Castlerigg Stone Circle and the Langdale Pikes
Castlerigg is a five-thousand year old stone circle set in a stunning amphitheatre of high fells. Wainwright described the Pike O’ Stickle as a “steep ladder to heaven” and declared, “no mountain profile in Lakeland arrests and excites the attention more than that of the Langdale Pikes”. The two are linked by an ancient Stone Age axe industry. In this article, I visit Castlerigg at sunrise and climb the Pike O’ Stickle via Stickle Tarn and the magnificent cliff of Pavey Ark.
“Scarce images of life, one here, one there, lay vast and edgeways; like a dismal cirque of Druid stones, upon a forlorn moor”. We must grant John Keats a measure of poetic license – as a simile for battlefield desolation these lines from Hyperion are hauntingly evocative; but if, as widely supposed, he drew on the Cumbrian stone circle of Castlerigg for his inspiration, I can only assume he visited in mist and poor light; and quite possibly at night.
For shame Mr Keats, if you were alive today anyone would think you aspire to grace billboards – your portrait superimposed on a panorama of these spectacular stones with foot-high letters spelling out the strap line, “should have gone to Specsavers”. For if there is one thing Castlerigg is not, it’s dismal.
In the first light of a frosty morning these monoliths bask in blue tinged shadow, the sun still hidden behind the rocky heights of Helvellyn; while all around looms a magnificent parade of mountains – Blencathra, Skiddaw, Grisedale Pike, Crag Hill, Causey Pike, Sail – already licked by the first rays and illuminated fire-glow red.
This ancient stone circle was erected here, on this grassy plateau above Keswick, over five thousand years ago – four millennia before the birth of British history; three millennia even before the Iron Age Druids Keats credits with its construction.
No-one really knows its purpose. Some argue the stones exhibit an astronomical aspect and unusually for a British stone circle they appear to have a lunar rather than a solar alignment. When the sun finally breaks over the eastern hills it’s as if someone has turned on the floodlights; whatever this place’s original intention there’s no denying its architects’ sense of theatre.
The discovery here of Neolithic axe heads suggests Castlerigg played a role in a lucrative prehistoric export trade. Examples of ancient Cumbrian axes have been found all over Britain, especially along the east coast with a particular concentration in Lincolnshire.
Shaped from hard volcanic rock they would have proved robust alternatives to their flint counterparts, but archaeologists believe they held a symbolic value too – revered perhaps as signs of rank or status. They may even have had a mystical significance. If this is true, trading at Castlerigg would surely have been cloaked in ceremony.
Imagine the sense of wonder when at the end of a hard and seemingly endless journey from the flatlands of Lincolnshire you find yourself amid these sacred stones in an exalted amphitheatre of rugged hills to take ownership of a rare and precious artefact at the climax of an esoteric ritual. Beats Amazon Prime any day.
The Langdale Pikes
The axes themselves hail from Great Langdale, fashioned from rough stones found among the scree slopes of the Pike O’Stickle. In his Pictorial Guides to the Lake District Wainwright declares “No mountain profile in Lakeland arrests and excites the attention more than that of the Langdale Pikes”. While not actually the highest of the Lakeland fells they impart an air of imposing grandeur by sweeping up in a steep unbroken line from the valley floor to their lofty summits, the Pike O’Stickle tapering to a perfect conical peak from which its southern scree slope sweeps down dramatically to form what Wainwright calls “that steep ladder to heaven”.
No wonder our ancient forbears attached such reverence to the hardy blades they found half-formed in this mountain scree. They must have believed these stones a gift from the gods. Old beliefs endure it seems – as recently as a hundred years ago, farmers finding axe heads on their land were known place them in their water troughs to ensure the health of their herds.
A stairway to heaven lined with axes sounds about as Led Zep as you can get but a direct climb would be to experience hard rock of the steep and unremitting kind. Indeed Wainwright notes helpfully, “In a buttoned-up plastic mac, the ascent is purgatory”. I choose instead a more scenic route that starts beside the New Dungeon Ghyll hotel.
