Tag Archives: cumbria

Three* stone circles that are way better than Stonehenge

And now for some light diversion.  David Hembrow describes the travels and travails of a Dutch family trying to get to Stonehenge by bicycle, faced with south east England’s network of motorways and motorways-in-all-but-name.  I think I have solution to the Stonehenge cycle tour problem: don’t go to Stonehenge.  It’s a bit crap.  Stonehenge fell apart over the millennia, but the stones were stuck back upright at various times in the early 20th century.  They were still concreting it back together right up into the 1960s.  Stonehenge just looks weird, neither ruin nor full restoration.  If you go there you’ll be behind a rope on a concrete footpath, next to thousands of vehicles each hour squeezing through the bottleneck on the A303.

Any alternative to Stonehenge is going to be blighted to some extent by Britain’s poor cycling conditions, but at least when you get to them it will have been worth it.

The obvious alternative is Avebury, a couple of dozen miles north of Stonehenge.  Larger, more complicated, enigmatic and interesting than the famous neighbour.  And sat on a confluence of Sustrans routes.

Avebury

Avebury: dull enough that I've never been back for a better photo.

But you know Sustrans routes.  I wouldn’t trust them to get me to Avebury.  Better not risk it.  Instead go for Castlerigg.  More beautiful and breathtaking than the soft southern stone circles, set high on a hill yet dwarfed by the massive landscape of the Cumbrian Fells.  And on NCN 71 from Penrith station, a generally delightful, if not perfectly direct, set of lanes and rail trails.

Castlerigg

Castlerigg: even on this freezing february weekday I had to hide the tourists behind the stones.

Castlerigg

Castlerigg

But at Castlerigg you’ll still be sharing with tourists.  You’ll hear the distant traffic on the trunk road, and pass the car park on your way in.  If you want something proper special, head for Machrie Moor.  Machrie Moor is not a stone circle but a collection of them, all different designs and styles.  I lost count of how many.  To get there you’ll be needing a ferry, a half day’s ride, and a half hour walk up a winding track to a tumble-down old barn and the circles beyond.

Machrie Moor

Machrie Moor: perfect.

Machrie Moor

Machrie Moor

Of course, as Kim illustrates, you’ll be sharing the roads with idiots, but at least it won’t have all been for the sake of Stonehenge.

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Car-free holidays: Keswick by bus

Derwent Water on an April morning

Derwent Water on an April morning. Click the images for larger versions.

Download the Google Earth layers

Download the Google Earth layers

The Lake District is generally agreed to be England’s finest national park.  Unlike last week’s Scottish Highlands suggestion, though, during spring and summer in the Lakes you won’t be alone in the wilderness: you’ll meet hundreds of others out enjoying the countryside.  Which is great, except that most of the people out enjoying the fresh air on the hills will later be spoiling it by driving back to their hotels and cottages.  Like most English national parks, the Lake District is easily accessible from a major motorway, and 93% of the 8-9 million annual visitors come by car.  So, despite its low permanent population, it has a serious seasonal problem with congestion, car parking, and other blight from the influx of car-bound tourists.  Visitors are literally destroying the same wildlife and spectacular natural landscape that they are coming to see, as dual carriageways, bypasses and ever bigger car parks get built — merely inducing more demand and congestion.  In 2003, the local authorities even looked at the feasibility of introducing a Lake District Congestion Charge.  Clearly it would be irresponsible to drive to the Lake District and add to these problems.  But surely it’s not possible to have a break in the lake district without a car?

Normal everyday buses. (By flickrer soloM920, CC BY-NC-SA)

Simple everyday buses. But sometimes with the roof off. (By flickrer soloM920, CC BY-NC-SA)

I’ve had several.  Mostly they were by bicycle (and I might give some bicycle route suggestions in a future post), but one time it was by bus.  In february.  Which was excellent.  I imagine it would be even more excellent in April-June, when the full bus services are running, but before the schools break up and the families flood in with their mock military personnel carriers.  (I’ve also been to the Lake District once by car, and can honestly say that not only is possible to go there without one, it’s much better to go there without one — with a car you have to plan your day around it at least as much as you do with buses: where do you park, how are you going to get back to where you parked, etc)

Derwent Water from Latrigg

Derwent Water from Latrigg; Keswick is below the photographer, just out of view.

The buses are not tourist coach packages — the kind with a cheeky middle-aged northern failed comic giving distracting commentary between set 30 minute stops at “attractions” only the most senile of the passengers would want to visit.  They are simple normal everyday buses on reasonably frequent timetables.  Normal buses that get people to work, or the market, or the post office on pension day.  Buses are not complicated.

Derwent Water

Derwent Water

(Many Motorists, of course, will not have seen the inside of a bus in decades, and the idea of using one on a holiday in unfamiliar terrain will sound awfully difficult and complicated to them — especially if their only idea of a public bus is something that they’ve picked up from the worst Radio 4 or Daily Telegraph portrayal of a Brixton night bus.)

If you’re not already familiar with the Lakes then Keswick, in the north, is a good place to start — a small market town with the full spectrum of accommodation from youth hostels to luxury hotels.  It’s on the shores of Derwent Water, one of the prettiest of the lakes, and is surrounded by small hills with fantastic views which you don’t need to be a hardcore fell walker to climb.  Plus, if the weather turns bad one day, you can visit the world famous pencil museum.  (I’ve never been, but I know dozens of people who have and they all say: “not as awful as it sounds”.)  Or maybe an ironic trip to Cars of the Stars.

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