The Dark Corners of the Land, on the trail of the Pendle Witches

Four hundred years ago, amongst bewitching Lancashire countryside in the brooding shadow of Pendle Hill, one of the most extraordinary events in English history took place: the Pendle Witch Trials. The discovery, in 1612, of a circle of witches living in this remote area of northern England proved to many that evil supernatural forces were at large. The resulting execution of ten innocent people is now regarded as a tragedy, but was pretty normal for the time.

The Pendle Witch Trials came during one of England’s most turbulent periods, a time of religious persecution and superstition. King James I came to the throne in 1603, inheriting a country recently converted to Protestantism and facing strong Catholic opposition. England simmered with religious divisions that threatened to boil over into outright rebellion.

Alice Nutter statue, Roughlee, Pendle, Lancashire

Alice Nutter statue, Roughlee, Pendle, Lancashire

The uncovering of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, an attempt by Catholic rebels to kill King James and ferment a country-wide uprising, led to hysteria about Papist plots. A wave of anti-Catholic persecution swept the country, Parliament introduced the Popish Recusants Act, punishing Catholics for their beliefs. An England consumed by fear and superstition was the setting for the Pendle Witch Trials.

Lancashire in the 17th century was an isolated place. Education was almost non-existent in remote villages, many of which had little communication with the outside world, and the area remained strongly Catholic. Many Jesuit priests were in the area to perform illegal religious services for the faithful. Amidst Lancashire’s wild landscapes, Catholicism and superstition thrived, and became entwined in the popular imagination.

Pendle Hill, Pendle, Lancashire

Pendle Hill, Pendle, Lancashire

Roughlee, Pendle, Lancashire

Roughlee, Pendle, Lancashire

Countryside around Pendle Hill, Lancashire

Countryside around Pendle Hill, Lancashire

Countryside around Pendle Hill, Lancashire

Countryside around Pendle Hill, Lancashire

This included the mind of King James, who firmly believed witchcraft and witches to be real. He wrote an influential book, Daemononlogie, and oversaw the trial and execution of hundreds of people for witchcraft. The 1604 Witchcraft Act imposed the death penalty “for making a covenant with an evil spirit, using a corpse for magic, hurting life or limb, procuring love, or injuring cattle by means of charms”.

Previously, society accepted ‘wise women’ or ‘traditional healers’ who cast spells for good and bad. These mostly poor single mothers or widows lived in many communities. Now, under King James, all witchcraft was assumed to be evil. Worse though, and with profound consequences for those accused in Pendle, was the belief that witches never acted alone. Where one witch was found, there would be many others.

Pendle Hill, Pendle, Lancashire

Pendle Hill, Pendle, Lancashire

Pub sign, Barrowford, Pendle, Lancashire

Pub sign, Barrowford, Pendle, Lancashire

Countryside around Pendle Hill, Lancashire

Countryside around Pendle Hill, Lancashire

In the villages near Pendle Hill, two families of ‘witches’, the Demdikes and Chattox, survived by begging, stealing and providing cures to local villagers. The unravelling of their lives started when Alison Devices of the Demdike clan met John Law, a peddler from Halifax. She demanded he give her some pins for a spell. He refused, she ‘cursed’ him. Bizarrely, he immediately fell to the floor paralysed, probably from a stroke.

Witchcraft was assumed and Roger Nowell the local magistrate was informed. A zealous man keen to impress the government of King James, Nowell cast his net wide. He quickly extracted confessions from barely literate peasants and had nineteen people arrested to await trial in Lancaster Castle – a trial at which they were not allowed to defend themselves.

Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

Witch, Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

Witch, Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

St. Mary's Church, Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

St. Mary’s Church, Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

Graveyard in St. Mary's Church, Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

Graveyard in St. Mary’s Church, Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

Amid accusations of murder, causing madness, cursing cattle and bewitching horses, clay models of people and human teeth stolen from graves at St. Mary’s Church in the village of Newchurch were discovered. More damning, a meeting of the families at a place called Malkin Tower was portrayed as a Witches Sabbath. Some confessed to meeting the Devil in a place called Faugh’s Quarry.

What is surprising about all of this, is that those accused seemed convinced of their powers, and even exaggerated them to the authorities. They openly confessed to all manner of things guaranteed to get you hanged in the 17th century. In total, ten people were put to death for witchcraft, one other died in prison. They were hanged on a bleak moor outside of Lancaster. Today, it’s a children’s playground.

