To get here you have to travel right to the end of the road, then walk a short distance until you hit the horrible coastal waters where there’s a natural rock arch. Just before here, on the west-facing side, is this famous holy well.
Archaeology & History
Just before this little-known sacred well is a cavity in the limestone rock which is called the Fairy Church, and a couple of hundred yards below here is another one which was known as the Fairy Chapel. This region was obviously of sacred importance to our ancestors – and should still be to those of us with ecological concerns. The waters from this well were said to cure poisons from the body. It was written about at some length in Mr Taylor’s (1906) superb survey, where he collated material from a series of other early tracts describing the well. He wrote:
“This celebrated medicinal well is said to have been used by lead miners from the time of the Romans. The patients come for a two or three days’ stay to “get the poison out of their systems.” The site is three and a half miles nearly due south from Cartmel. The water, which has a very peculiar taste, comes down from the hillside and flows into a small artificial basin or grotto. The key of the door is kept at a neighbouring farmhouse. Close to the well is an untenanted building formerly used by indigent sufferers. The wooded cliff forming ‘The Head’ is of singular beauty, overlooking the waters and sands of Morecambe Bay. On Hennet’s map of Lancashire (1828) the well is called ‘Spa Holy Well.’
“…Mr. W. O. Roper, in his Churches, Castles, and Ancient Halls of North Lancashire, writes: “One other appendage to the Priory of Cartmel should be mentioned, and that is the well known as the Holy Well. On the sea-shore, close under the towering cliffs of Humphrey Head, and almost immediately below the natural arch of rock which leads to the recess known as the Fairy Chapel, bubbles the well to which in former days the Priors journeyed in state from their neighbouring Priory, and to which in more recent times large numbers of people resorted, hoping to derive benefit from its medicinal qualities.”
“Mr. James Stockdale, in Annals of Cartmel, writes: “Near to this holy well (Humphrey Head) are two cavities in the mountain limestone rock called the ‘Fairy Church’ and the ‘Fairy Chapel,’ and about three hundred yards to the north there used to be another well, called ‘Pin Well’, into which in superstitious times it was thought indispensiable that all who sought healing by drinking the waters of the holy well should, on passing it, drop a pin; nor was this custom entirely given up till about the year 1804, when the Cartmel Commoners’ Enclosure Commissioners, on making a road to Rougham, covered up this ‘Pin Well’. I have myself long ago seen pins in this well, the offerings, no doubt, of the devotees of that day.”
“Mr. Hope, in his Holy Wells of England, says that “this is a brackish spring celebrated as a remedy for stone, gout, and cutaneous complaints. The water issues from a projecting rock of limestone, called Humphrey Head and its medicinal qualities occasion a considerable influx of company to Cartmel, Flookborough, Kent’s Bank and Grange during the summer months…”
The site was clearly marked in 1851 on the first OS-map of the area as the Holywell Spa, and the attendant Fairy Chapel and Fairy Church shown as two distinctly separate places, very close by.
Hope, Robert Charles, Legendary Lore of the Holy Wells of England, Elliott Stock: London 1893.
Taylor, Henry, The Ancient Crosses and Holy Wells of Lancashire, Sherratt & Hughes: Manchester 1906.
Bittova journey this — but well worth it! From Broughton-in-Furness take the A595 road west, past Duddon Bridge for about another 1½ miles, turning right up the small single-track country lane beloved of city-mind drivers, up the fertile scruffy road, past Broadgate and stopping just before Cragg Hall Farm. There’s a dirt-track running up the back of Cragg Hall. Go up here and keep walking for a mile or so until, as you approach Swinside Farm and the fields open up in front of you, the stones begin to appear.
Archaeology & History
The Swinside stone circle is Aubrey Burl’s favourite. And for good reason! Like other impressive megalithic rings of the region, the stones are large, well set, and the landscape holds the stones finely in the hills. Without the landscape here, Swinside (like Castlerigg and elsewhere) would not have such grandeur. When you sit in the ring, or walk round it, Knott Hill to the south was of obvious mythic relevance to the people who built this stone circle four or five thousand years ago. But this can be said of many of the surrounding crags. A few miles southwest we see the top of the haunted Black Combe rising into clouds, still speaking to some with spirits from animistic realms, long known to our ancestors. Following the skyline west and past the small falls of Whicham stream, whose name speaks of long past trees, we reach the near-west skyline with the cairn-looking pap of the Raven Crag, symptomatic of magickal rites calling to and beyond the circle. To the north is the symbolic ridge of Lath Rigg. Along the craggy eastern ridges from here you get the impression that you’re more in Argyll than Cumbria; and the break in the hills to the southeast reaches to the distant pinnacle of Kirkby Moor, where the midwinter sunrise emerged to tell of solar calendrical motions and the coming of the dark season to our megalithic tribes. But enough of the landscape!
