Peering over the Rolling Seas - Ancient Penwith | Cornwall

West Penwith, Cornwall
Ancient Penwith
The prehistoric landscape of the Land's End peninsula
Ancient Penwith
Ancient Penwith
The prehistoric landscape of the Land's End Peninsula
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Peering over the Rolling Seas

Cliff Sanctuaries

Customarily these are called 'cliff castles', but this is something of a misnomer. They were probably sanctuaries and visiting places more than defensive sites, though clearly they had a range of purposes. So 'cliff sanctuaries' is what we'll call them here.

Normally they are classed as iron age (800ish BCE to CE 100ish), but evidence from examining the 'backbone alignments' in West Penwith suggests they were important long before then, preceding the bronze age menhirs, stone circles and barrows by a millennium in the mid-neolithic period around 3700-3300 BCE. This implies a large change in the way we understand the prehistory of West Penwith.

Gurnard's Head, telephoto from near Pendeen Watch
Gurnard's HeadTo the Neolithics, headlands were similar in importance to tors and hilltops in West Penwith. They were places to get away to, special places to visit - as today, in order to 'get some space' and take a break from daily life. Places of awe and power, they were located in the liminal zone on the edge of the land, headlands protruding into the vastness of the ocean - here you can look out toward the far rim of the world.

The elemental drama and vastness of the seas off Cornwall are emphatic and stirring - Cornwall's great asset. Cliff sanctuaries gave a sense of space to Neolithic people, living as they mostly then did in a rather shrouded, largely wooded environment - substantial tree-clearance first happened in the bronze age, a millennium later.

These headlands are called 'cliff castles', a Victorian antiquarians' concept with which unfortunately we are stuck, but they were unlikely to be defensive sites. If or when they were fought over, of which there are no conclusive signs, it would have been because they were special places for reasons other than defence. They were key tribal properties.

Major backbone alignments define the positioning of key sites in Penwith such as stone circles and particularly Lanyon Quoit.

These alignments are anchored primarily to cliff sanctuaries and tor enclosures - see map.

On the map below, cliff sanctuaries marked  *  are suggested and possible, not recognised ones.
The converging alignments going off the right-hand side of the map are all heading toward Carn Brea.
The cliff sanctuaries of West Penwith

Dating the Cliff Sanctuaries

The geomantic framework of West Penwith is plugged into the natural hilltop and headland sites - the neolithic tor enclosures and the cliff sanctuaries - which at that time were the most important sites in Penwith.

Backbone alignments preceded the stone circles by a thousand years. When the stone circles were thought up, around 2500 BCE, they were located on the backbone alignments. And backbone alignments were anchored to the cliff sanctuaries and tor enclosures, the key sites in Penwith during most of the Neolithic. Thus, the Merry Maidens stone circle sits exactly on an alignment of Carn Brea (near Camborne), St Michael's Mount and Treryn Dinas.

How can we date the cliff sanctuaries to the neolithic rather than the iron age? Lanyon Quoit, dated around 3600 BCE, delivers the answer: it is located at the intersection of three backbone alignments stretching between cliff sanctuaries, and it would not have been sited so precisely at this location were this not so. So the cliff sanctuaries, with the tor enclosures, were important around 3600 BCE - as indicated by the existence of the backbone alignments used to locate and build Lanyon Quoit.

What Purposes did Cliff Sanctuaries serve?

In Neolithic times people had an emergent need to claim space as human space. This was a response to being surrounded by the much-wooded vastness of nature - there were no roads, towns and villages, just trees and undergrowth, where travelling distances wasn't easy and getting lost wasn't difficult. There were also woodland hazards such as wolves, bears, boars, brambles and bogs.

Increasingly people were seeing themselves as a distinct species - hence a growing need to demarcate land in special places such as on hilltops or cliff promontories, sectioned off with 'ramparts' of rocks and boulders. This was our land, where human rules pertained. It was the precursor to the notion of property - the rest, out there, was the domain of nature, of wild animals and things that go bump in the night.

Power and atmosphere suffuse these places even today, and cliff sanctuaries no doubt fulfilled a number of needs - needs for special places. On a lovely summer's day they are atmospheric patches of heaven on earth, and neolithic gatherings on balmy summer days are highly imaginable. Just as we go to cafes, town squares or parks today, people of that time went to cliff sanctuaries and hilltops.

