Three weeks before the workshop, Stuart and I had headed north to walk the ground. Most of the sites we already knew, but there were a couple we had not visited in person and, if at all possible, we will check each site before taking others there. Small details like where to park, warning of muddy paths, unadvertised entrance charges and the proximity of coffee and conveniences can make the difference between a successful weekend and an uncomfortable disaster.
These reconnoitring trips serve a dual purpose though. They are not only practical, but they allow us to get a feel for the landscape too and will, fairly often, see us change an itinerary we thought was set in stone. This trip did just that, although it waited until the very last minute to tell us so.
We had finished for the weekend, seen all the places we needed to see, except one of the sites which had been going to play a central part in the workshop. We thought we had found a perfect place, sheltered from the wind and any foul weather, but every way we attempted to reach it seemed intent upon putting barriers in our path. Impassable mud and fallen riverbanks meant that we had to reconsider taking the party to Lacy’s Caves, a folly built by the man who had wanted to blow up the local stone circle. The story goes that the attempt ended in disaster and Lacy had a change of heart. The caves were later built for some unknown purpose, and although they may simply have been a folly, there has been suggestions of ritual activity on the site. Subsequent investigations made us feel we had not been meant to go there. Some types of ritual activity can leave behind an unpleasant psychic atmosphere… and these caves reminded us of the Hellfire caves infamously used by Sir Francis Dashwood.
So, by the end of our ‘recce’, we were a site down, but had replaced it with another small visit. We would have enough…but it felt as if something were missing as we began the long trek south and east. Before we left, though, we would try and find another place we had heard of that tied in loosely with our theme…
Our simultaneous exclamation would have left a casual observer wondering what on earth we were talking about. Driving down the road in search of the site, we had both seen a field bounded by walls and traffic…and both been hit by that phenomenon of recognition that we are calling ‘psychic shock’. Thinking back, there was little to actually see from within the low car. We should barely have registered the site… and yet it had hit us like a ton of bricks. Parking the car, we went to investigate… and within a very few minutes, had added two more sites to our list for the weekend as well as expanding the theme quite considerably. So, on the second day of the workshop, we gathered close to the site and walked our companions to King Arthur’s Round Table.
King Arthur’s Round Table is a late Neolithic henge, around four thousand years old. The circular ditches and embankments are what constitutes a henge, enclosing a central flat platform which was used by the community. These sites are feats of engineering and would have needed a substantial community to come together, united by leaders, belief and a shared vision of what was really important to the life of the community. While some speculate that these are purely practical affairs, designed to be used as marketplaces, arenas for entertainment and gatherings, it seems unlikely that such a space would be constructed, with so much human effort and then hallowed by burials, for a purely pragmatic use.
It is far more likely that these monuments, especially when they invariably form part of a much wider sacred landscape, were designed primarily for ceremonial use. Exactly what those rituals and ceremonies might be we cannot know for certain, but we can make a few deductions given the archaeological evidence, a knowledge of so-called ‘primitive’ civilisations worldwide and the sites’ alignments with astronomical events.
It is likely that the turning of the year…the solstices and equinoxes… were observed, measured and predicted at many of these ancient sites. Stellar, solar and lunar alignments are common, as are alignments with other sites in the area and there are many close to the Round Table.
There may be burials or inhumed cremations, placing these sites in the realms of the ancestors, where the elders of the clan might mediate between this world and the Otherworld. One companion suggested that this might be a place where the clan Elders were ‘made’… a ceremonial installing of one who has reached venerable status.
King Arthur’s Round Table has been much damaged in the modern era and is sliced through by modern roads. There used to be two entrances, marked by standing stones. Excavations revealed a central trench had once existed where burial or cremation ceremonies may have taken place. The banks would have been higher than they now stand, the ditches lower, and the whole part of the wider ritual landscape which includes the many sites around Shap. There was once another and much smaller henge, the Little Table, now almost entirely destroyed by roads and building, just a couple of hundred yards away.
The modern A6 that runs alongside the Table was once, in part, a Roman road. Many of these Roman roads, characterised, as we are taught in school, by the way they run straight across the landscape, may themselves be part of a much more ancient network of ‘old straight tracks’ that link many of the ancient sites. Kemp Howe stone circle now lays largely beneath another ‘straight track’ just ten miles away… mostly obliterated by the modern railway line. It is one of many circles and monuments in the remarkable Shap complex that we would have loved time to explore.
For now, though, we encouraged our companions to explore the Round Table, where legends say Arthur’s knights once jousted. The site is thousands of years older than the legends of Arthur and Merlin, but perhaps not older than the archetypes they may represent… the warrior-king whose fitness to rule depends upon his ability to bridge the worlds, and the mage-priest who was his bridge, his messenger and the gateway to the Otherworld.
We gathered for a meditation before leaving the site. We were impressed… only confirmed megalithomaniacs, we thought, would find this site interesting for more than a few minutes, but they had chosen to spend almost an hour there. What, we wondered, would they make of the next site… and what we wanted them to do there…