Although the name Swinside can be traced back to the 13th century, the local folk-name of the circle—Sunken Kirk—was mentioned for the first time as “the Chapell Suke” in Parish Registers of 1624. No earlier literary source has yet been identified, probably because of the isolation of the site and the lack of people writing about the area. Swinside stone circle is, just about, a perfect circle, give or take a foot here and there, holding the circular dome of the heavens within its domain. Yet despite its almost regal appearance, early references to the site seem scant. It seems to have been first described in William Hutchinson’s huge History of Cumberland (1794), where he told:
“In the neighbourhood of Millum, at a place called Swinside, in the estate of William Lewthwaite Esq., of Whitehaven, is a small but beautiful druidical monument; it is circular, about twenty eight yards in diameter; the stones of which it is composed are from six to eight feet high, all standing and complete. A little to the south, is another of larger dimensions, but not in so perfect a state: the neighbouring people call those places by the emphatical names of Sunken Kirks.”
A few years later, William Camden’s legendary text Britannia was edited and reprinted again, this time by Richard Gough (1806), who told:
“At Swineshead, a very high hill…is a druidical temple, which the country folk call Sunken Kirk, i.e., a church sunk into the Earth. It is nearly a circle of very large stones, pretty entire. No situation could be more agreeable to the Druids than this; mountains almost encircle it, not a tree is to be seen in the neighbourhood, nor a house, except a shepherd’s cot at the foot of a mountain surrounded by a few barren pastures. At the entrance are four large stones, two placed on each side at the distance of six feet. The largest on the left hand side is five feet six inches in height, and ten feet in circumference. Through this you enter into a circular area, 29 yards by 30. This entrance is nearly southeast. On the north or right-hand side is a huge stone of conical form, in height nearly nine feet. Opposite the entrance is another large stone which has once been erect, but is now fallen within the area: its length is eight feet. The left hand or southwest is one, in height seven feet, in circumference 11 feet nine inches. The altar probably stood in the middle, as there are some stones still to be seen, though sunk deep in the earth. The circle is nearly complete, except on the western side some stones are wanting. The largest stones are about thirty one or two in number. The outwards part of the circle upon the sloping ground is surrounded with a buttress or rude pavement of smaller stones raised about half a yard from the surface of the Earth… This monument of antiquity, when viewed within the circle, strikes you with astonishment, how the massy stones could be placed in such regular order either by human strength or mechanical power.”
It seems he was impressed! Yet despite this, in the 19th century not many folk strayed this far into the western edges of Lakeland to look upon Swinside. There were occasional descriptions from travellers and antiquarians such as J.T. Blight (1843) and Edwin Waugh (1861), each speaking of the site’s visual magnitude, but it wasn’t until archaeologist C.W. Dymond came here, first in 1872 and then again in 1877, that a fuller account of the site came into being. In his essay on a “Group of Cumberland Megaliths,” he said how the stones were still in excellent condition and that,
“few of the stones seem to have been removed — probably because plenty of material for walling and road-making could be collected from the neighbouring hillside.” (Dymond 1881)
When Mr Dymond first came here he told of the remains of a rowan tree which had split one of the stones, but this has long gone. More than twenty years after the archaeologist’s first visit, he returned with R.G. Collingwood to make a more detailed evaluation of the ring. He measured and planned Swinside like it had never been done before and his ground-plan (below) is still very accurate indeed. Aubrey Burl (1999) takes up the story:
“The ring was partly excavated by Dymond, Collingwood and three men from midday Tuesday, 26 March 1901, until the close of the following evening. They dug two long, intersecting 46cm-wide trenches, NW-SE, NE-SW, across the ring with a curious zigzagging pattern of others between southeast and southwest: an investigation of some 51m² of the central area. Within the circle the trenches represented less than a thirteenth of the 642m² of the interior.