Graveyard in St. Mary's Church, Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

Graveyard in St. Mary’s Church, Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

'Eye of God', St. Mary's Church, Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

‘Eye of God’, St. Mary’s Church, Newchurch, Pendle, Lancashire

Pendle Heritage Centre, Barrowford, Lancashire

Pendle Heritage Centre, Barrowford, Lancashire

Contemporary report of Pendle Witch trials, Lancashire

Contemporary report of Pendle Witch trials, Lancashire

Faugh's Quarry where the Devil appeared, Pendle, Lancashire

Faugh’s Quarry where the Devil appeared, Pendle, Lancashire

It’s rumoured that the body of one ‘witch’, Alice Nutter, was returned to Pendle and buried in St. Mary’s Church in what is now called the ‘Witches Grave’. Alice was an oddity amongst the accused. She was from a well-to-do family and never spoke at her trial. It seems likely that she was hiding the fact that she had been attending secret Catholic services, and died condemned as a witch to protect that secret.

There is a statue of this innocent woman in the village of Roughlee, which now forms part of a ‘Pendle Witches Route’. In Barrowford, the route’s start point, the Pendle Heritage Centre does a good job of explaining the story. I visited a number of places associated with the witch trials including Newchurch village, home to St. Mary’s and close to sites such as Faugh’s Quarry, where the Devil is alleged to have been seen.

St. Mary’s Church tower has an ‘Eye of God’ to ward off evil spirits. These symbols were often found in people’s homes, but seeing one on a church is a reminder of the power of superstition.

On the trail of the Lord Protector in Ely

Seen from a distance across the Cambridgeshire fens, Ely sits proudly on a small hill under a vast sky. The fenland landscape around Ely is as flat as it gets in England, most of the surrounding area is no more than a few metres above sea level. There are many similarities with the Netherlands, from where I’d just arrived, including dyke building and the historic use of windmills to drain the land for agriculture.

Several centuries ago this entire area would have been marshland, and Ely itself was once an island, said to get its name from the eels that were caught in the surrounding rivers and marsh. Ely’s existence is owed to the fact that it sits on a chalk outcrop that raises it above the waterline. Sitting on the very highest point in this low-lying region, the Cathedral dominates the skyline and can be seen from miles away.

Ely, Cambridgeshire

Ely, Cambridgeshire

Ely Cathedral, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Ely Cathedral, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Ely Cathedral, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Ely Cathedral, Ely, Cambridgeshire

The size and grandeur of the cathedral seems disproportionate to the size of the city – it’s home to only 20,000 people – and, at heart, Ely is a sleepy market town. Albeit, one with a long and fascinating history. While it has an attractive historic centre, there isn’t a great deal to see, but it makes for an interesting half-day of exploration. I decided, as if there were a choice, to head first to the cathedral.

This area was quite isolated until the fens were drained, but that isolation attracted religious communities. It was St. Etheldreda, a Saxon princess, who first founded an abbey in Ely in 673AD. Over the next 1,344 years, the original abbey was destroyed and rebuilt, then built upon further until the current building was begun in 1083 AD.

Ely Cathedral, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Ely Cathedral, Ely, Cambridgeshire

The nave, Ely Cathedral, Ely, Cambridgeshire

The nave, Ely Cathedral, Ely, Cambridgeshire

The nave, Ely Cathedral, Ely, Cambridgeshire

The nave, Ely Cathedral, Ely, Cambridgeshire

The Lantern, Ely Cathedral, Ely, Cambridgeshire

The Lantern, Ely Cathedral, Ely, Cambridgeshire

The Lantern, Ely Cathedral, Ely, Cambridgeshire

The Lantern, Ely Cathedral, Ely, Cambridgeshire

It’s fair to say that Ely cathedral is magnificent inside and out. The vast interior space comes as quite a shock (as does the entrance fee of £8). It’s an extraordinarily beautiful building though, particularly the truly unique ‘lantern’ tower and the painted wooden ceiling of the nave. I met a trainee volunteer guide who gave me a potted history, and after an hour or so I found my way outside through the galilee porch to Palace Green.

Ely’s star attraction is definitely the cathedral, but I’d come here for a different reason. I was on the trail of devout Calvinist, renowned statesman, fiery orator, feared general, Governor of Ely and Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland, Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell is a divisive historical figure, particularly if you’re Irish, but also one of the most misrepresented.

Ely Cathedral and Palace Green, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Ely Cathedral and Palace Green, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Ely, Cambridgeshire

Ely, Cambridgeshire

Ely, Cambridgeshire

Ely, Cambridgeshire

Ely Cathedral, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Ely Cathedral, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Ely Cathedral, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Ely Cathedral, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Crowmell was born in nearby Huntingdon. He lived in Ely between 1636 and 1647, although as a Member of Parliament and a commander in the Parliamentary army, he was often away for prolonged periods of time. The house he lived in during that time is now a museum telling the story of his life, the interior rooms recreated to reflect the house Cromwell himself would have known.

It’s quite a small museum, and it doesn’t take long to go around it, but it does offer insights into the man behind the myth. The Cromwell passed down by history is a stern religious man, a humourless Puritan, a cruel tyrant responsible for the murder of a King. While his actions in Ireland, especially at Drogheda, stain his reputation, it turns out that he was far from humourless, enjoyed a drink, smoked, and was a devoted husband and family man.

