We have often driven down the A30, and wondered what is on the hill to the north of us, as we pass Goss Moor, haunted with memories of its horrendous traffic jams.
The answer is Castle an Dinas, one of the largest Iron Age hillforts in Cornwall. It is a superb site, with stunning views ranging from Rough Tor and Brown Willy in the east, Hensbarrow to the south, St Agnes beacon to the west, and glimpses of the sea to the north. This is one of the few places where the term ‘360 degree view’ is completely valid.
It was a cold, bright January day and we were clutching our iWalkCornwall app to take us on a walk around the fort and the valley of the infant Menalhyl river.
The fort is some 260m across with several layers of rampart – some as high as 7m – encircling a large open area which contains a large pond and, curiously, the remains of two Bronze Age barrows. It must have been a strategically important site down the ages, given its central location and ease of access from other such sites such as St Dennis, just across the valley.
No one seems sure whether it was used as a permanent home for a local chief, a small community, or simply a place of refuge when times were tough.
The walk took us through the fort and down into the Menalhyl valley, past the remains of a C20 tungsten mine and into a gentle valley with some wonderful traditional stone-built Cornish farmsteads set tactfully quarter of a mile separate from each other. The names tell their own story: Reterth, Trevithick, Trewolvas, Tresaddern with signs to Tregonetha.
There is not much of the river at this stage but it bubbled along, collecting side streams as it made its way westwards, to skirt St Columb, pass through Mawgan, and emerge at Mawgan Porth. Around us, there were signs of an early spring: some snowdrops, primroses and even some confused campion in the hedgerows. Away from the fort with its background roar from the A30, only the occasional aeroplane leaving Newquay airport disturbed the peace. The sky was a vivid blue.
As we climbed the hill back to the fort, the bright sun highlighted the webs of field spiders hanging from the fence, making it feel as though one was being caressed by gossamer or prepared for an Iron Age ritual as one approached the fort’s ancient ramparts. Cold, crisp days have their benefits.
On our return from Bosporthennis, it was irresistible to stop at the Moomaid in the Field kiosk for some delicious home-made ice cream. But first, we needed to earn it. Zennor quoit lay on the ridge, somewhere just out of sight.
Finding a path up to the quoit took us a moment but the Moomaid people assured us that there was a path out of their field (half way up on the right hand side) and we followed an overgrown track (nice ripe blackberries) up to the ridge. There, in the distance, was a large white triangle beckoning us on. We made a mental note to explore the ridge at some future date to see if there is a path along it.
Dating from the Neolithic and surviving despite attempts by farmers and others to borrow bits of stone, the quoit commands a wonderful wide view over a sea of bracken to the south. In the distance, the hills of Watch Croft and Carn Galver are plainly visible as is the engine house of the Ding Dong mine.
The enormous 5.5m long capstone has long ago slipped turning what was once a large ‘table’ structure into a pyramidal shape. The entrance slabs are still in place and defy those entering from the east. Alongside are some C19 posts which were intended as the base of a shelter.
Legend has it that any stone removed from the quoit will make its way back overnight. We did not quite have enough room in our backpacks and returned to the Moomaid for delicious reward (we recommend the Shipwreck).
It is not every day that one sets out in pursuit of a possible new fogou; indeed, as dedicated fogou-hunters, we have already visited the eight ‘standard’ sites. However, a chance remark in Craig Weatherhill’s excellent Belerion sent us out on a bright September day in search of the courtyard huts and beehive hut at Bosporthennis, just to the west of Zennor.
The settlement is not easy to get to. Set among some stunning Iron Age fields, walled with mighty boulders, there is no natural path and we approached it across fields (with the permission of the farmer). Another possible approach would be from the side of the hill, Hannibal’s cairn.
It was worth the effort. Bosporthennis (‘dwelling at the entrance to the isolated place’?) lies at the top of the shallow valley which includes the Porthmeor (‘large cove’) settlement barely 500m away which has its own fogou.
Looked at with a broad view, the whole valley must once have been a thriving series of small farms, each centred on individual courtyard houses, each with its own individual fields which would no doubt have been filled with livestock. Satisfyingly, the Tinners Way crosses the head of the valley at a rather marshy area, linking it to a known Iron Age thoroughfare.
Little remains of the courtyard houses, certainly not as much as can be seen at Carn Euny or Chysauster. One is fairly easy to work out, with its courtyard and circular hut, each sporting a single vertical door jamb facing east. The rest are vestigial. But the view is worth a pause, the fields unrolling in front of you towards the modern Bosporthennis farm. This is another of those sites which feels as though it has been inhabited non-stop since the original dwellers dragged some stones together for protection from the elements.
