Perched on a hilltop plateau dramatically located in a natural amphitheatre created by the mountains of the northern Lake District, the Castlerigg Stone Circle must be one of the most atmospheric sites for a neolithic stone circle anywhere in Britain. Stonehenge may be bigger, but it can’t rival the intense sense of place you feel when you stand in the centre of Castlerigg Stone Circle.
Constructed over 5000 years ago, sometime around 3200 BC, Castlerigg is one of the oldest stone circles in Britain and Europe. The people who built it knew what they were doing. The 360º panoramic views offer spectacular vistas of some of the grandest Lake District mountains, including the towering Blencathra, Skiddaw to the north, Helvellyn, Catbells and Great How to the south.
It is a magical place to visit at any time of year, although I prefer it when it is freezing cold and the rain is accompanied by driving winds that chill you to the core. Luck would have it that on my recent visit these were the exact weather conditions I encountered. Even the local sheep looked fed up and they’re used to this weather.
One of numerous neolithic sites in the northern English county of Cumbria and the Lake District National Park, Castlerigg probably has forty large stones. I say ‘probably’ because local folklore has it that it is impossible to count the real number of stones, and the ‘official’ number has fluctuated over the years.
Depending upon who you ask the stones number either thirty-eight, forty or forty-two. Although on the information board at the entrance they show forty-seven stones. I counted sixty-five, although I was seeing double thanks to the gale force wind making my eyes water.
The tallest stones are around 2.5 metres high, including two large stones which mark the northern entrance into the circle. On the eastern side of the circle is a rectangle of stones that jut into the circle and probably had a ceremonial function – no artefacts have been unearthed to prove this claim although the solar alignment indicates a religious role.
Visiting this place at Christmas started me thinking about the origins of the Christian festival, and the pagan traditions it displaced when Roman Emperor, Constantine, adopted Christianity as the official religion of the Empire in 380 AD. Attempting to displace the traditional cult of sun worship, the new religion absorbed much of the old for its own ends. Christmas merged seamlessly with the Roman celebration of Saturnalia.
Similarly the pagan Celtic tradition of Yule, celebrated by northern European tribes, was also absorbed into Christianity, which came late to northern parts of the Roman Empire. Yule, or the Winter Solstice, is a traditional Celtic ‘Fire Festival’ celebrating the end to the darkest days of the year; it still influences our modern rituals around Christmas. Castlerigg Stone Circle, aligned to celebrate the solstice, was part of this tradition.
Yule logs, Christmas trees, holly wreaths and mistletoe owe their origins to numerous pre-Christian beliefs and traditions that survived the onset of the Christianisation of northern Europe. Even Santa Claus (Saint Nicholas) is pagan in origin, although I’m pretty sure he was invented by the marketing team at Coca Cola.
All this paganism goes some way to explaining why those religious zealots, the Puritans, outlawed the celebration of Christmas when Oliver Cromwell was running England in the 1640s. What Cromwell and his regicidal compatriots would make of our commercialised Christmas we can only guess at, although I have a feeling Christmas would be cancelled once again.