The standing stones of Cornwall

Cornwall is known for its stones, which can conveniently be divided into three main types dating from three different periods.

One of the pair of stones known as the Pipers in West Penwith, the tallest stone still standing

The first, and most active, period of erecting stones in the landscape was the early bronze age, from around 2,500 to 1,500 BCE. Menhirs (from the Cornish for long stone) were put up, either singly or in pairs. Their purpose is not always clear but some marked burial sites. Others were boundary markers while many would have had some sort of religious significance, now lost. Some stones had been moved a considerable distance before being erected, not as far as at Stonehenge perhaps, but several miles. This was also the period of stone circles and stone rows.

Stone erecting became fashionable again a couple of thousand years later when inscribed stones appeared. These were single stones with writing on them, a memorial to someone, usually the head of a family or an eldest son. That said, the oldest stone is possibly a memorial to a woman, Cunaide, who died aged 33 some time in the mid to late 400s at Hayle.

Inscribed stone at Lewannick in memory of Ingenuus

Cunaide may have been Irish. The main wave of stone erectors, arriving slightly later in mid-Cornwall, were definitely so. The late Charles Thomas provided the classic account of this migration in his brilliant And Shall These Mute Stones Speak? Between 100 and 200 high status families, originally Irish but living in south Wales for a couple of generations, arrived via the Camel estuary around 500 AD and then fanned out across east Cornwall and into south Devon. They were Christian and literate (in Latin). Their inscribed stones either marked Christian sites or were boundary markers or were placed near the homes of those memorialized.

This practice was then adopted by local elites in the 500s and spread across the rest of Cornwall. There are 39 such stones in Cornwall, one in Scilly and another 15 in Devon. This sort of memorial ended around 700 when the last stone was erected in memory of Taetura, a priest, near St Just in Penwith. It’s been suggested that placing such inscribed stones in the countryside ceased when the material presence of the church became more important than the memory of ancestral kin.

The final re-emergence of Cornwall’s stone obsession began in the late ninth century when stone crosses were placed at the margins of church land or on routes to churches. This was confined mainly to Cornwall, where there are 50 such crosses that can be dated to the pre-1066 period. Although there are 10 examples in Devon, the style has been seen as expressing a ‘distinctively Cornish identity’. Perhaps this was a defensive reaction against the imposition of foreign rule at this time, as also happened at different times in Ireland, Wales and the north of England.

Cornish cross at Towednack church

For the context for the second and third phases of stone erecting see my Cornwall’s First Golden Age.

4.25 pm postcript: Just heard the sad news that Cornish archaeologist and patriot Craig Weatherhill has passed away. Craig was an expert on the pre-historic stones mentioned above and his Cornovia: Ancient Sites of Cornwall & Scilly remains the most readable guide to Cornwall’s archaeological sites.

Warbstow Bury

One of Cornwall’s most impressive hillforts is Warbstow Bury in north Cornwall. Overlooking the River Ottery around a mile to the north, it’s easy to imagine Cornish warriors using this fort to look across the valley, monitoring events there in the 810s or thereabouts. That was when the English were settling the land north of the Ottery and possibly expelling the native inhabitants in the process.

The ramparts still dominate the landscape

But this fort, with its two widely spaced ramparts and a partial third is an Iron Age fort and was built and occupied many centuries before the English arrived. As usual, according to folklore it had its resident giant, whose grave can be seen in the middle of the fort. More prosaically, this is now thought to be the remains of a medieval rabbit warren.

The views from the fort also led to its use as a Home Guard observation post in the Second World War, a continuity over millennia.

Warbstow Bury in 1882

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.

Castle an Dinas

Castle an Dinas in mid-Cornwall is one of our most impressive hillforts. The hill, around 700 feet above sea level and with commanding views, was already important for people in the neolithic period, before 2500BC. They had erected two barrows on the hilltop to house their dead. Then, in the late Bronze Age, around 1500-800BC, a single low rampart was thrown up encircling the hill. This probably did not have a military purpose but was instead for managing stock or to mark a symbolic or religious venue.

At some point in the Iron Age, suggested as between 400 and 100BC, two more ramparts were added to produce what can be seen now. These were altogether more substantial. The inner one still rises up to 7.5 metres above the ditch in front of it, while the outer rampart is about half that height. A straight entry point from the south west may have had a cobbled road. The site could have been occupied permanently as it included a spring. However, there have been disappointingly few material finds from what would presumably have been a collection of wooden buildings.

Castle an Dinas looks southwards across Goss Moor towards the church at St Dennis and the nearby site of Domelioc, or Domellick, which featured in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s stories of King Arthur. In consequence it’s often been linked to Arthurian tales. In popular tradition it’s sometimes been seen as Arthur’s hunting lodge or even his birthplace. In the 1470s William of Worcester claimed it was here that Cador, Duke of Cornwall, the husband of King Arthur’s mother, was killed.

The name Castle an Dinas (in 1504 Castel an dynas) is tautological as Dynas, the name of a nearby farm, itself means hillfort.