Whatever the time of year I love the moors. Whether it is in the depths of winter when the air is sharp with cold, one of those days the wind tugs at you and takes your breath away or at the height of a bright blue-skied summers day. Then its a very different place, you can hear the heat coming from the stones and the grass cracks under your feet.
Watching the cloud shadows moving across those wide empty spaces, that is where I feel really at peace. But of course these are not really empty spaces and each time I visit I find another new reason to go back.
Men Gurta or the St Breock Longstone stands high on the St Breock Downs within sight of a modern windfarm. Although the view from the hill is as good reason as any to visit this particular stone well worth looking for, it is a giant. In fact it is the largest and heaviest in Cornwall- which, you might well think, should make it easy to find. Which it is, once you know where to look but more if that later!
Men Gurta is huge, it is 4.9m tall (3m of that above ground) and weighs a whooping 16.5 tons but there is also something very striking about this stone, it’s beautiful zebra strips! Continue reading →
It has taken me far too long to get around to writing this article and it is only the thought of getting back out on the moor again in a few days time that forced my thoughts to turn once again to this unwritten story.
It actually began with this blog. A piece I wrote many months ago led me to meet a group of strangers with whom I would spend many a happy hour in the vast emptiness of Bodmin Moor.
Since I left home aged 20 and flew to Germany on a complete whim my long suffering parents have been used to my often rather impulsive behaviour but even I questioned whether I was thinking straight on that first morning. We had never met before, not even spoken on the phone but when Roy, Stuart and Colin arrived in a beat up old truck full of tools I, with no hesitation climbed aboard, and set out across the moor with 3 total strangers!
When I try to explain to people what we did this summer they usually fall into two camps: the intrigued and the confused. In short we were uncovering large pieces of granite on a wild and windswept moor.
Carwynnen quoit has fallen more than once. It’s giant stones have been raised up again and again, the first time 5000 years ago, then again in the 19th century and the last time in 2014. Yes, unfortunately it has taken me this long to get around to visiting but the twisting back roads led me to a impressive monument.
I had wanted to be there a couple of years ago when the cap stone had been lifted into place but that happened at a time when the work I was doing didn’t afford me the kind of freedom that I have now. I understand from people who were there that it was a magical moment. Apparently everyone surged forward to place their hands on the stones, almost like a blessing for them and for the quoit.
This summer I have been working with a wonderful group of like-minded people who are as enthusiastic and passionate about ancient places as I am (maybe even more so). We have been spending our days together uncovering two almost forgotten stone circles and a stone row out on the wilds of Bodmin Moor but more of that on another occasion I promise. I choose to mention it now because one of the subjects we talked of while on our knees in the rain cutting turf was how wonderful it would be to see those stones upright again. However since my visit to Carwynnen I have to say I have been having my doubts.
Don’t misunderstand me, I am sure that every possible care was taken with this sites reconstruction and it is wonderful to see this ancient monument on it’s feet again so to speak but strangely somehow it felt wrong to me. Like something was out of place, not quite as it should be. The stones looked new, too clean, too upright – as if they had just been built – which of course I guess they kind of have.
Perhaps that is how the ancient people saw them, all clean, fresh and straight and I am just judging this place by all the other sites I love so much where everything is just a bit sunken and wonky. But it does raise a question for me – when they fall do we just leave them?
I guess the answer is a complex one. Some would argue that these are just old pieces of stone with no intrinsic worth, why should we pay to preserve and protect them? I am not one of those people, to many, including myself, they do mean something.
I believe that anything that links us to our roots and to the world we live in should be treasured. But can we go too far with restoration and how do we know we are getting it right? Each historical sketch of Carwynnen looks different from the next and different again from the stones as they stand today.
So if we can’t get it right should we leave well alone, rather than make a misrepresentation of the past? I don’t know the answer. But I would appreciate others thoughts if you wish to share.
There was a big part of me that looked at the fallen stones of those circles on Bodmin Moor and wished I could see them as my ancestors did but of course I never really will and perhaps I am just not meant to.
One of my most favourite walks takes me on a lovely loop from Trevalga along a stunning stretch of coastline up through Rocky Valley and back to Trevalga via Trethevy. The Rocky Valley walk is quite famous in these parts and it’s close proximity to the surfing mecca of Newquay means that it gets plenty of footfall all year around. I have only ever been there once when there was no one but me and a three-legged dog. (And that’s another story.)
The valley gets all those visitors because it really is a magical place. When you descend from the cliff path into the valley itself the path then winds its way beside a stream gushing downhill towards the sea, it is lush and green and shady even on a hot day.
Part way up the valley is the ruin of a mill and it is behind this roofless shell on the cool, damp rock face that you find the carvings.
