The Spirit of Place - 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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The Spirit of Place

Genius Loci

-the placing of ancient sites

This concerns the spirit of place - a difficult notion for rational thinkers, but real nonetheless. And it all lies in the specific location of ancient sites and the atmosphere that is present there.

Ancient sites in West Penwith are located where they are for a range of interlocking reasons - and these are reasonably consistent throughout the wider megalithic world. What exactly caused their builders to place them where they are is not exactly known, though here are some of the known factors that clearly seem to influence their decisions.

Genius loci or spirit of place is something that is natural - you can feel it at special places such as waterfalls, woodland glades or hilltops simply by dint of the atmosphere that is there. But the ancients sought to amplify this or even to some extent create it, just as some architects or landscape designers might - or just as you might do in a corner of your garden.

Placeness is partially endowed or projected on a place by humans, as a result of the memories, significance or symbolism people might give it. Partially it can be inherent to a place - and this is frequently demonstrated in the placing of ancient sites in specific locations where this specialness is intentionally cultivated by the building of a quoit, stone circle or other prehistoric monument precisely at that spot - medieval church-builders and even later landscape designers, in service to aristocrats' needs for grand estates, were good at this too. There's something aesthetic about it, but it goes deeper. It conjures a special feeling to a place.

Take this a bit further, and we come to a sense of presence at a place, a feeling that something is there - a spirit, an energy-field with subtle character, a feeling that something exists there that is particular and special. Call this subjective if you wish, but there is something more to it. In some places (Carn Lês Boel, Boscawen-ûn or Sancreed Well offer good examples), there can be a calming, deeply stirring, surreptitious sense of character or intensity which, at times, can be knee-shakingly noticeable - especially if you go there at the 'right' time (and timing is a factor here).

The whole of West Penwith is like this, in comparison to many places upcountry: when driving down the A30 you get a distinct feeling of entering somewhere different or magical - it becomes apparent on the A30 as soon as you top the brow of a hill to cruise down toward Hayle, with Trencrom Hill and much of the peninsula before you.

Some of the factors that contribute to the generation of such atmospheres at ancient sites are outlined below. These create conditions where such a presence becomes more tangible. Some would say that the veils or thresholds between levels of reality become thinner. Deeper levels of awareness come closer to the surface of consciousness. In other words, usually you feel better, or insights come, or something in you relaxes and lets go, and a smile comes to your face.

Several factors affect the location and design of ancient sites. Here's a lowdown on these factors.

Underground Water-flows

The Merry Maidens
The Merry Maidens stone circleBlind springs (water domes in USA) are deep up-welling underground water-flows and seepages that hit an impervious rock layer below the surface and then spread out more or less horizontally and more or less radially from that point.

These underground water-flows are detectable by dowsers by dint of the subtle energy-fields created, which spread out radially and in spiral or energy-field patterns that are detectable on the surface of the earth. Different dowsers will pick up different things, but their findings are usually congruent with each other in some way.

One special quality of blind springs is that they seem to have an effect on consciousness, and this is one reason why stone circles and chambered cairns are located above them. The test for this is simply to spend time at a stone circle or a cairn, letting yourself free-wheel in your thoughts or contemplations, and observing how your concerns float away and creative or insightful thoughts often arise. When you leave, you'll be in a detectably different state to when you arrived - and more so than you would experience in a more normal natural setting. You'll frequently feel clearer, healed or happier.

This energy-patterning is a big factor in the location of standing stones, cairns and particularly stone circles. All stone circles have a blind spring underneath them - at varying depths, often of 30-100m. Sites such as standing stones and cairns are often located over the crossing points of underground water lines - subterranean streams, trickles and seepages moving through fissures and porous areas of rock below.

These create what dowsers and sensitives regard as a vortex or whorl of subtle energy at ground level - sites are located to mark, peg down, amplify or train flows of this 'earth energy'. This is how the theory goes, but it is not difficult to feel this too. More about this here.

The Visible Landscape and Intervisibility

Carn Galva from the Nine Maidens
The Britons of ancient times had their own form of feng-shui or landscape architecture. They placed sites in locations where the view, or the presence of landscape factors was special. To give an example, both Tregeseal and Nine Maidens stone circles are overshadowed by prominent tors – Carn Kenidjack and Carn Galva respectively, both much used in neolithic times. The tors form a scenic backdrop to the stone circles.

