There wasn’t a great deal of light as we left Castlerigg. You could have been excused for thinking it almost dusk, but it was still only mid-afternoon. We couldn’t check into the pub where we were staying for a while and, we thought, we would have plenty of time to find our next destination. We hadn’t taken into consideration the elusive nature of standing stones though. When they are not, as attested by many legends… and my companion with whom I have hunted them… wandering the landscape, they hide. Or at least, some of them do. It is easy enough to find your Stonehenge and your Arbor low kind of place… those are neatly signposted and well marked. But there are many that are not and yet others that, in spite of signposts, simply do not wish to be found, wrapping themselves in shadow to preserve their mysteries from the eyes of the curious.
Some circles are almost impossible to find, being tiny, scattered and often lost on the moors and in the wild places, buried beneath the heather and bracken. I suppose you could use GPS but somehow that seems wrong… almost as if you are breaking the rules of the game of hide and seek that you are playing with the stones. It is hard to explain, but it is as if there is a contract between you and the spirit of these ancient places… the patience, diligence and dedication you bring to the quest is rewarded when you find them.
This one, though, wasn’t going to be hard to find. It is one of the best known in the area… and it is accessible. “Wouldn’t it be good,” said my companion, “if we found ourselves on the road that runs through it.” We had both seen the pictures. I had visited once before, but so long ago I had no real memory of the place and with Grandad, we had probably arrived on foot anyway. We followed the map, but the errant circle remained hidden. The light was failing, so we turned around disappointed, trying one final cast down the tiny, country lanes. We struck lucky… an old wooden sign pointed the way, though we had no idea how far or whether we would beat the dusk that was closing in beneath ominous clouds. I thought I saw a tall standing stone in a field… but it was only a distant tree stump. Or so I thought. Then we turned a bend…
“Ambushed by stones!” said my companion. My own words were less repeatable. It was a curious feeling. There is no sense of presence in a photograph… yet present the stones were, just as if they had been laying in wait for us for centuries. We parked the car and got out. We were on the road and it does run straight through the circle, with one of the stones between the wheel furrows. And it is incredible.
As usual, we had done no research before arriving. It is always a toss-up between doing the research so we know what to look for and just turning up unprepared and getting the full, unexpected impact of these amazing sites. While a lack of proper factual information does mean that we miss a good many things, it also allows us to experience the sites in an organic way and see with eyes and heart rather than heads. The research happens later…and then we often find so many things we missed on the first occasion that we just have to go back and visit again. Such a terrible hardship…
Going once is incredible. You get the full emotional impact of a site. Going back, over and over again, you get to know the feel of the place. You see it in all weathers and at different seasons and see how it ‘fits’ within the landscape. You find the other features in the area that form part of a wider archaeological dialogue and see how they work together. And you begin to get to ‘know’ the sites with an intimacy that comes only from familiarity.
We knew straight away that we would have to come back to see Long Meg and her Daughters again… preferably in daylight and when it wasn’t throwing freezing, sleety rain at us. But we did have the place to ourselves except for one person, seated quietly in the circle on one of the stones with as much awe as we were feeling.
My camera would only capture silhouettes in the dying light and the lens was constantly being drenched by the rain. Our fingers hurt from the appalling cold and we were fast being soaked. It didn’t matter. I would not have changed it for the world. The light suited the circle somehow. For our first introduction it was perfect, combining with the stones to give a sense of raw, elemental energy that would have been lost in summer sunlight.
There was too much to take in. The circle too big, the stones too powerfully present. Where Castlerigg had been a magnificent jewel set to sparkle in the white mountains, this was something deeper, earthier somehow… There was nothing else for it, we decided as we sought the relative warmth of the car. We would have to come back again the following morning… and hope for better weather.