Secret Cornwall: Bodmin Moor and its Environs
By Andy Norfolk
Originally published at Imbolc 2003
Cornwall has a reputation for being a special place, different from England, where the magic of the earth runs very close to the surface. This may be because it has an ancient landscape. It draws people to it, to live or to visit, and more and more people come to the old places which our ancestors marked as being special with monuments of stone and earth or holy wells. In the Neolithic Cornwall was well wooded, but people began to clear the land settle and farm between about 4000 to 2500 BCE. This was when the Quoits were built, apparently both for ancestor worship and to show that the land was occupied. Cornwall was divided into territories centred around defended hills, such as Carn Brea, and Stowe's Hill. By the later Neolithic and early Bronze Age, 2500 to 1200 BCE, most people lived in settlements which would have been familiar to people living only 100 years ago. The ruins of small mixed farms with round-houses and stone walled fields can still be seen on Bodmin Moor and in West Penwith, beside their contemporary stone circles, stone rows, standing stones, cairns and barrows. In the late 2nd millennium BCE the weather worsened and people moved to lower ground. The resulting changes in agriculture created the upland moors we now know, with the help of 2000 years of grazing. In the Iron Age, 600 BCE to 43 CE the population grew, putting pressure on resources and hillforts, cliff castles and defended settlements were built. Much of the upland landscape of Cornwall had already been created and fixed but the basic rural settlement pattern of small scattered hamlets was developed in the early Mediaeval period, 410 to 1066 CE. The Anglo-Saxons only controlled Cornwall for about 200 years before the Normans came and they made little difference to the landscape.2 So what you see when you visit Cornwall is a truly ancient place and more importantly you have a better chance of seeing that the ancient sites fit within the grain of their surroundings in a sacred landscape than in many other parts of Britain. Remember that they are part of the country not separate from it.
In 1999 those of us who live here were especially concerned that huge numbers of people coming to Cornwall for the eclipse might damage the ancient sacred places. Various things were done to protect the sites and there was no significant damage, though of course it probably helped that we didn't get the predicted number of visitors. Though the expected invasion didn't happen at the eclipse it has been happening slowly and relentlessly since. There are ever more people seeking out the magic of Cornwall, which to me feels very apparent and wild. Whilst it is possible to plan ways to deal with a brief event like the eclipse it is far more difficult to deal with a steady surge of visitors to ancient sacred sites over the years. In 1999 Cassandra Latham and I wrote, "We realise the land belongs to no-one and that no-one can claim rights over it, however we do appeal to peoples' sense of courtesy and respect for the sacredness of the land and for the genius loci at these places". I think that appeal needs to be made again, for Cornish sites but also for those throughout the UK and elsewhere. We also need to find ways of spreading the load. Many of the most popular sites are over-visited and suffer from too many feet, too much love, and too many inappropriate actions and offerings. Some of us who live here spend a lot of time looking after the sites but we feel that it may be helpful if people visit some that are less well known. It will, we hope, reduce the numbers going to the best-known sites and mean that the other sites are also visited by people who care about them. Ideas about visiting these ancient places have changed over the last few years and now many Pagans go to them with no intention of leaving any offerings and usually with plastic bags to remove other people's litter.
The sites are visited by all sorts of people including Pagans. Wiccans may have read the Farrars, who say that "Every land has its magical places, its ancient and continuing concentrations of power" and that legend, mythology and cultural tradition are a vital part of the spirit of the land"3. Druids may prefer Nichols' view that "power inherent in upright great stones was recognised. Man had perhaps already found experimentally that in fact stone did store psychic power rather better than trees and that each stone gave the effect of personality."4 Nichols described how he felt that stone circles were built to store energy raised by dancing. Starhawk and other Pagan writers also talk about the ancient sacred sites as places built to store power created by ritual and as places where it is easier to step between the worlds. Even the sceptical probably feel that these places have a special atmosphere about them. The ancient sites in Cornwall are actively used for rituals by local Pagans - sometimes with funny results. Some years ago the late Peter Pool, a Cornish speaker and amateur archaeologist, was clearing the path to Boscawen-un when he came across naked women dancing and chanting in the circle. Apparently he coughed discretely, but perhaps not loudly enough, because they carried on until they'd finished. He doesn't seem to have been too bothered but others have been. I'm sure you'll all feel sorry for Phil Hadley writing on the Kernow Youth web-site that he "once had to beat a hasty retreat with a car load of young people after driving into a coven dancing round a fire at an isolated spot on Bodmin Moor". Driving into a coven? But then the poor man seems to be a rather deluded over-keen Christian with some odd ideas about witchcraft.