There was a certain landscape artistry to this, and to the building of a poetic and mythic psycho-geographical landscape, stuffed with character, history, hidden significances and spirit beings. So with many (but not all) ancient sites, their visual placing in the landscape is often important, and sometimes remarkable. At some locations you'll perceive a remarkably level or proportioned horizon. At others, a special view will be visible that is unique to that place.
Carn Kenidjack from Bosiliack Barrow (telephoto)
There's intervisibility too - seeing other sites from one site. For example, from Bosiliack Barrow, which is not prominently placed on top of a hill, you can see Watch Croft (Penwith's highest hill, with barrow and menhir), Chûn Castle (hillfort), Carn Bean (barrows), Carn Kenidjack (neolithic tor), Botrea Hill (barrows), Bartinney Castle (enclosure) and Sancreed Beacon (cairns). This visible connection with other sites is important at some, but not all, sites.
Chûn Quoit from Boswens menhir
Some sites are on top of a hill (such as Bartinney Castle, Botrea Barrows or the cairns on Chapel Carn Brea) while others might be deliberately located on the side of a hill so that, when looked at from another particular site or location, they stand out on the horizon.

This is the case for the menhir at Boswens, which can be seen from Tregeseal stone circle; or Chûn Quoit as seen from Boswens menhir (see picture); and for the menhir and cairn on top of Watch Croft, as seen from the Nine Maidens stone circle.
Mulfra Quoit from the Nine Maidens (telephoto)
If you stand at a site like Mulfra Quoit and swing around, you'll see an array of different sites and hills, some of them quite remarkably placed in relation to Mulfra. It's rather magical. The builders of Mulfra Quoit definitely engineered this.

Sometimes, when approaching an ancient site, you might wonder why it is located precisely where it is. Then, when you arrive at the site a vista or a visual context appears that suddenly makes sense, specifically at that precise location. If you move a short distance away this panorama or perspective disappears. So this siting business is at times really carefully calculated.
Carn Kenidjack from Carn Les Boel
Just above Carn Lês Boel, on the landward side, there is a small cairn that you can stand on, and Carn Kenidjack, some five kilometres away, becomes visible - but move just a few yards off the cairn and it's gone. This is remarkable - again, specially engineered.


The rising and setting points of the sun at the solstices and other key times of year such as the cross-quarter days, and those of the moon at its major and minor standstills, are important factors in the design and location of some ancient sites. It probably applies also to the planets, but they follow more or less the same course as the Sun across our heavens, along the ecliptic, so it is impossible to tell whether their paths were specifically built into ancient sites. Some sites are oriented that way (such as the direction of the chamber in a chambered cairn), and at other sites a distant menhir or hilltop is aligned to a rising or setting point.
Summer solstice sunset as seen from Trencrom Hill
So the location of some sites was based on the viewing of rising and setting points. For example, from Chûn Quoit, the summer solstice setting sun sets in a nick in the summit profile of Carn Kenidjack, a kilometre away.

From Trencrom Hill, the summer solstice sun rises over St Agnes Beacon, up the coast, and it sets in a nick between Trink and Rosewall Hills northwestwards, exactly following the incline of Trink Hill until it sets (see picture).

The Mythic and Cultural Landscape

Every landscape feature had its own narratives, history and beliefs attached. These beliefs and mythologies often have some relevance to the nature of the site. Some prominent hills such as Carn Galva, Trencrom Hill or St Michael's Mount were regarded as the homes of giants, for which traditional tales of their antics still exist today. If I say "St Michael's Mount" to you, if you have seen it you will not only have an image of the Mount in your mind's eye, but also a bundle of impressions, associations, memories and narratives attached.
Trencrom Hill behind, Gull Rock in front. Taken from Porthtowan
Trencrom HillOur perception of an area is still today influenced by traditions, stories and associations - about someone who lived there or something that happened - and this was very much the case for ancient people. Theirs was a magical landscape infused with presences and significances, and this wasn't just the fantasy of primitive people.

It was a magical perception with substance to it, that we need perhaps to reclaim now, to heal ourselves of a tendency to exploit and destroy nature and to exorcise the landscape of its spirits and specialness - its holiness. It's a loveless condition that sees nature as a resource, a threat, or a property with no emotional or imaginal content.

Ancient sites, with their special atmospheres, attract to themselves associations, mythologies, events and experiences both actual and numinous. Places have identity, and 'strong' places have characteristic atmospheres and resident presences - genius loci, the spirit of place.

This brings us to reality-fields. At some ancient sites, it feels as if you're at the centre of things - as if the world rotates around it - it's a focus of hereness. If awareness had gravity-centres where awareness is either drawn in or sent out, or each at different times, then we could regard this as a kind of gravitational 'reality field' - a bit like a magnetic anomaly, except a consciousness anomaly. If you walk round a magnetic anomaly with a compass, the needle will usually track the anomaly and forget magnetic north.

There is sometimes even a slight pulling feeling when one approaches an ancient site. The ancient Greeks called this an omphalos, literally meaning a navel. It is an umbilical connection to something deeper. Whatever this reality field is, it is one of the things that pulls us to visit ancient sites. When we get there, it's good to settle down, float off and be inside it for a while, to imbibe the atmosphere without pre-judgement, by putting ourselves into a listening or receptive mode. Remember to take some essential geomancers' kit with you - a flask of tea and a flapjack.


