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.

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