The St Austell region of Cornwall, the Clay Country as it’s known, is full of mountains – the giant white spoil heaps left behind by the industry of the area crowd the horizon and tower over the grey villages. In the centre of it all is Hensbarrow Beacon, a natural summit that was once the highest point for miles around, but is now overshadowed by these man-made mountains.
Looking down from its heights however with the mighty Roche Rock appearing miniscule in the landscape, it is easy to see why this place once held such significance for the people living here before the mechanised world dwarfed it forever.
” When round Hensbarrow Beacon the winter winds roar,
Tis the voice of Tregeagle abroad on the moor . . .”Agnes Strickland, The Close of the year, 1851
Hensbarrow is home to one of the largest burial cairns in Cornwall, it was once the site of an ancient prehistoric mining landscape, a mysterious inscribed stone was found here and for centuries beacon fires glowed on its heights.
This was a place of worship and industry, of fire and stone.
The Burial Cairn
The most prominent feature on Hensbarrow today is the Bronze Age burial cairn which crowns the ancient summit. It was what drew me there at the end of summer in 2022.
This circular stony mound is pretty exceptional and is thought to be one of the largest in Cornwall. Bell shaped in profile, it is about 45m in diameter and stands 5.5m above the heather-covered ground.
This cairn or barrow is not the only one in the area either, there are at least two more similar but smaller monuments in the vicinity and probably many more have now been lost to the clay workings.
“Hensbarrow or ‘the place of old graves’ – a pile of earth and stone which was intended as a funeral monument or perhaps to be the burial place of some important person or persons, so long ago that there is not even a story told of those who lie in the pile.”Cornish Guardian, 26th August 1904
On the top of the cairn stands a ‘modern’ white Triangulation stone, as well as a granite parish boundary marker, inscribed with a T for Treverbyn. (Interestingly when UK Ordnance Survey team came to Cornwall in the 19th century, they apparently used Hensbarrow as their meridian point.) The monument has flat top, about 12m in diameter, and it has been suggested that this may be due to its later use as a platform for a beacon.
FUN FACT: At 312m above sea level Hensbarrow Beacon is actually a mountain. A mountain is defined as anything over 300m or 1000ft.
What is hard for us to visualise today is the vast panorama that this cairn’s position would have afforded its Bronze Age builders some 4000 years ago. Before the many man-made changes to the surrounding landscape this spot was famed for its spectacular views. Carew writes about the huge distances that can be seen from the top in 1602 and even as late as 1909 the then Prince of Wales was brought to Hensbarrow while on a tour of Cornwall specifically to be shown the view.
“To have the most magnificent view of nearly all of Cornwall in all its glory in a moment in time go to Hensbarrow . . . once seen the sight will never be forgotten.”St Austell Star, 31st October 1890
The Place of Old Graves
In August 1904 a newspaper article referred to Hensbarrow as “the place of old graves”, suggesting that this was a translation of the name, which for once comes from Old English, rather than Cornish. This seems a little fanciful, but the hill’s name is certainly interesting.
It has variously been referred to as ‘Hainsborough’ and ‘Hensborough’ and in a document dated 1310 as ‘Hynesbergh’. In his book The Story of the Parish of Roche H. M. Creswell Payne writes that the name could translate as “the ten men’s barrow” perhaps referring to some local association or council of ten men.
However, the expert on local place names, Craig Weatherhill writes that in 1284 the name was given as ‘Hyndesbergh’ which he concludes refers to deer in the area – Hinds Barrow. Perhaps it is no coincidence then that the old Cornish name for the area was ‘Goenheyth’ (today Gunheath) translates as ‘Red Deer Downs’ and that there is a legend that King Arthur used this area as his hunting grounds.
“The view from the top of Hensbarrow on a clear day is likely to impress everyone. Westward the whole promontory of Cornwall may be seen surrounded by a sunlit sea on which numberless vessels pass and repass like shadows . . .”Cornish Guardian, 26th AUgust 1904
Ancient Industry Vs Modern
When standing at the cairn on Hensbarrow Beacon today the view in almost every direction is interrupted by man-made mountains. The closest ‘hill’ towering over the cairn to the north is the spoil heap from the North Bonny China Clay works. Industry has shaped this landscape just as crudely as nature once delicately crafted it.
In recent centuries granite has been quarried here, China clay extracted, and tin mined.
But there is some written evidence that modern man was by no means the first to realise the incredible mineral resources of this hill. In 1904 it was reported that about half a mile from the cairn there was a large hollow, a natural lake of water known locally as ‘Hatch Mischief’. Around this lake it was noted that there were “a great number of circular pits which it is evident are ancient mines.”
These pits were concluded to have been made by “primitive man” and apparently extended over a large area of some 40 or 50 acres. Hut circles were also identified, and it was concluded that this was the ‘abode of miners who used the waters of the lake to purify their tin”.
(The author of the report never identifies themselves, but my research has led me to believe that it was Mr J. M. Coon, a member of the St Austell Old Cornwall Society.)