They are easy to miss but once you spot them I think they are fascinating. I have traced their gentle curves many times with my eye and my finger, it feels like a game and a spell. There is a plaque above which claims they date from the bronze age (probably) but in actual fact their origin is a complete mystery.
No one is really sure who carved them or when and there are several theories. One idea is that they were in fact carved by a bored worker at the now abandoned mill. During the 18th century mazes such as these saw a bit of a revival, it is unclear why but the labyrinth pattern started to pop up all over the place, in architecture and in gardens and in other odd locations too.
Above is a picture of me and a friend in the 1990s at the Troy Town maze on St Agnes island in the Isles of Scilly. The seven ring maze pattern is not particular to these parts it is common throughout Europe and it has been said that they were built on sea shores to protect sailors by sending them fair winds. The one on St Agnes dates from roughly 1790 which is also the date of other graffiti carved into the walls of the mill in Rocky Valley.
It would be nice to known the Rocky Valley carvings real origins but I doubt there will ever be any certainty over their true date. I do feel that the sign that is there now is a little misleading however and could perhaps do with a bit of an update to leave their provenience a more open to thought and perhaps our imagination.
When exactly mankind first discovered the art of smelting metal is a mystery but what we do know is that tin has always played a major part of the history of our county and up until recent years a vital part of our economy and our culture.
My pride in all things Cornish was well and truly pricked by the wonderful Man Engine which has journeyed across the Cornwall this summer promoting our mining heritage. The 33ft tall mechanical giant miner certainly drew unexpectedly large the crowds wherever it went but for me it was its creator Will Coleman’s passionate commentary on mining that filled me with enormous pride and just a little sadness. He reminded us who were once were.
Tin veins are not at all common and there were very few sources in the ancient world and very few today. Mining in Asia began around 3000 years ago but the archaeological clues in Cornwall date the first tinners here at 1000 years before that. Four thousand years of history!
The earliest signs of the industry come from prehistoric finds in old tin-working sites discovered during later mining activity. Finds from the early Bronze Age are very rare but have been unearthed at 4 sites in Cornwall: St. Erth, Caerloggas Down near St. Austell, Levalsa Moer near Pentewan and the Carnon Valley near Truro.
The early methods for extracting tin were very basic and known as ‘streaming’. In certain river valleys the tin was so abundant that the mineral could quite literally be picked up out of the river bed. The sand, earth and general debris were gathered and ‘washed’ so that the heavier tin deposits were left behind.
One man took a very particular interest in the tin ground of the Carnon valley, near Truro, his name was William Jory Henwood (Jan 1805- Aug 1875). He was a member of the Royal Society and had written unprecedented papers on rocks and minerals travelling the world for his work.
Henwood wrote numerous articles for the Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall and it is one of these papers published in 1873 which interests me.
It is snappily titled ‘Observations on the Detrital Tin-Ore of Cornwall’. In it he describes a very unusual discovery made on 29th March 1823 by workers in part of the Carnon Valley Stream works.
“About half way from Tarnon-dean [Tarrandean] to the Arsenic manufactory” the workers “were removing a quantity of mud” and ” at sixteen or eighteen feet below the surface, some 2 or 3 tons of large, rough angular masses of quartz were found resting on a bed of silt, shells and vegetable matter. Immediately beneath the stones, at some 22 feet below high water an entire human skeleton was discovered.” Henwood goes on to describe the scene in great detail and the original article includes sketches of the position of the find.
Some of the more interesting points include that the body was enclosed within a frame of roughly hewn pieces of timber, possibly oak and that it faced north, the knees were drawn up and the right arm was above the head. The remains were lying on the surface of the tin ground. No hair, cloth or any other objects were found apart from the skull, teeth and antlers of a red deer stag nearby. An examination determined that it was the prehistoric remains of a man roughly 5’5″ tall, who had good teeth and was no more than middle aged when he died.
Henwood adds that the remains created deep public interest and so the discovery was left on view for some time. The skeleton was then given to the Royal Institution of Cornwall (now Truro Museum) who have since apparently ‘misplaced’ it.
How this man died and how he came to be buried isn’t clear. It is worth noting that the hills around the Carnon valley are dotted with numerous ancient barrows, many now sadly disappearing into housing estates or being ploughed up by farming, and the whole area is considered to be a prehistoric cemetery site. Was it the tin that brought them there? The skeleton is also not the only evidence of this valley’s ancient past, on display in Truro Museum is a beautiful tinner’s pick, which was dug up in 1790 but dates from around 2000BC. The tool is made from a deer antler and is one of two that were found. (That same 18th century dig also unearthed a skeleton but I am unable to find any details about it.)
