What on earth were our ancestors doing, building this thing? We’ll probably never know. Perhaps if you visit Castlerigg when there are few other people about, the stones will talk to you. Failing that – and I concede that chattering stones are rare these days – the location is dramatic, so it is worth paying a visit for that alone. You are surrounded by the Cumbrian Fells: to the north towers brooding Blencathra; to the west, Skiddaw. People describe it as like being in a natural amphitheatre; anyway, get the right light and it certainly is an atmospheric place.
Somebody went to the considerable bother of setting up Castlerigg about 5,000 years’ ago, and it can’t have been easy. There are around 1,000 stone circles in the British Isles – a feature of the late Neolithic and early Bronze Ages - and Castlerigg is one of the earliest. It’s roughly 100’across, not a perfect circle, and consists of 38 or 40 ancient, local, stones. The number of stones is reputed to vary...and in 1919, people spoke of seeing strange balls of light… Within the circle is a group of a further 10 stones forming what is known as ‘the sanctuary’, or ‘cove’ – the purpose of which is unknown. At the northern end of the circle, two larger stones flank what might be an entrance. An unpolished stone axe, now in Keswick Museum, was found on the site in 1875 and the sanctuary was excavated in 1882, revealing charcoal. Curiously, the earliest known record of Castlerigg only dates back to 1776, in an account by the antiquarian William Stukeley, who visited it in 1725. Intriguingly, Stukeley mentions another circle in a nearby field; but no trace of this has ever been found.
Castlerigg was one of the first scheduled ancient monuments in Britain in 1883. It is owned by the National Trust and cared for by English Heritage. You’ll find it about 1½ miles east of Keswick on a minor road, signposted from both the A591 and A66. There is a lay-by for parking. Take stout shoes – it can be wet and muddy.