We have recently learned that though the Stone Circle will still be accessible after December 21st, you should endeavour to make your visit before December 21st because the visitors’ centre and cafe will be closed after that. Call 016974 73552 to place your reservations for Christmas dinner.
We found High Head Sculpture Valley to be a delightful sun trap with a distinctly wild feel to it. Ive beck runs through it, feeding the wetland section and providing home to Otters, Water rats, Kingfishers and other wildlife, the sculptures are situated amongst the abundant foliage, and open spaces linked by paths, bull-rushes, willows and other trees in a pleasant naturalistic integration. If you came upon the haunting vision of a faun with Pan-pipes beside the island stilt-house, it wouldn’t seem entirely out of place. Sculptural works by Jonathan Stamper abound, be sure to bring your camera, denizens of this Eden include a glass snake and brilliant giant butterfly.
Certainly, if you enjoy sculpture, particularly of the outdoor variety, then consider making a visit to High Head, for there is much to see here for visitors of all ages, there’s a children’s narrative in sculpture and good play area for children with a charming hollow tree and swing set, so it is family friendly. It is worth taking time over the exploration. After exploring the sculptures you can then refresh yourselves with good farmhouse cooking and browse the artwork within. That is what we did.
The first sculpture greets you at the entrance and just beside the parking lot there are more, they feed down past the visitor centre with its gallery, cafe and Spa and into the wooded valley and beyond, after a short walk through pasture to the crest of a hill a handsome stone circle emerges within a grove of native deciduous trees. There is a sense of surprise and discovery about your encounters with these artworks, one moment you aren’t aware of them, the next, they are in your world and you in theirs.
I came to hear of High Head while researching prehistoric sites in Cumbria for an ANA Wingspan in-flight magazine article. In the course of visiting some of Cumbria’s amazingly rich prehistoric heritage it struck me as clearly impossible to ask the Neolithic and Bronze Age sculptors why they were erecting stone circles where they did and what moved them to do it, so I was very keen to talk with the contemporary Prehistoric Artist, Brian Cowper about Cumbria’s Stone Circles. He is in a better position than most to help us understand stone circle constructions because he has made a thorough study of them both here and abroad, and has been commissioned to design and build circles for both the public and private sectors.
Brian loves neolithic sites and they inspire much of his work, which is very good. Formerly a lecturer in sculpture at University College Of St Martin, Lancaster, Brian has a thorough grounding in shaping his medium, stone.
His Sun dial for High Head is sculpted of polished limestone and is the result of meticulous calculations and set up with strict observance to ensure that the sun shines through in just the right place at one specific time of two days, noon on the equinoxes. But don’t wait until then to visit, because the interaction of these sculptures with their seasonal surroundings is worth seeing.
Brian has designed and erected a stone circle for the owners at High Head and was kind enough to show us this work and to lend us some good reading material to help my wife and I better understand Cumbria’s prehistoric art and architecture.
Brian was kind enough to discuss issues that had been puzzling us and clarify some common confusions. He says that one commonly held misconception is that they needed vast numbers of people to move and erect the stones. Yes, they were determined and their action was coordinated, but stone was their medium too.
We asked him why, in his opinion, early Britons had built these structures where they did and what they might have been for. Brian clarified from the outset that though Birkrigg, Castlerigg and other circles have been attributed to Druids, these structures have nothing whatsoever to do with them. These sites pre-date the Druidicism vilified by the Romans by thousands of years. He thinks that the structures and their sites are intimately linked with the surrounding landscape and cosmos, and that the sites are usually within view of significant landscape features and/or other sites. He drew our attention to the sense of surprise, discovery and succession that is characteristic of coming upon them and stressed that this was an intentional factor both in their siting and creation. Even when you are looking for them and have the best guidebook (Robert W.E. Farrah’s A Guide To The Stone Circles Of Cumbria ), your realisation of their presence tends to be surprising. It’s a true, deep seated, visceral reaction to them that William Wordsworth captured in his poem when Long Meg and her Daughters took him by surprise.
“A weight of awe not easy to be borne
Fell suddenly upon my spirit – cast,”
These ancient architects were concious of cardinal points and astronomical cycles and factored these orientations into their site construction in many cases. Not just within the construction of each site, one stone in relation to another, but also the site as a whole in relation to other sites and to key landscape features. The alignments of sites with each other have been well documented. Ley lines, such as the Belinus line have been plotted on maps, they don’t just follow obvious transit routes such as the Lune and Lowther valley, but also traverse steep rises, fells and dales. Gamelands and Gaythorne monuments seem aligned with Appleby.
These days we have come to associate straight roads with the discipline of the Romans, but straight routes would have been very important to pedestrian hunter gatherers who would be very fit and would prefer to climb a steep slope directly, on all fours for stretches if need be, rather than zigzag to reduce the angle of ascent.
Brian feels certain that stone circles were civilization centres, important focal points around which all kinds of activities would take place including but not limited to barter trade in polished stone axes and other items, there would also likely have been social and religious rites, actions of law and of celebration, education and information exchange and magic, these sites would likely have been important for respite and healing, the scientific centres too. They were usually sited near water that would have enabled protracted stays. They were made to powerfully assist their hardy makers survive and prosper in their tough world.
This conforms to information we gleaned from a lecture by Archaeologist Tom Clare and his excellent book ( Prehistoric Monuments of The Lake District ) that the earliest circles don’t seem to have been used for burials originally, that seems to have been a later bronze age introduction. Professor Clare stressed how little material has been found in excavations within stone circles. It seems that people didn’t originally discard items and bodies within these sacred spaces.
We returned to the visitors’ centre for a pleasant lunch in their cafe. High Head’ s Cafe serves a variety of freshly prepared light lunches and delicious home made cakes (ingredients locally sourced when possible). The staff are very amiable and there’s a shop with a good range of art work, Made In Cumbria products and nice children’s clothes. High Head also has two holiday cottages available for rent and a health spa. It’s a fine example of farm diversification.
More stone circles to come in my next article.
High Head is open everyday except Wednesdays from November to December 21st 10.30 to 16.00
Call 016974 73552 for further information and see www.highheadsculpturevalley.co.uk