The connections between ancient man, the stones structures they built and the natural rulers of the skies – the sun and the moon – are overwhelming. It seems to me impossible to understand what mattered to our ancestors without taking into account the struggle they faced with the elements and their battle to understand their often hostile world.
On the top of Leskernick hill hidden in a little visited part of Bodmin Moor lies a simple yet wonderfully intriguing pile of stones. This stone construction pre-dates all the others that surrounded it and there are many! Close by you can find the remains of numerous hut circles, a stone row and 2 stone circles.
The Propped Stone as it is known at first glance resembles a partly fallen quoit or dolman, a kind of leaning stone table with one large stone propped up on 3 smaller ones all standing on a huge earth-fast slab of rock. The angle of the top stone creates a little window through which the western horizon can be seen, hinting at it’s intended purpose.
The axis of the long top stone points in the direction of Rough Tor, the huge stony hilltop that dominates the moor. But more importantly the small window created by the positioning of the stones creates a little portal through which the setting sun at mid summer can be viewed.
The Propped Stone was first recognised in 1995 and consists of a large flat stone nearly 3 metres long, scientific examination of the weathering of the stones beneath it suggests that it has been like this for a very . . .very . . .long time.
Although the alignment with the setting sun doesn’t work as well as it should now due to ‘wobbles’ in the earth’s axis it has been estimated that the window would have provided a perfect view between 7627BC and 1400BC. However the most likely date for it’s construction, taking into account all the other structures in the area is about 3600BC, so I think after standing on a hilltop for more than 5000 years it’s hardly surprising if it is a degree or two out by now.
Propped stones are not unique to Cornwall they are found as far north as the Yorkshire Dales and as far away as Sweden where they are usually associated with ancient burial sites.
Midsummer this year will fall on 24th June with the sun setting at around 21.30pm, maybe I’ll go and view it through my ancestors ancient window . . . watch this space!
Bodmin Moor feels like a place with secrets and stories to tell. Perhaps it’s the wildness, the wide open spaces and the distance that makes the visitor feel that this is a place that you will never really know completely or quite understand. I do know that it is under my skin. If I didn’t live so far away I would be out on that moor as often as possible.
It is a characteristic of every moorland that there are hidden features, places that are often lost in the landscape. Places that can only be seen from a particular hilltop or when you walk a particular path.
The ancient enclosure on Westmoor near Leskernick hill is one such place. The tumbling walls are only visible from a particular point as the path traverses the old tin streaming works near the base of the hill. The first time I saw it, it was the tree that caught my eye, it is just about the only tree for as far as the eye can see. I just had to walk over and pay a visit.
That time and every time I have visited there since the wild moorland ponies are already there or have arrived to graze. The grass within the old walls is much finer and greener than the rest of the moor, presumably due to human activity and I assume they come to take advantage of this sweeter meal.
It is also a very sheltered spot, calm and out of the wind. Close by there is a steam flowing and a spring bubbling up from the damp ground. I am almost certain that there was once a building there too. In on corner of the enclosure there are smaller walls and what looks like paving slabs. There are also larger pieces of granite there that may have been doorposts or part of a fireplace in another life.
Whatever the weather it is such a peaceful place, I have never met anyone else there apart from the ponies and sheep. And that twisted old tree festooned in lichen and moss provides a lovely bit of company and shelter from the sun or the rain.
This part of the moor is perhaps the most isolated that I have ever visited, it doesn’t have the sites like Rough Tor or Brown Willy, there is no Cheesewring or Hurlers to draw visitors. But I will come here again and again if only to listen to the constant chorus of the Skylarks as they rise and dip and dive above the windblown grasses.
Walking out in to the silence of Bodmin moor when the sky is bright blue and the air is still there is a kind of rare peacefulness for me. The whisper of the breeze though the dried grasses and the buzz of various flying beasties seems so loud in that vast open space. Tricked by the recent wonderful weather I can almost imagine myself living out there in the still isolation. I have forgotten the wild winter winds that you can barely stand up in and the horizontal hail stinging your cheeks.
Daniel Gumb must have loved it too because in the 18th century he made this moor his home, in fact in a way he became more a part of it, and it of him, than most can boast. He was a stone-cutter by trade and built his very own house out of the giant slabs of stone that litter this ancient landscape. While he was alive no one paid much mind to the strange stonemason living out on the moor but after his death his house became famous, a bit of a tourist attraction for the Victorian day-tripper as the picture below illustrates:
It may surprise you to know that Daniel Gumb was not out there alone, he and his wife Florence had 6 children in their strange little stone house. There is a description of it in Cornish Characters and Strange Events by S Baring-Gould published in 1908. It says that while Gumb was hewing blocks of granite on the moors near to the famous Cheesewring he discovered an immense slab – “this it struck him might be made the roof of a habitation”. He apparently excavated under the slab and built up walls to support it, the house had a chimney, lime-cement walls and was “sufficiently commodious” for Gumb, his wife and their 6 children. According to a description from 1802 it was like an artificial cavern of roughly 12 feet (4m ish) square.
