Cumbria is a surprising place. Well known for the natural beauty of the Lake District, and its association with Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter, there is a wealth of history and culture just waiting to be discovered beyond the obvious. The region might be a bit of a backwater these days, but in the Neolithic and early Bronze Ages, around 3,000 to 5,000 years ago, this was the centre of a thriving civilisation connected by trade to the rest of Europe.
Proof of this lies in the fact that Cumbria is home to an incredible number of stone circles. They may not be as well-known as Stonehenge or Avebury, but what they lack in size and grandeur they make up for in number and location. Little is known about the extraordinary structures that are dotted dramatically around the Cumbrian mountains, but they are the key to understanding the culture that flourished here millennia ago.
During the Neolithic era the central Lake District was the centre of a European-wide industry making stone tools. There were several axe ‘factories’, most famously in the quarries of Great Langdale and Scafell Pike, which made polished stone axes and other tools from green volcanic rock. They were prized items traded across the British Isles. For the time, the scale of the industry was huge, so much so that the quarries are easily identifiable today.
The same people who made stone axes in the Langdales, built Cumbria’s stone circles. If you find yourself in the neighbourhood, it’s well worth the effort to track down the site of these ancient monuments. I’d spent the morning in Millom, and Swinside Stone Circle is only a few miles from the town. I visited here in early 2015 on a cold winter’s day, and decided it was worth another visit on a bright sunny day.
Known locally as Sunkenkirk – the Devil is said to have pulled down stones of a church that was being built – Swinside is one of the most important Neolithic monuments in Cumbria. It consists of 55 stones set in a near perfect circle, and sits on a flat, man-made area on the eastern flank of Black Combe. You can see the appeal of the site, there are spectacular views over the Cumbrian mountains, and access to the Irish Sea at nearby Duddon Estuary.
Although it’s slightly more accessible than many Cumbrian stone circles, Swinside’s position in the west of the county places it well off the tourist trail. On my previous visit I had the place entirely to myself and, apart from a couple of ponies and a lot of sheep, so it proved today. There’s a majesty to standing in this ancient place, admiring the views with only the sound of the wind and an occasional sheep bleating.
I spent a some time drinking in the views, and imagining the rituals that may have been performed here during the summer and winter solstices, before walking the couple of miles back along the track to where I’d abandoned the car. I’d not seen it on the way here but, as I reached a point where the track went downhill, the Duddon Estuary was shimmering in the sunlight before me. Truly beautiful.