Empty Areas in West Penwith - 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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Empty Areas in West Penwith

The relatively empty areas in the southwest and northeast of the Penwith peninsula, plus the area of Penzance itself, are noticeably lacking in ancient sites.

There are some noticeable empty areas of Penwith, mainly in the southwestern and northeastern corners of the peninsula. It doesn't make sense that these parts were just forgotten or left out – there’s something about these gaps that is yet to reveal itself. Although it is possible that sites in these two areas have been destroyed, there is no archaeological record or suggestion of this.

Emptyish areas 1: the southwest

Gwennap and the southwest of West Penwith
Apart from a gaggle of sites around Sennen and a string of clifftop sites along the coast between Maen Castle and Treryn Dinas, incorporating Pordenack Point and its simulacra, Carn Boel, Carn Lês Boel, Carn Barra and Tol Pedn (Gwennap Head), the area is noticeably empty of known sites - see the map on the right.

It is of course possible that people living in these areas saw them as unspecial, but this seems odd. But it seems more deliberate than happenstance.

The emptiness of the southwest corner of Penwith seems strange, especially since Carn Lês Boel marks the end of the Michael line, Tol Pedn is the southwesternmost point of the whole of Britain, and the cliffside gallery of simulacra at Pordenack Point, with more at Tol Pedn, are all rather special. In fact, this impressive succession of headlands can be seen as a kind of clifftop pilgrimage route.

But then, we cannot rule out the possibility that the ancients might have left this area inland of the headlands relatively empty precisely because they saw it to be special, perhaps an abode of spirits where humans were guests.

It is also noticeable that, at Tol Pedn, Britain's southwestermost point, and also at the end of the Lizard peninsula, the southernmost point of mainland Britain, there are no greatly significant known ancient sites. Tol Pedn is, however, some sort of cliff sanctuary.

Map of St Ives areaEmptyish areas 2: the northeast

Around St Ives, westwards along the north coast toward Zennor and southwards from St Ives toward Lelant, there is another significant gap. There are cairns on top of Rosewall Hill, above St Ives, but down below it's empty.

St Ives Head itself (‘the Island’ or Pen Dinas), contains no surviving prehistoric remains, yet a number of significant alignments meet there. Its very prominence as a headland with a panoramic view means it must have been a significant site in Penwith.

St Ives' Head was cleared of ancient remains during the Christian period, though it's plausible that the chapel at the summit is on a meaningful spot, possibly a cairn, and that there was a cliff castle in the area of the coastwatch station.

Godrevy Head at the other side of St Ives Bay was important in ancient times - like Carn Brea it goes back to the early neolithic, around 4000 BCE - so it figures that St Ives Head is important too.

St Ives and Hayle were significant harbours for boats coming from Wales, Ireland and the Severn estuary, avoiding the strong currents and weather vagaries around Land's End. People would progress on foot to St Michael's Mount - probably a rather welcome walk after a boat journey and before the next one to France. In medieval times there was a pilgrimage route from St Ives and Hayle to St Michael’s Mount, nowadays called St Michael's Way, now a public footpath.

In medieval times pilgrims progressed from the Mount to France and ultimately to Santiago di Campostela in Spain. It’s likely that Christians weren’t the first to ply such a route since Portugal was a source-place for megalithic culture and trade between Cornwall and the Mediterranean went right back to Minoan times in the 2000s BCE.

Remarkably, St Michael’s Mount, Trencrom Hill and St Ives Head all sit in a dead straight line – and these are hills, not human constructions. Something must have existed at Pen Dinas (‘castle head’) which subsequent Christian occupation removed or covered over.

Elsewhere on the peninsula, whatever prehistoric constructions there were at Pendeen Watch (another Pen Dinas) and Cape Cornwall (Kilguth Ust) were also obliterated by subsequent developments - the lighthouse at Pendeen and tin-mining at Cape Cornwall.

Penzance area

Also noticeable, given the density of sites in Penwith, is the area of land in and around modern-day Penzance, together with the countryside east of it toward St Erth, both of which are relatively empty of ancient sites.

Map of Penzance areaMuch of West Penwith was originally forested, particularly the south, so the presence of tree-cover, being thinned out in the bronze age, is probably not the factor determining this relative emptiness.

If we work on the basis that Penwith is a complete magical landscape, then it is possible that ancient Penwithians considered the area of today’s Penzance not to be part of that landscape - though this is a little odd. Either that, or sites there have been removed or covered over by the growth of the town in the last few hundred years.

The known sites in Penzance are Lescudjak hillfort, a round at the site of Penwith college and the old medieval cross, once at Greenmarket but now at Penlee museum. The ‘holy headland’ (Pen Sans) in Penzance, on which St Mary’s church sits, was another. But these are all there is. Given the number and density of sites in West Penwith, at least double the number might be expected in Penzance.

This relative paucity of sites is peculiar because St Michael’s Mount, just over Mount's Bay and part of Penzance's scenic backdrop, is a key location in the geomantic system of West Penwith. But then, geomancy and earth mysteries are not easy territory for anyone seeking neat, logical answers!

All maps on this page courtesy of Google Maps and Terrametrics
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