In Cornwall the landscape around us is alive with stories. As a people we seem to have always formed a close relationship with the natural geology that surrounds us. Here it is nearly impossible for a rock to be just a rock! There is always a tale attached and sometimes more than one!
Men-amber rock is a large natural granite outcrop on the summit of a hill near the hamlet of Nancegollan. It’s name probably derives from the Cornish men-an-bar meaning ‘stone on top’. Continue reading →
A gull’s wing tip topped the wave and just for a moment the air currents caught hold of its white feathers and the bird swung in the air, weightless as thistle-down. The sea twisted, turned and undulated but the stark unmoving line of the horizon didn’t alter. It was empty, a deep blue ribbon floating between an ocean of silver and a grey sky. There was not a shadow to be seen beneath the surface of the lulling waves and other than the gull not a single living thing above. The clouds stretched out over the water, still, in the last of the fading winter light.
Closer to the shore she watched, the sea spray was dancing up like a haze on the breeze. Moisture thrown up by the insistent waves butting time after time against the rocks below the cliff. The wet settled like a shining dust on her lashes and hair. The red woollen shawl she clawed around her with rough tired hands had a feather-like dusting of salty droplets on it and a wintery chill was setting in her bones. Time to leave. Continue reading →
Carwynnen quoit has fallen more than once. It’s giant stones have been raised up again and again, the first time 5000 years ago, then again in the 19th century and the last time in 2014. Yes, unfortunately it has taken me this long to get around to visiting but the twisting back roads led me to a impressive monument.
I had wanted to be there a couple of years ago when the cap stone had been lifted into place but that happened at a time when the work I was doing didn’t afford me the kind of freedom that I have now. I understand from people who were there that it was a magical moment. Apparently everyone surged forward to place their hands on the stones, almost like a blessing for them and for the quoit.
This summer I have been working with a wonderful group of like-minded people who are as enthusiastic and passionate about ancient places as I am (maybe even more so). We have been spending our days together uncovering two almost forgotten stone circles and a stone row out on the wilds of Bodmin Moor but more of that on another occasion I promise. I choose to mention it now because one of the subjects we talked of while on our knees in the rain cutting turf was how wonderful it would be to see those stones upright again. However since my visit to Carwynnen I have to say I have been having my doubts.
Don’t misunderstand me, I am sure that every possible care was taken with this sites reconstruction and it is wonderful to see this ancient monument on it’s feet again so to speak but strangely somehow it felt wrong to me. Like something was out of place, not quite as it should be. The stones looked new, too clean, too upright – as if they had just been built – which of course I guess they kind of have.
Perhaps that is how the ancient people saw them, all clean, fresh and straight and I am just judging this place by all the other sites I love so much where everything is just a bit sunken and wonky. But it does raise a question for me – when they fall do we just leave them?
I guess the answer is a complex one. Some would argue that these are just old pieces of stone with no intrinsic worth, why should we pay to preserve and protect them? I am not one of those people, to many, including myself, they do mean something.
I believe that anything that links us to our roots and to the world we live in should be treasured. But can we go too far with restoration and how do we know we are getting it right? Each historical sketch of Carwynnen looks different from the next and different again from the stones as they stand today.
So if we can’t get it right should we leave well alone, rather than make a misrepresentation of the past? I don’t know the answer. But I would appreciate others thoughts if you wish to share.
There was a big part of me that looked at the fallen stones of those circles on Bodmin Moor and wished I could see them as my ancestors did but of course I never really will and perhaps I am just not meant to.
One of my most favourite walks takes me on a lovely loop from Trevalga along a stunning stretch of coastline up through Rocky Valley and back to Trevalga via Trethevy. The Rocky Valley walk is quite famous in these parts and it’s close proximity to the surfing mecca of Newquay means that it gets plenty of footfall all year around. I have only ever been there once when there was no one but me and a three-legged dog. (And that’s another story.)
The valley gets all those visitors because it really is a magical place. When you descend from the cliff path into the valley itself the path then winds its way beside a stream gushing downhill towards the sea, it is lush and green and shady even on a hot day.
Part way up the valley is the ruin of a mill and it is behind this roofless shell on the cool, damp rock face that you find the carvings.
