Or How the Past Can Inspire the Now
Actually, this entry might well have been entitled “a friend in need…” as ambition had gotten farther down the road to writing something than the writing itself. Some how, the year’s end and this one’s beginning, which I had hoped to dedicate to getting a goodly, or at very least, a respectable number of words written, somehow was consumed by more mundane pursuits, doing nothing amongst them. Thus having ceded to the sirens call of sloth, I was girding my loins to dash something off in my usual state (a narrow land, situated between Dismay and Panic) when a friend offered a text, and I gratefully accepted.
Graeme Skinner is a Cumbrian born and bred, with a deep love of the country in which he lives. I envy him his proximity to standing stones and other vestiges of the past, admire his fortitude at arising at untoward hours to catch the rising sun and wet feet in search of the right light, and applaud his sincere desire to transmit those somethings that stir in one’s heart and mind when alone in landscapes that evoke the timelessness of myth.
Graeme’s been around, and he’s got open eyes and an open mind. He takes millions of sublime photos, cultivates a humble blog, dabbles in watercolour and spends a lot of time carefully watching the landscape.
Or How the Past Can Inspire the Now
When I was told, as a nine-year-old boy on his first holiday abroad, that instead of returning to the beach to build sandcastles and jump around in the sea, we were going to visit a few old stones, you can imagine my excitement. The ‘few old stones’ was my interpretation of the prospect; it would have been given the spin of glamour parents use to entice children into dusty museums and other places which hold little appeal for a child. I can’t remember the journey itself, but stepping off the coach onto a piece of dusty ground to be faced with the row upon row of standing stones at Carnac is an impression firmly etched on my mind.
Right: Where it all started, propping up a rather large stone at Carnac with my brother in 1979. I’m on the left.
Left: A painting completed after receiving a spark of inspiration – whilst writing this newsletter.
Carnac left an impression on me that I’ve yet to shake off. Just walking amongst rows of immense stones all perfectly aligned triggered my imagination and sent it in a new and unexpected direction. No longer was my head filled with thoughts of owning a shiny red Ford Capri, with suitable fluffy seat covers. Now it discovered half-resolved ideas from ages past, of the men and women who built Carnac and who walked among the stones before me. Fantasy suddenly had physicality, giants really did walk among us, and I was determined to enjoy my time with them.
Looking back to Carnac
Carnac began sometime between 5300 and 6500 years ago – for some reason I have the mental image of a matriarch from a well-off family suddenly thinking to herself, “I know, we should quarry 3000 or so huge lumps of stone and arrange them all together.” OK, the development of Carnac may have been a bit more gradual; one family or clan may have erected a menhir while another looked on and thought, “hey, we’ll have a go at that,” and all the while someone else was hastily constructing a dolmen for uncle Tim who was deteriorating fast. (A menhir is a large upright standing stone, either part of a group or a single monolith. A dolmen is a Megalithic tomb, constructed from three or more upright stones supporting a large top stone and covered with either small stones or soil to form a barrow.) Of course, the reason behind the construction of Carnac will never really be understood. Modern theories can be far removed from the thoughts of the pre-Celtic population of Brittany.
It is difficult to look at an ancient site and ignore the associated legends. According to one local story Carnac is a Roman legion that came up against Merlin: being a wizard with attitude he promptly turned them to stone – hence the perfect alignment. But there is a 99.999% chance that this is untrue and the construction of Carnac involved much more sweat, blood and tears than it did magic.
The sheer size of Carnac suggests a concerted effort by a large number of people over a long period of time. To cut, move and erect three thousand plus stones without the aid of modern machinery was no small achievement. Sadly there are significant gaps in Carnac as now various parts have been removed and destroyed over the years, so forming a complete image is impossible, but as it stands the site has three stone row alignments, Ménec, Kermario and Kerlescan. In the Ménec alignment alone, eleven rows of menhirs spread over 1000 meters, some measuring 4 meters in height. And Carnac is more than these three alignments, the area is crammed with megalithic sites of varying forms. Cold facts do little to fire the imagination, but actually to stand among the stones while hearing an account of how the various nooks and crannies found throughout this megalithic labyrinth were used during WWII to hide soldiers from various nations is another matter.
Carnac to Castlerigg
Fast forward ten years and a few hundred miles and replace the hot summer sun of Brittany with a steady drizzle. Discovering Castlerigg was an accident. I was aware of its existence but for some reason our paths had never crossed, then, one day while wandering (in my car) with a camera, Castlerigg came into view. Castlerigg Stone Circle has one of the most picturesque settings in Britain, with the surrounding fells of Blencathra, Grasmoor, Helvellyn, and Skiddaw forming a perfect photographic backdrop. Dating back to the late Neolithic/early Bronze-Age, Castlerigg has become really popular with visitors only during the last three hundred-or-so years.