“Below the grass and turf was a thin layer of soil under which yellowish marl or ‘pinnel’ varied from 15cm to 75cm in depth, being deepest at the entrance which had been dug into earlier around 1850. Wherever it was uncovered the gravelly marl was wavily uneven, presumably the result of ploughing. The bases of the circle-stones rested on the pinnel, held firmly in their holes by small cobbles with others heavily packed around the sides. The only finds were a nut-sized lump of charcoal just northeast of the centre with others near the entrance; a minute splinter of decayed bone near the first bit of charcoal and two pieces of red stone. There were also some contemporary glass sherds and a Lancaster halfpenny dated between 1789 and 1794 lying in the uppermost turf layer.”
Since these early archaeological digs, Swinside has given up little else. Much like other stone circles in the British Isles, few real clues as to exactly what went on here have been forthcoming. But in the 1960s, investigations into megalithic sites made a bit of a quantum leap and some old ideas about astronomical ingredients were resurrected.
Swinside was one of the places explored by engineer and megalith enthusiast, Alexander Thom. Thom was one of the prime figures instrumental in the resurgence of interest in megalithic sites — and his finds of megalithic astronomy and prehistoric mathematics had a lot to do with it. Although we know today that some of Thom’s work isn’t correct, his explorations and research stand him far ahead of most archaeologists who pretended to represent this area of research. He left us with the most detailed ground-plans of megalithic sites to date and, of course, showed some fascinating alignments.
Thom listed Swinside as site “L1/3” and made the most detailed and accurate ground-plan of this and 18 other megalithic rings in Cumbria. He found it to be 94 feet in diameter, with an internal area measuring 6940 square feet. The one major alignment Thom found at Swinside was of the winter solstice sunrise, lining up just on the edge of the ‘entrance’ to the circle’s southeastern side.
Like a number of other stone circles, folklore told that you couldn’t count the stones. Janet and Colin Bord (1997) also told that people once tried to build a church here in early christian days, but once the builders went home in the evening, the Devil pulled down what they’d built during the day. A motif found at Ilkley’s Hanging Stones cup-and-ring carvings and many other prehistoric sacred sites in the country.
…to be continued…
Armstrong, A.M. et al., The Place-Names of Cumberland – volume 2, Cambridge University Press 1950.
Bord, Janet & Colin, Prehistoric Britain from the Air, Weidenfeld & Nicolson: London 1999.
Burl, Aubrey, “‘Without Sharp North…’ – Alexander Thom and the Great Stone Circle of Cumbria”, in Ruggles, Clive, Records in Stone, Cambridge University Press, 1988.
Burl, Aubrey, A Guide to the Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany, New Haven & London 1995.
Burl, Aubrey, Great Stone Circles, Yale University Press: New York & London 1999.
Burl, Aubrey, The Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany, Yale University Press 2000.
Dymond, C.W., “A Group of Cumberland Megaliths,” in Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society, volume 5, 1881.
Dymond, C.W., “An exploration at the Megalithic Circle called Sunken Kirk at Swinside, in the Parish of Millom, Cumberland,” in Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society, New Series volume 2, 1902.
Gough, Richard (ed.), Camden’s Britannia, J. Nichols and Son: London 1806.
Hutchinson, William, The History of the County of Cumberland – volume 1, F. Jollie: Carlisle 1794.
Seton, Ray, The Reason for the Stone Circles in Cumbria, R. Seton: Morecambe 1995.
Thom, Alexander, Megalithic Sites in Britain, Oxford University Press 1967.
Thom, A., Thom, A.S. & Burl, H.A.W., Megalithic Rings, BAR: Oxford 1980.
Waterhouse, John, The Stone Circles of Cumbria, Phillimore: Chichester 1985.
Waugh, Edwin, Seaside Lakes and Mountains of Cumberland, Alexander Ireland: Manchester 1861.
Huge thanks to Brian Else for his photos. And to Paul and Tricia for taking us here, in awesome downpour weather!
St Oswald’s church stands at the western edge of the village of Dean beside the road to Branthwaite. The village is located some 5 miles due south-west of Cockermouth and about 6 miles to the south-east of Workington.
