Friday, 19 July 2013

Rough Circles

West Penwith is the 'toe' of Cornwall, an area of outstanding natural beauty, of timeless ambience, of ancient history that lifts the heart and animates the soul. The landscape is an inspiring blend of pasture, moorland, heath, sharp rocky tors, meandering drystone walls and tiny villages, hewn from  granite and slate. The beating nucleus of Cornwall's ancient identity can be seen in the multitude of standing stones, old tumps, time-cracked quoits and wild earthworks. On warm days, sea air from the nearby coasts both north and south provide a refreshing relief from the humidity of the lush pastoral closeness. On wild days the wind and rain can scythe through your very bones, and the venerable landscape becomes a treacherous enemy. It is a land worthy of reverence and despair, wonder and fear, courage and care. Hyperbole, indeed, but West Penwith - as all who know and love it would agree - is such stuff as hyperbole is made for.

Land's End, a popular Penwith destination

  Armed with an OS map, one can spend a week wandering the footpaths and hoary tracks of Penwith, every differing view a masterpiece, every tor a challenge, every discovery a delight. A single blog post cannot do credit to this region, so I will attempt to do credit to one small walk, a stroll of about an hour and a half, a trek forming a rough circle.

Bosigran Cliff, West Penwith
It is a walk I discovered myself, and I returned a year later with the three offspring in tow. The year I cannot remember, but it was c.2007. The day was bright, sunny and warm (but not stiflingly so) and our journey began on a small, dusty carpark on the side of an unrated country road, the main highway between the villages of Madron and Morvah. On the other side of the road sits a lone, small building, the Men An Tol Studio, now a gallery and publisher of local literature. In the heart of an area that has inspired many artists and writers, it could not be more perfectly sited.

Men An Tol Studio, (c) Big Al Davis

Sadly, it is not the studio we have come to visit, which is just as well as it appears to be closed. We strike out in the other direction, along a farm track heading away from the car park. The ground is rutted and crumbling with the furrows churned by agricultural vehicles. On two occasions it is a quagmire, possibly caused by the presence of springs and underground water channels in the area. We step gingerly past the boggy bits and keep as much as possible to the dusty, sun-cracked parts. To our left we can see the crumbling hulks of abandoned farm buildings, left to the mercy of the seasons. These are not the last derelict structures we will encounter during this stroll. In the distance to our rear we can make out the slopes of Chun Castle, an ancient Cornish fortress that still contains walls constructed during the Iron Age, and in the distance ahead we can see the undulating, dramatic profile of the tor known as Carn Gulva.

Chun Castle

Carn Gulva
The first site we intend to visit is, thankfully, much closer than those two. It stands in a field, close to the right of the track, and is one of the most celebrated prehistoric sites in Cornwall. It is known locally as the Crick Stone, but more familiarly by the Cornish for 'the hole stone' - the Men An Tol. It has been interfered with at various points in its 3-4000 year history, as old antiquarian notes and sketches suggest, and no-one is sure of its purpose. Some believe it to be the remains of a burial chamber, a 'quoit', others - myself included - believe it to be the ruins of a stone circle of which the holed stone was probably the centre.


The site is rich in local folklore. The obvious symbolism of the shape of the stones lead many to think that the site is a Bronze Age fertility clinic. Other local rituals have also been connected with the enigmatic monument:

  • Rickets/Scrofula: To protect children against these ailments, pass them naked through the holed stone three times, then draw them along the grass three times in an easterly direction. For the sake of the kids, I hope this ritual was reserved for warm days.
  •  Rheumatism/Ague: Adults afflicted with these should crawl through the hole nine times against the sun. This would probably be quite a chore if you were afflicted with rheumatism. Or obesity.
  • Prophecy: According to nineteenth-century folklorist Robert Hunt: If two brass pins are carefully laid across each other on the top edge of the stone, any question put to the rock will be answered by the pins acquiring, through some unknown agency, a peculiar motion. 
Men An Tol is not a large monument, but it is a unique one, and on a warm Summer day you would be lucky to have it yourself for more than a few minutes. I had long enough to conduct a brief experiment, and am happy to report that I can fit through it.

Back to the track, and we only have a few paces to go before the next site on our walk. In a field on the left, a single standing stone holds itself proudly erect. Stones such as these are not unusual in West Penwith, but this is more exciting than most, because it bears an inscription dating back to the Dark Ages, some 1500 years ago. The stone itself may date back to the Bronze Age and has simply been used as a grave marker.