There are a lot of fascinating places in Cornwall, but visit them with care - for yourself. Many are on moorland with a lot of weather, it can be wet and slippery underfoot, and some are miles from anywhere. There are open mine shafts. Take a map, wear the right sort of clothing, stick to obvious paths and don't explore strange hollows, especially if they have fences around them.
The Trippet Stones on Manor Common, Blisland at SX 1312 7501. Turn on to the road leading north-west from the A30 near Temple, (which was owned by the Templars who founded a church here in the 13th C). A delightful stone circle - of maidens turned to stone for dancing on the Sabbath, hence the name - has excellent views to Carbilly Tor (from the Cornish "carn ebilly" meaning "colt's tor") and Hawks Tor, with Rough Tor (pronounced rowter) and Brown Willy (from Cornish bron wennyly - swallows' hill) to the north-east. It has eight stones leaning drunkenly and four fallen. In 1885 it had "suffered from a great deal of maltreatment at the hands of stone-breakers who have left their unmistakable marks upon it. Other forces have concurred to bring it to ruin and it is scarcely likely that it will continue for any length of time even in its present condition"5. It is a true circle about 104', 33m in diameter and the stones are about 1.2 to 1.4m, 5' high with flat tops and inner surfaces. It may have been built as a place to watch the midsummer sunset or maximum midwinter moonset over a rocky outcrop on Carbilly Tor. The Stripple Stones are about 3/4 mile away to the east. This circle is used for rituals and to me has a good "feel".
The Stripple Stones, SX1437 7521, though ruined are worth the walk from the Trippet Stones. Follow the track north-east until you come onto open moorland on Hawks Tor and then head across country to the site just beyond the hilltop. This is the only circle-henge in the South-west. Stripple means dry earth and has nothing to do with bare maidens. Aubrey Burl says that sods rather than Salomes are the explanation, turves cut to protect dry-stone walls6. There are only four stones still standing and this site is in rather a sad condition with a field boundary built through it, so it might welcome some friendly visitors. It had a centre stone, which would have stood over 3m tall, possibly acting as back-sight for relatively crude alignments to the maximum midsummer moonrise, equinox sunrise and May Day sunrise over apsoidal bulges in the henge bank.
The Hurlers stone circles, southern SX 2580 7132, central SX 2582 7138, northern SX 2584 7146, are easy to get to along a track from the southern end of Minions village. They stand in an area of damp grassy sheep-grazed moorland. Burl says they stand in dispiriting surroundings, but most visitors will not realise that the local lumps and hollows are the result of mining. The remains of a smaller fourth circle have recently been found north-north-east of the obvious three circles and a further fifth circle has been suggested between it and the others. Camden wrote in 1610 that "The neighbour Inhabitants terme them Hurlers, as being by a devout a godly error perswaded that they had been men sometimes transformed into Stones, for profaning the Lord's Day with their hurling the ball"7. Of the three obvious circles the northernmost was paved with granite. The stones in the centre circle of the three were smoothed by hammering and the resulting shattered quartzy fragments were scattered over its interior. It was not, as is sometimes implied, floored with quartz crystals. These two circles were restored by Raleigh Radford in 1935-36 and the northern circle has 11 stones standing and 4 fallen, the centre circle has 14 upright stones. There is supposed to be a carving 38cms across of three concentric circles on the inner face of a stone at the northwest of the northern circle. This stone may indicate the Beltane sunrise.8 There are two standing stones called The Pipers, SX 2572 7143, 2m and 3m tall to the south-west, but they may not be ancient.
