In my heart I am a mountaineer. Always have been, always will be. There is something about a craggy peak that lifts my spirits and makes me feel I want to be out there, savour the peace, breathe clear air, and spend time alone in my otherwise crazy existence. It was why I was sat atop the Lake District’s Pike of Stickle, gazing over a green and perfect Great Langdale Valley.
It was one of those days that makes the National Park a World Heritage Centre, the reason why so many visit, and share the joy. Mostly visitors are at ground level, perhaps taking a steamer up and down Windermere, guzzling Grasmere gingerbread, or studying the finer points of Beatrix Potter, Arthur Ransome, or William Wordsworth. The area is crammed with writers and poets, past and present.
I was not thinking of literature. I was thinking of Neolithic man. Six thousand years ago, near to where I was daydreaming and listening to the bleating of Herdwick lambs in the distant valley, there had been a factory. It was here that Stone Age man had produced his axes. More than a quarter of stone axes found anywhere in Great Britain were made in the Langdale Axe Factory, only metres from where I was sitting. If you wanted the best, then you needed a Langdale stone axe in your hand.
Much of forested Britain was laid low by Langdale axes, as man slowly made his presence felt. This was a time, 4000 B.C.E., when the population of the country was a mere 220,000. The Lake District was densely forested, although its unmistakable peaks, just like the Pike of Stickle on which I was sitting, poked above the treeline and were visible from many miles away.
The principle of making a stone axe was easy, but the labour was hard. Immediately beneath me lay seams of green volcanic tuff, a limousine source of stone. Neolithic man would remove rough-outs, essentially fledgling axes, from the seams. The rough-outs were then given a vague shape using a handheld hammer-stone. Neolithic man was clearly artistic, as the nearby Langdale Boulders and their Neolithic art, show so well. No one knows the true meaning of the concentric rings and scratches on the Boulders, but I wager Neolithic man took time over his axes.
Once done, the part-made axe was taken across the mountains and down to sea level. Ehenside Tarn, 28 kilometres to the west, was favoured. There, the irregular rough-out was turned into something special. It was polished with sandstone, placed in a wooden haft and, once complete, was taken to its final destination. Langdale axes have been found as far afield as Lincolnshire, London and Ireland. One was even found in Poland. In 1869, Ehenside Tarn was drained and plenty of stone and wooden items were revealed.
Yet as I sat atop my mountain, I was not only daydreaming, I was also feeling pleased. On my solo climb I had strayed from the path that leads from the New Dungeon Ghyll Hotel in the valley, up and alongside the tumbling Stickle Ghyll, to Stickle Tarn, a small lake that was dammed in 1838. Nearby Harrison Stickle towers over it, not far from Pike of Stickle. The tarn now supplies water to the people of Great Langdale in the valley below.
I often stray from paths. I realise I should not, especially when alone, but sometimes the temptation is more than I can resist. Some way beneath the Pike of Stickle’s summit, I cracked. I had to find out. I had taken no more than 20 steps from the main footpath, and there it was – the stone. It was no ordinary find. One edge was sharp, the other blunt, and I was certain I had found a rough-out. It lay partly covered in moss, as it had lain for millennia. It was waiting to be found. I looked at it for a moment, wondering what I should do. The rough-out was large, tapered and too heavy to carry. Anyway, I was not about to move 6000 years of history.
I did what I should do. I cheered quietly, touched it, stroked it, photographed it, but did not move the rough-out. I then left it as I had found and plodded upwards to the summit of Pike of Stickle. The mountain, all 709 metres, is much loved and much climbed by many. As summiteers stand exhausted on its topmost tip, they admire the view around them, breathe in the fresh air, and listen to the Herdwick sheep in the valley. It is outdoor bliss.
Yet few realise they are standing in the heart of Neolithic Lakeland.
A route that will take you across much of the territory of the Langdale Axe Factory, starting at the New Dungeon Ghyll car park, is at: www.walkingbritain.co.uk/walk-2582-description. Allow 5 hours 40 minutes for slightly less than 10 kilometres of distance and 800 metres of climbing. Remember that Cumbria is wet.
Rail to Windermere (London: 3 hours 7 mins; Manchester: 1 hour 44 mins) with taxi from there.
Drive (209 miles from London; 89 miles from Manchester) to the New Dungeon Ghyll car park (see below).
There is a Pay and Display at the New Dungeon Ghyll car park (GR NY295064; LA22 9JX). Get there early.
In the Lake District, many have their favourites. Here are some of mine:
New Dungeon Ghyll Hotel
Do not miss
Langdale Boulders – Neolithic rock art (Grid reference: NY314058; LA22 9JR)
Grasmere Gingerbread – (Grid reference: NY334507; LA22 9SW)