Somewhere above, the sun has started to vaporise the night’s damp, veiling Great Langdale in fog and hiding the last few vestiges of the modern world. Beside the misty solitude of Stickle Ghyll it’s easy to feel the millennia melt away.
The footpath climbs by the left bank of the stream and the gradient soon becomes severe. Gaining height quickly, it’s not long before I emerge into sunlight. A little further up I pause to catch my breath and look back on that most eye-catching of mountain experiences – an inversion – where the cloud lies below. It’s a spectacular sight: the black summit of the Pike O’Blisco honouring its swashbuckling name by floating like a pirate ship on a sea of cotton wool. With the valley hidden, the view defies its modest height and, with a fanciful leap of the imagination, these peaks emerging from a blanket of white could be the Himalayas.
The path climbs steeply for about a mile before reaching a striking Lakeland treasure – the magnificent cliff of Pavey Ark mirrored in the glistening expanse of Stickle Tarn. With the inversion below, it’s simply breathtaking.
I follow the wall along the water’s edge and ford Stickle Ghyll at its outlet. This is easy enough but there’s another stream ahead. Recent snow melts have swollen its waters, submerging stepping stones and leaving the remainder a bit of a stretch. I try to take it at pace but slip and step backward into the stream, filling my left boot with icy water. A peel of laughter from behind and a voice shouts “good call mate”. I turn to see three lads waving as they walk further on in search of a simpler crossing.
I round the edge of the tarn toward Pavey Ark. To my left lies Jack’s Rake, a long and challenging scramble up the cliff face. Classed as easy in climbers’ terms, it is supposed to push the limits of ordinary walkers and has claimed fatalities. According to Wainwright, “Walkers who can still put their toes in their mouths and bring their knees up to their chins may embark on the ascent confidently”. Given my inability to cross stepping stones, I make a silent vow of “next time” and follow the path that leads right to the much easier North Rake.
At the top, a thin covering of snow obscures the path and slows progress by concealing the boggy ground beneath – no longer sufficiently frozen to prevent another bootful should I take a wrong step. Painstakingly, I cross to a wall and reach the summit cairn.
The mist has cleared from the valley revealing jaw-dropping vistas across Great Langdale to the Coniston fells and Windermere. As a viewpoint for northern England, the top of Pavey Ark takes some beating. I tarry a while to drink it all in.
Eventually the cold starts to bite and I follow the cairns that lead to the Langdales’ highest point – the summit of Harrison Stickle. Here the western aspect opens up with Crinkle Crags looking particularly crinkled and craggy and the high, snow-flecked peaks of Bow Fell and the Scafells shrouded in cloud. In the foreground, across a hanging valley, rises that object of reverence and source of industry for our prehistoric ancestors – the perfect conical peak of the Pike O’ Stickle.
I make the steep descent to the depression where I meet a man and his dog emerging from the stepped path that leads up from Dungeon Ghyll. He pauses to get his bearings and reveals he’s basically doing my walk in reverse so we set off together toward the Pike O’Stickle. The final assault on the summit requires hands and feet (or paws in our canine companion’s case). After a short scramble we’re here on top of this most iconic of peaks, an unmistakable landmark on numerous Lakeland expeditions and still capable of inspiring awe in generations many millenia removed from the original axe-makers.
I bid farewell to my companion as he sets off to conquer Harrison Stickle and make my way along the ridge towards Loft Crag before descending the path he climbed to get here.
At the bottom, the prospect of a pint at the Stickle Barn is too good to miss. Despite the time of year, the bright sun and the presence of terrace braziers make an outside seat irresistible so I sit and sup and look out across the green expanse of valley.
When Stone Age man made the transition from hunter-gatherer to farmer, these dales would have been thick with trees. That evolutionary transition led our ancestors to forge farmland from forest; on the mountain slopes above, they found the tools to do the job.
On the table is a paper, its headlines full of Westminster bluster on growth and deficit. The political direction of travel these last forty years has been to sacrifice British manufacturing in favour of financial services, yet outside of the City of London it’s not obvious who that has benefited. Dwelling on today’s economic injustice is enough to make you pine for a simpler time when industry in these isles was making axes not falling under them.