Men Scryfa
It is six feet high, and part of the inscription has now sunk below the ground. It reads: RIALOBRANI CVNOVALI FILI, meaning 'Royal Raven, son of Famous Leader/Glorious Prince'. This shows how, in the culture of the time, names and titles were more or less interchangeable (as has been noticed by scholars who believe the name Arthur to be a title meaning 'Bear'.

According to local legend, the Glorious Prince held sway at Lescudjack near Penzance. An invader attacked and seized the fort and the Prince's lands. This may have had something to do with the important tin trade in the area at the time, and the re-fortification of nearby Chun Castle seems to have been contemporary with this affair. The Royal Raven attempted to win back his father's lands in battle, but was killed and buried by the stone. The fact that the stone was left to stand as a memorial suggests that the fallen Prince managed to gain victory despite his sacrifice.

Four Parish Stone

A little further along from Men Scryfa, the track splits in several directions. One leads to the rocky prominence of Carn Gulva, the others head right up the hill toward a distant engine house, relic of an abandoned tin mine. At this junction can be found a recumbent stone with a small cross incised at the end. This cross represents the junction of four parishes: Madron, Morvah, Zennor and Gulval.

Of the two tracks leading toward the mine, we take the higher option. We stroll past gorse and heather, and skirt an overgrown round barrow, a Bronze Age burial mound, which still has fallen kerbstones which once enclosed it at ground level. Beofore our ascent allows us to reach the mine, there is another monument to encounter; one which had been suffering from vegetative encroachment but, happily, has been cleared to provide us with a better view. It is the Nine Maidens Stone Circle, 72 feet in diameter. The antiquarian William Borlase noted in the 18th century that 13 of its original 20+ stones were standing - today that has been reduced to 7, and some of them lean precariously. They stand to an average height of 4ft and represent just one of the many wonderful, lonely and atmospheric stone circles that dot the Penwith landscape.

Nine Maidens

We put the Circle behind us as we continue to ascend the path. The landscape around us starts to change, some areas deeply pitted and fenced off, as we walk through an area pocked by the deep pits and gorges of old mining works. To our left the vista opens, affording us a glorious view of St Michael's Mount, and even further, to the rocky scarp of Carn Brea. We reach the peak of the path, the ruins of the Greenburrow engine house, the steadfast and atmospheric remnants of what is known as the Ding-Dong Mine.

Ding Dong Mine (c) Nick Macneill

From this elevated spot we can look back at our route, the Circles at Nine Maidens and Men An Tol hidden by scrub but the surrounding tors and peaks thrusting from the earth in their granite glory. Looking ahead, toward the Madron-Morvah road, we can see the defiant outline of the Lanyon Quoit, one of Cornwall's finest and most famous Neolithic monuments, which we had visited shortly before embarking upon this trek.

Lanyon Quoit, Ding Dong Mine behind (c) Hayley Greet

The path winds downward, across a stile, the gorsde closing in. Well hidden in this heathland, to the left of the path, is a small and perfect Neolithic burial chamber called the Bosiliack Barrow. It is a fine example of a prehistoric chambered tomb and, protected almost jealously by the surrounding undergrowth, is very difficult to find. For the hardy, however, it is well worth tracking down.

Bosiliack Barrow (c)Hansjoerg Lipp

The path now winds randomly toward the road. At one point we have to leap across a ditch, a field boundary, the water trickling sweetly and melodiously, as though to camouflage the treachery of the quagmire it has built around itself. The gorse sways and the heather bristles; it is with yearning hearts that we leave behind this beautiful, challenging landscape to step back out onto the rude tarmac of the road, and commence the short stroll back to the car.

Not a mighty hike, but a short, picturesque and historic stroll. Just a fragment of West Penwith was covered by our ambling, yet it encapsulated all that is glorious about this magical, mystical corner of our diverse and mystical island home. A rough circle, with other rough circles to bear witness to along the way. Many have stepped along this route. None, I'll wager, have forgotten it.

All of the above pics were lifted from the interweb, and I have credited these talented photographers where I have been able to identify them. I can only thank them for falling under West Penwith's spell as heavily as I did.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Fine Things To Be Seen

'...For there are good things yet to hear and fine things to be seen,
Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green'
                                                                                GK Chesterton, The Rolling English Road

The Anglican Chapel

An Open Day at a 72-acre cemetery? Seems an unattractive prospect for a daytrip... unless you harbour an interest in Victoriana, a fondness for Gothic sculpture, and the burial ground in question just happens to be one of the most celebrated in the world. There is even a free photography exhibition. Maybe a trip to Kensal Green Cemetery could be fascinating after all (unless, of course, you have a one-way ticket).