Oliver Cromwell's house, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Oliver Cromwell’s house, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Oliver Cromwell's house, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Oliver Cromwell’s house, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Oliver Cromwell's house, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Oliver Cromwell’s house, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Oliver Cromwell's house, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Oliver Cromwell’s house, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Oliver Cromwell's house, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Oliver Cromwell’s house, Ely, Cambridgeshire

I left the museum and went on a walk through the lovely Cherry Hill Park towards the River Great Ouse. As the sun broke through the cloud, the views back towards the cathedral were beautiful. Ely is certainly an attractive town and I wish I’d had time to explore a bit further. After a late lunch in a cafe near the river, I set off again on the long journey towards the Lake District.

Ely, Cambridgeshire

Ely, Cambridgeshire

Palace Green, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Palace Green, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Cannon on Palace Green, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Cannon on Palace Green, Ely, Cambridgeshire

River Great Ouse, Ely, Cambridgeshire

River Great Ouse, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Constable country, Flatford Mill and the River Stour

The area around Flatford Mill, Dedham and East Bergholt in Suffolk is synonymous with the works of John Constable. This is where Constable grew up, his family owned Flatford Mill, he went to school in Dedham and East Bergholt is his birthplace, site of his family home and first studio. All these places, dotted close together along the Stour valley, provided untold inspiration for Constable’s work.

His most instantly recognisable paintings from this area – The Haywain, Flatford Mill (Scene on a Navigable River), The Mill Stream – are part of a series painted within a few hundred yards of each other. Strange to think then that, although familiar with his work, I had absolutely no idea where any of these masterpieces were painted.

John Constable, The Hay Wain (courtesy of the National Gallery)

John Constable, The Hay Wain (courtesy of the National Gallery)

Willy Lott's House, Suffolk

Willy Lott’s House, Suffolk

Flatford Mill, Suffolk

Flatford Mill, Suffolk

I would still be ignorant of this but for the fact that I was travelling by ferry to Harwich, before driving to the Lake District. On the map was a symbol for ‘place of interest’. That ‘place’ was Flatford Mill, and since the ferry arrived early in the morning I thought I’d spend the day exploring some places along my route. An early morning stroll on the banks of the River Stour seemed like a good introduction to Constable Country.

So famous were Constable’s paintings of the area, it became known as Constable Country during his lifetime. Constable heard this himself from a fellow passenger during a stagecoach journey. He recorded the incident in a letter: “… one of them remarked to me – on my saying it was beautiful – “yes sir, this is Constable’s Country!” I then told him who I was lest he should spoil it.”

Flatford Mill, Suffolk

Flatford Mill, Suffolk

Flatford Mill, Suffolk

Flatford Mill, Suffolk

Flatford Mill, Suffolk

Flatford Mill, Suffolk

Willy Lott's House, Suffolk

Willy Lott’s House, Suffolk

I arrived at Flatford car park (owned by the National Trust) so early that I qualified for a reduced rate ticket. Walking in the direction of the Stour, the sun was struggling to emerge from behind a blanket of white cloud. As if on cue, as I stood admiring Flatford Mill and Willy Lott’s House, the sun illuminated the entire scene. It was beautiful, the buildings radiating colour as they were reflected in the water.

None of these buildings are open to the public, so a visit is restricted to viewing them from the outside. I spent a little time drinking in the view before setting off past Bridge Cottage on a walk along the banks of the River Stour to Dedham. It was a peaceful morning and I strolled in isolation through a quintessentially bucolic English country scene.

Stour River Valley, Suffolk

Stour River Valley, Suffolk

Bridge House, Stour valley, Suffolk

Bridge House, Stour valley, Suffolk

Stour River Valley, Suffolk

Stour River Valley, Suffolk

Stour River Valley, Suffolk

Stour River Valley, Suffolk

Stour River Valley, Suffolk

Stour River Valley, Suffolk

Arriving in the small hamlet of Dedham was like arriving in a major city after the river walk. I wandered around the place where Constable had gone to school just as it was coming to life. Shops were opening, people were heading to work and the grass cutter was at work in the churchyard. Dedham has another claim to fame, as a hotbed of nonconformist religious zeal in the late 16th century.

Members of the Dedham Classis, a Presbyterian group that opposed the established church, were persecuted in England. Like many other religious radicals, many of them left the country to build a new life in the United States where they established a settlement in Massachusetts called, with great originality, Dedham. The US version is famous for having the oldest surviving timber-framed house in the country.

Dedham, Stour valley, Suffolk

Dedham, Stour valley, Suffolk

Dedham, Stour valley, Suffolk

Dedham, Stour valley, Suffolk

Dedham, Stour valley, Suffolk

Dedham, Stour valley, Suffolk

Dedham, Stour valley, Suffolk

Dedham, Stour valley, Suffolk

I found a footpath that took me from Dedham to East Bergholt, where the site of Constable’s first studio and family home are located. Neither building is the original, and the one that replaced his family home is an ugly example of modern British house building. I bought some breakfast in the local bakery and headed back to the car for the next part of my trip … to Ely.

