Cliff Sanctuaries - Ancient Penwith

Ancient Penwith

Ancient Penwith

The prehistoric landscape of the Land's End peninsula in Cornwall
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Cliff Sanctuaries

'Cliff castle' is something of a misnomer. They were probably more natural sanctuaries than defensive sites, with a range of purposes. So that's what we'll call them here. Normally they are classed as iron age (500ish BCE to CE 100ish), but the evidence from alignments in Penwith indicates that they were important long before then, and before the bronze age menhirs, stone circles and barrows were ever thought up. This means at least the late neolithic age, 3000-2500 BCE, if not earlier. It implies a large change in the way we understand the prehistory of West Penwith.

Cliff Sanctuaries
Gurnard's Head, telephoto from near Pendeen Watch
Gurnard's HeadHeadlands were similar in importance to tors and hilltops amongst neolithic people. They were places of awe and power, located this time on the edge of the land, protruding into the vastness of the ocean where you can look out toward the far rim of the world. The elemental drama and vastness of the seas off Cornwall is emphatic and stirring - Cornwall's greatest asset. Cliff sanctuaries gave a sense of space, living as people then did in a largely wooded environment.

These headlands are called 'cliff castles', a Victorian antiquarians' concept with which unfortunately we are stuck, but they were unlikely predominantly to be defensive sites. If or when they were fought over, it would have been because they were special places for reasons other than defence.

Major backbone alignments defining the positioning of key sites such as stone circles are anchored to cliff sanctuaries and tor enclosures (see map). The geomantic framework of West Penwith rests on these two kinds of natural sites. The backbone alignments, or the idea of them, preceded the stone circles, built in the early bronze age and the roughly nine centuries that followed. So the cliff sanctuaries, together with tor enclosures, were key sites in the early megalithic period in Penwith.

In neolithic times people had a growing need to claim space as human space. Increasingly they saw themselves as a distinct species - hence a need for demarcation of land in special places such as on hilltops or cliff promontories. This was 'our land', where human rules pertained - the rest was the domain of nature, wild animals and things that go bump in the night.

Power suffuses these places, and cliff sanctuaries no doubt fulfilled a number of needs - perhaps as places of counsel, assembly for certain purposes, for judgement of disputes, quiet retreat, teaching, healing and initiation, perhaps for safe storage for tribal valuables and assets, and as natural temples for ceremonies, invocations or rites of passage.

They might have been calm, elemental places for some to give birth, or to die, convalesce or simply to be quiet. They could have been hangouts for the eccentrics, shaman-druids, wise-women or hermits of that time. They were places where people could commune with the ancestors and the lineage of the tribe. These possibilities are easily imagined.

Each site is different and unique. Here are a few impressions. To find out where these cliff sanctuaries are, click here for a map and look for blue square symbols around the coast.

On the Edge

Carn Les BoelCarn Lês Boel wasn't inhabited. It could well have served as a place where the ovates (counsellors and judges) held court, or where druids held special rites on special occasions. It's a place of steady, uplifting majesty, a launchpad for the far beyond.

With its two guardian gateway stones (one now fallen), it feels like a consecrated place for initiates. Interestingly, most of today's walkers on the nearby coast path just walk on by without going onto the headland itself. So perhaps the carn's veiled protection still holds today.

Carn Lês Boel has a strong feeling of spirit and of the presence of ancient beings - hallowed space. It feels connected panoramically with the whole wide world, yet it is otherworldly too, deep and dimensional. It has a lot of light. It's quite welcoming, at least to those wo are open to it, even if it is exposed to the winds. 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.

Pordenack Point, just up the coast, has a friendly feeling, as if gatherings and celebrations happened there. It has an inspiring rock platform that can easily accommodate fifty people, as well as a remarkable collection of rock simulacra close by - almost like a theme-park of rock-beings or a 3-D gallery of geological artistry.

Probably an inspiring place to get married on a nice day, or an impressive place to offer up your newborn children to the deities. It's not technically a cliff castle though it has many of their qualities. It's the site of a bronze age mound aligned with Carn Lês Boel and Maen Castle. A little further south, Carn Barra also has a similar platform viable for gatherings.

The whole 3-4 mile coastline from Tol Pedn (Gwennap Head) to Maen Castle was probably regarded as one single clifftop landscape temple in ancient times, with a series of points along it that each possess special characters of their own. Strangely, there is a dearth of known ancient sites in its hinterland. One gets a feeling of pilgrimage when walking along this stretch of the coast path. 

This is a series of flying buttress 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 storm gods, holding Britain in place. Yet, on a fine summer's day, it's a slice of greatness and glory.

Treryn DinasTreryn Dinas (aka Logan Rock) meanwhile, has a daunting feeling of magic with a certain brooding mystery to it - it's 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 of power, sorcery and truth.

This headland had a large encampment to its landward side, built in the iron age - though its first use could be older. It was the most inhabited of the cliff sanctuaries except perhaps for St Michael's Mount, and it was strategically placed too.

Unlike many of the other cliff sanctuaries, it has significant practical and economic value - good farmland and fishing grounds nearby, and it overlooks Porth Curno, an important landing beach in Penwith. Its magical, witchy quality is very present on the rocky promontory. One wonders whether rocking the logan rock at Treryn Dinas was done, amongst other things, to make sound for geomantic reasons, to pulse the earth, or even occasionally perhaps even as an ancient kind of foghorn when the sea mists were down. It might have been used to sound out a slow drum-beat.

