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Prehistoric Lakeland

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 Isles.

Philip Coppens



Though 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 Stone Circle

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 Millom.

The 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.

The Giant’s Grave

The 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.

The 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 as such.

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.

The 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.

Great Langdale

The 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.

The 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?

Richard 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 Neolithic ancestors.

Prehistoric commerce

Langdale 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 Channel.)
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.

The 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.