Left: Looking South-East over Castlerigg Stone Circle.
Centre: Two of the larger stones that make up Castlerigg.
Right: Sunset over Castlerigg Stone Circle.
The earliest record of someone visiting Castlerigg was in 1725 when William Stukeley wrote in Itinerarium Curiosum “[…] for a mile before we came to Keswick, on an eminence in the middle of a great concavity of those rude hills, and not far from the banks of the river Greata, I observed another Celtic work, very intire: it is 100 foot in diameter, and consists of forty stones, some very large. At the east end of it is a grave, made of such other stones, in number about ten: this is placed in the very east point of the circle, and within it: there is not a stone wanting, though some are removed a little out of their first station: they call it the Carsles, and, corruptly I suppose, Castle-rig. There seemed to be another larger circle in the next pasture toward the town.”
Today there is no evidence of a grave at Castlerigg’s eastern end and Stukeley’s observation of a second circle is confusing as there is no sign of one ever having existed. Since Stukeley penned Itinerarium Curiosum there have been plenty of visitors, though few of them have looked seriously at the archaeology
Throughout the years many theories have been put forward as to the purpose of Castlerigg; one popular in recent years claims it was used as a trading post for a blossoming Neolithic axe industry. Greenstone Langdale axes found at many sites around Britain are made from a stone found only fifteen miles from Castlerigg. Other theories place significance on solar or lunar events which correspond with certain stones and alignments in the circle.
Since discovering Castlerigg I’ve been a frequent visitor, particularly out of the tourist season. Some days I would sit with one of the larger stones at my back and read while daylight lasted, then watch as the stars began to appear. Maybe those who built Castlerigg stood there too and watched as the same stars rolled overhead, and saw the eastern sky brighten until the first rays of a new day’s Sun poked over the distant hills. It’s something we’ll never know, but it is a great way to spend a night.
The Cumbrian landscape boasts around fifty stone circles, not all accessible to the public and some hardly visible at all. Another one worthy of note is Long Meg and her Daughters. William Wordsworth said of Long Meg that, “next to Stonehenge it is beyond dispute the most notable relic that this or probably any other country contains.” While Wordsworth may have been a little excessive in his praise, Long Meg is still an impressive place to visit; the second largest stone circle in England with a diameter of 350 feet, made up of 51 stones (originally there would have been around 70). Meg herself is a 3.6-meter high red sandstone monolith standing to the south-west of the Daughters, which make up the actual circle. These are not made of the same stone as Meg but are a form of granite, which may suggest that Meg pre-dates the circle by some considerable time.
Left: Long Meg stone circle on a misty morning.
Center: One of Long Meg’s daughters.
Right: Watercolour of Long Meg, Cumbria.
Upon one face of Long Meg there are some fine examples of megalithic art in the form of a cup and ring mark, a spiral, and also some concentric circles. Now, as I may have mentioned once or twice, I find it inspiring simply to walk around stone circles, but treading carefully through a field to avoid traces of the resident cows and looking at art hammered into a stone 175 generations ago is mind-blowing.
Meg is said to get her name from “Meg of Meldon”, a witch of the early 17th Century. One local legend claims that she danced on the moor with her daughters on a Sunday morning and as punishment for this sin they were all turned to stone. Another legend says no one can count the same number of Daughters twice; if you do, evil will befall you.
Other Henges in Eden
Not far from Long Meg is Mayburgh Henge. The stones that make up most of Mayburgh Henge are tiny by comparison with Carnac but the determination that drove the builders must have been just as strong. Mayburgh Henge is a single circular bank with an entrance cut in the eastern side. The bank is made up of small cobbles from nearby rivers and simply moving enough cobbles to construct a 15 foot high bank, 170 feet wide at its base with an internal diameter of 383 feet was a staggering achievement in more ways than one. At the centre stands a solitary monolith, which may originally have had some companions. In 1733 Robert Hutchinson wrote “The inhabitants in the neighbourhood say, that within the memory of man, two other stones of similar nature, and placed in a kind of angular figure with the stone now remaining, were to be seen there, but as they were hurtful to the ground, were destroyed and removed.”
Inside Mayburgh Henge looking East; the opening in the Henge can be seen in the far bank.
Only a quarter of a mile from Mayburgh Henge lies King Arthur’s Round Table Henge. This is slightly smaller than Mayburgh and has suffered much through in recent history. During the 1800s efforts were made to turn the henge into a landscaped garden. Later a road was cut across the end removing one of the entrances and all signs of two supposed standing stones. The site was desecrated further in 2000 when the local arts council erected the “Millennium Stone”.
