Shap Standing Stones, Stone Circles and Avenues
The area around Shap has been a focus of activity since at least the late Mesolithic.
Dating the avenue has proved difficult due the lack of dateable evidence. T. Clare suggested a late Neolithic date based upon his excavation of the Goggleby Stone and comparisons with other similar linear monuments such as The West Kennet Avenue.
The antiquarian, Leland, visited the area in the 16th century and failed to mention the stones. A short while later, Camden visited Shap and recorded the northern stones as ‘large stones in the form of pyramids set almost in a direct line and at equal distances, for a mile together’.Stukeley visited the site in 1725 and interpreted the avenues as a ‘megalithic serpent’, unfortunately the plan drawn up by his surveyor, Routh, is now lost.Through the centuries the Shap avenues have attracted many of the more notable antiquarians and archaeologists. This has left us with a record charting the destruction of this once spectacular monument. In 1777 Nicholson and Burn noted the blasting and carrying away of stone for the foundations of buildings. By 1824 G. Hall wrote about the destruction of the stones by enclosure. When Lukis and Ferguson review the evidence in the late 1800’s ‘there was precious little remaining other than the early and apparently conflicting accounts’.
The antiquarian, Rev. J. Simpson was the Vicar of Shap in the mid 1800’s; he described the avenue and gave an intriguing account, writing that from tradition there was a stone circle 400ft in diameter with a large stone at the centre. It’s said that this huge centre stone was cut into 7 pairs of “Yat Stoops” or gateposts. The Reverend Simpson was also something of a pioneer in the field of prehistoric rock art and was the first person to describe and draw the cup and ring marking on the Goggleby and Asper’s field stones. Aubrey Burl describes these stones as “mistakenly claimed to be cup marked” an opinion which is not shared by Stan Beckensall who describes them thus ” the symbols on the Goggleby Stone are a shallow wide cup mark with a smaller one beneath it on the vertical face of the stone. The Asper’s Field stone, has a cup with a single ring on top”. Which just goes to show that even the mighty Mr Burl can be mistaken. (Incidentally he also states in his “Carnac to Callanish” book that ‘Knipe Scar has gone’, Stubob and myself would beg to differ with that one).
From this circle an avenue ran roughly north northwest to another circle Karl Lofts north of the Greyhound Hotel where the road rises, this was described by Dr Simpson in 1859. He says that from tradition there was a stone circle 400 ft in diameter with a large stone in the centre. The legend of this huge stone is that it was cut up into seven pairs of “yat stoops” or gateposts. From this circle at Brackenbyre an avenue or double row of stones ran to the south and terminated in a stone circle on the west side of the railway.
The stones at Karl Lofts were moved either in road works or railway works, but many of these smaller stones can be seen in the bottom of the wall alongside the pavement near Karl Lofts terrace.
Of the avenue stones running to Shap Grange, four can be easily identified, one behind the Kings Arms (called Barnkeld), a raised area in the field running towards Peggy wood could be a trace of the walk way. Another stone in the line of the wall north of Peggy Wood (this is an enormous stone the full height of the wall and cannot have been easily moved) there are several smaller stones in the base of the wall close to this.
The Giants Foot is a beast of a stone, but it’s size is not the most significant factor, it’s shape was more important, it is tabular, an indication that something may have changed. Most of the stones are rounded boulders There are references in the various accounts of the pairing up of tabular and rounded rocks, perhaps to signify the male and female form.
The Goggleby or Guggleby stone (which has a cup mark) in a field near the footpath to Keld. Burl describes the Goggleby stone as looking like a bulbous triangular avocado standing on its head. Burl’s Avocado is a beautiful stone. In his stone row book he relates a tale that ‘ In 1834 the Rev. Bathurst Deane scoffed at the ‘ridiculous name of the “Guggleby” stone, given to it by a facetious farmer some years ago to exercise the ingenuity of antiquarians’. As, over a century before, Stukeley had referred to ‘one particularly remarkable, called Guggleby Stone’ Deane appears to have been misled’.
In 1969 this stone fell over but was re-erected by Lancaster University Archeological Department. Excavation in advance of the re-erection of the Goggleby Stone found no material which could give a closer date but it was possible to glimpse the method of erecting this 12-ton monolith.