These are very important, and a major theme that is pursued on this website. Virtually all ancient sites are placed exactly in alignment with other sites - often four and more sites on one alignment. The system of backbone alignments in particular is anchored to natural features such as tor hills, other prominent hills and also coastal headlands (cliff castles), and these backbone alignments determine the location of other major sites such as stone circles.

So the stone circles were built in alignment with pre-existing natural sites such as neolithic tors and cliff castles - whether or not they can be seen from that place. These are focal sites that peg down the complete system of ancient sites in Penwith or any similar area. Subsequent or subsidiary sites are built in alignment with these - they are derivative sites, at least in terms of alignment. Why exactly the megalith builders aligned sites to each other remains a mystery, but they did do so, investing great effort and accuracy in it. More about alignments here.

Mathematics and Geometry

In other parts of Britain geometrical patterns, locational relationships and shapes have emerged in the way that ancient sites are located, and this is probably true in West Penwith too. Apart from a few such patterns (see here) this question has not yet been properly studied in West Penwith. It awaits someone to come along with that kind of brain to do it!

Bundles of Purposes

Many ancient sites are located where they are for a number of combined reasons, and this is remarkable in itself. Sometimes it is not immediately visually obvious why a site is where it is. Chûn Quoit, Carfury menhir or even the Merry Maidens are examples: why are they on the sides of hills, in places that aren't outstanding in terms of placing, when you first visit them? Other sites are blindingly obvious in their placing, right on the top of hills - Lesingey Round, Chûn Castle or Castle an Dinas being examples.

But somehow, all of the factors mentioned on this page knit together into a wholeness that determines the location and patterning of ancient sites. This is quite remarkable - sites might have underground water, alignments, astronomical alignments and intervisibility as contributory siting factors, and what's remarkable is how they seem to interlock. Every site has a uniqueness to it, yet in an organic and intuitive way it follows similar rules to other sites. Usually a site exists not for one single neat reason.

When you visit them, it's good to go quiet, imbibing the feeling of a place, listening, hearing and seeing what it has to teach. Look for day-signs - things that happen while you're there, such as birds flying overhead, cloud patterns or rustlings in the undergrowth. What you 'get' isn't 'just imagination' - you can pick up on something from the place-memory or the innate identity of the site, its genius loci or spirit of place.

The purpose of ancient sites

Mulfra Quoit from the Nine Maidens stone circle
Mulfra QuoitMounds (cairns, barrows and tumuli) sometimes show signs of use for storing the remains of the dead, but this does not mean they were built for burial. Later in history, churches were surrounded with graveyards, though they were built to be houses of God, not primarily to host graves of the dead.

It's probably best to think of medieval saints' relics in cathedrals, which were held to have spiritual-magical powers - they were revered, and people made pilgrimage to be near them. The bones of a great ancestor would be kept and used as a way of talking to the ancestors or the tribal soul, and they would serve as sources of guidance, blessing or as symbolic objects of eternity or deep identity.

Both mounds and churches were built for a number of interlocking purposes, of which burying the dead was a secondary purpose. The primary purpose was geomantic.

Archaeologists tend to place undue weight on ancient burial practices, thereby missing other, more important, reasons why cairns and barrows were built. It is assumed that, since some mounds had burials and bones, all mounds must serve a funerary purpose. Not true. This is a bias.

In the 1960s-70s dowsers Guy Underwood and Tom Graves investigated this, coming up with the observation that mounds acted as energy batteries for the accumulation and release of energy, or as energy or information buffers, playing a part in a larger geomantic system.

Standing stones and stone circles, meanwhile, served as conductors or antennae connecting the earth and the heavens - acupuncture needles in the land. From an energy-engineering viewpoint, this makes these sites far more plausible and meaningful.

It would be wonderful to be able to read the minds of neolithic and bronze age people, to understand what was in their thoughts when building such a large number of sites as we see in Penwith, but we cannot - we can only see the signs and remains of what they did.

Here plausible speculation, intuition and imagination play as much of a role in understanding ancient sites as concrete archaeological evidence and its interpretation - which itself is sometimes invested with assumptions and guesswork that is not always correct. However, for speculation to be plausible, it does need to be supported or verified by further considerations that give more strength to it.

There can be a tendency to impose on ancient sites ideas and worldviews that come from modern times. The question of subtle energy and megalithic locational science is central to understanding megalithic remains, geomancers would say.

But, since we moderns largely don't perceive subtle-energy impressions, and in many cases don't want to, subtle energy does not and cannot exist, and thus ancient sites can have no such connection or significance. It's simply woo-woo and hocus-pocus, and that wraps the matter up. Except that this is a time-limited belief.

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