Site of Constable's first studio, East Bergholt, Suffolk

Site of Constable’s first studio, East Bergholt, Suffolk

Site of Constable's family home, East Bergholt, Suffolk

Site of Constable’s family home, East Bergholt, Suffolk

Street art in London’s East End

Attitudes to street art seem to be changing. I was taking a photo of some wall art in an alleyway just off Hoxton Street in Hackney when an old woman, carrying her shopping into a nearby housing estate, walked past. “Lovely init,” she said in a Cockney accent, “a nice bit of graffiti for a change.” We stood together, two amateur art critics, admiring a strange supernatural-themed piece of art for a moment. “Not my cup of tea”, I said, “but it brightens things up.”

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

We went our separate ways, and I walked towards Shoreditch High Street and Brick Lane. This area has changed dramatically over the last few years, and now hosts more painfully trendy, upmarket bars, restaurants and private members clubs than you can shake a stick at. Prices have shot up and the demographics of the area have changed accordingly. It’s still a haunt for street artists though, and the area’s walls provide a rich canvass for expression.

It’s an area that has had a long association with street art. When I lived in the area seventeen years ago it was home to numerous Banksy artworks, including a dribbled white line of paint along Curtain Road that led into an alleyway where a cocaine snorting policeman was painted on a wall. More famous were Banksy’s acid house policemen on the railway bridge over Old Street.

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Like all of life’s transient pleasures, both vanished, removed by Hackney Council. You don’t see so many Banksy pieces any more, his fame has driven up their value and many have been torn from walls and sold. You do see a diverse range of other street artists though, and they have lent the area a new dynamism. So much so, that you’re fairly likely to bump into walking tours taking people around the area’s street art highlights.

Street art in Hackney was always complemented by commercial art. Hoxton Square was home to Jay Joplin’s White Cube gallery, which did much to encourage an infamous crop of Young British Artists like Tracey Emin, Gilbert & George, Anthony Gormley and Damien Hirst. The area is still home to plenty of independent art galleries, but rising property prices have pushed many young artists out of the area.

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Hoxton Street, Shoreditch, London

Hoxton Street, Shoreditch, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

On Great Eastern Street, hoardings around building works had been turned into a temporary canvas. I took a few photos and noticed a security guard walking towards me. I thought I might be in trouble (some ridiculous companies report photographers to the police, or demand photos be deleted because of terrorism fears). It transpired that he just wanted a chat. He said the graffiti changed most nights, and thought the painting of a rabbit-person was the only interesting piece.

Later, in the streets surrounding Brick Lane, I came across a feast of ever-changing art. I bumped into a fellow street art aficionado, who turned out to be a lecturer at a Tel Aviv university. We compared notes from around the world, and agreed this area of London was pretty special. I made my way back along Brick Lane and, my day of street art spotting over, went to get a real ale in one of the area’s nicest pubs, The Carpenter’s Arms.

Caught in the act, Street art, East End, London

Caught in the act, Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Back in the hood, a walk through London’s East End

It’s been nearly three years since I was last in London, a city I lived in for more than a decade. In a place that never stands still three years is a long time, and I was eagerly anticipating exploring some of my old haunts to see what had changed. Shoreditch, where I’d lived for all those years, was my destination, and I felt a thrill of excitement as I walked past a growing community of house boats along the canal between Islington and Hackney.

Hoxton Street, Shoreditch, London

Hoxton Street, Shoreditch, London

Goat statue, City of London, London

Goat statue, City of London, London

Hoxton Square, London

Hoxton Square, London

If one thing is certain in an uncertain world, it is that Shoreditch would be both familiar and alien at the same time. In the decade I lived here the area changed dramatically, but managed to retain its distinctive character. It’s location close to the financial heart of the City, and its growing reputation as London’s ‘silicon valley’, has seen a rapid new wave of gentrification – most obvious in the proliferation of trendy coffee shops, and a preponderance of men with well groomed beards and moustaches.

Despite that, and much to my relief, it still seems to have its rough edges. Not every traditional East End pub has been turned into a moustache-friendly bistro (although there aren’t many ‘boozers’ left); there are plenty of painfully trendy cycling shops that double as boutique coffee houses, but there are still shops selling bizarre collections of secondhand electronics; and thanks to a large amount of social housing, not everyone in the local community has been forced out by rising house prices.

Firmly rooted in the historic East End of London, Shoreditch is famously mentioned in the nursery rhyme, Oranges and Lemons. In the 16th and 17th centuries, its location outside the City of London allowed industries that weren’t permitted inside the city to flourish in the area. Dozens of trades existed here, specialising in interior design- and clothing-related trades: tanners, cloth makers, rope makers, saddle makers, varnish manufacturers, furniture makers and haberdashers.