Archaeology & History
In the nave of St Oswald’s church there is now housed a small sandstone boulder that has a well-defined central cup-mark around which are two large concentric rings, a third ring being left open – perhaps indicating a portal (gateway), and three other well defined cup-marks at the side of that, one of which has become almost adjoined to the other through erosion.
The boulder was ploughed up in a field at nearby Park Hill to the south-west of the village in 1918. It was then placed in the churchyard but, in recent times it was brought into the church for safety reasons.
Beckensall, Stan, Cumbrian Prehistoric Rock Art, Abbey Press: Hexham 1992.
Beckensall, Stan, British Prehistoric Rock Art,Tempus: Stroud 1999.
Beckensall, Stan, Prehistoric Rock Art in Cumbria, Tempus: Stroud 2002.
A mile east of Waverbridge, turn down the track called Watergates Lonning. Before you reach the bottom, on the left side of the straight track is a spring of water. This is the old holy well.
Archaeology & History
Although much used in bygone times, very little of it can be seen nowadays. When John Musther (2015) wrote about it recently, he told that although it was
“Once known for its copious amount of remarkably pure and sweet water, it is now only a trickle by a tree.”
Nearly three hundred yards away across the fields northeast of this small spring of water, was once seen “a pretty large rock of granite, called St. Cuthbert’s Stone“, whose mythic history will have been intimately tied to the holy well.
In the second volume of William Hutchinson’s History of the County of Cumberland (1794), he tells that the St. Cuthbert’s Well,
“is a fine copious spring of remarkably pure and sweet water which…is called Helly-well, i.e. Haly or Holy Well. It formerly was the custom for the youth of all the neighbouring villages to assemble at this well early in the afternoon of the second Sunday in May, and there to join in a variety of rural sports. It was the village wake, and took place here, it is possible, when the keeping of wakes and fairs in the churchyard was discontinued. And it differed from the wakes of later times chiefly in this, that though it was a meeting entirely devoted to festivity and mirth, no strong drink of any kind was ever seen there, nor anything ever drunk but the beverage furnished by the Naiad of the place. A curate of the parish, about twenty years ago (c.1774), on the idea that it was a profanation of the Sabbath, saw fit to set his face against it; and having deservedly great influence in the parish, the meetings at Helly-well have ever since been discontinued.”
Hutchinson, William, The History and Antiquities of the County of Cumberland, volume 2, F. Jollie: Carlisle 1794.
Musther, John, Springs of Living Waters: The Holy Wells of North Cumbria, J.Musther: Keswick 2015.
Stone Circle (destroyed): OS Grid Reference – SD 714 978
Archaeology & History
This is yet another stone circle that’s been destroyed. It seems to have been described first by Nicolson & Burn (1777) — as “a circle of large stones, supposed to be a monument of druid worship” — but a century later when Reverend Nicholls (1877) came to describe it, he was talking of it in the past tense, saying:
“Fifty years ago there was a circle of stones on the high road leading from Kirkby Stephen to Sedbergh, near Rawthey Bridge, supposed to be a monument of Druid worship. These stones, I have been informed by Mr. William Alderson of Brigg, were blocks of limestone, about three feet high, and were inconsiderably removed for the purpose of helping to build the abutment on the Ravenstonedale side of the present bridge which spans the Rawthey, and bears (the) date 1822. The holes in which the stones stood are, however, yet visible, although overgrown with grass. Collectively they form a circle.”
One writer later (1967) told that the site “seems to have stood on the moor to the left of the road opposite the confluence of the Sally Beck with the Rawthey.” As far as I’m aware, little more is known of the site. Omitted from Burl’s magnum opus, it was included in Waterhouse’s (1985) fine survey of Cumbrian megaliths, but with no further details. But another Victorian writer (Thompson 1892) thought it more likely that the ‘circle’ here was, in fact, more likely a barrow or grave-mound. Sadly, we’ll probably never know…
Anon., Sedbergh, Garsdale and Dent, Reeds: Penrith 1967.
Nicholls, Rev. W., The History and Traditions of Ravenstonedale, John Heywood: Manchester 1877.
Nicolson, J. & Burn, R., The History and Antiquities of the Counties of Westmorland and Cumberland, London 1777.
Thompson, Rev. W., Sedbergh, Garsdale and Dent, Richard Jackson: Leeds 1892.
Waterhouse, John, The Stone Circles of Cumbria, Phillimore: Chichester 1985.