Dawn had not arrived and I was awake. With a heavy heart at leaving the magical Lake District, I prepared by packing my suitcases. After completing the tasks and showering, it was still dark outside so I went downstairs in the wonderful cottage in Applethwaithe and fixed breakfast.
As I finished the kitchen clean-up I glanced outside. The sunrise was going to be spectacular. Maria was still asleep downstairs, Castlerigg was only two miles away and I had yet to get a photo with clear skies of the magnificent stone circle. I grabbed my camera gear and sprinted out to the car.
Of course frost heavily coated every window of the car so while it warmed up I scraped ice. The light grew steadily and I was anxious to get to the circle but being able to see was important and with below-freezing temperatures I couldn’t ride with the windows down.
Finally enough ice was removed to give me a peep at oncoming traffic and I raced over to the circle. There were a few photographers leaving…yes, I had missed the prime pre-dawn light. But what I had not missed was the amazing mist that hovered in the valley below. I spent over an hour photographing mist, ancient standing stones and finally sunny mountains and then said my goodbyes to the stones.
Our plan for the day was to attempt to find Swinside Stone Circle…we had tried two other days and never made it…snow and ice, timing, fleeting daylight thwarted our efforts. The little red dots appeared on the atlas map of Section 61 along with the name but we had no specific directions. It was near a town called Millom on the Irish Sea.
After programming the SAT NAV for the seaside town, we took off through the Lake District going from Keswick to Grasmere and avoiding the SAT NAV trap there that tried once again to route us through the narrow roads of Red Bank. Down through Ambleside to the little village of Bowmanstead down to Torver down the A593 to the A595 and down to Hallthwaites and finally to Millom. I knew we passed the turnoff but there were no signs. Our best bet was to ask around in town to see if we could get direction.
The ladies at the cafe that smelled of fish didn’t know but directed us to the library. We couldn’t find the library so asked a woman in the parking lot and she directed us inside a clothing consignment shop. Both people that worked there knew where it was and gave us detailed guidance.
We traveled down a very narrow, dirt road and came to a home and small farm where the road passed through. I got out of the car and asked a man sitting in a car if the stone circle was close. He directed us onward and reminded us, as the two folks in town did, that we were to park along the road before the gravel road…whatever that meant. It felt as if we were definitely in the wilderness portion of our pilgrimage.
The journey Maria and I embarked on was a pilgrimage from the first day of planning. We didn’t know what we would find but prepared ourselves to enter into the adventure as pilgrims…with open minds and hearts in the spirit of learning. The side trip to find Swinside was the final challenge.
Broadgate, the road’s name, was a misnomer. There was nothing broad about it. In fact, we met a large farm truck and the driver backed up and allowed us to ease into a very small pull-out. Just past that was the gravel path so we turned around, headed out and parked in the pullout. We were elated to find a very small wooded sign that directed us up the gravel path to the stone circle.
We began our ascent up the steep path. It was bordered by trees but soon opened up to beautiful meadows with various kinds of sheep. I was walking a bit up the hill from Maria and came to a serious cattle gate with very widely-spaced metal bars suitable for vehicles but not feet of any variety. There was a side gate for walkers and horseback riders so I waited for Maria. There was no circle in sight and no signs.
A truck had passed each of us but neither of us asked if the circle was close by or five miles up the road. We discussed our options as we paused at the base of a large mountain that had captured both of our attentions. It felt like a place of power but there wasn’t a gate or a footpath or sign…only very large cows and who knew if their bull was friendly. But by then we were in an open area where there were no fences and no barriers between us and cows or bulls.
We were still climbing so I suggested we climb to the crest of the road, not far ahead, and see if we could glimpse anything that would indicate a stone circle was nearby. As I had done often on the trip, I spoke aloud our need for a sign, for guidance. Within moments of resuming our walk two heads were seen bobbing up the road from the other side. AH HA!
Not 100 yards down the road was the stone circle inside a fenced pasture filled with rainbow-colored sheep with dark circles under their eyes that looked like teardrops. Dorothy, we were not in Kansas any more.
Swinside, or as the small plaque called it–Sunkenkirk–was the most magical of the circles we visited. There was a definite quality of stillness and peace there most likely due to the lack of human visitation. We spent a good while walking and listening to the silence, each lost in our own experience. I also attempted to avoid the numerous piles of sheep droppings which proved to be the most challenging of all tasks related to Sunkenkirk.
As I stood in the silence, I envisioned people carrying torches from the nearby mountain, winding down in a spiral to the circle, entering through the gateway stones and then spiraling within the circle with their lights. There was no doubt that the mountain and circle were connected in ceremonial use…the atmosphere did not hide that fact.
As I stood observing the energy, feeling it, I realized that this was the perfect ending to our pilgrimage. For three days we had attempted to find the place and on the third attempt did indeed find it. We had to trust that it was there after climbing a steep gravel path, walking through gates, through pastures of grazing cattle and finally, into the territory of the rainbow sheep.
At every step of the journey, each time we needed guidance about what lane on a roundabout to take, a car would appear and show us….every single time. If we needed clarity I would say aloud, “We need assistance” or “we need guidance please.” An answer was always available for us. Even on our first afternoon in Keswick…we needed a grocery store and managed to drive right to one.
Our pilgrimage ended at a beautiful stone circle where ancient ones gathered to count the days in ceremony, where they came together to give thanks for crops and seasons. We met the challenges of finding Swinside or Sunkenkirk…or whatever its true name is.
And in the true form of a pilgrimage, a map at the site revealed that had we entered from the other side of the gravel road the walk to the circle would have been only a few minutes down a level path with an actual car park. We were supposed to make the journey of faith, the walk up to the mountain and sacred circle. A pilgrimage isn’t supposed to be easy or effortless. We faced our doubts, we mustered courage and stepped forward into the Unknown with trust that our hearts would guide us and help would come when we asked.
Perhaps the most important aspect of a true pilgrimage is the effect it has back in the everyday lives of those who take the journey. Maria and I talked for over an hour almost two weeks after we returned to the U.S. Both of us are finding our lives changing, of feeling the need to adjust our paths, to be truer expressions of our highest selves, to leap to the next stage of our work of service…she in the Atlanta area and me here on the Gulf Coast. We are changed from our journey, we miss the peaceful civility of the land and people of the U.K. and we continue to integrate the experiences and lessons learned in our travels.
Wordsworth spoke to me. Ancient ancestors from thousands of years ago spoke to me. The stones and mountains and lakes spoke to me. Now the task is to decipher their messages, apply them to my life and share with others.