“The parish of Warleggan . . . is surrounded on the west, south and east by deep, wild woods whilst on the north it is closed in by the sentinel-like Carburrow tor.”J. W. Malim, 1936
The Warleggan river rises high on Bodmin Moor not far from Hawks Tor. As it tumbles towards the sea it is joined by a small stream known as the Dewey which in turn pours past Carburrow Tor on the western side of the moor. This tor is not dramatically high, it has no grand rocky outcrop on the top and it is not particularly well known, but I think there is a case to be made that Carburrow Tor is a hidden gem of Bodmin Moor.
Crowned by Cairns
It is a short steep climb to the top of Carburrow Tor from the banks of the Dewey. The angle of the gradient and large rough patches of gorse obscure the summit from view as you puff your way up. The verdant growth makes the route to the top strangled and pretty scratchy in places. But once you come up above the final rise the views are truly impressive and your effort is more than rewarded.
Axford calls Carburrow “a small, dumpy hill crowned with a couple of loose stone cairns.” Not exactly a gushing endorsement but I think the word to focus on there is “crowned” because without doubt these stony monuments are pretty wonderful! To me Carburrow Tor has a great deal to offer, if stones are your thing that is, and a character all of its own.
In fact, it is hardly surprising that it has an unusual atmosphere, because if you know where to look the whole of this tor is covered with signs of human settlement and ritual. From prehistoric boundary walls and hut circles to a propped stone and a medieval longhouse – this hill has been home to generation after generation of people. The name itself comes from yet another man-made feature of the tor, a circular stone enclosure. Carburrow derives from the Cornish ker meaning a fort or round.
“In certain areas there is so much evidence of the past that one can hardly walk twenty paces without coming across some object of archaeological interest . . . The tor has been settled for close to 4000 years . . . On Carburrow the sense of continuity is strong.”E. C. Axford, Bodmin Moor, 1975.
There is no doubt that despite its modest size this tor was vitally important to the people that lived on and around it in the past. It was their world. And the most obvious clue today to that former significance is the two impressive clitter cairns on the summit.
Cairns and barrows, prehistoric mounds of various forms found all across the UK and beyond, are ultimately thought of as the resting places of our dead ancestors, but in many ways they are so much more than that.
Much like standing stone or quoits, they act like signposts in the landscape. Cairns in particular are often positioned on high ground and so can be seen from miles around. The larger of the two ’round’ clitter cairns at Carbarrow tor, which is 26m in diameter, is no exception to this. From a distance there is an obvious tell-tale hump on the horizon, and if the second cairn was not so damaged it would almost certainly be just as visible.
It seems likely that the large prominent cairns acted both as boundary markers and as ceremonial foci . . .Stone Worlds, Barbara Bender et al, 2007
Cairns such as these date to the Bronze Age, around 2000 – 700 BC and there are roughly 400 recorded on Bodmin Moor. They can be found singularly or in large groups, range widely in size and each one can contain single or multiple burials. The human remains (usually cremated) were placed in pits or stone boxes called cists which were sunk into the original ground level. The cairns on Carburrow Tor have never been excavated however, so we can’t be certain how many, if any, burials there are here. But, you know me, that shouldn’t stop us imagining . . .
“There is no tor on the hill, merely a small outcrop of rock on the north-east side, and the hill seems to have been, in prehistoric times, a vast burial ground.”J. W. Malim, 1936
Clitter cairns like the ones at Carburrow, were constructed using material that was readily available – literally the smaller stones and boulders found lying about in the surrounding area. But this approach to construction should not belittle the effort involved, to move this many tons of granite rubble would still have required many hours of work by a single-minded cohort. Depending on the size of the cairn dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people were needed.
Another tantalising mystery that it is hard to avoid pondering is the rituals and traditions involved in the building and ‘use’ of these monumental structures, as well as the significance of the actual burials. Was this the resting places of ‘chieftains’ or ordinary, everyday folk? And how were the burial sites viewed after an internment? As haunted and off limits to the living, as sacred spaces to venerate the spirits of the dead or perhaps as comforting places to visit to find solace and to commune with your ancestors?
