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!
Harpur’s Downs Hut Circles – Bronze Age Settlements on Bodmin Moor
6 thoughts on “Fernacre Stone Circle”
Hi Elizabeth, I reside in Western Australia and love reading your blogs which are a wonderful resource for ‘Celticist’ ex-pat Brits like me who yearn to pilgrimage to Kernow everytime I visit UK. I am hanging out for my next visit and use your blogs as a guide for the special sites I plan to visit as an ’emmet’ next time. Fernacre Stones will deffo be one of them! As a lad on a month-long ‘Outward Bound’ course at Holne Park, Ashburton, Devon in 1971, we were dropped off at Tintagel and walked across Bodmin Moor and Dartmoor back to Holne, carrying heavy rucksacks on a given route. It took several days and we camped out rough in tents on the Moors. Although I cannot remember the exact route, the names Rough Tor, Brown Willy, Sharp Tor, Mary and Peter Tavy and Bellever Tor echo in my mind, which roughly indicates the route we traversed. It was a very memorable time of my life. If only I had known then that we were walking within less than a kilometre from Fernacre Stone Circle. Please keep up your excellent blogs. Given my surname, Chown, (chy an woon/ ‘house on the downs’ ) – I have a special affinity with my namesake Castel Chun and Chun Quoyt on Chun Downs, and Chywoone Hill in the parish of West Penwith). Meur ras Elizabeth, Bob.
Hi Bob, thank you so much for your lovely message, it is always special to now that someone so far away is connecting with all that Cornwall has to offer!
I hope you have a wonderful trip when you make it here and feel fre to quiz me for advice if you need it! Have you traced any ancestors from these parts then? Do you know how you came to be in Oz? All the best E
Hi Elizabeth, Dydh da! Fatla genes. I was born in Manchester in 1954, but have traced all my Chown ancestors to the west country in Somerset and Devon (but not Kernow) back to Tudor times. I was always drawn to Kernow, but I migrated to Oz in 1980 for warmer climes and better surfing. I have always been curious about the etymology of my surname. While studying Anthrop at UWA in the 1980s I found a dictionary of English surnames which identified ‘Chown’ as a possible derivation of the Cornish pronunciation of John (i.e. Jowan). About 5 years ago while visiting Kernow, I had a chat with a man called Jenkin at St Breaca’s Church in Breage who was a fluent speaker of Kernewek. Jenkin suggested that Chown stems from the phrase in Kernewek , “Chy an Woon” (the house on the downs). Much to my delight I found out that Jenkin’s theory was confirmed by two separate books on the ‘Etymology of Cornish Surnames’, both published in the 1870s which said the same thing. This revelation made me consider Chun Downs, Chun Castel, Chun Quoit and Chywoon Hill at Newlyn in a very different light. I have always loved Cornwall for many reasons and considered the Parish of West Penwith a very special place. I have requested in my will that my ashes to be sprinkled in the stream that flows down from Zennor to Pendour Cove. I am having a stained glass/leadlight porthole made for the front door of my gaff at present on the theme of the mermaid of Zennor. I will take a photo and send it to you when finished. Over the next few months I am finishing writing a book about my bike ride from John O’Groats to Land’s End in 2013. Once that’s finished I want to focus on learning to read and write (and one day converse) in Kernewek. Bennedh dew gennou, hag yeghes da! Bob
Very interesting and informative. What a huge pity the Celts left absolutely no written words behind them. The only documents were made by the Romans and the weird ideas spun in the 18th to 20th Century as to what the Celts and Druids were. We know virtually nothing of the Druid culture…so one must be very sceptical about the “Druidic Rites” being performed these days.