They are easy to miss but once you spot them I think they are fascinating. I have traced their gentle curves many times with my eye and my finger, it feels like a game and a spell. There is a plaque above which claims they date from the bronze age (probably) but in actual fact their origin is a complete mystery.
No one is really sure who carved them or when and there are several theories. One idea is that they were in fact carved by a bored worker at the now abandoned mill. During the 18th century mazes such as these saw a bit of a revival, it is unclear why but the labyrinth pattern started to pop up all over the place, in architecture and in gardens and in other odd locations too.
Above is a picture of me and a friend in the 1990s at the Troy Town maze on St Agnes island in the Isles of Scilly. The seven ring maze pattern is not particular to these parts it is common throughout Europe and it has been said that they were built on sea shores to protect sailors by sending them fair winds. The one on St Agnes dates from roughly 1790 which is also the date of other graffiti carved into the walls of the mill in Rocky Valley.
It would be nice to known the Rocky Valley carvings real origins but I doubt there will ever be any certainty over their true date. I do feel that the sign that is there now is a little misleading however and could perhaps do with a bit of an update to leave their provenience a more open to thought and perhaps our imagination.
When exactly mankind first discovered the art of smelting metal is a mystery but what we do know is that tin has always played a major part of the history of our county and up until recent years a vital part of our economy and our culture.
My pride in all things Cornish was well and truly pricked by the wonderful Man Engine which has journeyed across the Cornwall this summer promoting our mining heritage. The 33ft tall mechanical giant miner certainly drew unexpectedly large the crowds wherever it went but for me it was its creator Will Coleman’s passionate commentary on mining that filled me with enormous pride and just a little sadness. He reminded us who were once were.
Tin veins are not at all common and there were very few sources in the ancient world and very few today. Mining in Asia began around 3000 years ago but the archaeological clues in Cornwall date the first tinners here at 1000 years before that. Four thousand years of history!
The earliest signs of the industry come from prehistoric finds in old tin-working sites discovered during later mining activity. Finds from the early Bronze Age are very rare but have been unearthed at 4 sites in Cornwall: St. Erth, Caerloggas Down near St. Austell, Levalsa Moer near Pentewan and the Carnon Valley near Truro.
The early methods for extracting tin were very basic and known as ‘streaming’. In certain river valleys the tin was so abundant that the mineral could quite literally be picked up out of the river bed. The sand, earth and general debris were gathered and ‘washed’ so that the heavier tin deposits were left behind.
One man took a very particular interest in the tin ground of the Carnon valley, near Truro, his name was William Jory Henwood (Jan 1805- Aug 1875). He was a member of the Royal Society and had written unprecedented papers on rocks and minerals travelling the world for his work.
Henwood wrote numerous articles for the Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall and it is one of these papers published in 1873 which interests me.
It is snappily titled ‘Observations on the Detrital Tin-Ore of Cornwall’. In it he describes a very unusual discovery made on 29th March 1823 by workers in part of the Carnon Valley Stream works.
“About half way from Tarnon-dean [Tarrandean] to the Arsenic manufactory” the workers “were removing a quantity of mud” and ” at sixteen or eighteen feet below the surface, some 2 or 3 tons of large, rough angular masses of quartz were found resting on a bed of silt, shells and vegetable matter. Immediately beneath the stones, at some 22 feet below high water an entire human skeleton was discovered.” Henwood goes on to describe the scene in great detail and the original article includes sketches of the position of the find.
Some of the more interesting points include that the body was enclosed within a frame of roughly hewn pieces of timber, possibly oak and that it faced north, the knees were drawn up and the right arm was above the head. The remains were lying on the surface of the tin ground. No hair, cloth or any other objects were found apart from the skull, teeth and antlers of a red deer stag nearby. An examination determined that it was the prehistoric remains of a man roughly 5’5″ tall, who had good teeth and was no more than middle aged when he died.
Henwood adds that the remains created deep public interest and so the discovery was left on view for some time. The skeleton was then given to the Royal Institution of Cornwall (now Truro Museum) who have since apparently ‘misplaced’ it.