Other finds included oak shovels, one of which is also on display, a tin bowl and a Bronze Age flat-axe 15.5cm in length. Also interestingly Murray writes in his ‘Handbook for Devon and Cornwall, 1859’ that fossilized ‘trunks of trees’ were discovered at the same site.
The Carnon valley river flows into Devoran creek, near Perranarworthal and from there out towards the Fal and the open sea. The observations of William Pryce demonstrate the extent of the
mining industry in just this one small area of Cornwall around 1708. He writes that “the low lands and sands under Perran Arworthall [sic], which are covered almost every tide with the sea, have, on its going off, employed hundreds of poor men, women and children washing the tin ore out of them, as they are incapable of earning their bread by any other means”.
Although mining for tin has now ended it is worth remembering that work still continued in the valley up until the 1980s and with good reason. Henwood says that “the tin ground was nowhere else so rich as at the confluence of the Carnon valley with the vales which extend through Perran Wharf and from Taran-dean [sic] through Perranwell”. He paints us a vivid picture with this description from 1855: “The tin was found in boulders or rounded lumps, varying from the size of a man’s fist to a grain of sand, the smallest generally the richest. But I have seen lumps as large as a man’s fist nearly pure black tin”
Just this glancing look at our mining heritage reveals such a rich past that it becomes easier to understand why some many in Cornwall greeted the Man Engine with such joy and enthusiasm. Despite the fact that hardly anyone in the county still works in the industry as a people we have a infinitely long and strong connection with the ground beneath our feet. Our county was once the centre of the tin mining industry right from its birth in the Bronze age through to its unhappy end not so long ago, the remains of this long association dot our countryside and it seems it is still very much part of our national Cornish identity.
I grew up in a household where farm work and animals came first above anything else. Don’t misunderstand me, I am not complaining, I had a blessed childhood with a kind of freedom that sadly very few children experience today. It taught me not only independence but also the
importance of hard work and responsibility. However it did mean that we never went on family holidays and days out were very few and far between.
I was, and still am, a bit of a daddy’s girl and I hope that my father has had a strong influence on the person that I have become. One thing that I know he did instil in me from a young age was an admiration for a good piece of granite.
Those days off I mentioned were never spent on the beach making sandcastles. They were spent on the Penwith or the heights of Bodmin moor or Dartmoor tramping through undergrowth looking for ancient pieces of stone. It is a tradition that you may have noticed I still enjoy as often as life allows!
In the summer of 1999 my father and I spent a whole day together driving around the west of the county looking at big rocks.
We admired their size and shape, marvelled at their probable weight and puzzled over how ancient man had moved them and raised them up. You see my father had a plan.
He wanted his own standing stone.
Our farm is a hill and the highest point affords beautiful views across the valley and the tidal creek below, it was the ideal spot for our very own monolith.
He took himself to the local granite quarry and spent hours walking around looking at the available stones. He wanted a piece of granite that was as natural in shape as possible with no obvious signs that it had been split by drilling or handled by machinery. Like ancient man all those thousands of years ago I am sure he had a particular piece of stone in mind.
I am sure the workmen thought he was balmy but perhaps that is where I also get my own nonchalance with regards to looking silly myself. He found his perfect stone and had it delivered to the farm.
The pit was dug and with the help of todays modern mechanised assistance our standing stone was raised to mark the year 2000.
We have never really spoken about it, my father is a man of few words, but I think he really enjoys the idea of something so lasting, so solid and unmoving marking his time on the land he loves so much. And so do I.
No one these days really knows what a collar stud is, let alone wears one but King George V certainly did and he is said to have kept his in a rather special place.
The county of Cornwall is not really known for its treasure troves, we live in hope of a discovery like Sutton Hoo to put the our long-forgotten kings back on the map of history but as yet nothing so magnificent has come to light. The county does however boast large deposits of precious minerals of all kinds, not least tin, and in certain areas in small amounts gold can be found.
I am not a person who gets excited by the razzmatazz, sparkle and bling for very long, as you might have guessed it is far more likely to be the small things that really bring the past to life for me. However the Royal Cornwall Museum in Truro does have one display which I love, they call it the Gold Cabinet and inside are some of the treasures of Cornwall.
Peer through the glass and you will find 4000 year old gold necklaces and 3000 year old armrings and I try and imagine who worn such wonderful things. In pride of place is an early Bronze Age gold cup known as the Rillaton Cup which was found inside an ancient burial mound (a barrow) on Bodmin Moor. And it is this cup that King George V used to store his collar studs in his dressing room in Buckingham Palace.
The Rillaton cup is extremely rare. It is one of only 7 similar vessels found in Europe and is by far the best preserved thanks to who ever buried it. Luckily for us they stowed it inside a ceramic bowl which protected the soft gold. This beautiful cup is skilfully constructed from one solid sheet of hammered gold and decorated with horizontal concentric corrugations. The elegant etched handle is attached by rivets and with my nose pressed against the display cabinet’s glass I silently wish I could pick it up to feel its weight in my hands.