The area was also famous for ‘nightlife’ – it still is. The first Elizabethan theatres were built here. Shakespeare performed as an actor in a theatre on Curtain Road, and many of his plays were produced in the area. Where there were theatres, there were also ne’er-do-wells. Shoreditch gained a reputation for its dissolute and bawdy ways – not to mention high crime rate. Playwright, Ben Jonson, killed a man outside a notorious Shoreditch pub in 1598.

Recycling truck, Hoxton, London

Recycling truck, Hoxton, London

Street art, Shoreditch, London

Street art, Shoreditch, London

Hoxton Street, Shoreditch, London

Hoxton Street, Shoreditch, London

Street Art, Shoreditch, London

Street Art, Shoreditch, London

Number art, City of London, London

Number art, City of London, London

This heady mix of cultures attracted subversives. In the 18th and 19th centuries it was home to non-conformist religious groups, and was a hotbed of dissent. The arrival of the Industrial Revolution simply cemented its reputation for poverty and radicalism. Tightly packed with people living in slum conditions, it’s not hard to imagine the area seething with social and political injustice – and it’s no surprise that Charles Dickens frequently visited the area for inspiration for his novels.

All the slums and industry might have gone today, but at its core Shoreditch remains true to its tradition as a centre of dissent harbouring sub-cultures. The area is still a melting pot of communities and cultures. There are still seedy drinking dens with live performances ranging from up-and-coming bands to burlesque; tattoo parlours flourish; galleries showcase exciting new collections. It must be one of the most diverse areas in London.

A Girl's Best Friend ... Brick Lane, London

A Girl’s Best Friend … Brick Lane, London

Bagel shop, Brick Lane, London

Bagel shop, Brick Lane, London

Brick Lane, London

Brick Lane, London

Brick Lane, London

Brick Lane, London

Brick Lane, London

Brick Lane, London

Shoreditch is just a short walk from Brick Lane, traditionally an East End immigrant Jewish community but now home of a sizeable Bangladeshi community – and also London’s finest curry houses. The area was made famous by Monica Ali’s novel (later film), Brick Lane. I wandered down here because it’s a fascinating area, has some great independent shops, pubs with real ale and good food, and is home to one of the finest bagel shops in London.

My delicious salt beef bagel, eaten with pickles standing at a counter overlooking the street, tasted like a little piece of home. Awakening from my nostalgic daydream, I set off to hunt out some street art. This one of London’s best and most creative areas for street art … but more of that later.

A Devil of a time at Swinside Stone Circle

Small but perfectly formed, dramatically located with spectacular views, would be an estate agent’s description of Swinside Stone Circle. They’d probably skip over the tale about how the stones were actually being used to construct a church when the Devil pulled the building down and sunk the stones into the ground. No one wants to know their favourite stone circle has an association with the Devil.

Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

This local superstition, an invention of the 15th or 16th Century, gave Swinside Stone Circle the alternative name of Sunkenkirk Circle but ignores the long history of stone circle building in the English Lake District. This northern region may be something of backwater these days, but 5000 years ago this was the epicentre of Neolithic civilisation in the British Isles. There is a high concentration of stone circles in and around the area.

Lake District, Cumbria

Lake District, Cumbria

Lake District, Cumbria

Lake District, Cumbria

Track to Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

Track to Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

I’d set off in the late morning, the southern Lake District was bathed in bright winter sunlight and there were some beautiful views of snow-capped hills and red-golden bracken on the hillsides. The sort of day when the English Lake District is breathtakingly beautiful.

Track to Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

Track to Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

Track to Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

Track to Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

This was the first time I’d visited Swinside, but after my visits to Castlerigg Stone Circle and Long Meg and Her Daughters I was keen to see Swinside Stone Circle as well. If you want to visit this off-the-beaten-track stone circle be aware that there are no road signs to help you in the adventure. I drove past the track I wanted twice before working out where I needed to be.

Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

I parked the car on a roadside near the tiny village of Broadgate and walked for 30 minutes or so to reach Swinside, climbing up a steep hill before the track flattened out across the fell side offering views for miles to the north. A few desolate-looking sheep munched on grass and I knew how they felt as the sun disappeared to be replaced by dark clouds and intermittent freezing rain.

Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

The stone circle sits on a remote plateau in the middle of the fell which you might think is natural, but excavations have shown that this area was created by Neolithic peoples several thousand years ago. The fifty-five stones, hauled here from some distance, are held upright in holes filled with small pebbles.

Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

I’ll say this of the builders, they had an eye for a beautiful and atmospheric location and weren’t too concerned about the effort it took to construct these monuments. To the north are the mountains of the Lake District, importantly though, a short distance south hidden by the fells is the Irish Sea coast and the port of Millom. Presumably this was an auspicious site for trade and fishing.