How this man died and how he came to be buried isn’t clear. It is worth noting that the hills around the Carnon valley are dotted with numerous ancient barrows, many now sadly disappearing into housing estates or being ploughed up by farming, and the whole area is considered to be a prehistoric cemetery site. Was it the tin that brought them there? The skeleton is also not the only evidence of this valley’s ancient past, on display in Truro Museum is a beautiful tinner’s pick, which was dug up in 1790 but dates from around 2000BC. The tool is made from a deer antler and is one of two that were found. (That same 18th century dig also unearthed a skeleton but I am unable to find any details about it.)
Other finds included oak shovels, one of which is also on display, a tin bowl and a Bronze Age flat-axe 15.5cm in length. Also interestingly Murray writes in his ‘Handbook for Devon and Cornwall, 1859’ that fossilized ‘trunks of trees’ were discovered at the same site.
The Carnon valley river flows into Devoran creek, near Perranarworthal and from there out towards the Fal and the open sea. The observations of William Pryce demonstrate the extent of the
mining industry in just this one small area of Cornwall around 1708. He writes that “the low lands and sands under Perran Arworthall [sic], which are covered almost every tide with the sea, have, on its going off, employed hundreds of poor men, women and children washing the tin ore out of them, as they are incapable of earning their bread by any other means”.
Although mining for tin has now ended it is worth remembering that work still continued in the valley up until the 1980s and with good reason. Henwood says that “the tin ground was nowhere else so rich as at the confluence of the Carnon valley with the vales which extend through Perran Wharf and from Taran-dean [sic] through Perranwell”. He paints us a vivid picture with this description from 1855: “The tin was found in boulders or rounded lumps, varying from the size of a man’s fist to a grain of sand, the smallest generally the richest. But I have seen lumps as large as a man’s fist nearly pure black tin”
Just this glancing look at our mining heritage reveals such a rich past that it becomes easier to understand why some many in Cornwall greeted the Man Engine with such joy and enthusiasm. Despite the fact that hardly anyone in the county still works in the industry as a people we have a infinitely long and strong connection with the ground beneath our feet. Our county was once the centre of the tin mining industry right from its birth in the Bronze age through to its unhappy end not so long ago, the remains of this long association dot our countryside and it seems it is still very much part of our national Cornish identity.
Isn’t it strange that you can see something a thousand times in your life and never really question what it is or why it is there? That was how I felt when one day I actually stopped and looked at the Killigrew monument in the centre of Falmouth.
When I got home I had a quick read and found out that this pyramid was built in 1737 by Martin Lister Killigrew. I can tell you it’s vital statistics. It stands 44 ft high, cost £455 and is made of dressed granite from a quarry near Trevethen Beacon. But to cut a long story short I can’t really tell you why it is there, no one it seems is entirely sure what exactly it is for or why it was built.
Martin was the last of the Killigrew line. Martin Lister took the Killigrew name when he married Anne Killigrew, clearly the couple had the intention of continuing the family line but it wasn’t to be. They died with no heir, it’s seems that the monument was meant as some kind of memorial by the last in the line of that ancient Cornish family.
The Killigrew’s it is said made Falmouth. The family were very wealthy and had a long connection with the town, constructing much of it’s waterfront at the time and having streets named after them. But there are many unsavoury tales of piracy, greed and ill-gotten riches mixed up with their name also.
When Martin commissioned his pyramid after he had left Cornwall for London, he never saw it completed but he sent detailed instructions as to where to source the materials and how it was to be constructed. He also made it clear that it was to have no mark of any kind on the outside – no date, no initials, no inscription.
Unfortunately for me there are many conflicting accounts of the pyramid’s history. I will try and wheedle out what seems to be real.
It appears that it originally stood in an area of Falmouth known as The Grove because of the elm trees Martin had planted there but the monument has moved twice since then. Once in 1836 to the end of Arwenak Avenue (also known as the Ropewalk) and then again with the arrival of the railway to its present position in 1871.
It seems that at some point during these moves there was a strange discovery.
Local legend has it that the men who were dismantling the stone monument in 1836 found two glass bottles inside sealed with wax. Some accounts say that the bottles were empty (unlikely I think), some say that one contained parchment and the other coins. And yet another account says that one of the bottles was added during the final move and inside it was placed an account of the pyramids history. I can’t tell you which story is true, perhaps someone out there knows. Perhaps Martin did leave us a message, a clue as to what his obelisk really meant, he wrote that he wanted it to beautify Falmouth’s waterfront but was that all?