Borlase wrote in 1754 about the three circles that "I cannot but think that there was some mystical meaning, or, at least, distinct allotment to particular uses. Some of these might be employed for the Sacrifice, and to prepare, kill, examine, and burn the Victim, others to the Feasting of the Priests, others for the station of those who devoted the Victims: whilst one Druid was preparing the Victim in one place, another was adoring in another, and describing the limits of his Temple: a third was going his round of the extremities of another Circle of Stones; and, likely, many Druids were to follow one the other in these mysterious rounds.."9 So that should give you some ideas about what to do when you visit.
These circles have become rather more famous for those interested in earth energies in the last few years. The central circle is the meeting point of the Michael and Mary lines, described in "The Sun and the Serpent" and dowsed by Hamish Miller and Paul Broadhurst10. If you look to the east you will see the remains of cairns on Caradon Hill which may have been placed to mark the sunrises leading up to Samhain.11
If you follow the line of the circles deeper into the moor you will come to Rillaton Barrow, SX 2603 7191, which may have been on a processional way from the Hurlers to the Cheesewring12. A priceless ancient gold cup was found in the barrow in 1837 and sent to the Duke of Cornwall, later to become George V. It was "lost" but eventually turned up in his dressing room at Buckingham Palace where he was using it to store collar studs and is now in the British Museum. There is a legend that a Druid/sorcerer used to offer passers-by a drink from a gold cup at the barrow, until a greedy traveller rode off with it. He quickly came to the required bad end as he and his horse plunged over a precipice. (Can't say I've noticed many nearby, the hollows carved across the moor are the result of relatively recent mining). Unfortunately it seems this story wasn't told until after the cup was found13.
Carry on across the moor towards the wonderful natural Cheesewring rocky outcrop. With luck you'll find Daniel Gumb's house. He was a self-educated 18thC stonecutter who lived with his family in a strange rock built "cave". Gumb was a mystic who seems to have been obsessed with sacred geometry and he carved symbols on rocks across the moor. One of the easiest to find shows Pythagoras' Theorem. It's been suggested that rocks like the Cheesewring are the worn-down stumps of "a power house where Sarron and Samothes, royal colonists from Atlantis stored their subtle force"14. Even if you think this is completely batty bear in mind that there is good archaeological evidence that the carns and tors were regarded as special. Many had cairns built around them in the Bronze Age or had human remains deposited in their crevices. The stone circles on Bodmin Moor seem to have been sited in a careful relationship with significant hills and tors15. Cornwall has a tradition of "carreck sans", holy rocks, and to sit under the Cheesewring while the wind makes it vibrate and mutter is a powerful experience. According to the legend if you are there at sunrise you'll see the top stone turn three times.
Better still though is to carry on to the top of Stowes Hill to the enclosure called Stowe's Pound, SX 258 725. Not an Iron Age hillfort as you might think at first, but a Neolithic ritual enclosure. It has many wonderful enigmatic weather-sculpted rocky outcrops. The rubble bank surrounding the hilltop was once a wall up to 3m tall built around a spine of upright stones encircling two enclosures, one apparently without an entrance, near the Cheesewring. This seems to have been the most important ritual part of the holy hill, which is surrounded by monuments. To the west is a stone row, SX 2396 7203 to 2408 7228 leading to the end of an embanked avenue. This monument, SX 2423 7209 to 2427 7205, consisting of two parallel banks of stones is aligned on the Craddock Moor stone circle, the southern Hurler and a cairn on Caradon Hill marking the Beltane/Lughnasad sunset or Samhain/Imbolc sunrise. From the Craddock Moor circle, SX 2486 7183, now hard to find because its 16 fallen stones are overgrown, the sun set over a cairn on Stowe's Pound at mid-summer. Though it may seem remote today, in the second millennium BCE this whole area was densely populated. The top of this hill is the place for me - the magical focus of the area.