Ancient Burials Rites
Pat Munn, who wrote a small guide to Bodmin Moor in the 1970s, believes that the Bronze Age people built pyres for their dead on the spot where they would later build the cairn. She supposes that when the great blaze had died away the whole community would come together to ceremonially erect the mounds.
The epic poem, Beowulf was written more than 1000 years ago, around 800AD. Although set in Scandinavia it was written in Britain and the mixture of legend and historical ‘fact’ makes it a fantastic resource. It can enable us to perhaps flesh out the story of our cairns a little. When Beowulf, the hero of the Geats, is mortally wounded he explains to his followers what he wishes to happen to his body.
And after his death Beowulf’s wishes were faithfully enacted by his people.
Of course we can never know the particular rites that were performed for the dead who were buried at Carburrow. It is highly likely that traditions varied from community to community, family to family. However local legend, if we believe that folk tales are based on a kind of ancient communal memory, may give us some hint, some pale shadow, of who might actually lie there beneath the stones.
Two Kings in Golden Coffins
A wonderful folklore tradition holds that the cairns on Carburrow Tor are the burial places of kings. Beneath the mounds, in ancient times, were laid to rest the remains of two kings, each in a golden coffin. The legend maintains that these graves are protected by a flock of birds who will attack anyone who tries to disturb them.
This last part of the story was said to have been proven true in the 1940s when the Home Guard attempted to ‘dig’ a lookout post on the top the northern cairn. Although the circular hole the men made in the stones can still be seen today, all did not go as planned. According to Leslie V. Grinsell in his ‘Folklore of Prehistoric Sites in Britain‘ a man called Andrew Saunders, presumably a member of the guard, told the author in 1956 that the men had been forced to stop work because of an angry flock of birds!
The skies were quiet during my visit – but then, I have no intention of disturbing any sleeping kings!
The Cannon Stone
This strange arrangement of stones protrudes like a huge stone cannon on the southern slope of the tor, hence the name! It is up for debate whether this stone ‘table’ is a man-made propped stone or a result of natural phenomena. But there is little doubt that it was a focal point for the people who lived on and around the tor at the time the cairns were built.
The authors of ‘Stone Worlds’, a brilliant book which makes a study of landscape archaeology on Bodmin Moor, point out that there is a strange stony bank which runs up the north-west side of the hill joining the Cannon stone to the largest cairn on the top of the tor.
“This is not a normal enclosure bank and appears to have no functional purpose. It varies in width between 4m and 8m and is 130m long. It is built of large blocks . . . In some respects, the bank resembles a clitter stream; in others, it appears very artificial in character. It links the cairn at the top of the hill to the base of the hill slope and it connects the megalith-like chamber underneath the Cannon Stone with the cairn. It seems likely that this bank served as a processional way to the cairn at the top of the hill.”Stone Worlds, Barbara Bender et al, 2007
It certainly is an unusual feature which raises a great many questions as to its possible significance and focus in the landscape. Some point out that the structure of the cannon stone arrangement is very similar to that of a quoit or dolmen. So if it was purposely constructed what is it for and where does it point, is there an alignment? And which came first, the Cannon Stone or the cairns? As always so many questions!
Carburrow tor is one of the lesser known and least visited tors on Bodmin Moor but I am hoping that I have made a good case for it being something of an overlooked treasure if prehistory and fabulous views are your thing. It may be a lonely spot now but it was once the centre of a vibrant community whose motives and beliefs have become a mystery to us. And for me this mystery makes it all the more fascinating.
Notes on Visiting
Access to the tor is fairly straightforward, it is just a short drive from the A30, turning off at Colliford Lake. However, there is very limited parking. It is possible to park on the verge near the entrance to Higher Dewey Farm just after you cross the river but this must be done with care to avoid blocking farm traffic. Please also remember that there is livestock, cattle, sheep and ponies, grazing freely in this area so dogs must be kept on their leads. Enjoy!