Sadly, there appears to be no sign of these hut circles or surface mines today, although I did find a lake marked on the 1879 OS map (above).
Intriguingly these prehistoric remains, if that is what they were, were not the only possible signs of ancient man identified here on Hensbarrow that have since disappeared . . .
The Hensbarrow Inscribed Stone
The first mention that I found of an inscribed stone at Hensbarrow dates from 1904, in the same report that refers to the mining pits. The stone is described as being about 500 yards from the lake and is said to have been inscribed with “Latin characters and amongst them signs that look like attempts at symbolic expression.” However, it seems that the stone was known about for many years before this, but unfortunately descriptions and interpretations of the markings on it vary.
In May 1885 Rev. William Iago gave an account of the stone to the Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall, writing that it was near North Bunney Mine on Hensbarrow. Iago said that the stone had been found by a man called John Payne from Roche in April 1883.
“The stone measures 5ft 6ins by 5ft across – it is not of great thickness but must be of considerable weight. It is a mass of granite of irregular form and seems never to have been disturbed from its natural position . . . In outline it resembles a shoulder of mutton.”
The reverend first identified the letters U and RO with a cross in between but later changed his mind concluding that the inscription was actually IHC, an ancient monogram or symbol for the name Jesus. Iago also readily admitted that there might be another explanation however.
“A couple of tinners (perhaps at the time of their midday meal) found a convenient resting place on or beside this flat rock. A pick or other implement being in hand one of the men cut his initials upon the granite, and after another cut his, or both may have inscribed the stone at the same time, one facing one way, the other in another . . .”
In 1942 Mr. J. M. Coon, then aged 86, gave a talk to the St Austell Old Cornwall Society in which he describes “discovering” the stone with Sydney Hancock “many years ago”. Coon explains that Hancock was the Reeve (steward) for the Manor of Treverbyn and was walking the boundary of the estate checking and re-erecting the boundary stones on Hensbarrow when he happened to notice another stone with strange markings on it. He showed it to Coon who interpreted the inscription as Latin, probably early Christian, perhaps a Chi-Rho symbol – that is an X and P combined, which represent the first letters of Christ in the Greek alphabet.
(This seems to me an unlikely inscription for tinners to choose . . .)
How true any of these interpretations are is difficult to know as sadly I haven’t been able to establish whether this inscribed stone still exists today or was ever officially recorded. In 1942 Coon describes the stone being moved to beside “the old road” but where exactly this might have been is unclear.
In addition, there is evidence that there were once two standing stones in the area too. A document known as ‘the Bodrugan Cartulary Roll’ written in 1270 records two menhirs but by 1948, when Creswell Payne published his guide to Roche Parish, these stones had also long since disappeared.
“Hensbarrow, called the archbeacon of the county, could tell [Cornwall’s] story in fire from the Lizard to the Tamar and set men’s blood tingling and hearts throbbing as no ‘wire’ or ‘cable’ or printed word can do.”J. Henry Harris, Cornish Saints and Sinners, 1906
For hundreds of years Hensbarrow was used as the site of a signal beacon – “fired to herald the approach of the enemy”. I have written about the importance of beacons in Cornwall a few times before, at Chapel Carn Brea, St Agnes and Dodman Point for example, and their significance and symbolism to the communities that lit them.
It seems that for hundreds of years Hensbarrow Beacon was considered one of the most important. More than 400 years ago Carew referred to it as the “archbeacon” of Cornwall.
“The Cornish Archbeacon Hainsborough which may for prospect compare with Rama in Palestina, Henius in Medina, Collalto in Italy and Snaefell in the Isle of Man: for if the weather’s darkness bound not your eyesight, within his ordinary extent you shall thence plainly discern to the eastward, a great part of Devon, to the west, very near the Land’s End, to the north and south, the ocean and sundry islands scattered therein, wherethrough it also passeth for a wonder . . . “Richard Carew, The SUrvey of Cornwall, 1602
For Queen Victoria’s Jubilee in 1887 a “huge bonfire” was lit on the summit of Hensbarrow and the papers reported that from its heights another 30 fires could be seen lighting up the sky in all directions. A beacon was lit again for the Coronation of Edward VII in 1902 then it seems that the fires fell out of favour. When the Old Cornwall Society revived the tradition in June 1930 one local paper referred to it as “ancient fire worship”!
But Henbarrow is such an atmospheric place that perhaps this is a tradition we could consider returning to today. Gathering on this spot as our ancestors once did . . .
As I started to leave Hensbarrow Beacon after my first visit to this magnificent hill and its impressive barrow what had been a warm August day changed quite suddenly. Without warning the clouds dropped and a thick mist started to roll across the landscape.
I felt quite unsettled and glad to be heading back to my car. Even with the disruption all about it places like this still retain an atmosphere all of their own. Something that is hard to put your finger on unless you have experienced it yourself. But at moments like this it is easy to understand why our ancestors chose a site like this for their monuments.