A Neolithic stone circle, a Bronze Age burial cairn used again in the Dark Ages, and a Romano-British defensive settlement – centuries of history in a walk of several miles from the village of Orton in the Westmorland Dales.
Confusingly, the Westmorland Dales are part of the Yorkshire Dales National Park, though not actually in Yorkshire. Not even in the ancient county of Westmorland, which in the 1970s was dragged unwillingly into the new county of Cumbria. I do wish the politicos had left our old counties alone!
Snatching a rare dry morning off from the almost continuous rain of the past few months, we set off from Orton taking the old road leading to Kirkby Stephen – once a busy highway in times past, but now with only the occasional motor car.
Autumn is coming late here, the trees bearing just the first signs of the beautiful colouring we love to welcome.
A bridleway leaves the lane winding up towards the limestone heights below the Westmorland Dales high ground of Knott. In a field just off the track is a good, though disturbed Neolithic stone circle. At some point in the farming history of the area the circle’s stones were interfered with – though not drastically. You can still get an understanding of what our New Stone Age ancestors would have seen.
We’ve visited this stone circle several times now and it’s worth seeing, full of atmosphere in a wild setting – it’s just off Wainwright’s Coast to Coast long-distance path and worth the slight diversion.
We followed the track to the fellside, following the wall eastwards in search of a burial cairn we hadn’t seen before. This is now access land under CRoW (the hard-won Countryside and Rights of Way Act) so you may wander freely, though there is a path by the wall taking you in the right direction through the moorland intakes.
The burial cairn is situated high up on the hillside (map reference 6655309003). A grand place to be buried, with views across the the Howgill, Shap and Lakeland Fells, overlooking the wide valley of the River Lune.
The cairn, dating to the Bronze Age, was excavated some years ago. It contained a male skeleton found placed on his left side with his hands up to his face, with a triangular chert implement placed by his head.
What is particularly interesting is that the cairn was re-used for burial by the Angles (5-9th centuries AD), three burials found in shallow stone-lined graves. There may be bodies there, undisturbed by past archaeological investigation.
I find it fascinating to imagine the people from the past who walked these same hills, seeing probably similar views, though the valley would have been more wooded. In reality, these folk would have been very like us.
We climbed the hillside, passing through a gap in the wall to Castle Folds, a defensive Romano-British settlement, situated amidst some stunning limestone pavement.
The settlement is set on a long knoll rising out of the surrounding limestone pavement – which undoubtedly provided the rocks for the rampart walls. When intact, it must have been a most impressive structure. There are other Romano-British settlements not far away, but Castle Folds was built purely for defence – not just against casual raiders, but perhaps some specific major threat, hence its considerable proportions.
Built not by the Roman occupiers of this land, but by the natives who existed alongside them. Interesting to see how the builders incorporated the natural limestone pavement into their defences.
Acrchaeologists believe that its once mighty walls were deliberately torn down, though in medieval times the ruins were used once again as a shieling, summer grazing for livestock.
It’s a deeply atmospheric place, and you could sit there for a long time contemplating its, perhaps bloody, history.
Castle Folds is a fascinating place – rare, archaeologically, and well worth the several miles of walk. Even as I write this I dwell on the men and women who sought shelter behind its high walls.
Who was their enemy? What was the fear that made them build such an elaborate structure? And was the medieval stockman, who dwelt there centuries later, at all superstitious about the blood that might have been spilled there?
We followed a very long wall down to a gate leading out of the Great Asby Scar Nature Reserve, limestone pavement by our side much of the way, descending by Scar Side Farm back to Orton, and tea and tea-cakes in the excellent cafe where they also make delicious chocolate. Outside the cafe were parked some vintage motor cycles, their riders seeking refreshment within. As we were leaving, some walkers – probably doing the Coast to Coast – came in. The first walkers we’d seen that day.
The Westmorland Dales well deserve their National Park status. Lovely sweeping countryside and terrific history and archaeology. Well worth exploring and Orton and the villages around excellent starting points.