I have to admit looking at it today it is hard to imagine it as it is described by Baring-Gould. But for me the location is hard to beat! The wonderfully odd rock formation known as the Cheesewrings rises up just behind and empty moorland stretches out beyond the front door for as far as you can see.
Daniel Gumb was no fool. He had another motive for his choice of back garden other than convenience for the commute to work. He was a mathematician and a star gazer. The roof of his house served as his observatory and the moors offered clear skies and peace and quiet for his calculations.
He even carved diagrams with his chisel into the rocks lying about his home. Maths is not my strongest suit but my reading tells me that they are something to do with the problems of the Greek mathematician Euclid . . . Gumb also carved his name and the date, 1735, beside what was his front door.
Daniel Gumb died in 1776 at the age of 73 and his name has since disappeared into the moorland mist. Hundreds of people come and visit this piece of the moor every year but they come to see the Cheesewrings. Many pairs of walking boots stomp right passed this fascinating man’s front door without realising it. I wonder what he would have made of it all.
Visiting Daniel Gumb’s house is easiest if you park at the car park in the village of Minions and walk from there, it’s an interesting walk which passes the Hurlers stone circles. I have been told that the location of the house has changed and that it was moved from its original location when the neighbouring quarry expanded. I am not sure how true that is but feel it needs a mention.
I find researching and writing about an ordinary person from the past fascinating (perhaps it is my natural nosiness). But it is at times captivating and at others difficult to comprehend. After all these folks aren’t around to explain their actions or to defend themselves. Add to that the fact that records for the regular person on the street are scant, we often left with just small snippets of information, and those few tantalising facts can have your imagination running wild.
When I started researching Hannah Jory it was because of a West Briton article I had seen which was published about her in 1841, she was described as ‘Hannah the Sweep’ and she had been imprisoned for 3 months for ‘riotous behaviour’. I thought that she sounded fun so looked into her a little further. What I found out both intrigued me and distressed me. And my next problem became how to write it all down. Was I making too many judgments, leaps of faith, in my attempt to figure out why this lady’s life had taken the course that it did.
This was a woman that history has forgotten completely and yet her life was full of colour. Who was this woman? Perhaps you can be the better judge than I but I warn you this story doesn’t have a happy ending. It is however the fascinating tale of one woman’s life in 19th century Cornwall, warts and all.
Hannah Jory was already a prostitute by the time her story hits the newspaper columns. And it was not her first appearance in a courtroom when she stood before a judge in Truro with two other women, Elizabeth Davis and Mary Payne, in 1839.
That day the three women were described as prostitutes and charged with assault and theft. Life for women in the early 19th century was very difficult especially at the lower end of the social scale, if you fell into poverty or suffered some kind of scandal there was very little support, you could quite literally end up in the gutter. Life was hard and society unforgiving.
Hannah first appeared in the West Briton as a witness giving evidence in the case of a murdered child. It is a very unpleasant trial which saw the mother, the only suspect, walking away because of insufficient evidence. But what of Hannah? She only finds herself in the courtroom because she and her 2 very small children are sharing a house with a number of other women and children in Charles Street, Truro. Why she is there without her husband isn’t clear. The court describes her as a married woman, not a widow. But from this point on Hannah’s life descends into chaos.
As far as I can gather Hannah was first sent to Bodmin Gaol in the late 1830s. I am guessing something happened for Hannah to find herself in this situation because at this point in her life she had been married for nearly 10 years and had two small children, Courtney (her maiden name) born in 1832 and Elizabeth born 1836. Her husband William Jory was a chimney-sweep, hence her nickname, was 20 years older but I can find no other record of him.
Hannah was convicted 8 times over the next few years, mostly for theft and drunken behaviour. She was described in the papers as ‘a nymph’, ‘a notorious prostitute’ and a ‘riotous drunk’. It seems that she was smart and sassy too though mostly preying on men out drinking alone in beer-houses in the side streets of Truro. When she stole John Mayor’s wallet in an Inn on Calenick Street in April 1839 he rather comically reported ‘she took off like a hare’. We have a full description of her from her gaol records, she was 5’4″, brown hair, hazel eyes, fresh complexion, she had a tattoo on her right arm and could read but we only know all this because she got caught . . . a lot! The West Briton said in 1840 ‘Hannah Jory . . . is very familiar with the inside of a gaol’. And of course inevitably at some point the Law was going to run out of patience.
