The Lake District became
a popular tourist attraction in Victorian times. The Industrial Revolution
had revitalised the area, making it into a tourist destination that
continues to offer sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of everyday
life. But what is little known, is that the area is one of the oldest
and most important prehistoric/megalithic territories of the British
the Lake District today might seem to serve no other purpose than leisure
and getting away from city living, the oldest archaeological findings,
dating back to ca. 3500 BC, show that this was a busy industrial area.
The Lakes are not notorious for its megalithic monuments, except one
stone circle, Castlerigg, near Keswick.
Castlerigg is a notorious stone circle
who is smaller in size, both in height and width, than a visitor would
expect. Nevertheless, its setting is typical for most stone circle:
on top of a hill. Castlerigg’s setting is dramatic, as the hill
itself is surrounded by major mountains; as it is Lake District, the
weather can be dramatic or lovely, thus changing the nature of the circle
as the weather changes – often within the space of a few hours.
A second circle was once said to have been located in the next pasture
towards the village, but no evidence of this remains.
To the south, right in the centre of two hills ending in a V-shape,
rises the conical hill of Helvellyn, whose visibility is believed to
have been one of the primary reasons why the stone circle was located
here. Built ca. 3200 BC in the Neolithicum, it is one of the oldest
stone circles in Britain; in the Lakes, it fits in the same league as
Old Meg and her daughter (near Penrith) and Sunkenkirk (Swinside), near
circle consists of 38 stones of un-hewn boulders. It has been estimated
that there were originally 41 stones. The largest stone of the circle
sits next to a rectangular enclosure, made up of ten stones, the purpose
of which has never been satisfactorily explained, even though a deep
pit filled with charcoal was discovered in 1882. A wide space to the
Northern end of the circle, framed by two large stones may have served
as an entrance to the site. There is also an outlying stone to the Southwest
of the circle, its function once again unknown.
The circle could have astronomical connotations, but at the same time,
it is clear that the circle must also have aligned to the landscape.
The conical shape of Helvellyn suggests that this hill plays a significant
role; the fact that the river Greta flows in the valley below the circle
might also be an important component to the creation of this sacred
space. It might also sit on a fault line, as strange light phenomena
have been observed, including one sighting in 1919, when T. Singleton
and his friend watched as white light-balls moved slowly over the stones.
interplay between the stones and the landscape seems to be a feature
at Castlerigg; there can be little doubt that it is a feature of two
standing stones that are tucked away to the side of a field, in the
small hamlet of Kirksanton, making the stones not easy to find. But
it is here that we come full face with one of the most intriguing aspects
of megalithic Britain.
The two stones stand as doorposts,
marking an “entrance” into what can only be described as
a sacred landscape. Some researchers have wondered why the stones were
positioned here; some have speculated that it might be as an observation
point for Black Combe, the giant hill in front of the stones. The hill
is also known as the “Sleeping Giant” and it seems logical
there is indeed a relationship between the two locations, seeing both
are identified with a giant. Furthermore, the shape of Black Combe,
when viewed from Giant’s Grave, looks like a pregnant person laying
on her back, her arms at her sides.
Reports from the 18th century suggest
that Giant’s Grave was originally part of a burial mound, but
no trace of that mound can now be found. The tallest stone towers three
metres high, while the smaller is 2.5 metres tall; they stand 4.5 metres
apart. It is the smallest stone that on its inside has the clear feature
of a human face, including two closed eyes, a nose and a mouth. The
face is completely natural, and it would seem that our Neolithic ancestors
moved this stone from its quarry to this location because of this unique
feature. Does it suggest that we need to look from between the two stones
to the landscape, as others have observed? “Those with eyes, will
see?” Those with eyes, will indeed notice the “Sleeping
Giant’s shape” from here. It is believed that other monuments
were dotted around her foothills, offering different views of her curves,
but these sites have disappeared during the 19th century. Some believe
that at least six stone circles ringed this hill. Unfortunately, their
locations have been lost and hence their “viewpoints” can
not be identified.
There are other stone circles nearby,
on the slopes of Lacra Bank, the hill to the right of Black Combe, but
these “only” date back to 2000 BC, making them much younger
than e.g. Castlerigg. Nevertheless, they show that the area remained
a focus of our megalithic ancestors for a long period of time.
Swinside stone circle is also known as “Sunkenkirk”, named
after a legend that was once built here. It is said that the devil was
so jealous that he pulled it into the ground, leaving only the bare
stones of the foundations standing. It is evidence of how early Christianity
tried to claim a pagan site. The site has 55 stones, once consisting
of possibly as many as 60 stones. The circle has a well-defined entrance,
as has Long Meg and her Daughters. This entrance is typical of early
Cumbrian stone circles and we can only wonder whether the nearby Giant’s
Grave two “entrance stones” can therefore be identified
However, both areas also reveal another
mountain that is important in the setting of the Cumbrian circles. From
the Giant’s Grave and Swinside, the Old Man of Coniston, a high,
well-known peak can be seen. Though this could be described as a coincidence,
two standing stones near Swinside align perfectly with the summit of
the Old Man of Coniston, suggesting the Old Man was one of the series
of sacred mountains of the area, together with Helvellyn and Black Combe.
Old Man of Coniston
The name “Man” is probably
derives from the word “mam”, meaning “mother”,
as in “Mam Tor”, the sacred hill of the Peak District. The
Old Man of Coniston can be seen from all the ancient sites to the south.