A family forlorn, Long Meg and Her Daughters

The fifty-nine granite stones (The Daughters) that make up the circle and the huge sandstone monolith (Long Meg), that comprise the wondrous Long Meg and Her Daughters Neolithic stone circle, are an extraordinary sight to behold.

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

I can’t describe the feeling of being in the presence of this ancient monument better than William Wordsworth, the great Lake District poet, who penned the following lines after a visit in 1833:

A weight of awe, not easy to be borne
Fell Suddenly upon my spirit, cast
From the dread bosom of the unknown past,
When first I saw that sisterhood forlorn –
And Her, whose strength and stature seemed to scorn
The power of years – pre-eminent, and placed
Apart, to overlook the circle vast.
Speak Giant-mother! tell it to the Morn,
While she dispels the cumbrous shades of night;
Let the Moon hear, emerging from a cloud,
When, how and wherefore, rose on British ground
That wondrous Monument, whose mystic round
Forth shadows, some have deemed, to mortal sight
The inviolable God that tames the proud.

This is no ordinary ancient monument. At over 100m in width this is the third largest stone circle in Britain and the sixth largest in the world. So grand is the scale of Long Meg and Her Daughters that the only way to appreciate the magnitude of what you’re seeing is to view it from the air. Luckily, Visit Cumbria has an arial photo on its website. Viewed from the air or not, this is a magnificent place.

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

There were perhaps seventy-seven stones in the circle, eighteen having vanished over the centuries. Still, we should be grateful that any stones are standing at all. In the 18th Century the landowner, Colonel Lacy, decided to have the stones removed so he could plough the field (some say he thought there was buried treasure). As the work began a terrifying thunderstorm erupted, taken as an omen that the stones should be left alone.

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

This story adds to the local superstition that the stones are a witches coven turned to stone. It’s said that if any unsuspecting visitor manages to count the stones twice and gets the same number both times, the spell will be broken and the witches brought back to life. Given the size of the stones, the heaviest is estimated to be thirty tonnes, these were some big witches.

Long Meg is the most impressive of all the stones. Quarried from red sandstone on the banks of the River Eden over two miles away, one side of Long Meg is decorated with carvings. These enigmatic spiral, ‘cup and ball’ and concentric circle designs are still visible today. As is some more modern graffiti.

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

The stone is associated with many legends. It is said to be the petrified remains of a local witch, Meg of Meldon, who apparently existed in the 17th Century; another superstition states that if you walk around the circle then press your ear to Long Meg you can hear her talk. This terrifying prospect hasn’t stopped people from making offerings at the base of Long Meg and in the trees within the circle.

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

None of this explains why this protected national monument has a farm track running through the middle of it, or why the entire area seems to be a toilet for local cows. Is this really how we treat one of our most important ancient structures? Does the local farmer hate people visiting so much that standing in cow shit comes as standard? Perhaps the witches should be brought back to life…

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

A little distance away from Long Meg and Her Daughters is more evidence of the thriving Neolithic civilisation that existed in this area. Just outside the town of Penrith lies Mayburgh Henge, one of three nearby Neolithic henges that acted as meeting places for pre-historic communities. The giant stone in the centre of the huge earth bank that surrounds the site is the only remaining stone of four originals.

Mayburgh Henge, Penrith, Cumbria

Mayburgh Henge, Penrith, Cumbria

Mayburgh Henge, Penrith, Cumbria

Mayburgh Henge, Penrith, Cumbria

Mayburgh Henge, Penrith, Cumbria

Mayburgh Henge, Penrith, Cumbria

Mayburgh Henge is fascinating. It’s a huge structure, the surrounding bank is made with approximately 20,000 tonnes of stone brought from the nearby River Eden. There is a gap in the bank forming an east facing entrance and framing the one remaining standing stone as you enter the henge. It is a shame that the M6 motorway runs close by and peaceful enjoyment of this place is impossible.

A Pagan Christmas, exploring Castlerigg Stone Circle

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.

Information sign at Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Information sign at Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Castlerigg Stone Circle with views to the south, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Castlerigg Stone Circle with views to the south, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Castlerigg Stone Circle backed by Blencathra and Skiddaw, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Castlerigg Stone Circle backed by Blencathra and Skiddaw, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

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.

Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Castlerigg Stone Circle backed by Blencathra, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Castlerigg Stone Circle backed by Blencathra, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

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.

Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

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.

Views south from Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Views south from Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

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.

Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

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.

Entrance stones, Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Entrance stones, Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

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.

Walking in a winter wonderland on High Street

It started so promisingly. Blue skies, sunshine illuminating the golden hills surrounding Haweswater and a crisp early morning that normally means a glorious day and wonderful views. Then again…you can never take anything for granted when walking in the English Lake District. As I was trudging up Kidsty Pike on my way to High Street the weather turned, the clouds descended and the snow began to fall, obscuring the valley below.