In July 1842 the West Briton reported the following:
Hannah Jory, aged 32, notorious character in Truro, was charged with stealing ten shillings from the person of ROBERT LIDDICOAT in the streets of Truro, on the evening of the 11th of May. Much of the evidence in this case, and still more the defence set up by the prisoner was of a disgusting character, such as we cannot attempt to publish; but we regret to say that it did not appear to affect the modesty of any of a large number of apparently respectable females in the Grand Jury Gallery. Ten Years’ Transportation. The Chairman, in passing sentence, said the Bench had reason to believe that this prisoner had been eight times before in gaol, for different offences. On receiving her sentence, the prisoner burst into tears, and begged, for mercy’s sake, that she might be allowed to have her dear child with her.
Hannah’s youngest child, Elizabeth, was 6 at the time of her mother’s conviction. On the 7th September 1842 the Garland Grove sailed for Tasmania, Australia with 191 convicts on board, they were all women.
The ship arrived at its destination in January 1843 and the women were put to work at the Launceston Female Factory just outside Hobart. Ironically the name Launceston would have been very familiar to Hannah, it’s namesake was a small town in east Cornwall. In this facility the woman were put to work as seamstresses and laundresses. It was an overcrowded house of correction where the poor diet and conditions led to frequent rioting. Hannah died about 12 months later aged 33 on 21st March 1844.
We will never know the exact circumstances of Hannah’s life and it will always be difficult for us to judge her looking back over the intervening 150 years or so. But she gives us a window into what could be a different world. And for me real lives such as hers are as exciting as any Soap Opera and tell us so much about ourselves and our county’s history.
Hannah’s children disappear into the mists of time, I can find no further record of Courtney after the 1841 census however a girl called Elizabeth Jory, of the right age, is working as a domestic servant for a large farming family in 1851. I hope she managed to shake off her past and went on to live a happier life than her mother.
I sit gazing up at the grey rocks above me, like giant building blocks slung at the soft grey-green hill, their solid immovability pleases me and it settles my mind. Walking always has helped me to relax and today is no different. My seat is a moss-covered wall which once marked the garden of the tiny ruined cottage squatting in the valley behind me. There is little left there now, just tumble-down walls, a glassless window frame and a fireplace filled with crumbled debris. A smart black rook is keeping me company, I can feel his bright black eyes following as I throw aside my apple core and reach inside my rucksack for my crumpled map.
The dry grass rustled against her shins, it was the only sound apart from the occasional wave of air rolling through the crisp seed heads. Their dry tops rustle and wisps of down drift off on the breeze on an uncharted journey of chance. There was a comfort in the silent stillness of the moor and the sun was warm on the back of her neck. Cloud shadows spun across the empty landscape, adding to the feeling of distance, all sense of scale lost. Huddles of sheep stand dotted in cosy groups. If she strained her ears she could hear them chewing on the leathery grass. She adjusted her bundle, vegetables bought from market, and walked on, silent barefooted steps towards the base of the distant grey tor.
The sadness of that empty home is affecting and despite the sunshine I feel a little chilled. Sadness from a home forgotten. I can imagine feet walking slowly up the garden path after the long trudge across the moors. I look at my watch. It’s time to head back towards my car which I have left parked on a verge at the edge of the grassland. I drop down from the little wall and head towards hill. The path hugs the edge of the tor about halfway up and weaves between tumbled boulders and masses of bronze-coloured bracken. The rocky outcrop is always visible above me as I walk. A watcher and a castle.
Water has gathered in a slight dip in the landscape, the glassy pool’s surface is pierced by reeds and bugs fizz and hum in the air all around, attracted by the necessary damp. As she passes the horseflies sense a meal nearby and she has to swat one as it lands on her bare knee. The bundle was weighing heavier now but she was half way to the trees that shade the valley near the base of the hill. She was thinking of her home not far away. The familiar warmth was waiting, the grate would be glowing by now.
As the curve of the hill turns me away from the ruin in the valley floor I look back one last time. The rook is circling above the little homestead, the walls aren’t clear from this distance as if, as I have been walking with my back turned, they have nestled themselves further down into the hollow. The tor looms larger above me now. My eyes trace its silhouette and the flashes of yellow gorse on the slopes. I walk on towards the patch of trees darker and cooler beside the stream, I can see the snaking strip of water glinting in the distance but there is no sound, it is still too far away.
When she reaches the band of trees she pauses in their shelter, ferns fanning out beneath them, their green feathers bending towards the rushing stream that dashes off towards her home. The trees themselves are an eerie display of plumes of lichen. The grey tendrils cover the branches like heavy cobwebs. She crosses the ancient granite bridge, the slabs of the silvery stone moved there generations ago, her feet just two of many thousands that have walked this path. Home was just beyond the curve of the hill. The tor looms like a fortress above her.
Arriving at the river I enter the shade. I have always loved these trees, swathed as they are with moss and lichen. I am nearly there, just the walk back across the expanse of grassy moorland now. I pause and breathe in the damp earthy air. Strange how some places have a magic about them, a feeling of otherworldliness, like there is something close but that you can’t quite see it pass you by. Like a memory. I cross the granite bridge and walk on out onto the sunlight moor.