So what about it’s strange provenance? Well the cup was very nearly lost. It was dug up from a stone burial cist inside a barrow by workmen in 1837. A number of beads and a small metal dagger were also found but because the area of Bodmin Moor where it was uncovered belonged to The Duchy of Cornwall everything was presented to King William IV. After his death the artefacts passed to Queen Victoria and then to George V who had the cup on his dressing table. The cup’s value and importance had been completely forgotten.
Fortunately when Edward VIII inherited it Queen Mary apparently realised what it really was and decided to give it to the British Museum for public display.
And perhaps now is the right time to admit that the pictures I have here are of the copy of the real cup which is all the museum in Truro has of this county’s most rare and magical ancient find. The real thing has never come home to Cornwall.
There is one more little thing to relate about this 2000 year old treasure.
Before it was discovered there was a local legend that a golden cup was hidden in the exact burial mound where it was found. A coincidence no doubt but wouldn’t it be amazing to think that an ancient memory could have been passed down a couple of hundred generations?!
Driving out of Zennor village towards St Ives there is a house known as the Eagles Nest perched on a crag looking out to sea. It was in the valley below this house that D H Lawrence spent 1915 writing Women in Love and just opposite its white painted gate there is a track leading out across the downs. This is the start of our walk.
Just over the brow of the hill there is a pull-in on the right with space for a car. The view from here towards the coast is across some of the oldest farmed land in the world. The field systems are pre-historic. Leave your wheels, walk back and take that track uphill . . .
This is one of those paths that feels timeless, like it has always been there and I imagine all the footsteps before mine. Don’t forget to look back behind you to the sea, Lawrence said it was always peacock-coloured and I hope it is for you. Oh try not to stand on the violets . . .
Keep the rocky hill-top on your left . . .
When the track bears right there is a footpath off to the left hugging a low wall . . . take it and look for the ruin on the hill ahead . . .
Beside these ruined walls, maybe an old barn or cottage I’m not sure, there will be a path striking out right across the downs, follow and look for a silhouette on the skyline . . .
When I am here I am often completely alone and the landscape seems empty too, just those silent rocky outcrops, the wind in the grass and on this particular day a distance Cuckoo . . .
Your destination is the impressive Zennor Quoit, a Neolithic burial chamber. It’s enormous capstone, which weighs around 12 tons, slid off sometime in the 19th century but William Borlase sketched it for us in 1769 . . .
This wonderful historical site seems to stand alone on the Amalveor Downs, solid, mysterious but there are signs of ancient people everywhere here, numerous barrows and hut circles lie hidden in the bracken. We are never quite alone in the landscape.
This walk isn’t difficult, although the tracks are uneven and not signposted, it takes me about 20mins to the quoit. Longer when I am breathing in the stunning views. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.
In Cornwall we have a special kind of geological feature that through history has given the Cornish folks bucket loads of joy. It is the natural phenomena known as the Logan Rock.
The word Logan comes from the Cornish ‘logging’, meaning rocking. and refers to a number of rocks which through some a happy accident are on a pivot and can be rocked despite their mighty tonnage.
The most famous of Cornwall’s logan rocks is at Treen on a stunning stretch of coastline close to the famous Minack Theatre. It is reputed to weigh around 60 tons but because of its perfect pivot could be rocked by a small child. Of course there is a kill-joy in this tale and his name was Lieutenant Hugh Goldsmith, R.N. (nephew of the famous poet Oliver Golsmith).
In April 1824 Goldsmith was on a jolly with the navy just off the Cornish coast and apparently they heard tell of the legend that no mortal man could dislodge the rock from its axis. Goldsmith and 14 crew decided to test the theory. After several hours of struggling with iron bars they succeeded in tumbling the stone from its position.
The crew had however underestimated the importance of what they had done, the people of the area were understandably furious at this act of vandalism. Goldsmith wrote to his mother on 24th April 1824 saying “the Rock was so idolized in this neighbourhood . . . I found all Penzance in an uproar. I was to be transported at least; the newspapers have traduced me, and made me worse than a murderer, and the base falsehoods in them are more than wicked”. He was soon reported to the Admiralty and told to replace the stone immediately.
This was not an easy undertaking and it took several months to organise the necessary equipment but the Royal Cornwall Gazette reported on 6th November 1824 that crowds of people had watching the Logan Rock being hoisted back into position and a great cheer went up when it was seen to rock.
Although the stone was replaced apparently it never rocked the same again. This is a stretch of coastline that is well worth a visit and if you have a head for heights climb up to the Logan Rock and try it for yourself!