“The stones, like the natural granite cast up from the earth by nature, defy the centuries. To stand beside them…on the heights of West Penwith…is to become…an astronaut in time. The present vanishes, centuries dissolve…here in the lichened stone is the essence of memory itself. Belief in immortality…Man’s answer, from the beginning, to the challenge of death.” Daphne du Maurier, The Claw of Cornwall
Only from a distance can the moors of Penwith be called barren. Up close they are a tightly-woven mesh of bracken and furze, nettle and ling which snags and scratches and stings. But the soil here is poor, and these are all that grow: what few trees there are clog the narrow waterways, dense as moss. The farms that eke a living are not arable: cattle make the best of what grassland there is in this land of soil thin as fabric; fabric through which granite pokes, here and there ripping through and exposing the weird tors that dot the low curves of this final land.
Granite is the bedrock of Cornwall, and nowhere is it more evident than in west Penwith, that last peninsula of England1. As Ithell Colquhoun writes in her dazzling travelogue, The Living Stones,
The life of a region depends ultimately on its geologic substratum, for this sets up a chain reaction which passes, determining their character, in turn through its streams and wells, its vegetation and animal life that feeds on this and finally through the type of human being attracted to live there.
“Unless you like granite,” she adds, “you will not find happiness here”.
Trencrom hill stands a few miles south-west of St Ives. One of those few spots from which both St Michael’s Mount and Godrevy lighthouse are both visible, this has been a sacred site for millenia: “Trencrom”, writes Denys Val Baker, “from which giants of old tossed quoits into the sea”. The remains of an iron age fort ring the summit, which is towered over by weird wind-sculpted granite forms.
A book I bought a few days before our visit, in a charity shop in St Ives (Haunted Cornwall, also edited by Baker) contains a story2 which amps up the atmosphere at (I assume) the expense of historical fact:
One day Mark took me up Trencrom hill, a great bare plateau, spattered with huge boulders.
“This is where the ancient Druids used to practise their rites. Terrible rites…yet in a way beautiful.
“Two thousand years ago this place was alive. The priests came up that path, then they formed around the big stone. Fires were lit. Men carried in the sacrifice. There was the smell of myrrh and incense.” He paused. “And blood.”
Ashes in a tight wedge between the layered rocks suggest fires are still lit. My son discovers graffiti: the letters LAW chiselled a centimetre deep in one of the stones. I wonder at the time and effort this must have taken. Who did this, and when? Are these initials? A message never-finished? If so, they are as cryptic now as a fading spray-painted tag or, indeed, as a megalithic alignment. By pleasing coincidence, Law is an old Scots word for hill3 . Elsewhere are small holes, centimetres deep and similar to cup and ring holes, but cut with such precision that they must surely be the result of modern machinery. The summit is bounded by a low wall – most of what remains of the fort – now much overgrown, but the western entrance/exit is still guarded by uprights.
To the north is a farm and near it one of the innumerable engine houses from the area’s tin mining past. This, along with most others, is marked on OS maps as “chy”, an abbreviation of chimney. But I also like it that chy is the Cornish word for “house”, adding a hint of ambiguity to the otherwise authoritative map.
The day is hot, and few birds sing: chiffchaff, great tit, chaffinch. Butterflies are plenty. RAF Typhoons rumble high overhead. We take to the car, and drive a few miles along one of my favourite roads, the coastal route from St Ives to St Just. Turning inland near Morvah, we make for Men-an-Tol and the Boskednan Nine Maidens.
“It is not England”, wrote DH Lawrence of the area, whose stay in Zennor during the First World War was cut short because of local suspicion of his and his German wife’s activities. “It is bare and elemental…it is old, Celtic, pre-Christian…All desolate and forsaken, not linked up. But I like it.”
The track to the Men-an-Tol is longer than I remember. My then-girlfriend (now my wife) brought me here the first time I visited her in her native Cornwall, in 1996. That day was an overcast spring morning, and the distant Ding Dong engine house on the skyline haunted us. We’d also stopped to look at Men Scryfa, an inscribed standing stone, on its own in a nearby field. We don’t do that today: it’s far too hot, and there are thousands of horseflies. The little bastards are tenacious, immune to the flicks and swats that keep smaller species at bay. And they bite.
Men-an-Tol is unique. That’s one of the few things that can be said with certainty about it. The literal translation from Cornish is “stone-the-hole”. Another holed stone (Tolvan Stone) exists near Gweek, a few miles to the south-east in the deep green reaches of the Helford River, and looks like an ancient pre-empting of a Barbara Hepworth. Michael Williams writes of the area’s prehistoric past that “time appears to contract, and as when I meet a Barbara Hepworth sculpture there is the temptation to handle and, in the moment of physical contact, a notion that somehow, in some strange way, one is in touch with a distant power.”
Men-an-Tol has a pleasing symmetry: like the number 101 written on the landscape, a digital message from an analogue age. But the horseflies prevent us from spending more than a few minutes at the site. My son clambers through the hole; an act which should, according to legend, prevent him from developing rickets. Excellent.