Perhaps at times these locations functioned as places of counsel, assembly, events, judgement of disputes or inter-tribal meetings. Or they were also for quiet retreat, teaching, healing and initiation, perhaps for safe storage of tribal valuables and assets, and as natural temples for ceremonies, invocations or rites of passage. The usage and character of each headland will have been unique, and you can sense these possibilities if you visit them today.

In some cases they might well have been elemental places for being alone, or to give birth, to die in peace, to convalesce or simply for quiet reflection. They could have been hangouts for the eccentrics, shamans, wise-women or hermits of that time. They were places where people could commune with the ancestors, the lineage of the tribe and the vastness of Creation. They would have had practical uses too, for watching the weather, tides and omens, tracking shoals, seals, dolphins, whales and boats, and for keeping watch over the ocean or looking at the stars.

Each site is different and unique. Here are a few impressions of each of the cliff sanctuaries, below.

To find out where these cliff sanctuaries are, click here for a map and look for the symbols around the coast. Alternatively, click the link to each cliff sanctuary and you'll be taken to that place on the map.

On the Edge - a trip around the cliff sanctuaries

SW 3571 2325

Carn Lês Boel was never inhabited - it wouldn't be suitable. It was reserved for special things. It is a highly energetic place with a wide-open character to it, and very exposed when the winds and gales are up. Not a good place to live.

But it's special, and strong. It feels as if it served as a place for the seers and holy people of the time, and perhaps their trainees. Ovates (counsellors and judges) could have held court there, or ancient druids might have held special rites on special occasions - it's distinctly a holy place with a steady, uplifting majesty, a sense of space and awe, like a launchpad for the far beyond. Part of its name, Lês or Lys, means 'court'.

With its two guardian gateway stones (one now fallen), it feels like a consecrated place, mainly for initiates - not for everyone. To enter, you had to pass through the gate. It was an energy-threshold, and you can feel it when you enter. Interestingly, most walkers on the nearby coast path tend just to walk on by without going onto the headland itself. So perhaps the carn's sacred protection still holds today. It is prominent yet veiled.

There were two thresholds to cross when entering the carn. The first was a small ditch not far from the coast path, which demarcated the headland, and the second was the two gateway stones. One of these gateway stones is a classic propped stone, standing slightly above the ground and propped on a few small rocks. Why this was done, we do not know, but clearly it was a special thing to do in neolithic or bronze age times, to give special significance to the rock.

On the summit is a flattish rock platform where it is possible to feel a strong energy-vortex - if you visit, see if you can find the spot and stand on it awhile. The Trencrom Dowsers are standing around it, in the picture here. There is a menhir-like rock that is tipped over the side of the platform that might well have been upright and sitting on top of this vortex - there's a person standing on it. The propped gateway menhir and the fallen menhir are where the two people are in the foreground.

Further down the carn there are two more vortices - one at an upstanding boulder and another at a rock platform further down the backbone of the carn. See if you can find them.

Carn Lês Boel means crag-court-axe - meaning a court as in 'holding court', and the axe could, at a stretch, signify cutting through, breakthrough or precision, or even judgement. The carn has a strong feeling of spirit and the presence of very ancient beings - hallowed space. It feels connected with the whole wide world, with an oceanic panorama to the south, west and north, with Africa and the Americas over the horizon. Yet it is otherworldly, deep and dimensional, where there is a profound interiority too.

It hits you when you enter the carn - a sense of presence, elevation, far horizons and detachment from worldly normality. It's worth settling down at a chosen spot on the carn, closing your eyes and spending some time there. It has a lot of inner light. It's quite welcoming, at least to those who are open to it, even though it can at times be exposed to the winds. The gulls and falcons wheel around the carn, sitting on the updraughts, and underneath it are caves in which the seals take shelter and give birth to their young.

It is aligned with Avebury, Glastonbury Tor, the Hurlers stone circle in East Cornwall and Carn Brea in East Penwith, on the Michael Line. Progress that alignment southwestwards along a great circle route and you'll come to the Mayalands of Yucatan, Mexico, four thousand miles away.

To me, this is one of the most special places in Penwith - and that's why I've mentioned it first. I go there occasionally at particular moments in life when I need to hear the 'still, small voice' within or to step out of my everyday world to get some perspective. I find it pulls me inward into a deep, timeless place inside. It is a place of memorable moments.

