I spend much of my time writing about and photographing the ancient monuments that our ancestors have left behind in the Cornish landscape. There are many well-known and enigmatic sites that captivate us, places that are the subject of the most study and the ones most likely to end up on Instagram!
It isn’t very often that you are given the opportunity, or indeed that you take the time, to consider where the people who built, worshipped at or were buried beneath these monuments actually lived. Where and how did they spend their daily lives?
Discovering Harpur’s Downs
I was lucky enough to be invited to take a look at one such settlement on Harpur’s Downs with a group of archaeological enthusiasts, accompanied by Ann Preston Jones, Historic England’s Heritage at Risk Officer and Chris Coldwell from Cornwall AONB. The settlement lies in an isolated valley on Bodmin Moor that is privately owned and we were there by permission from the owner.
The Treasures of the Moor
Bodmin Moor is one of the best preserved prehistoric landscapes in England. The rugged moorland is dotted with standing stones, stone circles, cairns and barrows but also the remains of hundreds of hut circles. Thousands of years ago the whole of Britain was covered with these simple huts. They were the most common form of dwelling for our ancient ancestors. In most cases all that can be seen of these homes today is what remains of their circular bases. These low walls are hardly impressive by many standards but for me they are particularly striking. They feel like a more direct connection to the people that lived here, than a cairn or a stone circle.
Hut settlements may go largely uncelebrated but architecturally they were actually extremely clever, their elegant shape encloses the maximum amount of space using the smallest amount of the available materials. On Bodmin Moor that was mostly granite.
The Roundhouses of Bodmin Moor
Roundhouses are by far the most common archaeological remains found on Bodmin Moor but are strangely rare in the rest of Europe. While out walking in this beautiful landscape you will often stumble upon the remains of someone’s home quite by chance.
There are scattered settlements all across this moorland. More impressive remains are noted at Leskernick Hill, Garrow Tor, Rough Tor, Browngelly, Blacktor Downs and Kerrow Downs. At Leskernick alone at least 44 roundhouses have been identified, another 120 at Rough Tor, more than 100 on the slopes of Garrow and a further 94 at Blacktor Downs. Suddenly the moor doesn’t seem so peaceful!
The Harpur’s Downs settlement is small by comparison. Roughly 9 hut circles remain, and not all these would have been dwelling houses, some would have been for animals or storage. But these were the homes of farmers and are still surrounded by an ancient field system. The diameters of the bases of the huts ranges between 5.8m and 9m. They would have been a similar size to the replica roundhouse that you can see at Bodrifty near Penzance. This one has internal diameter of roughly 8.5m.
This fascinating place was built by Fred Mustill in 1999 close to the Bodrifty ancient roundhouse settlement. It enables us to envisage what the huts at Harpurs Downs may have looked like. Bodrifty was occupied from the Bronze Age for 1000 years and lies a few miles northwest of Penzance on the Penwith. To build the house several tons of granite rocks were used as well as rab or granite sub soil as a mortar. The roof was constructed of oak, holly, ash and hazel. The number of post holes identified during an archaeological excavation of one of the original huts at Bodrifty in the 1950s was used as reference. The thatch was made using reeds from the Marazion Marshes. The TV programme ‘Time Team’ also visited soon after its completion in 2001. You can see it in the clip below:
The site is open to the public although you will need to arrange a time to visit – you can find contact details HERE.
A Ceremonial Landscape
Our visit to Harpur’s Downs is one that I won’t forget. Listening to the experts we had with us explaining what we were seeing on the ground brought the lives of the people who lived there into vivid focus. How the builders cut into the hillside to make a flat platform for their houses. How we were walking through their front door into their home, standing where their hearth once was.
The other thing that stuck me was how close these houses were to the more ceremonial monuments in the landscape. Close by there are 3 stone circles, Stannon, Fernarce and Louden as well as numerous cairns, including the huge one on Alex Tor which overlooks the site. And then over shadowing it all – the enigmatic Rough Tor. It got me wondering whether the people who lived in these houses had helped with the construction of these much bigger monuments which undoubtedly took a whole community working together to build. There is so much in this landscape to hold our imaginations, and hut circles though easily missed, are certainly as fascinating as the rest.
As I said at the beginning of the post the Harpur’s Downs hut circles are on private ground. They cannot be visited without permission from the owners.
However just get out your OS map of Bodmin Moor and you will see numerous hut circles and field systems marked, it is just a case of getting out there and exploring!