Angel at Kensal Green © E&K

  The General Cemetery of All Souls, Kensal Green, was created in 1833, using the famous Pere Lachaise in Paris as its inspiration. The 'General Cemetery Company' was created in order to run it... and indeed they run it today, making Kensal Green the only one of the 'Magnificent Seven' cemeteries surrounding London to be maintained by its original owners.

  The need for cemeteries arose due to the overcrowded and unsanitary conditions of the churchyards in the City (which are mentioned in some detail here). Kensal Green was the first to arrive, the other six being West Norwood (1837) Highgate (1839), Abney Park (1840), Nunhead (1840), Brompton (1840) and Tower Hamlets (1841). Many others have opened since, including the City Of London Cemetery at Manor Park, which is one of the largest in the world. The City churchyards were finally closed in the 1850's, and those that have not been cleared and had big office buildings planted on them have become pleasant gardens.

Tomb with caryatids © E&K

 The centrepiece of the cemetery is the classical Anglican Chapel, recently restored with the help of English Heritage and now a Grade I listed building. Two other structures at Kensal Green are listed Grade II: the Dissenters Chapel and the North Colonnade. All three of these structures have catacombs running beneath them.

Dissenters Chapel

  The catacombs beneath the Anglican Chapel follow the footprint of the Chapel and its colonnades, and have room for 4000 coffins, although 3000 have been filled. Like the rest of the Cemetery, they are still being used for internments today. They are currently under restoration. The catacombs beneath the North Colonnade are sealed. On the Open Day that we attended, the catacombs beneath the Dissenters Chapel were open for the first time, providing a home for a Photography exhibition.

The Grade II listed North Colonnade at Kensal Green, overpowered by a block of flats. Nice one, town planners.

The reality of mortality. It is uncomfortable to be confronted with it, but you can scarcely avoid it here. I turned up with my photographer daughter, her boyfriend, and the promise of another friend joining us later. All roads in Kensal Green lead to the Anglican Chapel, and we naturally gravitated to the stalls, the exhibitions, and the leaflets embellished with convenient maps, before striking out to explore the grounds.

  We headed for the Dissenters Chapel. It sits at the eastern end of the cemetery, reflecting a Victorian division that has, thankfully, pretty much disappeared today. The catacombs below the Chapel are hosting an exhibition of images by the Guardian photographer Sean Smith, and his work is not easy to behold. Dead bodies laying in the street in a warzone, ragged prostitutes, junkies shooting up... all within a space defined by our being surrounded by curtained vaults. The atmosphere is claustrophobic, to say the least.

Impressive tomb ©  E&K

I pull back a heavy curtain to show my companions the true purpose of the catacombs. Behind me lie coffins, Victorian-era Dissenters, wrapped in polythene to protect them from damp.Their names glare at us, scribbled down on cards and attached to their caskets. This touch makes it personal.  We have a male name, a female name, an 'unidentified adult', and then my daughter shrinks back, alarmed by something she has noticed. A fourth coffin, atop the other three. This box is about three feet long.

I try to explain the reality of infant mortality in Victorian times. It has been said that if you could survive all those childhood illnesses, then you had a good chance of living a relatively long life. The stumbling block was, of course, those childhood illnesses. Chicken Pox, Smallpox, Whooping Cough etc. This is why the Victorians had such large families. They simply didn't expect half of them to survive.

Anglican Chapel catacombs. The coffins in the Dissenter Chapel are 'sleeved' in polythene.

Explanations are not enough. The stark reality of the Catacombs, the coffin of a child, the blunt confrontation with the fact that History is not just costumes and archaic phrases. Time to leave the brooding vaults, to leave Mr Smith's photographs in their admittedly appropriate surroundings. Time to explore, with slightly troubled minds, what Kensal Green can show us not just about our past, but about our mortal futures.

