The landscape of Bodmin Moor is full of reminders of our ancient ancestors. This now wild, rocky upland was once their home, their hunting ground and a source of grazing for their animals but it also held a profound spiritual importance for them. Bodmin Moor, it could be argued, was a place of worship.
Alongside the everyday, essential structures of homes, store houses and field boundaries stood stone monuments that were in effect their cathedrals, cemeteries and memorials. Four hundred cairns, sixteen stone circles and numerous standing stones litter this landscape. Stone rows however are something of a rarity. While Dartmoor in Devon, with more than 70 rows, has the highest concentration of this type of monument anywhere in Britain, surprisingly on Bodmin Moor just twelve have been recorded. One of the finest is Colvannick stone row.
Stone Rows on Bodmin Moor
Stone rows on Bodmin Moor are, as my mother would say, like hen’s teeth – very few and far between! That is, of course, the ones that have been identified are very few, there is a strong possibility many more lie just beneath the turf, frustratingly hidden from us by the passage of time. The rows that have been recorded, such as the one at Leskernick, tend to have very small stones, meaning that they are far more susceptible to being lost. The other unusual thing about the rows on Bodmin Moor is that they weren’t really identified or recorded until relatively recently, mostly during fieldwork in the 1970s and 1980s.
According to Dr. Sandy Gerrard, arguably the UK’s leading expert on stone rows and alignments, there are twelve rows on Bodmin Moor, some of which he has identified himself. He records them at Stannon, Buttern Hill, Leskernick, Tolborough Tor, Trehudreth Downs, Colvannick, Searle’s Down, Carneglos, East Moor, Hawk’s Tor, Craddock Moor and Minions. The longest row, on East Moor, is 560m long. Here the intermittently placed nineteen stones lead you between Fox Tor and a large hill with two cairns on top. Unfortunately due to undergrowth and missing or fallen stones, following its path is a bit of a hit and miss escapade.
Colvannick, I believe, is by far the most impressive and easily identifiable row on Bodmin Moor.
Colvannick row, sometimes also called Cardinham Moor row, is roughly 380m long and what makes it particularly special is the size of its stones. They are significantly taller than those found in other rows on the moor, with some stones as much as 2.4m high.
Early surveys of the site identified 12 stones in the row but there are now only 11. (It is unclear what happened to the twelfth.) One of the ‘end’ stones is leaning at a dramatic angle but it has been suggested that this is intentional, that the stone’s socket indicates that it has always leaned. Reminiscent perhaps of the central stone at Boscawen-Un circle on the Penwith.
Colvannick stone row is considered to be a Bronze Age monument, which would make it around 4000 years old but a lack of dateable finds makes aging stone rows notoriously difficult. It is, however, considered a highly important and nationally rare monument.
After years in relative obscurity the row was brought back to the attention of archaeologists in 2004 by author and guide Mark Camp after he stumbled upon it while out walking on Cardinham Moor. When I spoke to Mark earlier this year he was at pains to point out that he had not ‘re-discovered’ the row as some articles have suggested, saying “I think people knew it was there!”
Cheryl Straffon wrote about the row in 1993 in the EM Guide to Bodmin Moor and it also appeared in the CAU’s Bodmin Moor Survey. Colvannick also appeared in a painting by antiquarian Thomas Quiller-Couch in 1878
But Mark must have helped reignite interest in the site, as work has been carried out to remove undergrowth from the route of the row, to make its existence more obvious, and between June and August 2015 the site was properly surveyed and three of the stones re-erected into their original sockets. All this has added to the presence and impact of the monument.
” One of the functions of the ritual monuments may have been to forge a sacred link between the community and its land.”Peter Herring & Peter Rose, Bodmin Moor’s Archaeological Heritage, 2001
The purpose of stone rows is something of a mystery. There is much talk of ritual pathways, ceremonial routes and alignments to celestial bodies or prominent landmarks but in all honesty no one really understands the precise reason that they were constructed. To add to the confusion, unlike many of the rows on Dartmoor, those on Bodmin Moor tend to have less obvious alignments to points in the landscape and are very irregular in both design, length and size of stones.
But that idea of the row providing a link, joining spaces together, is an endearing one. The landscape that surroundings Colvannick row is full of interest. There are at least nine small cairns in the vicinity as well as another smaller row and a standing stone on the other side of the A30 on Trehudreth Downs. But the most obvious landmarks are the two tors – Colvannick Tor, from which the row gets its name, and St Bellarmin Tor. And, to my eye, the row does seem to run between them.
“The row on Cardinham Moor, running a few hundred metres to the east of Colvannick and St Bellarmin Tor, links two areas of high ground, with the land rising up gently beyond the southern most and tallest stone. The row is not aligned with reference to either of these two nearby tors but rather seems to connect together the lower slopes of the land rising up to them.”Christopher Tilley, Rocks as Resources: Landscape & Power, Cornwall Archaeology, 1995
There is also an idea that the stone rows lead to a point in the landscape from which you could see something else – the sea perhaps or a particular landmark. This is also true of Colvannick, from along its route you can, on a clear day, make out the glint of the water of St Austell Bay on the far horizon, and more obvious are the outlines of Brown Gelly, Brown Willy and Rough Tor looming in the distance.
“At the northern end of the row the south coast of Cornwall and the sea is visible. Conversely at the southern end of the row part of the north coast of Cornwall and the sea is visible. The south coast is not visible from the southern row end and vice-versa – an intriguing type of ‘twisted’ perspective”Christopher Tilley, 1995
There is one thing, however, that I feel that we can count on given all this uncertainty and conjecture . . . as we walk beside or between those stones we know we are following in our ancestors footsteps and that in itself is an awesome idea to hold on to.
The Two Tors
The two tors that the row appears to stitch together, Colvannick and St Bellarmin’s, are two very different outcrops of rock. The name Colvannick Tor was first recorded in writing in 1327, the name translates from Cornish to, I am told, either “pointed hill” or “penis shaped” but to be honest neither translation seems a good description of the hill. From the direction of the row at least the tor is not really pointy. Walking out on to it feels more like stepping out on a rocky headland but instead of water below you there is a sea of green scrub and the riptide of the A30 pulling you west.
St Bellarmin’s tor, on the other hand, is a different story again. It is tumbling pile of rocks which, when I last visited, was thickly covered with ferns and foxgloves. It is also a playground for rabbits, so tame that they let you get a little too close before dashing off under a boulder, and in certain places the ground sounds hollow under your feet because of their network of burrows. The tor appears to have been named after a 16th century Italian saint, Robert Bellarmin, but I haven’t been able to establish his connection (if any) to Bodmin Moor. The other secret that this tor hides is the ruin of an ancient chapel, now only distinguishable by some low turf covered walls and the odd upright piece of granite.
There is much more to be said about this place but I shall save it for another time . . .
It is human nature to want to understand, to try and puzzle things out but lets face it, we all love a mystery too – it leaves so much more room for the imagination! So although we will probably never be able to say that we fully understand the purpose of stone rows, for me, that’s ok.
A visit to Colvannick stone row will reward you in so many ways. You will be in an area of Bodmin Moor which is rarely visited, despite its closeness to the road, and you will be in the presence of something special, something important, created by your ancestors thousands of years ago. Whatever their reason for raising those stones that alone is something to wonder at!
Notes on Visiting
Please be aware that there is a firing range very near to Colvannick stone row, if it is in use there will be red flags flying and you must not enter the area. Parking is limited but fairly easy from whatever direction you choose to visit the row. The closest/shortest walk is from just off the A30, in the layby/picnic area signposted for Temple.