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A history of the world in circles

Radio 4’s In the Loop explores the secrets of things that are round – from particle accelerators to the 5,000-year-old stones of Castlerigg.

By Rachel Cunliffe

Going in circles. Circle of trust. Life cycle. Circular logic. There is something about this shape – its endlessness, its containment – that captures human imaginations. “They can represent rebirth and regeneration,” muses the poet Paul Farley as he walks in a loop, exploring a ring of power and symbolism, journeying along “a temporal roller-coaster ride from past to present to future”.

This five-part series, we are told, will take Farley to such “loopy locations” as a traffic roundabout and a particle accelerator. But in episode one he’s tracing the circumference of Castlerigg in Cumbria, a 5,000-year-old stone circle. What compelled ancient humans to build this “roofless cathedral”, a “roundabout of the imagination”? And why is walking around it such a calming, potentially spiritual experience?

[See also: What makes a witch?]

One archaeologist describes such monuments as having an “almost theological relationship” with the sun, signifying our place in the cosmos. In part, the Castlerigg circle represents time itself – night to day, winter to summer – but it’s more than that. It’s about the connections between generations, between the living and the dead, and the acceptance that life goes on.

And it’s not just the archaeologists who are struck by the circle’s power. Eugenia Cheng, author of a book called Is Maths Real?, waxes mathematical about the perfect simplicity and symmetry of circular shapes – however many dimensions you might want to play with. She talks of walking around her dining table during lockdown, hoping the repeating patterns would help her see things in a different light.

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Farley, meanwhile is entranced by nature’s embrace of the circle: the shape of a full moon, of ripples spreading out, of an acorn cup. No wonder the neolithic Britons were so obsessed. Castlerigg “encourages you to look up and see the cosmos, and to see your place, your tiny tiny place, within it”, as the archaeologist Gill Hey so beautifully puts it. Time to book a trip to Cumbria.  

In the Loop
BBC Radio 4, 6 July, 9.30am

[See also: The secret history of how we measure time]

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This article appears in the 28 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The war comes to Russia