After digging, the hole was partly refilled with loose clay and soil. The stone was then manouvred until it tipped into the hole where it was held at an angle by the loose fill. In this position the effort required to haul it upright would be greatly reduced particularly if shear legs were used. When upright the top of the hole was filled with ‘packing’ or wedging stones”.
The terminus of the circle would seem to be Skellaw (Scale How) Hill a burial tumulus. The Hill of Skulls’ has long since lost its ‘sepulchre’ status and was reduced to a small mound following the enclosure of the common in 1815. If you look in the wall just below the hill, you will find a large embedded stone that is perfect alignment with Apser’s Field and theGoggleby Stone.
At the entrance to High Buildings farm you can see the Mighty Thunder Stone in the field ahead. In the opposite corner of the field, close to the road is another good-sized stone but nothing on the scale of the mighty Thunder Stone.
In the field beyond is the area described by Clare as “disturbed ground amongst which the remains of old enclosures (associated with quarrying?) can be discerned. This area would equate with the four ovals or circles of Routh and the square plots of stones nearly covered with earth, of Hodgson which are considered to be the northern terminus”.
The houses and walls of the northern 2/3rds of the village are totally free of granite. The walls are topped with beautiful gnarly limestone but no boulders, no footings. At the point where the avenue leaves the village, the use of granite stops.
The implication here is that all of the granite we encountered in the southern end of the village has been gathered from the fields. Burl writes that there were 500 stones in the avenue, I’m not sure where he gets this figure from but given the length of the avenues, it seems reasonable. If this figure is true then we have seen evidence of about 1/10th of these stones. The rest, we must assume are now part of the fabric of the village, foundations for walls and houses, drainage channels and road stone.
So what can we say about Shap? Yes the avenues would have been magnificent, but more than this, Shap appears to be the significant part of the whole sacred landscape of the eastern margins of Cumbria. This is a landscape that exists in a corridor between the western margins of the Pennines and the eastern margins of the Cambrian fells. This landscape seems to be associated with the three interconnected rivers, which run through it, The Rivers Eden, Elmont, and Lowther.
If we start at the ruined stone circle and stone row of Grey Yauds and then move along the Eden to the ruined complexes at Broomrigg, Old Parks, Glassonby, Long Meg and Little Meg. We then come to the junction of the Eden and the Eamont, if we follow the Eamont for two miles we come to the junction of the Lowther and the crossing point at Eamont Bridge with the triple henges of Mayburgh, King Arthur’s Round Table and The Little Table. Follow the Lowther south past the standing stones of Clifton, the Long barrow of Low Moor, the Moor Divock complex, the circles and enlosure of Knipe Moor and the nearby, the circles of Shapbeck Plantation, Wilson Scar, and Gunnerkeld.
These monuments are all north of Shap and roughly follow the river systems. In the hills surrounding Shap itself we have the prehistoric stone circles and cairn circles of Castlehowe Scar, Iron Hill and Oddendale.
An interesting aside to all the followers of Julian Cope’s research. The Rev J Simpson refers to Oddendale as “Odindale” and the nearby barrow of Seal Howe as “Sill Howe”.
In the mid 1970’s, T. Clare reviewed all of the published accounts of the avenues and tried to make sense of the conflicting accounts of the Antiquarians. His fieldwork led him to conclude that the apparently conflicting accounts of the avenues were in fact complimentary. The main difficulty with all of the early interpretations of the avenues was what Routh described as the ‘remarkable turn’ in the avenues course. Clare hypothesised that there could be two possible explanations for this turn. The north and south avenues were two separate monuments or that the Skellaw Barrow preceded the avenue and had to be avoided. He then concluded that avoidance of the barrow was unlikely and so chose the option of two separate avenues. Looking at the stones themselves further strengthened this argument. He stated that all but one of the members of the north avenue appear to be tabular in form whilst the members of the southern group were more diverse in form. He suggested that Skellaw Hill could have been a terminal along with the Kemp Howe circle.