A short distance away is a complex which looks very different. A large rectangular field has walls reaching about 2.5m in height, well above the height of those in surrounding fields. At the south-east corner is the remains of a medieval house set amongst the remains of a former courtyard house. This takes some disentangling.
In the opposite north-east corner stands the beehive hut which Craig describes as … It is not known for certain what the Beehive hut actually was, but comparing it with the underground one at Carn Euny, some people believe it to be a unique form of above-ground fogou. [Belerion, 1981]
This is indeed an unusual structure and the comparison with Carn Euny is very apt. There are two entrances, one from the medieval field which is itself thought to be medieval, the other from an adjacent field which is probably original. There is also a third doorway giving onto a small rectangular space with a small niche alongside it, similar to that at Carn Euny, opposite the original entrance.
There is strong evidence of former corbelling to create a roof but it is also clear that the structure has been -re-constructed/amended at later dates for the quality of workmanship and size of stones varies quite markedly. At one point there is a clear discontinuity of construction.
A short distance away is a round, another late Iron Age semi-defensive structure expressed here as a simple circular field boundary.
A fogou or not a fogou?
The Beehive hut is a fascinating structure and incredibly similar to the circular hut at Carn Euny but is it an above-ground fogou or not? Craig himself seems to have changed his opinion over time. In Belerion he says .. some people believe it to be a unique form of above-ground fogou. In his later book, Cornovia (1985), he says it is … now regarded as an above-ground fogou while the illustrated edition of the latter (2009) says … generally regarded as …
I suppose it comes down to the question of ‘what is a fogou?’
On the one hand we have seven classical fogous all of which consist of straight/curving tunnels with certain familiar features, notably the ‘creep’ entrance, large roofing slabs and occasionally a trip stone or narrowing point in the passage. Some are above ground (Pendeen), some below ground (Hallyggye, Boleigh).
On the other we have Carn Euny which has both passage and beehive hut with the hut pre-dating the tunnel, and Bosporthennis with its beehive but no passage.
If we knew more about their purpose, we would be better able to answer the central question. Our feeling is that the beehive hut is a separate entity. It is surely hard to compare Pendeen fogou with Bosporthennis beehive hut and say they had the same purpose. Carn Euny is simply confusing things by having a hut and fogou attached to each other.
Corbelling is a technology in its own right and there is no doubt that it would have provided an excellent advance on the simple wood and turf roofs that probably covered courtyard houses. But it would also be a more difficult structure to create. Could it be that the two beehive huts we have – a mere five miles apart – are simply technological dead-ends. They tried corbelling but found it easier and more practical to stick with the familiar methods of wood and turf?
Either way, we would encourage a visit to this fascinating and beautiful part of Cornwall (on a sunny day) when the sky and distant sea are blue. Our ancestors knew how to choose a good spot for a house.
Having said that they are not easy to find, try these what3words locations:
A bright sunny day after a few days of heavy rain tempted us out to start the Copper Trail which had been on our agenda for some time. We decided to start at the beginning at Minions where we discovered that Cornwall Council does have a sense of humour after all.
On the roadside opposite the road sign stood the tall Long Tom wheel-headed wayside cross which may well be an original menhir.
This section of the trail was full of interest and variety, ranging from ancient monuments churches and holy wells, to C19 mining natural delights.
The real start of our walk was at the Hurlers and Pipers. The Hurlers consists of three Bronze Age stone circles close to each other: a rare formation but no help in understanding how and why stone circles were used.
The trail proper starts by following a disused railway/tramway south from Minions. Lumps of granite are marked with holes where the rails were originally connected. A short distance ahead, the track descends the former Gonamena incline, emerging eventually at Crow’s Nest. To the east, the remains of the South Caradon mine bespatter the side of Caradon Hill with its enormous television transmitter.
Our next monument was Scillonian portal tomb of Trevethy Quoit, possibly Cornwall’s oldest structure: an enormous neolithic dolmen. Sadly a row of houses rather encroaches on its setting but on a fine day, there can be few better sights.
The purpose of the hole in the capstone is unknown.
In the distance, the tower of St Cleer was visible above the trees and we took an overgrown bridleway which would never have accommodated a horse, down the hill to Trecarne (where the houses all seemed to have ‘Carne’ in their names). Here, we left the trail to take a detour to visit St Cleer with its holy well and church.