Cumbria is not the only place on the British Isles where you find pre-historic sites. Once, on a trip to Culloden in Scotland, we had to divert and visit the Clava Cairns, which is a site dotted with Neolithic burial cairns and standing stones. Culloden has an impact on visitors the way all battlefields do; knowing that so many people fought and died over a few feet of ground is not something you shrug off easily. So it was strange to visit Clava on the same day as Culloden and feel such a shift in emotion, that sombre mood of Culloden replaced by wonder and amazement at the ingenuity of Mr. & Mrs. Neolithic.
It’s easy to dismiss the Cairns at Clava as nothing more than stones piled on a grave, but it would be wrong to do so. The inner chamber of the cairns would have been accessed by low corridors, one of which was aligned perfectly so that the setting sun on the winter solstice would shine into the inner chamber. To amplify the effect the back of the chamber was lined with stones with a lighter coloured quartz mineral. Clava also has some nice examples of rock art, with cup and ring marks cut into the kerbstones of some cairns.
Much further South in the British Isles are the Rollright Stones. Set on a hill above Long Compton in Warwickshire the stones have been in place for around four thousand years. Because they were constructed from the local limestone they have weathered in quite an unusual way, leaving a rough and deeply pockmarked surface. The Rollright Stones are made up of three monuments all within close proximity of each other; the Kings Men Stone Circle, the King Stone and the Whispering Knights.
The Kings Men Stone Circle is cited by many as inspiration behind the jagged teeth J. R. R. Tolkien describes in “Fog on the Barrow-Downs” (The Fellowship of the Ring). It was certainly an area Tolkien was familiar with and looking at the weathered stones it doesn’t take much of an imaginative leap of to see jagged teeth in green gums. The King Stone across the road once marked the end of a long barrow and it would make a great place to sit quietly and read a chapter or two of Tolkien; it is quite easy to see where he found his inspiration. Down the field stand the Whispering Knights, huge pieces of limestone which once formed a Neolithic burial chamber, decayed and collapsed over the intervening centuries so that now the stones lean together. Fences are a sad necessity sometimes but, for me at least, the fence surrounding the Whispering Knights robs them of the impact they might have had.
Stonehenge is probably the place everyone thinks of when stone circles are mentioned. As someone who has been ‘into’ such things since childhood a visit to Stonehenge was a big event for me but unfortunately the site is too orchestrated now to be enjoyable or inspiring. You pass through ticket turnstiles, pick up a multi-lingual headset at a stand and walk into a short ‘time-tunnel’ to approach the actual stones; the pristine pathway and manicured grass did nothing to endear me to the place. At Stonehenge itself the first thing you notice is the size; it’s tiny. For some reason it gave me the feeling that someone had removed the real stones and replaced them with a scale model.
Thankfully, Avebury is only a short drive down the road. Avebury consists of a henge and several stone circles. The henge pre-dates the stone circles but accurate dates are hard to establish given a lack of dating evidence; flints have been found from between 7000 to 4000 BC. The sheer size of Avebury is hard to describe, but when you consider that part of the village is inside the henge the size becomes apparent. The henge has a diameter of 460 yards with the main stone circle set just inside; some of the stones weigh up to 40 tons at a height of 14 feet making them an impressive sight. Sadly many of them were broken up and removed at the request of the Christian Church in an attempt to remove all evidence of pre-Christian society from the landscape. To the north-east there were thought to be two concentric wooden circles, though this has yet to be proven.
For me, Avebury reaches the parts that Stonehenge could not (to paraphrase a certain beer advertisement). It is easy to imagine how people attach religious significance to a place like Avebury and why the Christian Church would try to remove it though I’ve never felt the pull of religion walking amongst the stones: just the sense that we really are a little dot somewhere along the time line of human existence.
In the end…
What are we to make of history? It’s easy enough to ignore. After all, we cover it with huge shopping centres that make every town in the country identical and we dissect it with ever-larger roads. The M6 motorway passes mere yards from Mayburgh Henge, yet I’d be surprised if one in a thousand souls speeding hurriedly by even know of its existence. We coin clever sayings about history – it always repeats itself; it doesn’t, it just stutters; if we could learn from it – and dozens of others. Perhaps, as important it is to grand notions like heritage, sense of self and origin, as essential as it is to conscientiously conserve vestiges of the past, history is all about inspiration. For me it’s about awakening a sense of wonder, of avoiding the pitfalls of sophistication and ennui, of always keeping, as best as one can, the eyes of the nine year old whose parents dragged along to see a pile of old stones. Over the years, it has led me to some incredible places, some of them even real.
Graeme Skinner (with thanks to Charlotte Zeepvat)