The secluded Fernacre Stone Circle is one of the largest of Cornwall’s ancient circles. And, along with its near neighbour Stannon Circle, is also one of the oldest and the most northerly on Bodmin Moor. Interestingly it has also been suggested that this particular stone circle was quite literally pivotal in the positioning of many of the other later sites on the moor.
Place . . .
“The large numbers of megaliths on the moorland tell of an area once well populated before the climate changed and the peat grew thick above the soil.” Alastair Service, 1979.
A visit to Fernacre involves a little bit of a trek and the circle stands in an area of relatively boggy ground, but you are rewarded with one of the most isolated sites on the moor. And some of the best vistas in the whole area. The tors rise up around you, Rough Tor around half a mile to the north, Brown Willy to the east and Garrow Tor south and Louden hill with its Logan Rock can be seen to the west.
The circle stands on the gentle slope of a small valley. It nestles between the castellated rocky heights of Rough Tor and Brown Willy. A narrow stream flows just a few metres away from the site, rising in the boggy ground between the circle and Louden hill. This little water course then winds its way south passing Garrow Tor, across King Arthur’s Downs until eventually feeding into the De Lank River.
People . . .
When visiting a site such as Fernacre it is impossible not to wonder who the people were that built it. What their motivations were and what they thought about. Our understanding of those communities has led to a great deal of speculation and conjecture as to the purpose of stone circles.
“The druids had no covered temples, they adored on the heights of mountains, under the open vault of heaven, and in groves. They offered sacrifices of beasts, and on great occasions of men, and greatly reverenced the Mistletoe and the Oak” – Rev J. J. Daniell, 1880.
The moor between Stannon Circle, Louden Hill and Fernacre is strew with evidence of occupation. There is a large collection of hut circles and the outlines of ancient field systems. These are thought to date to around 1200 BC. And an excavation by Roger Mercer in 1968 found evidence that the people living in those communities were quite possibly undertaking substantial tree clearance in the area.
The report of Mercer’s excavation was published the Cornwall Archaeological Society Journal in 1970. Mercer uncovered evidence of a group of 18 huts at the foot of Louden Hill, as well as low field walls and enclosures.
During the dig the team found a number of pieces of cord-ornamented pottery dating from the early Bronze Age, together with querns and various flints. Importantly Mercer also discovered two greenstone axes, likely signs of tree clearance, a theory possibly confirmed by the later pollen analysis.
Design . . .
Fernacre stone circle was constructed in the Bronze Age. Aubrey Burl, in the book The Stone Circles of the British Isles, proposes that Stannon and Fernacre were built much earlier than the other circles in the area. He concluded that their larger circumferences and the fact that they contain many more stones denotes a greater antiquity. According to Charles Woolfe in An Introduction to Archaeology in Cornwall the average diameter of the known circles in Cornwall is 27m (90ft), Fernacre has a diameter of 46m (150ft). And I worked out it’s circumference to be around 156m.
The circle consists of an estimated 70 irregularly shaped stones, all granite, sourced it seems almost at random from the surrounding countryside. Fernacre’s stones are also relatively small, the tallest is just over a metre tall, but that diminutive size is made up by sheer numbers. There are thirty-nine upright stones and many others are either fallen or been buried.
Fernacre is an oval shaped ring measuring 46m by 44m (151 but 144ft) and this too Burl comments on. He suggests that the flattened shape is an indication of “an indirect connection with the early Cumbrian rings.”
Purpose & Pivot
“The stone circles, tolmens and cromlechs with which Cornwall abounds where possibly constructed by the Druids, and if so would seem to prove that one of the chief seats of their worship was fixed in this part of the island . . . for in no other county, with the exception of Wiltshire, are such numerous remains to be found.” – Rev. J. J. Daniell, 1880
The purpose of stone circles has been long debated. And it is likely that there is no one right answer but without doubt there was a ritual element to the placement of the stones. Both Fernacre and Stannon circles are considered to have solar alignments. That is their position was carefully chosen and calculated so that the rising or setting of the sun on a specific day could be seen from within the confines of the stones. According to some reports the summer equinox sunrise can be seen from Fernacre circle rising directly above Brown Willy. This circle also aligns with the Great Bear constellation and the Pole Star as they rise above Rough Tor.
Incidentally, another name for the Great Bear is Arcturus and some scholars connect the legendary King Arthur with this constellation.
The solar alignments are not the only ones that have been attributed to Fernacre. According to A. R. Lewis, in an article published in the Journal Royal Institute of Cornwall, Fernacre acts as a kind of pivot for the positioning of other sites on the moor. Not only does the site sit directly between Stannon circle and Brown Willy but it is also possible to draw a line from the Fernacre, through Leaze circle and straight on to the Trippet stones.
Lewis also concluded that there was a direct alignment between Rough Tor, Fernacre, Garrow Tor and the Stripple Stones.
Forming the third point of a triangle between Stannon and Fernacre circles is the often forgotten Louden circle. Recent work here by the Timeseekers clearance team uncovered many more stones than had originally been recorded, 53 in total, making it a likely contemporary with Fernacre.
It is important I think that we remember that the position of these sites was not merely chance. Each one was carefully chosen, planned and constructed to fulfil a specific need or role in our ancestors lives.
Origins of the name . . .
What the people who constructed the circle of stones on this site during the Bronze Age called it is of course lost to us. The name ‘Fernacre’ was first recorded in the during the Middle Ages or late Medieval period.
“Fernacre, between Brown Willy and Rough Tor, and perhaps the most isolated place of human occupation on the moor, was mentioned in 1327.” E. C. Axford, Bodmin Moor, 1975.
It is tempting to take the name as simply a descriptive compound word, fern + acre, perhaps indicating the environment in which the circle is or was situated. Both these words come from Old English, fern from the Saxon word farn meaning feathery, and acre, which was later used as a unit of measurement, once referred to the amount of ground a pair of oxen could plough in one day.
However, it is important to bear in mind that many English sounding names in Cornwall are actually an later anglicisation of the original Cornish name. Brown Willy, for example, comes from the Cornish Brun Wennyly meaning ‘swallows hill’. I haven’t come across any reference to this being the case here but Alex Langstone perhaps gives us another clue in his book From Granite to Sea:
“On the valley floor between the two peaks lays Fernacre Stone Circle. The name is reputed to mean fairy land . . .”
If anyone can add to this with any information about the roots of this circle’s name I would be delighted to hear more!