Haweswater near High Street, Lake District, Cumbria

Haweswater near High Street, Lake District, Cumbria

High Street circuit, Lake District, Cumbria

High Street circuit, Lake District, Cumbria

Haweswater, Lake District, Cumbria

Haweswater, Lake District, Cumbria

This corner of the Lake District National Park feels remoter than its more illustrious counterparts in the central and western Lakes, but it offers fabulous walks and views to rival any in the region. The plan was straightforward, from Mardale Head on Haweswater I’d skirt the shoreline and go up Kidsty Pike to High Street; pausing to take the views before descending over Mardale Ill Bell and past Small Water Tarn.

My start point, Haweswater, was a natural lake until 1935 when the valley was dammed and flooded to provide water for Manchester. The decision caused an outcry, not only was this a beautiful valley but construction of the reservoir meant that two communities would be submerged.

High Street circuit, Lake District, Cumbria

High Street circuit, Lake District, Cumbria

Haweswater from Kidsty Pike, Lake District, Cumbria

Haweswater from Kidsty Pike, Lake District, Cumbria

Kidsty Pike, Lake District, Cumbria

Kidsty Pike, Lake District, Cumbria

Haweswater from Kidsty Pike, Lake District, Cumbria

Haweswater from Kidsty Pike, Lake District, Cumbria

The villages of Measand and Mardale Green were lost forever under the water but occasionally the water level drops enough to reveal the old buildings. When I was a child during the drought of 1976 my parents took me there, the water so low it was once again possible to walk through the streets of Mardale Green. The reservoir contains 18 billion gallons, providing North West England with around 25 percent of its water.

Kidsty Pike, Lake District, Cumbria

Kidsty Pike, Lake District, Cumbria

En route to High Street, Lake District, Cumbria

En route to High Street, Lake District, Cumbria

En route to High Street, Lake District, Cumbria

En route to High Street, Lake District, Cumbria

There is more than mountains and drowned villages to this walk though. The name High Street, at 828 metres the highest point of my walk, originates 2000 years ago when this was the most elevated Roman road in Britain. Linking settlements at Brougham and Ambleside, it was part of Roman supply routes to Hadrian’s Wall, the border between Scottish barbarians (a Roman term, not mine) and the Roman Empire.

Climbing steadily upwards towards the summit, there is something wonderful in the knowledge that you’re walking in the footsteps of ancient history. The tops of this range of hills are broad and ‘flat’, perfect for road building so Roman armies and supplies could avoid ambush in the wooded valleys below.

En route to High Street, Lake District, Cumbria

En route to High Street, Lake District, Cumbria

Trig Point on High Street, Lake District, Cumbria

Trig Point on High Street, Lake District, Cumbria

High Street, Lake District, Cumbria

High Street, Lake District, Cumbria

These characteristics also lent themselves to the hosting of summer fairs in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Local farming communities would gather on the summit to exchange lost sheep, buy and sell animals, and take part in traditional games such as Cumberland Wrestling and horse racing. Some locals still refer to High Street as Racecourse Hill, making it one of the more unusual racecourses in the country.

Descending from High Street, Lake District, Cumbria

Descending from High Street, Lake District, Cumbria

Descending from High Street, Lake District, Cumbria

Descending from High Street, Lake District, Cumbria

Descending from High Street, Lake District, Cumbria

Descending from High Street, Lake District, Cumbria

On a good day the views across the Lake District from High Street are nothing less than spectacular. Today the weather was determined to deny me the full 360º panorama, but views aren’t everything. There is something profoundly moving about standing alone on a hill top, all noise muffled by a blanket of snow, hearing only the sound of the wind.

Small Water Tarn, Lake District, Cumbria

Small Water Tarn, Lake District, Cumbria

Small Water Tarn, Lake District, Cumbria

Small Water Tarn, Lake District, Cumbria

Small Water Tarn, Lake District, Cumbria

Small Water Tarn, Lake District, Cumbria

The walk along the ridge was accompanied by gusting snow; by the time I reached the trig point on High Street’s summit it was pretty much a blizzard. I set off for Mardale Ill Bell but the cloud persisted for much of my descent until, suddenly, the sun burst through and illuminated the landscape around me. It was quite magical. Finally, below the cloud, I got good views over Small Water Tarn and Haweswater before returning to Mardale Head.

Haweswater, Lake District, Cumbria

Haweswater, Lake District, Cumbria

Just in case anyone was thinking of taking a cooling dip in the reservoir after their exertions, this warning sign should give them pause for thought…although it would need to be a warmer day than the one I spent on High Street to persuade me to take the plunge.

A festive walk over Catbells

Just to be clear, the Catbells referred to in the title of this post is a picturesque hill in the northern part of the English Lake District, and not some weird tradition involving cats, their bells and my size ten walking boots. Please don’t call any animal rights groups, no cats were hurt during the entirely harmless activity of fell walking. Well, I say entirely harmless, but after ten months in the Netherlands my legs were in pieces on the hills.