It appears as a conical hill, a shape which it only achieves from a
distance and which is very distinct from the village of Torver; ascending
the mountain from Coniston village does not convey this impression.
The climber does realise that the Old Man is part of an intriguing formation,
in which a type of natural amphitheatre is created by the rock format
– an intriguing feature that might have spurred our ancestors
into sanctifying the site.
From its top, there are particularly good views to Black Combe, suggesting
the two hills were important markers. It suggests that Helvellyn to
the north is in the same category, as these hills have enigmatic shapes:
either they resemble humans resting on their back – giants –
or are conical in shape. Both these shapes have been encountered in
numerous other sacred locations, and the Lake District does not seem
to be the exception… However, there are more conical hills in
the neighbourhood of Helvellyn and these might have been part of a local
sacred landscape that has so far escaped recognition.
heart of prehistoric Lakeland, however, is an area where there are no
impressive megalithic remains. It was an industrial area, rather than
a sacred area. Still, Langdale is considered to be the treasure of the
Lake District and has been voted Britain’s most enduring beauty
spot. It is a valley that is a few miles to the west of Ambleside, taking
in the hamlets of Great Langdale, Little Langdale, Chapel Stile and
Elterwater, and which is framed by the Langdale Pikes of Harrison Stickle,
Pike O’Stickle, Gimmer Crag and Pavey Ark.
It was not until the 1960s that the valley became one of the last places
in England to get mains electricity, but it was in 3500 BC that this
valley was one of the most important sites in Britain. The outcrops
of hard volcanic rock allowed our ancestors to chip and shape these
to make them into durable blades. Waste chippings and discarded and
broken blades can still be seen in the deep gullies of the surrounding
hills and cliffs.
The blades have been found across the British Isles and Ireland. When
Professor Bill Cummins examined nearly 2000 Neolithic axes from finds
all over England and Wales, he found that 27 percent were made from
polished greenstone volcanic tuff from Great Langdale. The British Museum's
1978 catalogue of 368 Neolithic axes found in the Thames lists 15 from
Langdale; they have also been found in places as far apart as Northern
Ireland and Peterborough. In fact, most of the Langdale axe finds are
in Lincolnshire and the east Midlands. It shows that the manufacture
of blades in Langdale was an export industry, supplying the rest of
Britain, making the Lakelands not an outskirt of a megalithic civilisation,
but an industrial centre.
greenstone comes from the intrusion of a narrow vein of tuff in the
volcanic rocks of Great Langdale. Debris and hundreds of "reject"
axes have been found on the slopes of Pike o' Stickle. Even today, Great
Langdale is remote and the climb to the source of the stone is arduous.
How did Neolithic peoples know that this vein of very special stone
was there in such a remote and insignificant geological fault? How did
they mine it, shape the axes and then polish them to perfection? Perhaps
the most intriguing question is that of distribution. Were there long
trade routes over the sea to Northern Ireland and across the breadth
of Britain to Peterborough and Lincolnshire?
Bradley has identified that neolithic stone production does not adhere
to the concept of the "Least Effort" principle. These and
other sites were difficult to access. There is evidence that identical,
easier accessible sites were purposefully left untouched, whereas harder
to reach sections of the vein were often worked. Why? Bradley identifies
that the sites were often important features in the landscape, which
might have set them apart and somehow made them "sacred",
or "special", and thus identified as an item from which quarrying
could occur. In the final analysis, Great Langdale is evidence that
the economic principles of today were largely not adhered to by our
and other sites show that a veritable economic trade existed in Britain
in 3500 BC. The trade was not limited to mainland Britain – it
involved sea-crossings to Ireland. Archaeologist Barry Cunliffe has
identified that the entire Atlantic coastline of Europe, from Morocco
to the Orkney Islands off Scotland, was involved in an intense megalithic
trade area – a European Union, as early as the 3rd millennium
BC. There is archaeological evidence to suggest that this trade actually
dates back to 3500 BC, at least for the area around the east coast of
Ireland and the West coast of Britain.
Ireland’s most famous megalithic complexes are Newgrange, Knowth
and Dowth, all located near Dublin. That side of Britain has three important
concentrations of megaliths: the coastline of Dumfries and Galloway,
the Lake District and northern Wales – Anglesey to be specific.
(Cornwall, further to the South, was more recent and aligned as a staging
post for these northern districts and the French centres across the
All sites are easy sites to access from Ireland – the southern
ones allowing for a stopover on the Isle of Man. A large concentration
of stone axes from Langdale has been found on the island. It suggests
that it was an important tool of export to Ireland, with copper and
gold being transported from Ireland to Britain. Later, copper would
be mixed with tin from Cornwall to make bronze.
boats that transported this material must have landed at the head
of large estuaries, and the area around Millom and Kirksanton
(Duddon Sands) seem prime candidates as ports for the Lake District
trade. It places the Giant’s Grave, close the sea, into
a prime location and its interpretation as an “entrance”
into a sacred landscape in a firmer setting. From the major sites,
we can speculate whether ancient roads bisected the Lake District,
which had to happen because of the existence of the Langdale “Stone
Axe Factory” in the middle of the region. The three hills
of Black Combe, the Old Man of Coniston and Helvellyn could have
guided the ancient traders across the area, following the valleys.
Understanding a sacred landscape that is hilly if not mountainous
has so far received little attention than the ritual landscapes
of Stonehenge and Avebury. Nevertheless, it is clear that in the
Lake District, a sacred landscape existed, of which certain components
have already been identified. But more remains to be discovered,
before Prehistoric Lakeland will be completely understood.