In a copse of trees known as the Rookery not far from the city of Truro there is a large granite column called the Pencalenick Obelisk. This isolated stone pillar has been the cause of speculation and rumour for more than a hundred years, since those who remember why it was built have all gone.
There are a number of different theories as to why this monument was erected which range from it being a garden ornament to it marking the death of a favourite horse, memorialising a suicide or even that it commemorates a very lucky escape. The short answer is that nobody knows why it is there, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the Pencalenick Obelisk might just be hiding a long forgotten secret.
The Horse & Woodcock Corner
“An impressive stone obelisk, a memorial to a horse, stands on a hill above [Pencalenick].Fal Estuary Historic Audit, CAU, 1997
My father loves pantomimes and when I was a little girl, at least once a year, we would drive as a family in our old brown Talbot to the Theatre Royal in Plymouth. This was before the A30 really existed so our journey was on the old road and it was a running joke as to whether I would ask “are we there yet?” before or after we got to Woodcock Corner just outside Truro.
I’m not sure when I was first told the story of how this once hair-pin bend in the road got its name. I feel as if I have always known Woodcock’s story, whenever I heard it it must have left an impression on me. This corner, you see, was named after a horse.
The name Woodcock Corner was in common usage by the middle of the 19th century, the first mention I can find of it comes from the Royal Cornwall Gazette from May 1850, although the story may date back even further. The first Turnpike roads in Cornwall (those maintained to a standard that could be used by coaches) were in the Truro area in around 1750. The earliest routes were between Truro and Falmouth and Truro and Grampound, by 1814 there were routes between Truro and Launceston, Penzance and Torpoint. Woodcock it seems was the lead horse in a famous coaching team plying one of those routes from the east into Truro. One day when climbing that last, long hill into the city Woodcock suddenly dropped down dead right on the corner which still bears his name.
“It was for a long time thought that when the main road was cut through this delightfully wooded spot, with its tinkling stream sparkling here and there amongst the ferns and bracken and thick undergrowth, that the corner was given its name because in its construction a favourite haunt of the woodcock was disturbed. But in the past few years it was discovered by material in the possession of the late Mr Tremayne, of Heligan, that it was here that one of the famous stage coach leaders named ‘Woodcock’ came to a somewhat sudden and tragic end. Thenceforth it assumed the name ‘Woodcock Corner’.Royal Cornwall Gazette, 31 July 1902
There is an idea that the Pencalenick Obelisk was also built in Woodcock’s honour, although this seems fairly unlikely to me it is possible that it was a memorial to a favourite horse of the Vivian family, the landowners.
The Vivians & the lucky escape
The monument stands on high ground some distance from Woodcock Corner, close to what was once the old carriage way to Pencalenick house. The track passes the Rookery where the obelisk stands and then crosses over the top of the small arched bridge, known as the Devil’s Bridge, before joining the drive to the house.
Mr Johnson Vivian purchased Pencalenick from Rev. Edward Foote in 1758 and the Rookery would have been part of the extensive landscaped garden adjoining the house. It has been suggested that the obelisk was added as a focal point within the garden, they were a popular form of garden feature in parklands in the 18th century. Wealthy families were heavily influenced by the architecture seen on their ‘Grand Tours’.
However, there is another far more exciting story. Francis T Williams, who owned Pencalenick after the Vivians, wrote in the West Briton that the obelisk had been erected by Mr Vivian who lived in the old Pencalenick House, a Georgian residence demolished in 1883. It was said to have marked his miraculous escape from certain death. The story goes that one evening Vivian was standing in front of his fireplace when a huge, deep hole suddenly opened up in the floor beneath him (mine shaft possibly). In a moment of quick thinking or sheer luck he managed to grab hold of the mantlepiece and save himself!
“On higher ground on the right hand side of the road is an obelisk which however cannot be seen from the thoroughfare. There are different stories as to the origin of the erection of this monument. One asserts that it was placed there to mark a case of suicide, another that it was erected as a thanks-offering by a man named vivian, whose house suddenly collapsed on him, he having a miraculous escape. Another house erected at the same spot is said to have collapsed in a similar way.”West Briton, 31 July 1902
Details of Pencalenick Obelisk & its Forgotten Secret?
The earliest description I have found of the obelisk dates from 1867, so we can be sure it was built sometime before then. The reference comes from Lake’s Parochial History of Cornwall, written by Joseph Polsue.
“Pencalenick House is a good brick building situated in an eminence rising abruptly from a navigable lake and backed by a mass of shrubs and flourishing timber . . . On a pleasing elevation facing the house, stands a handsome freestanding obelisk.”
The pillar stands 35ft (11m) tall, is four-sided and tappers to pyramid-shaped cap stone. Unlike obelisks in ancient Egypt it is not made of one solid piece of stone but many individual pieces of fine granite, each one dressed and shaped to fit. There is no inscription anywhere. The main pillar stands on top of a pedestal base which appears to be made up of four huge pieces of stone . . . and it is this that has started my brain ticking.
The way the four pieces of stone are laid implies that there may be a void inside the base. Indeed the ‘end’ stone on the south side does not fit anywhere near as snuggly as its opposite on the north side. The edges of the stone seems worn, damaged, especially at the corners.
And all this put me in mind of the Killigrew Monument in Falmouth. This stone pyramid also has no inscription and it is a mystery as to why it was built. It is constructed in a similar way, small, dressed blocks of granite tapering to a point. And, importantly, when the Killigrew monument was moved in 1836 a void was found inside contained two glass bottles. These two bottles were said to have been sealed with wax and contained pieces of parchment and coins.
So is it possible that the Pencalenick Obelisk is hiding a secret too? Or has my imagination really run away with me this time? . . . Remember all this is complete speculation on my part!
Visiting Pencalenick Obelisk
The woodland in which the obelisk stands is managed and private, but there is public access along the marked paths. The easiest way to approach the site by car is along the Truro to Tresillian Road (A390). Just before the thatched lodge there is a turn in to a small car park, with space for 4 or 5 sensibly parked cars. From here go through the gate and up the hill, follow the path around to the left. Keep on this path until you see a smaller path to the right going up hill through the trees, with fields on wither side, follow this to the obelisk on the hill. If you cross the Devil’s Bridge you have gone too far.