No one it seems appears to know what happened to those bottles . . . whether they were removed or whether they are still inside the great granite tomb of Killigrew’s Monument?
I have an idea! Mary Killigrew, Anne Killigrew’s ancestor, was a pirate (supposedly). Mary was meant to have stolen some Spanish treasure and hidden it in the garden of the family home -Arwenak House – which still stands very close to where the pyramid is today . . . did Martin, the last of the Killigrew’s, leave us a Treasure Map perhaps, were those coins in the second bottle part of the treasure or . . . or oh . . .hang on a minute . . . has my imagination just run away with me . . . again?! Bother.
I went on a really wonderful walk the other day. The sun was shining, I was all alone and there was so much history along the way that I am hard pressed to decide which part should be the subject of this piece of writing.
This is Rogers Tower. And it has often called a folly. The dictionary definition of a folly is “a costly, ornamental building with no practical purpose”. I have to concede that Rogers Tower probably does fulfil that brief. But was Mr Rogers foolish to build a little playhouse here for his family to picnic beside on a sunny day? I would say certainly not!
The tower was built in 1798 by one of the Rogers’ family from Treassowe Manor, a house on Tonkin Downs below the hill on which it stands. It is uncertain which member of the family was responsible but the most likely candidate would be John Rogers (1750-1832) who it has been said had the money and the inclination to undertake such a plan.
High above Mount’s Bay the tower commands immense views across the countryside in all directions. It is a Folly but it is also wonderful! There is only one downside to this view. The land between the tower and the village of Castle Gate is part of a giant granite quarry and for more than 100 years machinery has been gobbling up the hill side. (A large explosion went off while I was balanced precariously on the top of the OS trig point taking a picture! I nearly fell backwards into the ferns.)
There is also a downside to where John Rogers decided to build his tower – on the outer ring of the ancient Iron Age hillfort. The hillfort is still impressive and covers the top of the hill but to be fair I doubt he had to get any kind of planning permission. Sadly what is valuable to us now was in many ways just a pile of rocks to them then.
As I said there is so much history in this small place that I think I will have to return to it again for another walk and post! You have been warned!
John Knill loved St Ives and more than 2oo years after his death St Ives is still remembering him.
This rather eccentric philanthropist (some say smuggler) wanted to provide for the people he had grown so fond of and to guarantee that his name would be remembered for all time in the town that he made his home, so he devised a ceremony to do just.
Every St James’ Day, the 25th July, the locals and hangers-on like myself, march up to the 15m high pyramid he built on Worvas hill above St Ives.
There is music, dancing and singing and at the end of it all the Master of Ceremonies asks the 3 trustees if they believe that all has been done as John Knill requested. If they all agree then the crowd disperses, job done for another few years! I have never attended the ceremony before as it is only held every 5 years and this is the first year that I have been able to (or indeed remembered) to go. But I have to say I am really happy that I did, it may not be as famous as the Padstow Obby Oss or as colourful as Helston Flora Day but I loved it.
It all starts in the town centre outside the Guildhall where the trustees – the vicar, customs officer and mayor- put their 3 keys into the locks on the chest that Knill gave the town and hand out the money that he provided in perpetuity for the day.
A Knill widow
Some of the girls
Remaining faithful to Knill’s specific instructions they choose 10 girls under the age of ten, who must be the daughters of seamen, tinners or miners and two elderly widows who must be the widows of seamen, tinners or miners, and a fiddler to accompany the dancing. Then they, along with the trustees and other notables, all proceed up hill to the Knill Steeple (these days by bus!).
The Steeple was built by Knill in 1782 and was intended to be his final resting place. Sadly he died in London in 1811 so his wishes in that regard were not fulfilled. His mausoleum is however a land mark for miles around and can also be seen far out to sea leading to tenuous rumours that he built it as a marker for his pirate friends.
Born in Callington in 1733 Knill was an important and respected man in St Ives. He was the Collector of Taxes, the Customs Officer and the mayor but it must be said that there are hints that the small fleet of privateers vessels that he formed to combat smuggling was, in fact, a front to cover up a rather lucrative trade in contraband goods. No wonder the town loved him!
The first ceremony at the Steeple took place in 1801 with John Knill present to supervise that all was done as he envisioned and it has continued in the same way ever since.
