On a sunny day in mid-November 2023, I took a couple from California on a hike through Borrowdale and up Castle Crag. It was a hard, uphill slog through loose slaty screes. Pinnacles of slate dotted the ground at every turn, creating a surreal jagged landscape before a magnificent view over Derwentwater greeted us at the top.
This distinctive conical hill at the southern end of Derwentwater in the Lake District forms one of the so-called ‘jaws’ of Borrowdale – the other ‘jaw’ being the hill known as King’s How. The ‘jaws’ form a noticeable constriction in the valley bottom and were so-named by early visitors to convey a sense of danger as they ventured through the cleft into the remote valley of Borrowdale behind. At this point, travellers were advised to ‘hasten on in silence lest the rocks should tumble from above’.
But was Borrowdale always that remote? After the last Ice Age, the valley was probably an impenetrable expanse of boulder-strewn marshy ground, and the only option for permanent shelter was on elevated dry land. Castle Crag was the site of an Iron Age fort. The people living here would have found berries and nuts to eat, hunted animals in the surrounding woodlands and taken fish from the lake.
Fragments of Roman Samian ware have been found on the hill, suggesting that there was trade between the people living here and the nearby Romans who had built a road (and probably a fort) somewhere in the vicinity of Keswick.
View of Castle Crag by Thomas Allom, c.1832
When the Iron Age fort on top of Castle Crag was abandoned is hard to tell, but perhaps it was sometime during the Roman occupation of the area. Once Norse people had settled in the area and began to clear the glacial debris, they named the valley ‘Borgar dalr’ – the valley of the fortress – and almost certainly a reference to the Iron Age fort on top of Castle Crag.
The crag became one of Thomas West’s ‘viewing stations’ in his Guide to the Lakes, published in 1778.
In his book, West advised early travellers on where to experience the best views of the lakes and mountains. With regard to Castle Crag, he notes:
There is a most astonishing view of the lake and vale of Keswick, spread out … in the most picturesque manner… From the summit of this rock, the views are so singularly great and pleasing that they ought never to be omitted.
View of Derwentwater from the top of Castle Crag (Anna Gray)
Very little change occurred thereafter until the 18th century when a slate quarry was opened up on the southern side of the hill to extract the desirable green Lakeland slate that is evident in the buildings of Keswick. Quarrying operations destroyed most of the southern part of the fort, but parts of the northern ramparts are still discernible.
The whole hill was given to the National Trust by the family of 2nd Lieutenant John Hamer as a memorial to the men of Borrowdale killed in World War One. A brass plaque affixed to a rock has their names inscribed on it.
Memorial plaque on top of Castle Crag (Anna Gray)