King Arthur's Hall, SX 1296 7765 is a strange site which can be reached by footpaths east from St Breward. There are 56 stones around a badly drained and boggy rectangular hollow 47m north-south by 21m. The stones face a bank up to 2m high and 6m wide with a narrow entrance to the southwest. It was described in 1584 as "situate on a playne Mountayne, wrowghte some 3 foote into the grounde; and by reason of the depression of the place, ther standeth a stange or Pool of water"16. The centre was scooped out to make the banks and the stones rest against it as an embellishment. The only truly similar monuments are to be found in Brittany or Ireland17. It is thought to be a late Neolithic or early Bronze Age ceremonial site and, taking into account the great amount of effort to build it, must have been a very important monument18. Take your wellies, or paddle, but at least you now know that a "stange" is really a ritual puddle.
Only about 11/2 miles south from the Hurlers is Trethevy Quoit, SX 2594 6881, also known as King Arthur's Quoit. In 1605 it was "called in Latin Casus gigantis a little howse raised of mightie stones". Its name comes from the nearby farm of Dewi. It's one of the best-preserved portal dolmens in Cornwall and is an impressive monument standing next to the lane between Darite and Tremar. There is a small parking area close to a kissing gate through the hedge. The capstone is 4.2m long and towers more than 4.3m above the original forecourt at the eastern end. There is a small round hole in the capstone at its highest corner and a small rectangular piece missing from the front closing slab allowing a tight squeeze into the chamber. The western support stone has collapsed inwards leaving the capstone looking as if it is defying gravity. There was once an earth mound around it, though little remains, but the capstone was probably always exposed. The "Mary" line runs through this site. It has a quiet dignity and feels like a powerful place - though the proximity of a terrace of cottages might put you off working skyclad!
Only 7 miles from Bodmin Moor is the extraordinary and beautiful Duloe Circle, SX 2359 5830, beside the village on a flat ridge above deep river valleys. The name Duloe comes from the Cornish for two inlets, dew logh. Look for a signpost from the road at the south end of Duloe. The stones are of white quartz, but look grey in some lights because of lichen. In misty weather they look very ethereal and other worldly. They are tall, between 2.65 to 1.5m high, and arranged in an ellipse only about 12 by 10m. This is a circle which sings quietly to itself as it lulls visitors to sleep. It always feels a very comfortable place to be and cows have been seen to come into it especially to give birth.
About a mile south-east is St Cuby's Well, SX 241 579, beside the road to Sandplace, but you'll need to look hard to find it. This ancient granite building contains a seat and inner well of clear water. Despite being close to the road it is peaceful inside. A large granite bowl carved with a dolphin and griffins was removed from the well by a farmer, whose oxen promptly died. Then it was rolled down the hill by drunk workmen and piskies were heard laughing round it. It was moved to Trenant in 1863 by the squire who had to promise to pay pensions to the relatives of anyone who died in the process. It's now in the church. St Cuby is an unusual Cornish saint because he was actually born here.
Not far away is the equally wonderful St Nun's Well in the valley of the West Looe River about 11/2 miles north-east of Pelynt, SX 224 564. Just by the gate to the private road to Hobb Park there are several stone steps leading down to a path to the well a short distance along the top of a steep pasture. Here the granite basin remains with a thick covering of moss. This is also known as the Piskey Well because of its guardian spirit who gave health and good fortune to reverent visitors but a curse to others. The bowl was removed by a farmer twice but found its way back. On his third attempt the farmer lost his wits and was struck dumb and his oxen died.
Pawton Quoit, SW 9658 6960, tucked away 2 miles south-east of Wadebridge is very different from Trethevy. To get there take the lane south to Haycrock Farm from theA39 at Whitecross. The quoit is in a field west of the lane before you reach the farm. Nine upright stones support the heaviest capstone of any Cornish quoit which shows no signs of floating away. This massive stone is 3.6m by 2.1m and 0.8m thick. A piece has broken off and lies in front of the original façade. It was originally set in an oval mound though this has been ploughed away. It has been estimated that the chamber inside was originally 2m high but that soil has washed in. It may have been the ritual focus for the area at the time it was built.
