Castlerigg Stone Circle and the Romantics

Last Saturday we made a visit to Castlerigg Stone Circle. There were some tourists gazing at the stones, but it was fairly quiet. We both experienced an almost mystical quality. The stones, standing for millennia, in this stunning location. Why? we asked ourselves; as so many people have asked before.

Ignoring the families taking selfies and clambering over the stones, I thought about some of the Romantic writers who made pilgrimages to this Circle.

John Keats was not that impressed: 

"Scarce images of life, one here, one there,
Lay vast and edgeways; like a dismal cirque
Of Druid stones, upon a forlorn moor…"

When Samuel Taylor Coleridge visited Castlerigg with William Wordsworth in 1799, he described the mountains standing “one behind the other, in orderly array as if evoked by and attentive to the assembly of white-vested wizards...." The distant peaks of Helvellyn, Skiddaw, Grasmoor encircling the curving plateau were stunning on Saturday. We found it easy to imagine the attraction of this spot for some type of ancient worship.

Druids also haunted the account of the Gothic novelist Ann Radcliffe, who, visiting five years earlier than Coleridge and Wordsworth, wrote:

"Whether our judgment was influenced by the authority of a Druid's choice, or that the place itself commanded the opinion, we thought this situation the most severely grand of any hitherto passed. There is, perhaps, not a single object in the scene that interrupts the solemn tone of feeling impressed by its general character of profound solitude, greatness, and awful wildness. Castle-Rigg is the centre point of three valleys that dart immediately under it from the eye, and whose mountains form part of an amphitheatre, which is completed by those of Borrowdale on the west, and by the precipices of Skiddaw and Saddleback, close on the north. The hue which pervades all these mountains is that of dark heath or rock; they are thrown into every form and direction that fancy would suggest, and are at that distance which allows all their grandeur to prevail. Such seclusion and sublimity were indeed well suited to the dark and wild mysteries of the Druids."

Not a great deal has changed in the immediate area since Radcliffe’s visit. There are 40 stones arranged in a flattened circle about 30 metres (98ft) across, some weighing up to 16 tonnes, and they’ve been sitting here patiently for 5,000 years doing … what exactly?

In 1913, Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley was among the prime organisers of a public subscription which bought the field in which the stone circle stands, which he then donated to the National Trust. Once again, thank goodness for the foresight and benevolence of Rawnsley.