So approach it with respect, stay there awhile, and you might well find that you receive a gift of grace in your heart and soul, with a few insights thrown in for good measure. The carn, together with the inspiring walk to it either from Porthgwarra or from Land's End, has a cleansing, clearing, uplifting effect. Here you'll share space with gulls and cormorants, peregrine falcons, seals, sometimes dolphins - and a sense of infinity. Sometimes the Atlantic rollers coming in from the west are powerful, thunderous and rhythmic, building up as they approach the bays immediately to the north and south of the carn.

On the north side of the carn is a collapsed cavern - now a big gash. It is reckoned that this fell in possibly sometime in the last 2,000 years - so it was probably a cave, not a gash, in neolithic and bronze age times. The presence of the caverns under the carn somehow add to its special qualities. These seal caves were important to the ancients because a newly-discovered menhir at Higher Bosistow, dubbed the Seal Stone, just inland from the carn, is literally and clearly intentionally shaped like a seal looking toward the caves.

Carn Lês Boel is visible from the Isles of Scilly together with Cape Cornwall, and these two cliff sanctuaries were used in navigation between the islands and the mainland. Sailing from Scilly, head toward the midpoint between the two and you'll reach Sennen beach, the best landing place for boats. Sailing the 25ish miles from the mainland to the Scillies, which you can't see from a boat until you're about five miles from them, you'd keep your eye on these two headlands behind you to navigate to the islands.
Pordenack Point
SW 347 243

Just up the coast from Carn Lês Boel, Pordenack Point is not a cliff sanctuary, but it has some of their properties and it's worth mentioning here.

It has a very friendly, happy, likeable feeling, as if social gatherings and celebrations took place there. Yet it is impressive, high and surrounded by a remarkable panorama of cliffs and rock islands. It has an inspiring granite platform on top that could easily accommodate fifty people. Once, when I was here, I had a vision of a large choir singing to the wind - choral traditions in Britain go back a long way.

Pordenack Point also has a remarkable collection of simulacra or zoomorphic rocks close by - almost like a massed assembly of rock-beings or a gallery of fantastical geological artistry. To a rationalist these are simply just interesting rock-formations, evolved like that by sheer chance, but look at many of the rocks around here and they take on the form of beings, and choirs and assemblages of magical rock-people who, by dint of their location at Land's End, seem to act like guardian protectors of the isles of Britain. Elites in London might believe they control things, but perhaps they might be wrong.

'Pordenack' means a fortified headland, but this perhaps refers not so much to man-made fortifications as to the bold, vertical, castellated rocks forming its cliff, as you can see in the top picture - a daunting, seemingly unassailable cliff that nowadays is a demanding climb for the best of rock-climbers.

Probably it's an inspiring place to get married on a nice day, or an impressive place to offer up your newborn children to the deities - a place of celebration. It's the site of a circular enclosure, now hardly visible, with three cairns inside, one of them possibly chambered, and located exactly on an alignment between Carn Lês Boel and Maen Castle (another cliff sanctuary up the coast - see below). South of Carn Lês Boel, Carn Barra also has a similar clifftop platform to Pordenack Point that would be viable for gatherings.

The whole 3-4 mile coastline from Tol Pedn (Gwennap Head) to Maen Castle could well have been a kind of pilgrimage route with a series of headland stations along it, each of them possessing a special character of its own. One gets a distinct feeling of pilgrimage when walking along this stretch of the coast path.

This is a series of high buttressed cliffs guarding the Isles of Britain. The rock giants or simulacra at Pordenack Point, staring out over the Western Ocean, ward off the assaulting ocean waves and the storm gods, as if holding Britain in place and protecting it. On a fine summer's day, Pordenack Point is a slice of greatness, beauty and glory. While not a cliff sanctuary, it's worth mentioning here, and well worth a visit too. If you walk to Carn Lês Boel from Land's End, you'll  pass this headland.
Logan Rock, SW 3972 2198, formerly called Castel Tredyn, the castle of Tredyn.

Treryn Dinas has a daunting feeling of magic with a certain brooding mystery to it - a place not to be messed with. Enter with respect or the Cosmic Trickster might knobble you! You get the feeling things have happened here. It's a place with a feeling of mystery, power, sorcery and truth. It is not exactly tranquil, though it is impressive in the feeling it has. In folklore it was the home of giants.

This headland has two parts, the rocky headland itself and a large encampment to its landward side called Treen Circle, built (officially) in the Iron Age. However its first use would have been the neolithic, if not earlier.