Illustrations of Men-an-Tol from previous centuries show the stones aligned differently: at angles to each other rather than in a row. The internet also has speculation (no, really) that the stones were originally part of another alignment or construction. If true, then this poses an interesting question: is Men-an-Tol truly “important”, or “significant”? The answer depends on what you look for from your megaliths, I suppose. Nearby Lanyon Quoit collapsed and was rebuilt in the 19th century and so is no longer the “original” shape. To what extent does this matter, given that much of what we know about ancient stones is based on (educated) guesswork? No landscape in this country is pure, no landscape in this country is untouched; why should our ancient monuments be any different? Whatever their current condition, they are all equally cryptic, messages from across a gap that, however sensitive we may fancy ourselves, we can never bridge. What relics of our plastic age will be revered in millenia to come (assuming they poke above the polar meltwater)?
We move on toward the Nine Maidens. There are at least two other such-named circles on this peninsula alone (and around 90 standing stones: some proud in fields, some smothered by hedges at the roadside). We found them with ease in 1996 but they’re further than we remember. A tiny path to the side is a false lead, though it does reveal a particularly pyramidal standing stone (the area encircling it is covered in atypically lush undergrowth) from which I glimpse the distant Maidens. The family have followed me on this little detour and are scratched and not happy that we have to backtrack to the main path. When we reach the Maidens we find that there are more than nine stones. It takes each of us several attempts to establish an exact count. There are no horseflies within the Boskednan circle, which I attempt to claim as significant, but my wife observes that the shrubbery they have been launching themselves at us from is absent. She’s probably right.
The name comes from the (typically misogynist) Christian belief that the standing stones were the petrified remains of girls who had sinned by dancing on the Sabbath. Other individual megaliths bear names such as “The Blind Fiddler”, for similar reasons.
Another book I found, this time in the Tate St Ives shop, is the aforementioned The Living Stones by Surrealist Ithell Colquohoun. She lived in Lamorna in the post-war years and the book is a wonderfully diverting account of folklore and megaliths, proto-hippy “sensitive atmospheres” and general “Celtic weirdness” around the county.
“One could make a map with patches of colour to mark the praeternatural character of certain locations, but these would intensify rather than vary the general hue. So it is not surprising to find eerie places…”
I’m reminded later of the absence of horseflies at Boskednan when I read “it is not only human beings who pick up “vibrations” – for want of a better term – at such places.”
Megaliths are not the only stone constructs in these parts, of course. Engine houses date back centuries rather than millenia, of course, and their purpose is known. Ding Dong is (according to Colquhoun) reputedly the oldest tin mine in Cornwall. The engine house is visible from afar because of its vantage point, and coupled with the featureless moors, it’s an evocative place in any weather. The path back to the road weaves through deep undergrowth, among which are (according to the map) numerous shafts. Most of these were never capped, and stepping from the path is not recommended.
The ground is thin. Literally and metaphorically, the underworld is never far. Not only tin, and the mines beneath your feet (and those which – I still can’t get my head around it – stretched for a mile or more beneath the sea bed), but the Celtic past.
I like St Just. It’s the most westerly town in Britain. It lacks the cuteness of the fishing villages, and the obvious tourist draws. Here, draped in cloud or mist off the Atlantic, that Cornish granite can look drab rather than sparkling. And that’s part of the charm. It isn’t a major population centre like Camborne or Helston (both of which, though they have their tourist draws in Heartlands and Flambards respectively, are where actual Cornish people live), but has the same ambience of a working town.
In St Just is one of only two remaining plain-an-gwarrys. These – the word is Cornish for “playing place” – are circular amphitheatres, and date back centuries. In the middle ages they were where Cornish drama was performed: like the miracle plays staged elsewhere in England, these (known as the Cornish Ordinalia and written in Cornish) adapted pertinent tales from the Bible for the edification of the locals.
“Rocks and stones, hills and valleys, bear the imprint of men who long ago buried their dead beneath chambered tombs and worshipped the earth goddess. Sometimes today the setting is incongruous – a small field, perhaps, with a line of bungalows nearby…” Daphne du Maurier, The Claw of Cornwall
Slices of history exist cheek-by-jowl. Like layers of rock millions of years distant in creation, but thrust into proximity by elemental forces, so Ballowall Barrow, an important Iron Age bural site, abuts Ballowall mine. Rounding Cape Cornwall you reach the ancient ruins of Kenidjack castle, and the eerie Kenidjack valley (setting for another of the stories in Haunted Cornwall), once a major site of industry, now slowly sinking beneath creeping greenery.
Also visible on a nearby hilltop is – according to the map – an Air Traffic Control centre. Ithell Colquhoun through the course of The Living Stones becomes increasingly sensitive (that word again, though in this context meaning “irritated by”) to the presence of tourists and their cars, but also to the leftover military installations from the Second World War. “Disused defences collect about them a miasma-like aura which infects them almost physically” she says, as if this were a bad thing. The grey angular forms of these modern ruins can be as evocative as any engine house, their purpose (to the civilian) as cryptic as any megalith. Modern stones, too, have their mystery.
1 Ardnamurchan is the most westerly point of the British mainland.
2 “The Sacrifice” by Baker himself, but the title telegraphs the ending in an otherwise enjoyable romp.
3 Dundee Law, Norman’s Law, North Berwick Law
Haunted Cornwall (ed. Denys Val Baker, NEL, 1973)
Colquhoun, Ithell: The Living Stones (Peter Owen, 1957, 2017)
My Cornwall (ed. Michael Williams, Bossiney Books, 1973)