Derwent Water with Skiddaw and Belncathra in cloud, from Skelgil Bank, Lake District, Cumbria

Derwent Water with Skiddaw and Belncathra in cloud, from Skelgil Bank, Lake District, Cumbria

Newlands Valley from Skelgill Bank, Lake District, Cumbria

Newlands Valley from Skelgill Bank, Lake District, Cumbria

Catbells with Derwent Water in background, Lake District, Cumbria

Catbells with Derwent Water in background, Lake District, Cumbria

I’ve spent a lot of time in the Lake District but it is quite rare for me to visit the northern edge of the National Park. The moment I started the steep ascent up Skelgill Bank to Cat Bells I remembered why: whenever I walk in this area the weather almost always turns violent, typically involving strong winds and driving rain. True to form, I was greeted by a sudden downpour which turned to hailstone. I’d been warned.

Once, climbing Skiddaw – a short distance away – I was forced to crawl on my hands and knees by winds gusting in excess of 100mph. I actually saw someone blown off their feet that day. The winds on Catbells weren’t that vicious, but when I reached the top of High Spy I could hear the wind roaring up the valley and through a gap in the crags. It sounded like a jumbo jet taking off.

Looking forward to High Spy, Lake District, Cumbria

Looking forward to High Spy, Lake District, Cumbria

Derwent Water from Blea Crag, Lake District, Cumbria

Derwent Water from Blea Crag, Lake District, Cumbria

The View from Maiden Moor, Lake District, Cumbria

The View from Maiden Moor, Lake District, Cumbria

On a good day this is one of the most beautiful walks there is in the northern Lakes. There are sweeping views over Derwent Water, Bassenthwaite Lake, Newlands Valley, the Skiddaw range and Blencathra. It is stunning, but who wants perfect weather conditions when you can have gale force winds, driving rain and low cloud obscuring the views?

My plan was simple, walk the horseshoe which goes over Catbells, Maiden Moor and High Spy before dropping down to a gap at the top of the valley and climbing up Dale Head and Hindscarth before winding my way back down into the valley below. Fate, and the weather, had different plans.

The cairn at the summit of High Spy, Lake District, Cumbria

The cairn at the summit of High Spy, Lake District, Cumbria

Descending to Dale Head Tarn with Dale Head behind, Lake District, Cumbria

Descending to Dale Head Tarn with Dale Head behind, Lake District, Cumbria

The view down Newlands Valley, Lake District, Cumbria

The view down Newlands Valley, Lake District, Cumbria

Descending from High Spy to the top of Newlands Valley where Dale Head Tarn sits bleakly on the fell, I started the long slog up Dale Head. A small voice in my head had urged me to descend into the valley and head back, but I persevered upwards only for the cloud to suddenly obscure the entire top of Dale Head.

The view over Dale Head Tarn from Dale Head ascent, Lake District, Cumbria

The view over Dale Head Tarn from Dale Head ascent, Lake District, Cumbria

Cloud covers Dale Head, Lake District, Cumbria

Cloud covers Dale Head, Lake District, Cumbria

Cloud covers Dale Head, Lake District, Cumbria

Cloud covers Dale Head, Lake District, Cumbria

Descending into Newlands Valley, Lake District, Cumbria

Descending into Newlands Valley, Lake District, Cumbria

This sort of thing happens all the time in the Lake District, one of the reasons walking here can be tricky, sometimes dangerous. It is easy to be caught out by the weather and find yourself lost. I wasn’t especially keen to spend the next two hours in cloud, spotting a zig-zag route down to the valley I made good my escape.

Old farm gate post, Newlands Valley, Lake District, Cumbria

Old farm gate post, Newlands Valley, Lake District, Cumbria

Looking down Newlands Valley, Lake District, Cumbria

Looking down Newlands Valley, Lake District, Cumbria

Looking back up Newlands Valley, Lake District, Cumbria

Looking back up Newlands Valley, Lake District, Cumbria

Catbells is a relatively easy walk offering great views and is rightly popular. Get beyond the short loop that drops into the valley from Catbells though and you soon find yourself alone, occasionally bumping into another walker. If Catbells is the epitome of picturesque Lake District, things get a little more rugged further up but the scenery is never less than spectacular (at least when you can see it).

Looking back up Newlands Valley, Lake District, Cumbria

Looking back up Newlands Valley, Lake District, Cumbria

Newlands Valley, Lake District, Cumbria

Newlands Valley, Lake District, Cumbria

Impressive ram in Newlands Valley, Lake District, Cumbria

Impressive ram in Newlands Valley, Lake District, Cumbria

Amidst all this natural beauty it is hard to imagine that you are walking through an industrialised landscape. Every now and then you can spot some old mine workings, evidence of the once thriving lead mining industry which this area was famous for up until the end of the 19th Century. Long gone now, but the physical scars still remain.