  As an avid bookworm, my chief interest in Kensal Green is its literary connections, and we explore the ground to find the places of repose for those famous for their writings - and their relatives. Not far to the east of the Anglican Chapel can be found the tomb, half-hidden in the undergrowth, of Byron's wife Anne Isabella Millbanke (his half-sister/mistress Augusta Leigh is in the Anglican catacombs). Their quiet repose belies the scandals that often blighted their lives. One of the poet's closest friends, the politician John Cam Hobhouse, also lies in the cemetery, as does Lady Charlotte Bacon, the 'Ianthe' to whom he dedicated his epic poem Harold Childe's Pilgrimage. Around this area can be found the novelist William Thackerey, the playwright Harold Pinter and the poet Thomas Hood. To the west of the Chapel can be found Anthony Trollope and one of my favourite Victorian authors, Wilkie Collins of The Moonstone and The Woman In White.

An old photo of Collins' grave. Today, the iron railings have disappeared.

  Collins' grave has a few weathered pages from a book placed upon it. I pick up a page and try to recognise the words, but they are in German - a language of which I have little knowledge. We walk north of the grave, to an area where the grass is growing wild, covering many of the crumbling stones. Something catches my eye; a small white mausoleum, standing stark and lonely between minor monuments in this neglected part of the cemetery.

  It catches my eye for three reasons: it stands alone, not clustered with other, more opulent mausolea near the Anglican Chapel. It is anonymous, no inscriptions visible on its exterior. And, unlike the other mausolea which have doors or bricked-up substitutes, this one lacks a door at all. A black rectangle where the door should be seems to beckon us.

  My daughter, possibly still unnerved by the experience of the catacombs, has no wish to explore the mystery. Her boyfriend and I hold no such qualms. We pick our way to the structure, taking care not to stumble on hidden graves, and keeping an eye out for adders.

The Somerset Mausoleum

  Gingerly, we step into the mausoleum. Of its door there is no sign. The floor has litter, but not in any great quantity. A memorial medallion on the rear wall commemorates a woman. A shadow to its left attests to the presence of a now-vanished companion medallion. A slab is in the middle of the floor, inscribed with names and dates: Edward Adolphus Seymour and his second wife Margaret, who died in 1855 and 1880 respectively. We have found a descendant of the famous Tudor courtiers. We have found the 11th Duke of Somerset and his Duchess.

  Somerset seems to have been an erudite man. As well as being a Knight of the Garter, he was also a Fellow of the Royal Society, the Society of Antiquaries, and the President of the Linnean Society, the Royal Institution and the Royal Literary Fund. Unusually for a large landlord, he supported the repeal of the Corn Laws.

Edward Adolphus Seymour (c) NPG

  We emerge into the daylight, and I wonder why the Duke chose to have his mausoleum in such an isolated spot, away from the impressive funerary architecture that characterises the 'fashionable' areas. Many noblemen are buried at Kensal Green, yet this one seems to have made an effort not to be buried alongside them, and failed to even place the family name on his tomb. For a descendant of  Edward VI's Lord Protector, this seems curiously modest. The building is Grade II listed, and on English Heritage's 'At Risk' register, due to erosion at foundation level and the encroaching undergrowth.

 We meet up with my friend and explore the neighbouring Roman Catholic cemetery, which contains the entertainer Danny La Rue among others. In the centre, a white headstone shines like a beacon, marking the resting place of Mary Seacole, after whom a ward in my local hospital is named, and making this the second time I have tracked the grave of a Crimean War nurse. Then it's back for a final stroll around the hallowed bowers of the main cemetery.

Squirrels ply their athleticism across horse chestnut trees. Wildflowers jostle with the fading blooms of scattered wreaths. Foxes have made their lairs in the nooks and caverns of the cemetery, but they remain concealed for our visit. The tombs of princes, dukes and princesses cluster boldly around the Anglican Chapel. The little daughter of Winston Churchill rests under a whispering tree, not far from the mother of Oscar Wilde and the stationer W H Smith. The names of artists such as William Powell Frith fade on their headstones, even as the colours they daubed continue to burn bright on their canvases. Mary Hogarth, sister-in-law of Dickens, lies close to the cemetery's outer wall, in a spot once baptised with the great author's tears. The carvings on the tomb of William Mulready RA form a gallery of images he painted in his lifetime. Graven angels reach heavenward, neglected mausolea crumble under the onslaught of bramble and time. We depart, heading for the gaudy lights and endless rumble of the West End and a Covent Garden dinner... a stark contrast to the rustling necropolis we leave behind, the slumbering city of the dead left to the scurrying of nocturnal mammals and the peace of night. Peace, for its residents both famous and forgotten, stretching into eternity.

Nature taking over... ©E&K

Many fine things... ©E&K