In the past writers have described the Goonhilly Downs on the Lizard peninsula as a bleak, remote and wild. Said to be the haunt of notorious highway men, travellers often complained of disorientating drifts of fog.
But the day I visited the downs were beautiful. The only drifts were of pink and white heather. There are thick banks of sloes berries bushes. Here and there low-lying bunches of purpley-blue whortle berries. Above everything, the silvery-white discs of the Goonhilly Earth Station dominate the skyline. Beautiful in their own right but strangely juxtaposed with the ancient landscape. I am not here to see them but have come in search of something far, far older.
The Dry Tree menhir
This beautiful standing stone dates from the bronze age and towers above me and the flowering heather. This is a huge stone. Stocky and solid, it stands roughly 3m (10ft) tall, with it is said a further metre below the ground.
The ancestors who placed it upright in the ground some 3000 years ago somehow brought it here from Crousa Downs, roughly 2 miles away. This effort indicates I believe not only the possible ritual significance of the site but the importance of this partcular stone too. It was obviously very carefully selected.
The Dry Tree stone is a massive piece of gabbro rock. Originally black in colour, gabbro is a course-grain, magnesium and iron rich igneous rock. It is formed deep in the earth by the slow cooling of magma.
Time and weathering have turned the stone grey and it is now dotted with lichen. It’s name, the Dry Tree, comes I assume from it’s resemblance to an ancient tree trunk. It is rotund, to large to reach my arms around, and seems firmly rooted in the ground with a skirt of grass.
Unfortunately, in the 19th century rumours of buried treasure led to the stone being toppled when various treasure hunters undermined it trying to make their fortunes. It was re-erected in 1927 by local quarrymen. Apparently Sir Courtney Vyvyan, who lived close by at the Trelowarren estate sponsored the event and Colonel Serecold paid for the men’s beer!
The landscape around the stone is scattered with other ancient remains. Most indistinguishable beneath the thick layer of gorse and heather. The whole area is now part of the Lizard Nature Reserve.
Goonhilly’s Highway Men
I’ll finish this story with a discription which I think vividly brings the Goonhilly Downs to life. Even on a sunny day the words ring true.
“The great waste of Goonhilly. A tract of country which, however interesting to the botanist or to him who gloats on legends, is sufficiently savage to have been a terror to travellers of ages not very remote from our own. And is still a perplexity even to natives when the sea mists envelope it with light wreaths of vapour. The familiar landmarks seem to melt away.”
From Highways and Byways in Devon and Cornwall, Arthur H Norway. 1900.
Finally, to give you an idea of scale I tried my best to take a picture of me next to this amazing stone. I am 5ft3ish.
Finding the stone proved to be a little more difficult than I thought. I thought there was no way to possibly miss a 10ft stone in the flat landscape of the downs. However the Dry Tree stone is tucked behind some trees.
I parked at the Lizard Nature Reserve car park, just past the entrance to Goonhilly Earth Station. From here take the main path which heads towards the dishes and the high perimeter fence. Turn left and head along the path that follows the fence. You’ll find the stone just past where the fences curves inwards and heads towards the station.
If you are looking for more interesting places like this to visit close by try Halliggye Fogou – One of Cornwall’s mysterious subterranean tunnels