Aubrey Burl’s favoured and as he puts it, un-dogmatic, interpretation of the avenues is ‘To the north of the Kemp Howe there had been two single lines, the eastern beginning at the Goggleby Stone, and the other starting about 1000 feet (300m) to the WNW and stretching north-westwards for some 900yds (820m) passing alongside the Knipe Scar enclosed cremation cemetery with it’s burnt human bones”
Most of this reaserch has been carried out Fitz Coraldo and we must thank him for allowing us to use it. His final thoughts on the area are:
There seems to be a huge amount of ritually related activity taking place in the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age. Were people coming into this area from other parts of the British Isles? I believe there were. I base this upon my many visits to the area and looking at the different styles of monuments and tracing the possible routes.
Why were they coming to Cumbria? Its location in the centre of the British Isles is ideal, especially if you are navigating the western seaboards. There is also a lot of evidence which points to the movement of stone axes from Cumbria. Cumbrian stone axes can be found throughout Britain and Ireland. A lot of research has been undertaken into the production and distribution of stone axes, I don’t really want to explore that here, as this weblog seems to be far longer than I wanted it to be.
I was recently asked, why did are so many of these monuments dated to the Bronze Age, a time when the production of stone axes was in decline?
I believe that the ancient Cumbrians were prospectors and traders. They originally explored the fells for rock that was suitable for making tools such as axes, but as we moved away from stone tools and embraced the new metal technologies the veins of copper, lead and silver that can be found in various locations throughout the fells would probably have been known to many people. There is evidence of prehistoric copper extraction at Coniston. This would probably have been a natural progression. . The quarrymen would have become surface miners and the knappers would have become bronze smiths. One hint of this may be Stukeleys report of a ‘bronze celt’ (probably an axe) found ritually buried in the entrance to Mayburgh Henge 10km north of Shap. Of course none of this is certain but it’s the best I can come up with given the evidence I have.
Finally I would like to say that I agree with Mr Cope’s statement that Shap is a “Mini-Avebury”. It is still a magnificent monument set in a spectacular landscape. More significantly for me, it is a monument that is free of the new-age frippery that has invaded and swallowed many of our ancient British monuments.
The SMR lists stones at the following grid references
NY55171592, NY55151574, NY55551528, NY55551526, NY55841520, NY55921509, NY56051496, NY56031477, NY56611436, NY56591425, NY56741411, NY56751410, NY56761409, NY56741409.
NY5673613194 to NY5673713308. The stones opposite Kemp Howe
NY5656813841. The Force Bridge stone
NY5659414220. The Green Farm stone
NY5656814378 to NY5650314574. The central stones in the wallside.
NY5629314819. The bullock field stones
NY5564115433. Two stones on the roadside below Skellaw
NY5555315278 & NY5555713264. The two stones north of Asper’s Field next to the quagmire
NY5527915783. Stones close to the Shap Abbey junction.
NY5527915783. Stones in a field clearance.
NY5527015828. Wall stones
NY5521215932. Two uprooted stones.
Prehistoric Rock Art in Cumbria
Tempus Publishing 2002
From Carnac to Callanish. The Prehistoric Stone Rows and Avenues of Britain, Ireland and Brittany.
Yale University Press 1993
The Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany.
Yale University Press 2000
Field Walking in Cumbria
Current Archaeology 115. June 1989
Recent Work on the Shap “Avenue”
Transactions of the Cumberland & Westmorland Antiquarian & Archaeological Society Vol LXXVII 1978
Archaeological Sites of the Lake District
Moorland Publishing Co Ltd 1981
The Modern Antiquarian
Gogmagog. The Buried Gods
Book Club Associates 1975
Lost Gods of Albion. The Chalk Hill-Figures of Britain
Sutton Publishing 1997
The Shap Community Website
Stone Circles Near Shap, Westmorland
Proceedings of the Society of Antiquities of Scotland Vol 4 1860-62
Rev. James Simpson
On the Sculpturings of Cups and Concentric rings
Proceedings of the Society of Antiquities of Scotland Vol 6 1864-66
Rev. James Simpson
Stanfords Geological Atlas of Great Britain
Edward Stamford Ltd 1964
The Cumbria Directory
“Camden in the reign of Elizabeth I described the stones to the west of the village as being of ‘pyramidal form’.
Archaeological Sites of the Lake District
Moorland Publishing Co Ltd.
1981 Posted by fitzcoraldo
21st February 2003ce