Discover Ancient Cumbria

Published: Saturday 19th Apr 2014

Written by: Alice de Courcy-Wheeler

When the glaciers of the last ice age retreated from these shores 13,000 years ago, they left behind the dramatic fells and valleys of Cumbria. The earliest inhabitants of this land arrived in the Mesolithic era, roughly 3,000-5,000 years later. Since then Cumbria has been occupied by many different tribes and peoples, and the evidence can be seen all over the county.

Some of the oldest constructions in the country are stone circles. The most famous of these is Stonehenge, but there are megalithic structures throughout England, a quarter of which are in Cumbria. Some are large monumental circles, while others are on a smaller scale, often associated with burials.

Close to Milburn near Penrith, Long Meg and her Daughters is the second largest stone circle in the country. Long Meg herself is around 12 feet high and with her 68 daughters, the circle measures around 350 feet in diameter. There are three mysterious symbols carved into her flanks, and her four corners point towards the compass points. She is constructed from red sandstone, while the smaller stones are rhyolite, a form of granite. The circle is thought to be the site of a meeting place or somewhere for religious rituals to be held.

Meanwhile, ten miles from Ireby in the north of Cumbria you can find Elva Plain Stone Circle on the southern slope of Elva Hill. An almost perfect circle of around 40m in diameter, only fifteen of the thirty original stones remain.

The history of Cumbria is a long and bloody one, with many many battles having been fought for control of the area. Therefore it’s not surprising that the area is dotted with military fortifications. The Romans in particular built many forts, few of which are still standing, but you can still find evidence of their work. Beckfoot Fort near Silloth was once part of Hadrian’s western sea defences, and the lines of the walls can still be seen. Near Appelby-in-Westmorland are earthworks that denote where Kirkby Thore Fort once stood.

After the forts came the castles, often built on the site of the Roman fortifications. Travel a few miles west of Longsleddale and you can explore the site where Tebay Castle Howe once stood. Large earthworks remain as a reminder of when a motte and bailey castle controlled the area. Appleby in the Eden Valley is the place to visit for more complete buildings, large parts of Bewley Castle still survive, while the eponymous Appleby Castle is a fine example of a Norman fortification. Much of the castle remains today, and you can tour the walls and keep to explore this grand structure.

And while it’s pushing the definition of ‘ancient’ a little, Rose Castle near Raughton Head is a medieval castle that’s well worth seeing. It’s not open to the public but it can be viewed from the road or the footpath that runs close by. The castle has dominated the surrounding area since the fourteenth century, and before that it is thought that a motte and bailey castle stood in the same place. Rose Castle has had its fair share of troubles, much of it was burnt down by Parliamentary troops in the Civil War, and large parts have been remodelled and rebuilt since.

Alice de Courcy-Wheeler
Alice de Courcy-Wheeler


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