Stone Circle: OS Grid Reference – SD 17163 88174
Also Known as:
- Chapel Sucken
- Chapel Suke
- L1/3 (Thom)
- Sunken Kirk
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!
© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian