Carn Brea: sentiment and settlement

Like the Tamar Bridge, or the clay tips of mid-Cornwall, Carn Brea is one those iconic Cornish landmarks. It’s a reminder of home, an unmistakable landscape element standing sentinel over Cornwall’s central mining district. It was that location, at the heart of the most populous and dynamic district of Cornwall in the late 1700s and early 1800s that sealed Carn Brea’s status as a symbol of Cornwall.

Carn Brea with its 1836 monument to Sir Francis Basset, seen from the north-west

But this granite hill is more than just a symbol. Its eastern summit is the site of one of the oldest permanent settlements in Britain. Somewhere around 3900 to 3650 BC Neolithic people were settling down to do a bit of farming. They built stone ramparts enclosing a hectare of land on Carn Brea. At that time this would have been surrounded by woods, some of which they cleared for crops. This ‘tor enclosure’ then became home to an estimated 150 to 200 people for around 300 years. By 3600-3350BC the walls were collapsing. Finds of hundreds of flint arrowheads near an entrance and evidence for burnt timber buildings suggest the residents met an untimely and violent end.

Later, around 800BC, the Neolithic ramparts were rebuilt and greatly extended, to form an Iron Age hillfort. A dozen or so round houses in the saddle between the eastern summit and the monument are evidence for its occupation, as are pottery finds and coins of this period.

Near the centre of the Neolithic fort is Carn Brea ‘Castle’. This was built by the Bassets sometime before 1478, when it was first noted. It could have been a hunting lodge (the land nearby being a deer park) or may have housed a chapel. It would have been visible from the Bassets’ home several miles away at Tehidy.

What we now see is not the original, however. It was partly rebuilt and extended in the 1700s, described in 1780 as having been ‘modernised’. Even after that, in the late 1800s, a new south wing was added. In more recent times, the castle was completely renovated in the 1970s to become a restaurant, with some of the best views in Cornwall. That’s when it’s not shrouded in low cloud of course.

Any self-respecting Cornish carn has to have its giant and Carn Brea is no exception. Indeed, several of the huge stones that litter the hillside were supposed to have been the dismembered body parts of the giant who once lived there. He was destroyed by another giant – Bolster – who lived on St Agnes Beacon. Bolster was unerringly accurate when he chucked a load of rocks at his rival, with disastrous effects for the latter. The original name of the Carn Brea giant has not come down to us. The suggestion in 1887 that it was ‘old John of Gaunt’ seems extremely unlikely.

Meanwhile, when John Wesley visited the Carn, he was distinctly unimpressed. ‘Of what consequence is it either to the dead or the living, whether [the ruins] have withstood the wastes of time for 3,000 or 300 years’, he wrote in 1770. John Wesley was evidently not an archaeologist.

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