A little further to the south-west are The Fiddler and Nine Maidens by the A39 3 miles north-east of St Columb Major. You would have thought that the locals would have learnt not to dance on a Sunday but seems they kept making the same mistake. The Fiddler is also known as the Old Man or the Magi, but only a stump remains at SW 9394 6820. The Nine Maidens are a Bronze Age stone row of nine quartz stones, SW 9363 6754 to SW 9369 6763 aligned on the Fiddler, five of which are still standing with two stumps. When I was there last year I had a strange sensation at one stone which was almost flickering in and out of existence - not a bad trick for a piece of stone about as tall as I am. The name "nine maidens" may come from the Cornish for "the moor stones" - "an un medn". Someone reported having seen two parallel stone rows here not many years ago when driving past though there is apparently only one. A couple of miles further west is the 3m plus quartz Long Stone at SW 9056 6870 at the delightfully named Music Water, though I'm sorry to say that this is probably from the Cornish mesek wartha , the upper cultivated land.
To the east at the highest point of St Breock Downs, SW 9678 683, stands Men Gurtha. This name was recorded in 1613 and means the Stone of Waiting. It was leaning and finally fell in 1945 and was re-erected in 1956. It is a spectacular stone veined with quartz weighing about 17 tonnes, the heaviest menhir in Cornwall, and stands over 3m tall. The socket for the stone contained small pieces of birch charcoal. There is a layer of quartz stones around its base which may be the remains of a low cairn. Half mile to the east is another St Breock Downs Menhir at SW 9732 6825 about 2.4m high.
Six miles south of Wadebridge is the astonishing Roche Rock, SW 9910 5960, a gnarled granite outcrop jutting over 30m out of flat land south of the village of Roche on the edge of the clay country. Built into the top of the crag is a hermitage once dedicated to St Michael and sure enough Miller and Broadhurst tracked their Michael line here. If you are feeling brave and have non-slip shoes you can climb an iron ladder up the side of the crag to the chapel - a place of sun and air. The wind whistles and howls around it on windy days like the hounds which chased Jan Tregeagle here. Tregeagle is a sort of demon who haunts the moors hills and coast of Cornwall. It could once have been a legend about how parts of Cornwall were created but it is now attached to a 17thC bent magistrate and evil landlord who was summoned back from the dead to be a witness in a court case and then condemned to carry out a number of impossible tasks. He was driven from his task of draining Dozmary Pool with a limpet shell with a hole in it by a terrible storm and fled chased by a pack of demon hounds. He sought sanctuary at Roche Rock chapel but could only get his head in through the window leaving the rest of him to the mercy of the hounds. St Conan whose chapel it was couldn't bear to have this evil head leering at him and Tregeagle couldn't bear the prayers. Eventually he was taken to Padstow where he was condemned to weave ropes from sand. St Conan's daughter, Gundred, brought him water from a mysterious well the water of which ebbs and flows with the tides though it is many miles inland. I've hunted this well on several occasions through the gorse and bracken around the Rock but it is apparently a hole in a large boulder near the slate stile from the road.
Much closer to my home is Men Amber at SW 6501 3225. This was a very sensitive logan rock, or rocking stone. It is on a high ridge by a Monterey Pine and can be seen from miles around. The area has been much affected by mining and quarrying and most moor stones were split up and used in buildings. This one has no sign anywhere that anyone has ever tried to break it so it has clearly been regarded as special. The easiest route is to go south-east along the footpath through the farmyard at Blue Pool Farm and then south-west along ridge. Logan rocks were traditionally used in Cornwall to make vows because it was said that no-one with treachery in their heart could make one rock. This one was toppled by a man called Shrubsall in about 1650 when he was governor of Pendennis Castle for Cromwell's regime. This may have been prompted by one of Merlin's prophecies, in this case that Men Amber would stand until England had no king. Stukeley said "Main Ambres; petrae ambrosiae, signify the stones anointed with holy oil, consecrated; or in a general sense, a temple, altar or places or worship"19. Total tosh of course. It's far more likely to be from the Cornish verb amma, to kiss. Borlase said that Men Amber was overthrown because "the vulgar used to resort to this place at particular times of the year, and payed to this rock more respect than was thought becoming to good Christians"20. It looks to me that if some of us went and payed a bit of respect with some levers we might be able to replace this rock so that it rocks again. But it's a very big chunk of granite. John Michel says that logan rocks were often on the end of alignments in Cornwall, that they are traditionally associated with the invocation of fertility and that it is said that they played an important part in the generation of the terrestrial current and its transmission down alignments of pillars and stone circles21.