How can we say this? Well, Treen Circle lies exactly on a backbone alignment passing through the Merry Maidens, St Michael's Mount and Carn Brea - two neolithic tor enclosures and one bronze age stone circle. Treryn Dinas and Treen Circle were thus, logically, important at the same time as they. Not only this, but this place is so prominent and rich in character that it must have been important from the very beginning of human life in West Penwith. Antiquarians thought there was a stone circle in Treen Circle, but this is unlikely.

It was the most inhabited of the cliff sanctuaries except perhaps for St Michael's Mount - Treen Circle could have housed quite a few people, or some pretty large gatherings. This might mainly have been a summer residence though, owing to its exposure. It was strategically placed too, not far from Porthcurno, one of Penwith's prime landing beaches. The encampment was large, hosting quite a few roundhouses and separated from the surrounding landscape by a rampart and ditch.
Treryn Dinas as seen from Treen Circle
Unlike many other cliff sanctuaries, Treryn Dinas had practical and economic value, with good farmland and fishing grounds nearby and a commanding position overlooking Porth Curno. The magical, witchy quality of the dinas (the rocky promontory) itself is very present, and it is rather tortuous to climb around. Apparently the ancients inserted relics and valuables into fissures in the rocks on the headland - many of them neolithic.

One wonders whether rocking the logan rock at Treryn Dinas was done to make sound for geomantic reasons, to pulse the earth, or even occasionally perhaps even as an ancient kind of foghorn when sea mists were down - it might have sounded out a slow drumbeat. The rather unique upstanding stone at its summit gives Treryn Dinas special character - it was probably placed there.

Treryn Dinas doesn't only align with the Merry Maidens, St Michael's Mount and Carn Brea. A major backbone alignment runs from the Dinas to Boscawen-ûn, Lanyon Quoit, Bosiliack Barrow and a menhir just yards from the Nine Maidens (Boskednan) stone circle. So three of Penwith's stone circles are linked to Treryn Dinas.
Gurnard's Head
SW 432 386

This cliff castle has a mysterious feeling of depth, as if it is a portal to the underworld. There's something intensely gentle and still, immovably abiding, about it - a kind of quiet darkness with a glimmer of light within it.

It's fiercely elemental, with a feeling nevertheless of deep interiority - perhaps a good place for vision-questing or retreat in ancient times. The slightly dark atmosphere there is not negative but underworldy, indrawn, rather raw, yet there's a quality of truth there - winter solstice truth.

Gurnard's Head was occupied during the iron age, at least seasonally. On the right-hand slope in the picture here, the remains of 16 huts have been found. Life there was probably rather spartan, likely for inspirational more than practical purposes. It would not be a useful place to live for practical purposes such as farming or fishing - other nearby places would be better. So the people who stayed or lived there were probably there for less worldly reasons. It might be that two or three people lived there through the winter and the population swelled in summer.
Gurnard's Head from Carn Naun, with Pendeen Watch behind
It's exposed to northerly winds. One could imagine it as the abode of an oracle or soothsayer, or of hermits. It is not as high as most other cliff sanctuaries - when approaching, you walk down to it - yet it definitely stands out. This is a place of solitude, not a social meeting place for gatherings or ceremonies - Bosigran Castle (see below) is better for that.

Unlike most of Penwith's cliff sanctuaries, which are of granite, Gurnard's Head is metamorphic Devonian greenstone - hence its rather different feeling. These are sedimentary rocks that have been cooked hard, on the edge of the granitic extrusion that is Penwith, and they are less crystalline in nature. Granite itself is volcanic lava from deep down that never reached the surface and solidified slowly underground, separating into elements and crystals - and seams of minerals such as gold, copper and tin formed amongst it as the cooling proceded.
'Stone castle', SW 3476 2576, near Sennen

Maen Castle seems quite functional and panoramic - perhaps as a lookout and a place for monitoring boats coming into Sennen beach from the Scillies when the weather and winds were favourable. Iron age pottery sherds found there are sometimes interpreted as signs of residential occupation, though equally they could be interpreted as signs of feasting and temporary residency, probably in summertime.

Though exposed to westerly winds, it is quite liveable, and there are field systems on the slopes nearby. In neolithic and to an extent in bronze age times, people moved around their patches in a yearly cycle, exploiting the virtues of different places at different times of year. They weren't fixed to farms and villages, though clearly they had a few key bases. This place would have been a pleasant summer location.