The huge granite pyramid has Knill’s coat of arms on one side and his motto, ‘Resurgam’, on the other. The motto translates to ‘I shall rise again’ and in a way John Knill does. He comes alive in our lives and in our minds every 5 years or indeed every time we visit his monument and breath in the beautiful views.
No one these days really knows what a collar stud is, let alone wears one but King George V certainly did and he is said to have kept his in a rather special place.
The county of Cornwall is not really known for its treasure troves, we live in hope of a discovery like Sutton Hoo to put the our long-forgotten kings back on the map of history but as yet nothing so magnificent has come to light. The county does however boast large deposits of precious minerals of all kinds, not least tin, and in certain areas in small amounts gold can be found.
I am not a person who gets excited by the razzmatazz, sparkle and bling for very long, as you might have guessed it is far more likely to be the small things that really bring the past to life for me. However the Royal Cornwall Museum in Truro does have one display which I love, they call it the Gold Cabinet and inside are some of the treasures of Cornwall.
Peer through the glass and you will find 4000 year old gold necklaces and 3000 year old armrings and I try and imagine who worn such wonderful things. In pride of place is an early Bronze Age gold cup known as the Rillaton Cup which was found inside an ancient burial mound (a barrow) on Bodmin Moor. And it is this cup that King George V used to store his collar studs in his dressing room in Buckingham Palace.
The Rillaton cup is extremely rare. It is one of only 7 similar vessels found in Europe and is by far the best preserved thanks to who ever buried it. Luckily for us they stowed it inside a ceramic bowl which protected the soft gold. This beautiful cup is skilfully constructed from one solid sheet of hammered gold and decorated with horizontal concentric corrugations. The elegant etched handle is attached by rivets and with my nose pressed against the display cabinet’s glass I silently wish I could pick it up to feel its weight in my hands.
So what about it’s strange provenance? Well the cup was very nearly lost. It was dug up from a stone burial cist inside a barrow by workmen in 1837. A number of beads and a small metal dagger were also found but because the area of Bodmin Moor where it was uncovered belonged to The Duchy of Cornwall everything was presented to King William IV. After his death the artefacts passed to Queen Victoria and then to George V who had the cup on his dressing table. The cup’s value and importance had been completely forgotten.
Fortunately when Edward VIII inherited it Queen Mary apparently realised what it really was and decided to give it to the British Museum for public display.
And perhaps now is the right time to admit that the pictures I have here are of the copy of the real cup which is all the museum in Truro has of this county’s most rare and magical ancient find. The real thing has never come home to Cornwall.
There is one more little thing to relate about this 2000 year old treasure.
Before it was discovered there was a local legend that a golden cup was hidden in the exact burial mound where it was found. A coincidence no doubt but wouldn’t it be amazing to think that an ancient memory could have been passed down a couple of hundred generations?!
Old buildings, I feel, always have a certain presence but ruined places somehow even more so. There is a special kind of mystery in a ruined place and I find myself drawn in and pisky-led. My rather over-active imagination can fill these ivy-clad, tumble-down spaces with life and lives that are entirely of my own invention. Maybe that is their attraction.
The church of St Cohan at Merther is one of those places. To begin with to find this little nowhere place leads you down a long, winding and dead-end lane. I saw a grazing deer on the road here once, that is how infrequent the traffic is. When you step out of the car there is no sound but the wind and the birds (maybe a tractor).
The tiny hamlet stands at the far reaches of St Clements Creek just a few miles from the buzz of Truro though you would never know it. The original building on this site is said to date to around 1370 but it was only named for Saint Cohen (Coan) in about 1480 when the poor chap was murdered in his hermitage near here during King Athelstan’s conquest of Cornwall.
And after that, well, it seems the life of the church continued peacefully as with each generation birth was followed by marriage, followed by death, followed by birth.
According to Henderson’s Cornish Church Guide Merther church fell into disrepair in the 1920s when a larger, smarter church was built at Tresillian a couple of miles away. Eventually that church took Merther’s 3 bells and its statue of Saint Cohen and the building was left to crumble.
But if you are looking for somewhere to take a walk with ghosts or perhaps get some atmospheric photographs then find Merther on a map (or try your Sat Nav but I am not promising) and hunt it down.