Gurnard's Head has a mysterious feeling of depth to it, as if a portal to the underworld. There's something intensely gentle and still, immovably abiding, about it too. It's fiercely elemental, with a feeling of interiority - perhaps good for vision-questing.

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 spartan or monastic, likely for inspirational more than practical purposes. It's very 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.

Maen Castle ('stone castle') near Sennen seems quite functional and panoramic - perhaps 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 interpreted as signs of residential occupation, though equally they could be interpreted as signs of feasting. It's not as prominent as many cliff castles, though it's the only one in its vicinity. It could have been a gathering place and a coastwatch place too. It was the home to the mythic giant Myên Du. At times it has a rarefied, space-rich, wide-open atmosphere. It's aligned with Boscawen-ûn, St Michael's Mount and South Hill, Bryher, on the Scillies, so it is geomantically prominent and one of the key mainland connection points with the Scillies.

Bosigran CastleThere's a story of Bosigran Castle (right) being the home or court of a queen, and possibly it was a place of teaching too. It has a happy, light, healing feeling. Good for staying on when the weather is pleasant in summer. For ceremonies or social gatherings it could likely accommodate 200 people. There is no evidence of occupation though. It lies below Carn Galva and had strong connections with it, perhaps as a kind of tribal summer residence or visiting place.

Other cliff sanctuaries were probably lookouts for boat traffic and fish shoals, or beacon sites, the prehistoric equivalent of lighthouses - St Ives Head, Pendeen Watch, Cape Cornwall, Gwennap Head and Treryn Dinas, for example.

A few of them will have been connected with trade too - St Ives Head and the twin Cape Cornwall and Kenidjack Castle (enclosing a cove involved in the early tin trade), and Treryn Dinas, overlooking Porthcurno, and St Michael's Mount.

Cape CornwallCape Cornwall, or Kilgooth Ust, near St Just, has been very much affected and modified by tin mining 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.

It is prominent and strategic, with a harbour cove on either side, and close to early tin-streaming workings up and down the coast. There was gold in the vicinity in neolithic times - the metal trade in West Penwith started with gold. It is very visible from the Scillies. Impressive, it was probably hot property in neolithic times. It's a place of the setting sun and geomantically it is a major node. Ballowall Barrow, a large neolithic chambered cairn, is just southwards, and the Brisons, a double island just off the Cape, was probably not an island in neolithic times.
St Ives Head, with Carrick Du in the foreground
St Ives Head, or 'The Island'St Ives' Head, Pen Dinas, or 'The Island', is not commonly thought of as a cliff sanctuary, yet it's a classic, and not unlike Cape Cornwall in shape.

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, reputedly sailing in on a leaf, to inspire the locals some 1,500ish years ago.

The headland was a cliff sanctuary overlooking the majestic St Ives Bay, paired at its other end by Godrevy Point, which wasn't a cliff sanctuary though it had many of the characteristics of one and is a bronze age and earlier ancient site.

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 cliff castle position).

St Ives was a landing place for boats from Ireland, Wales, the Hebrides and the Severn Sea. 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. The headland guarded a trading harbour at the current harbour site at St Ives. The history of this place is obscure, but it's clearly one of the key cliff castles of Penwith, staking out one of the peninsula's corners.

St Michael's MountThen there is St Michael's Mount, which could be classed either as a tor enclosure or a cliff sanctuary. This is a very special, archetype-rich island, very much the focal point in 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.

Unlike many of Penwith's ancient sites, the Mount has had an almost continuous history of use through many historic periods, as a fort, trading place, monastery and stately home.

Gwennap HeadFinally, Tol Pedn or Gwennap Head. It is 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 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, should it need protecting.

It would be a fine place for summertime residence, perhaps for fairs, ceilidhs or ceremonies - perhaps at winter solstice sunset, 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.

Hot property
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 was a place of peace, 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 too, not just for hunting and fishing but also to read off the signs and significances of their movements, in an oracular sense.

During times of social stress, cliff sanctuaries might well have been fought over, but it doesn't really figure that these places were built primarily as defensive sites. While defensible, they are too easy to lay seige to, many of them not being easy to escape from safely by boat. They were mostly not very strategically placed, unless for a last stand - which, as far as we know, never happened.

All-out warfare in Penwith was unlikely. 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, except for St Ives Head, Cape Cornwall and Treryn Dinas. It would be beaches and landing places that needed defence. Cliff sanctuaries would have been valuable as lookouts though.

Penwith staked out

The 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 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 and its people to attack or ill fortune rests upon 'holding the light' of Penwith and maintaining energy-balances in the area. A key intention behind the geomantic system was to enhance Penwith's spirit and fortunes.

The spacing of cliff sanctuaries shown on the map suggests that three further are possible, at Carn Naun in the north (where an outcrop and flat encampment area could qualify), and Kemyel Point and Penlee Point in the south-east. Lescudjak hillfort above Penzance could qualify as part of this system too. 

The straight alignment from St Michael's Mount to St Ives Head, passing through Trencrom Hill, acted as the landward energy-boundary of Penwith. The place is ring-fenced. It has a subtle relationship with the Orkney islands at the other end of these sceptred isles. Together, they anchor the Isles of Britain.

So, if we were to look on Penwith as a kind of landscape canvas stretched out within a containing frame, then the above cliff sanctuaries would act as that framework. See the yellow lines on the map - the backbone alignments - and you'll notice that cliff castles and the major hills determine them.

Thus it is that the cliff sanctuaries were 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.

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

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