It's not as prominent as many cliff sanctuaries, though it's the only one in its vicinity. It's viable as a gathering place - a three-day summer solstice or Lammas party would be just great here. It was the home to the mythic giant Myên Du.  At times it has a rarefied, spacious, wide-open atmosphere. Sometimes it gets lost in the fog.

It's aligned with Boscawen-ûn and St Michael's Mount in one direction and with South Hill, Bryher, on the Scillies in the other, so it is geomantically prominent and one of the key mainland connection points with the Scillies.
Maen Castle is not photogenic. That's a shipwreck below it.
One mysterious question is this: Maen Castle is not the most prominent headland in the area, yet it is definitely a cliff sanctuary, and there are plenty of remains and artefacts to prove it. Pedn-men-du to the north and Dr Syntax's Head to the south are far more prominent, but they are not cliff sanctuaries. Meanwhile, Maen Castle is slightly withdrawn, its view along the coast is unimpressive, and its defensive characteristics aren't special, since the defenders would be facing the offenders uphill - a distinct disadvantage. Unless perhaps it was used as a protected repository for valuable items, and as a summer gathering place.

So, why is it here? One reason must be the above-mentioned alignment - an important one. Choosing Maen Castle instead of one of the other headlands nearby suggests that the ancients considered alignments to be important to the extent of deliberately building ancient sites on them, even if their visible landscape qualities are unspectacular, as is the case here.

Archaeologists deem it to be the oldest of the cliff sanctuaries. However, it is likely that most cliff sanctuaries were identified and revered at more or less the same time as each other, since Penwith is not big, and most of its early inhabitants will have ranged around all of it at times in their lives. In other words, all the prospective cliff santuraies would have been known very early in humanity's occupation of Penwith. They are major topographic features.
SW 4169 3688

There's a story that this cliff sanctuary was the home or court of a queen - the name means 'Ygraine's home', this being the name of King Arthur's mother. Whatever is the case, this place certainly has a hospitable, sociable feeling to it. So Ygraine, if she existed, must have been a nice lady, leaving a strong imprint on the place.

Even today, it attracts many rock climbers. You might be sitting there listening to the waves below and looking over the seas toward Ireland when a clinking starts up and, sooner or later, a helmeted climber appears over the parapet, trailing ropes and looking pleased. There was one occasion when a school of minke whales cruised past and the climbers, half way up their respective cliffs, were spellbound and frozen to the spot - as also was I, with my archaeological ponderings and flask of tea.

It has a happy, light, healing feeling - inspiring though not occult in atmosphere like Gurnard's Head. Good for staying on when the weather is pleasant in summer - probably a great place for neolithic picnics. For ceremonies or social gatherings it could likely accommodate 200 people. There is no evidence of occupation - though pleasant summer nights spent there, around a campfire, would have been wonderful.

It lies below Carn Galva, Penwith's magic mountain, and the carn and the cliff sanctuary had strong visual and energetic connections. Perhaps the tribe that 'owned' Bosigran Castle lived up under Carn Galva, coming down to Bosigran as a summer residence or visiting place. It has an iron age rock rampart sectioning it off from the surrounding land, though it is doubtful that this was defensive - the usual interpretation of such things. More likely, it was a marked threshold, a boundary where you are definitely either inside or outside.

There are several distinct areas on top of the castle, with rock platforms - so it's a place where a number of things could happen at the same time. At one of these areas there is a throne-like anomalistic rock, where it's likely that the chief, the teacher or the druid sat with his or her flock arrayed around. There is a feeling that educational activities were carried out here.

The top of Bosigran is littered with embedded rocks and stones and, apart from the boundary rampart, there are nearly no signs of rock-moving or the placing of rocks except in two instances:
The logan stone at Bosigran
First, there is a logan or rocking stone on the top. These are flattish granite boulders that stand balanced in such a way that they could be rocked. It's possible they were placed there, or moved slightly to make them rock. What the symbolic purpose of logan rocks was, we do not know, but there are many signs the ancients thought them special.

This said, it's quite a good movement-meditation to get this logan rocking and to keep it going rhythmically for a period of time. If you try it, get a good rocking motion going and note the vibrations of the rock.

Further along the left side of the headland, there is a sunken area with an interesting array of rocks that suggests a council circle - as if this were a place for quiet, undisturbed discussions or group processes. Near to it is a line of three rocks with aligned edges that are oriented exactly to the end of Pendeen Watch, the next cliff sanctuary along the coast. More and more of these
oriented stones are being discovered, particularly around Penwith's coastline.

