By Caroline Millar:
Between an ancient, yellowed road atlas, an OS Landranger and a limited phone signal, I crept slowly along peering out for a trustworthy brown sign to tell me I was somewhere legitimate. I needn’t have worried. About twenty cars were parked up near the entrance. So much for Wordsworthian solitude.
Along the verge were signs of semi-permanent habitation. Gazebos strung out from the backs of vans created temporary shelter and marked out territory. Plastic picnic tables, cans of Tyskie lager, dogends and a single shoe told of long nights.
Looking back I don’t know what I expected to feel, but it wasn’t shame.
I almost overlooked the stones at first, my attention drawn instead to the people who’d set up camp inside. Within the stone circle sat another circle of hippies; crusties as we’d once called them, the dogs-on-string and lentil brigade, what my parents would call layabouts. A group of men their hair in dreads sat draped in duvets drinking early morning cider. Women with wilting flowers in their hair spread nutella on toast for unwashed toddlers. In the middle of the stones a white pile of ash from a dead camp-fire, empty packets of instant noodles and a didgeridoo.
I’d last been to Castlerigg about twenty years ago. As a student at Newcastle the Lakes had been an easy bus ride over the Pennines. It felt like I was there every summer, but in truth I think it wasn’t more than twice. In memory, my boyfriend and I turned up at the campsite late in the evening to be met by a red cheeked farmer crunching into an apple the same colour as his cheeks. He devoured our money with the same gusto as his apple and pointed to a wet field. For some reason his face has stuck in my head though it might be mixed up with the farmer from Withnail and I, the one with his foot wrapped in a plastic bag and a randy bull. But re-watching Withnail was such a constant of my student days that fact and fiction are hard to separate.
That night we’d walked from the campsite across dark hummocky fields to a dream-like wood panelled bar. Like characters in a John Carpenter film we holed up inside, nursing our cheap bitter, dreading the call for last orders that signalled a long night in the cheap barely two person tent. When we walked down to the stone circle later with a take out bottle of wine, it was totally empty. I lay on my back, my bare feet placed on the stones wondering where all the stars had suddenly come from.
It was probably the Romantics who ruined places like Castlerigg by suggesting that by communing with old rocks we could find a way back to our primitive selves. Now we strain towards empathy at every heritage site, as if summoning the spirit of past is the only authentic response. As I walked round the stone circle this time, I willed myself to feel something. I studied the alignment of the stones with the surrounding mountains trying to see how the entrance lined up with the Skiddaw and Blencathra. I ran my hands over the rough lichen-covered surface and even tried to hug one.
Disappointed, I headed back to the car, stopping on the way out to read the ubiquitous interpretation panels. They pictured illustrations of Bronze Age people looking a lot like the couple from The Joy of Sex. Long hair, beards, flowers in their hair. They were eating, drinking, watching the stars, having sex, playing instruments, sitting round the fire, pondering their future. Just like the hippies now. It was me that was out of time and place here. What I’d felt in the stone circle was shame. The middle-aged hippies at Castlerigg were the real deal. Whilst I sought a relationship with the stones safe in the knowledge my hire car was parked near by and B&B already booked, they slept next to them, as I once had, before I grew up.
Caroline Millar is project manager for Discovering Britain - a series of interpretive walks run by the Royal Geographical Society. She also writes creative non-fiction and short stories inspired by the Kent Coast where she lives. Check out her blog – lights of sheppey
Caroline’s essay from Faversham Creek appeared in Elsewhere No.03, available from our online shop.