The holy well, dedicated to St Clare of the order of Poor Clare’s – St Francis’ friend – is an elaborate structure which successive restorations has rather hemmed in with an inelegant wall. Its waters, we are reliably informed, will cure insanity but they are sadly inaccessible, which may explain a lot.
Alongside stands a C15 Latin cross.
We rejoined the main trail near South Trekeive. It would have been a short step to the C8 King Doniert’s Stone – or stones – with its inscription and lovely Celtic knotwork but we had already visited them on the way to Minions.
At South Trekeive we passed our third water treatment works of the day – always a delight – before crossing Bulland Downs and emerging at Draynes Bridge.
A short detour through some lovely woodland – a nature reserve – is highly recommended to view Golitha Falls. Here we found various people wandering around asking ‘are these the falls?‘ in the manner of someone expecting Victoria Falls on a charming Cornish river.
We can recommend the reserve for dog walking, adventures and picnics.
Back to the road and a steep climb up to the hamlet of Draynes before an equally steep decline to the converted Methodist chapel at Lower Trenant. From here, the track took us into the lovely Periock Wood, following a stream up a muddy path towards Lower Bowden. Here the farmer had helpfully cut a track across an unharvested hay field to indicate the ‘right route’.
We emerged close to the almost invisible Berry Castle and cut across some open moorland before descending towards St Neot, hidden in the valley below. A quick detour to the hopelessly Victorian holy well brought us eventually to St Neot’s wonderful church with its incredible windows.
Here we ended the first stage of the Copper Trail. Our gps said we had walked over 12 miles in about 4.75 hours although Google Maps stubbornly suggests nearer 9 miles.
If the later sections of the trail are as full of interest as this section then we are in for a treat.
A brilliantly hot and sunny July day tempted us out to walk to Brown Willy and Rough Tor. We used the excellent iWalk Cornwall advice.
They promised us 5.2 miles of moderate-strenuous walking ‘marshy even in summer’. The ground was bone dry but we could certainly see that much of the ground could be marshy with frequent appearance of marsh grasses.
It was glorious. Starting from the end of Roughtor road by Charlotte Dymond’s memorial, one is literally tripping over ancient monuments the whole way up the slope to the top.
We headed for the main patch of reeds where some young horses were eating and drinking, and found the ‘holy well’. This was ‘discovered’ in 1970 and then lost again until 1994. One wonders how one loses a well and whether ‘discovered’ is similar to Speke’s ‘discovery’ of the source of the Nile: it was always there and known by local people.
For some reason the Wessex Division has decided to plant a memorial on top of Rough Tor. Our ancient ancestors would have understood the respect for the place but it seemed oddly incongruous and faintly invasive in such a landscape.
Our helpful notes did not mention that there was an excellent Piskie bath by the logan rock at the summit. This even has carefully crafted soap dishes.
Crossing to Showery Tor, we met a group of young lads who were doing their DoE Bronze Award, rather slowly, allowing time for the usual youthful banter. We encountered them again on top of Brown Willy where a cry went up ‘There’s a Pokemon up here’. ‘The government has spent £millions trying to get us to take exercise and all it needed was a fun app like this’, as one of them wisely remarked.
Another couple of walkers turned up thinking they were on Rough Tor, with no map or equipment, having arrived from Bolventor. Happy as anything, they set off for Rough Tor. It was just as well that it was not a ‘typical’ moorland day.
The views around us were magnificent, reaching as far as Hensbarrow, St Breock Down, Dartmoor and was that St Agnes Beacon we could espy?
From Brown Willy we re-crossed the bridge back to the foot of Rough Tor and made our way along the base of the tor towards the settlements, enjoying the remoteness of a small farmhouse with its own field system which must have been in occupation for many centuries.
There was no discernible path here and we could imagine it being pretty boggy in winter.
Fernacre stone circle was a short step away and we paid it a visit. We counted 50 stones either erect or hidden in the grass and walked the obligatory circuit without any ill or beneficial affects.
The way back around the tor was once again littered with meaningful stones which deserve more careful and detailed study: small hut circles, curb stones and alignments. They are probably all Bronze Age.
It had taken us three hours and we had covered 6.4 miles according to our tracker. It had been more moderate than strenuous but that was on a lovely hot day when the ground was rock hard. Boggy or in Winter would be a different matter.
Bronze Age hut
Rough Tor well
Fernacre stone circle and Rough Tor
Fernacre stone circle and Brown Willy
Charlotte Dymond’s memorial
A journey through the landscape and history of Cornwall