Some cliff sanctuaries were probably lookouts for boat traffic and fish shoals, or beacon sites - the prehistoric equivalent of lighthouses. Examples are St Ives Head, Pendeen Watch, Cape Cornwall, Gwennap Head and Treryn Dinas. In prehistoric times the seas were rich in fish and, when a big pilchard shoal came along, all that was needed was to go out in boats and scoop them up.

A few of the cliff sanctuaries will have been connected with trade - St Ives Head and the twin Cape Cornwall and Kenidjack Castle (enclosing a cove, Porth Ledden, that was involved in the early tin trade), and Treryn Dinas, overlooking Porthcurno, and St Michael's Mount in Mount's Bay. But this is unlikely to be the case at Bosigran Castle. This was more of a place for gatherings and events. Today it is one of the better cliff castles for a summertime picnic.
Pendeen Watch behind Gurnard's Head, from Carn Naun
SW 379 359

This is not commonly recognised as a cliff sanctuary, though its name, Pen Dinas, or 'headland stronghold', betrays this purpose.

The cliff sanctuary has important alignments leading to it - a further sign. Judging by the precise positions of the alignments, it seems to have had two centres, one just northeast of the lighthouse and the other underneath the house on the hill immediately southeast of it.

It has a commanding view and is excellent for watching the summer solstice setting sun. Its prominence is another sign of its being a cliff sanctuary - it's a headland at one of the corners of the Penwith coast.
Looking down at Pendeen Watch from Carn Eanes
There are no traces of a cliff castle here - no visible boundaries or features. But it is a highly modified area: the building of the lighthouse and its entry road around 1890, and of the house later on, flattened and obliterated whatever was there.

But it's undoubtedly a cliff sanctuary. There is a direct alignment through Lanyon Quoit to the summit of St Michael's Mount, another through Botrea Barrows and Sancreed Beacon to the now-destroyed Tregurnow stone circle near the Merry Maidens, and another passing over Carn Galva and Trencrom Hill, through the Wendron Nine Maidens stone circles to Nare Head on the Roseland peninsula and on toward South Devon. It is thus geomantically prominent.
Cape Cornwall
SW 350 319, or Kilgooth Ust, near St Just

Cape Cornwall has been very much affected and modified by tin mining and smelting on the cape in recent centuries - the chimney on the top being a remnant. There are no ancient remains here - all presumably destroyed - but it was undoubtedly a cliff castle. It cannot not be so.

It aligns with Zennor Hill, St Ives Head and St Agnes Beacon, and a direct alignment goes from here through Botrea Barrows to St Michael's Mount. Other alignments go over to Scilly. It is proud and upstanding, prominently seen from Scilly and out to sea.

Prominent and strategic, with a harbour cove on either side, it was close to early tin-streaming workings up and down the west coast of Penwith. There was gold in the vicinity in neolithic times - the metals trade in West Penwith started with gold. It is very visible from Scilly, and the Priest's Cove (Porth Ust) immediately south of it was probably one of the landing places on Penwith for boats arriving from Scilly. Porth Ledden, immediately north, was more engaged with the tin trade, with valuble arsenic-rich sources very close in Kenidjack valley and Botallack. Arsenic hardens bronze, enabling sharper and more durable implements and ornaments.
Cape Cornwall telephotoed from Sennen
Impressive, Kilgooth Ust was probably hot property in neolithic times. It makes a bold statement that could be a source of pride for the local tribe, who probably controlled the Tregeseal stone circles too, just inland.

It's a place of the setting sun and geomantically it is a major node - and not dissimilar in shape and structure to both St Michael's Mount and St Ives Head. This triangle of three conical cliff sanctuaries thus has some significance.

Ballowall Barrow, a large and unique neolithic chambered cairn, is just southwards on neighbouring Carn Gloose. The Brisons, the double island just off the Cape (rudely regarded as Charles de Gaulle after a heavy dinner), was probably not an island in neolithic times - sea levels were marginally lower. As seen from Cape Cornwall, the alignments to Scilly go through the left-hand mount.

Up to late Victorian times, Cape Cornwall was regarded as the Land's End, but measurements made at that time proved that today's Land's End is a little further west. But Cape Cornwall's shape and prominence still makes it geomantically the land's end. It's a bit like an axis, a navel, a central place around which the world revolves. St Michael's Mount is like that too.
St Ives Head, with Carrick Du in the foreground
Another Pen Dinas, or 'The Island' at St Ives.
SW 5208 4115

The Island (actually a promontory) is not usually thought of as a cliff sanctuary yet it's a classic, not unlike Cape Cornwall in shape and also connected with it by alignment.

