. It’s a 45-minute walk, but there is also some roadside parking next to the stones. There are no admission charges and no restrictions on visiting times – simply wander as and when you please but remember, if you’ve got a dog with you, the site is often grazed by the sheep. An interpretation panel near one of the gates into the site explains the circle’s history and shows a model of the stones as they are today.
A trip to the stone circle could be combined with a walk on to High Rigg. Passing Tewet Tarn and crossing the atmospheric moorland of Low Rigg along the way, it’s little more than two miles from Castlerigg to the top of this little fell. Often described as the Lake District in miniature, the ridge that then leads south from the summit is home to hidden tarns, dark crags, various other knobbly tops and a short, heather-covered spur – all with breathtaking views of Thirlmere and the Helvellyn range.