It looks as though the summer solstice sunset would occur over Men Amber when seen from Prospidnick Long Stone, SW 6592 3155. This is an elegant 3m standing stone, at a bend in a minor road near Prospidnick Hill, but the two aren't intervisible because Longstone Down between them is about 1m too high. Some of the hedgerows on the northern side of Prospidnick Hill seem to follow the ramparts of an Iron Age defended settlement.
A 31/2 miles to the north-north-east is Burras Menhir, SW 6795 3445, a fine standing stone in a field beside a farm-house just off the B3297. There is no public right-of-way to it but ask at the farm and they may let you visit it. It was re-erected in the early 1900s by the Pearse brothers using a steam-engine. There is a possible alignment from Prospidnick Longstone through the Burras stone to a fallen stone by an ancient settlement on the side of Calvadnack, a hill to the north-north-east. Less than 11/2 miles further north are the Wendron stone circles at SW 6831 3653 to the east of the B3297. The safest way to get there is to drive north on this road and park in the lay-by on the west side of the road. Cross the road and go over the stile beside the bungalow. There was stone circle in this field but only a couple of stones remain built into the hedge to the south. Go down the hedge line and you will see another stone built into it forming part of the remaining circle just the other side of the hedge. By the way I have carried out a ritual here, but it's amazing how many cottages overlook it! There is a possible equinox sunrise sunset line from the site of the north-western circle to a cairn on Calvadnack to the east and Hangman's Barrow to the west. Hangman's Barrow is a massive ruined cairn at SW 6737 3669 beside the B3280 which is still 3m tall and 20m wide. The name probably comes from the Cornish "hen-veyn" meaning ancient stones.
Not much further north is the remarkable Neolithic defended settlement of Carn Brea, SW 686 407, best approached from the south via Carnkie village. It lies just south of the main road between Camborne and Redruth. The top of Carn Brea hill has three summits. In the middle is the Basset monument to one of the local mineral lords of the mining heyday of this area and on the eastern summit is a building perched on an outcrop which was once a mediaeval chapel and hunting lodge. As you drive onto the hilltop you will pas a large orthostat on the right - the road goes through the Neolithic rampart at one of the original entrances. This site was occupied from about 3900 BCE and is near one of the ancient green-stone axe factory sites. The ramparts are about 3,600m in length and still stand up to enclosing an area of about 18 hectares. Excavations showed that in the Neolithic the eastern end of the site was occupied by small rectangular houses built amongst the boulders. Below these on the sunny flank of the hill were small terraced fields. The hut circles you can see near the car park are much late Iron Age buildings. There is "menhir" is between 2.4 and 2.9m - 8' to 9'6" at SW 686 407 and it was shown on the 1880 OS map. It was part of the Neolithic rampart - an orthostat forming part of its structure. It stands just at the end of a spur of rampart protecting the gateway labelled as "area G" in Roger Mercer's report on his 1970-73 excavations. A local legend says that there was once a great battle on this hill between the forces of good and evil, though it doesn't say which won. Mercer found that the Neolithic settlement was stormed and burnt. There is a well just below the castle and rumours of a secret tunnel from the castle to St Euny Church to the east. A face shaped rocky outcrop beyond the castle looking over the church is known as the Carn Brea Witch. Near the monument is a large wonderfully weather-sculpted outcrop known as the "Giant's Pots and Kettles" or the "Sacrificing Stone". This hill has an atmosphere of its own and is used for rituals by local Pagans.
The Rock Farm menhirs at the west end of Carn Brea are easy to get to from a footpath. They are at SW 677 401 and SW 677 402. The southern stone is just under 1.8m - 6' - in height and the northern one is 1.5m - 5' - in height. The southern one has been drilled perhaps for a gate hinge. The northern one was part of a hedge shown on the 1880 OS map. These stones may be genuine ancient menhirs but are a bit on the small side for certainty with excavation.
Please take care when you visit these places not to damage them. "Don't change the site, let the site change you".
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