Like Cape Cornwall, remains of its ancient history have been obliterated by subsequent events, in this case from the Christian period and in connection with the local cult of St Ia, a christianised druidess-healer from Ireland. She reputedly sailed in on a leaf to inspire and lead, or perhaps even brow-beat, the locals some 1,500ish years ago in the early-medieval time of the Celtic saints. Clearly she made a big impression on the place.

The headland was a cliff sanctuary overlooking the majestic St Ives Bay, paired at its other end by Godrevy Point which, though not a cliff sanctuary, had many characteristics of one and is a bronze age and earlier ancient site.
St Ives Head, centre of picture, as seen from Godrevy Head
A considerable alignment node, there seem to be two centres to St Ives Head - one where the chapel lies (possibly a barrow in former times?) and one where the coastwatch station stands (more like a classic cliff castle position).

St Ives was a landing place for boats from Ireland, Wales and the Irish and Severn Seas. In medieval times it was a pilgrimage harbour linked to St Michael's Mount by a path now called St Michael's Way, for pilgrims heading to Santiago di Campostela in Portugal, or to Rome or even Jerusalem.

The headland guarded a trading harbour at the current harbour site at St Ives. The history of this place is obscure, but St Ives Head clearly one of the key cliff castles of Penwith, staking out one of the peninsula's corners, and very much looking the part.
St Michael's Mount
SW 5143 2984

The Mount could be classed either as a tor enclosure or a cliff sanctuary. Either way, both are from the neolithic, the 3000s BCE.

This is a special, striking, archetype-rich island, very much the focal point and axle of Mount's Bay, and known for its long involvement in the ancient tin trade and for visits by foreigners over the ages.

The Greek traveller Pytheas, who circumnavigated Britain by boat sometime around 325 BCE in Alexander the Great's time, visited here. When back in Greece he left accurate descriptions of his travels, including plausible references to St Michael's Mount, which were transmitted to us in the writings of Diodorus Siculus some time later. There is also a chance that it is the tin port of Ictis, mentioned by Posidonius, a Greek philosopher and geographer from Rhodos.

Unlike many of Penwith's ancient sites, the Mount has had an almost continuous history of use through many historic periods, as a neolithic tor enclosure, a hill camp or fort, a trading place, a monastery, a village, a stately home and, most recently, a museified National Trust property.

In neolithic and early bronze age times it was not an island - it was a mount standing above woodland. It became an island later on, possibly in connection with a tsunami emanating from Portugal or the Azores, to which Mount's Bay is vulnerable even today - and remains of the woodland are occasionally revealed under the sand during fierce storms such as in 2014. Radiocarbon dating puts this inundation at around 1700 BCE. So it was an island by the time Pytheas came along.

Power places are suffused not only with  earth and cosmic energy. They are pervaded with place-memory - an imprint of whatever has happened there. A lot has happened at St Michael's Mount over at least 5-6,000 years, and its atmosphere is thus defined by this.

As a neolithic site it was probably idyllic, especially with the equable climate of that time. It has hosted a small village for millennia - a good place for fishing, trading and also retreat. It was a well-connected harbour that was busy right up to the development of Penzance and the arrival of the railway in the 1860s.
Tol Pedn Penwith / Gwennap Head
Gwennap Head. SW 3672 2180

It is slightly surprising that no obvious or recognised cliff sanctuary exists here, since it is the southwesternmost point of the Isles of Britain.

But there are scanty records of one, and there is a viable location too (here, looking southeast over a flattish area as seen from the coastwatch road). It is an area on Tol Pedn with no enclosing banks, though the whole plateau that forms the headland and the valley eastwards protect it from landward attack, should it need protecting.

Further down, there is a rock headland that is characteristic of some cliff sanctuaries - notably, the three possible cliff sanctuaries for which 'no evidence' is the descriptor. These are Kemyel Point, Carn Naun and Tol Pedn Penwith. All of them have a flattish region higher up, with a marked rock outcrop lower down.

Tol Pedn Penwith was renamed Gwennap Head in the 1880s (it crops up today in the BBC shipping forecast). It would be a fine place for summertime residence in ancient times, perhaps for fairs, ceilidhs or ceremonies - or perhaps for viewing the winter solstice sunset southwestwards, which would be prominent at this location. However, it is completely unsheltered in high winds, so as a residential site it is not advised.

It has a cove on each side - Porth Gwarra and Porth Loe, both of them later on being smugglers' coves - and a magic rock pinnacle on the south side of the headland called Hella Point.

It's a funny place though, slightly bleak and a tad uninspiring by comparison to other nearby clifftop locations, even though it is a key southwesternmost end-point to the isles of Britain.

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Hella Point, part of Tol Pedn
Hella PointEvery tribe will have treasured its landscape assets carefully, and a prominent headland would have been a valued asset. It would have been a place of peace, space, wonder and power, a sanctuary for the group soul of the tribe, where occasional gatherings or rites might be held and offerings made.

Watching for the movements of fish shoals, seals and dolphins was a factor, not just for hunting and fishing but also to read the signs and significances of their movements, in an oracular or prophetic sense.

During times of social stress, cliff sanctuaries might perhaps have been scrapped over, but it doesn't really figure that these places were built as defensive sites. While many are defensible, they are too easy to lay siege to, many of them not being easy to escape from safely by boat. They were mostly not very strategically placed, unless perhaps for a last stand - which, as far as we know, never happened. So their apparent defensive function is something of an illusion. Yes, they were strongholds of a kind - sanctuaries - but a military function is highly unlikely.

All-out warfare in Penwith was unlikely - there are hardly any signs of conflict in Penwith. What aggression took place probably involved feuding, raids or men strutting their stuff, especially in the iron age between around 500 BCE and Roman times. Occasionally the peninsula would have been liable to attack from the sea, but not many cliff castles would be valuable defensively to guard against this, except for St Ives Head, Cape Cornwall and Treryn Dinas. It would be beaches and landing places that needed defence - and there is no cliff castle overlooking Sennen beach, Penwith's best landing place apart from St Ives and Mount's Bay. Cliff sanctuaries would have been valuable as lookouts though.

Penwith Staked Out

Cliff castles of West PenwithThe cliff sanctuaries mark out the peripheries or bounds of West Penwith. Look at the map on the right and you'll see how cliff sanctuaries are spaced roughly evenly around the peninsula.

It would be easy to look on this as a defensive system, except beaches and landing places would most need defending, and cliff sanctuaries don't on the whole help greatly with that - though they will have had their defensive value when needed.

If the ancients thought of Penwith as a magical landscape, then the cliff sanctuaries, as places of magical-spiritual power, guarded or geomantically 'held' the Penwith peninsula.

By sanctifying the cliff sanctuaries and significant hilltops of Penwith, the health and spirits of the whole peninsular landscape could be enhanced. This was a fundamental principle of geomantic activity: if the subtle energy-structure of the land was healthy, all would be well in heaven, on earth and in the realm of humans.

In this way of looking at things, the immunity of the peninsula to attack or ill fortune rests upon 'holding the light' of Penwith and maintaining energy-balances in the area. After all, the ancient name for West Penwith, Belerion, means 'shining land'. A key intention behind the geomantic system, marked out particularly by the backbone alignments, was thus arguably to enhance Penwith's spirit and fortunes.

The spacing of cliff sanctuaries shown on the map suggests that three further sanctuaries are possible, at Carn Naun in the north (where an outcrop and flat encampment area could qualify), and Kemyel Point and Faughan Round in the south-east. Lescudjak hillfort above Penzance could qualify as part of this system too.
Trencrom Hill from St Michael's Mount
The straight, almost due-North alignment from St Michael's Mount to St Ives Head, passing through Trencrom Hill, acted as the landward energy-boundary of Penwith. The peninsula is thus ring-fenced, energetically speaking. It also has a subtle yet distant relationship with the Orkney islands at the other end of these sceptred isles. Together, they anchor the Isles of Britain.

If we were to look on Penwith as a landscape canvas stretched out within a containing frame, then the above cliff sanctuaries would act as that framework.

Thus it is that the cliff sanctuaries were arguably neolithic in first use. The iron age evidence found at many of them - boundary banks, artefacts and a few signs of settlement - do not indicate first use. The cliff sanctuaries' perhaps most significant period of use was likely in neolithic times. Their use in iron age times would thus partially be on the strength of ancient tradition as well as their perceived worth in the iron age.

And they are well worth visiting today.

For more about the geomantic significance of tors and cliff castles: The Backbone.

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