Gathering Places of the Iron Age - 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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Gathering Places of the Iron Age

Hill Camps, Enclosures and Forts

Castle an Dinas
If you're a hillfort hunter, West Penwith is not the best place to start. There aren't many here, and they weren't built primarily for military purposes. In fact, according to a recent Oxford Univ survey of hillforts, only about 10% of hillforts across Britain show signs of military activity - most are different forms of gathering place.

They could be defended if the need arose, though there was not much need since Penwith is defended by its geography - high cliffs and a narrow land-bridge to the east. Strongholds they were but, in our own day, so are banks, warehouses and other security installations. They were hot property, rather like today's gated communities for affluent people - secure, yes, but military, on the whole, no.

Hill camps or enclosures, misnamed hillforts, are prominent hilltop sites dating from the late bronze age (after 1200 BCE) and the iron age (after 800 BCE) up to Roman times (100s-200s CE). Some were used earlier than this, back in neolithic times in the mid-3000s BCE, since many are special hilltop locations and a good place to visit, live or revere: if you lived in the neolithic, especially since the climate was warmer than today and much of Penwith was then forested, you too would have gravitated there.

The neolithic tor enclosures such as Carn Galva, Carn Kenidjack, Trencrom Hill and St Michael's Mount, as well as other prominent hills - Chûn Castle, Castle an Dinas, Chapel Carn Brea and Bartinney Castle, for example - were related in use and value to the cliff sanctuaries of the neolithic, way back around 3500 BCE. But many of the earthworks at these hilltop sites were built later in the bronze and iron ages (such as at Trencrom Hill or Chûn Castle), so the sites are usually dated to the iron age by archaeologists.
The view from Bartinney Castle
Some enclosures, misnamed hillforts and clearly having more of a social-religious purpose, started out in the bronze age - Caer Brân, Bartinney Castle and Castle an Dinas, for example. They served as sacred enclosures for magical and ceremonial purposes and they were exactly round.

Some hill camps are genuinely iron age hillforts, such as at Carnsew near Hayle estuary, which served as a secure trading and transit depot for tin and other goods, for shipping north over the Celtic and Severn Seas.

Trencrom Hill and St Michael's Mount could have served as forts if necessary, guarding the peninsula from the east, but actually they were more like the manors and stately homes of the time. Chûn Castle was fortified, but for security, not defensive reasons, since it was a centre in the tin trade and metalcraft industry, with high-value goods made and kept there.

Map of hill camps and enclosures of the late bronze and the iron ages
(1200ish BCE to CE 200ish).
Squares = hill camps/enclosures/forts, circles = round ceremonial enclosures
Hill Camps in West Penwith

Hill Forts - so called

Customarily hill camps are seen as defensive positions, an idea drummed in by an archaeological orthodoxy framed in the 18th and 19th Centuries and reinforced by the very names they've been given - hillforts (and the same applies to cliff castles). There were no doubt occasional feuds, duels and displays of male testosterone in the iron age, yet there are no signs of war or invasion in Cornwall until the Saxons (English) reached the river Tamar in the 900s CE - though they stopped there. Hill camps were simply valued assets and, as such, they were protected.

In West Cornwall there weren't many major threats necessitating defence - the cliffs, the area's remoteness, its distinct identity and a certain magic did much of the job. Prehistoric cultures were not warlike as Victorian and modern observers have tended to think. Iron age people weren't angels, but warfare, a product of states and empires, was not needed in Cornwall. Even after the iron age, the Romans, the Saxons, the Vikings and even the Normans did not invade it.

If it had been necessary to defend West Penwith from attack from the sea, there would have been a hillfort at Whitesands Bay, near Sennen, and defensive remains at Hayle Towans, Lelant and Gwithian on St Ives Bay - places where it would be possible to land raiders or an army. However, Mount's Bay is guarded by St Michael's Mount and Lescudjack Castle.

Trencrom Hill, with Carn Brea in the distance (near Camborne)
Trencrom HillMost hill and headland camps are located in beautiful, impressive, magical places, making them special, desirable residences and locations. They were commanding places - gated communities for the powerful and their clan.

In the iron age, society was by degrees more splintered, tribalised and, at times, insecure than a millennium or two earlier in the bronze and neolithic ages. Iron age people had stronger concepts of hierarchy, territory and property than their forebears. People drew lines around their central places and key assets, staking out their patch. So these places were protected, but they were built so because they were valued for a wider range of reasons than just defence.
Gateway into Chûn Castle
Encircling hill encampments are earth and stone banks, walls and ditches. Some camps had wooden stockades. Similarly, at the neck of many coastal cliff sanctuaries are boundary banks, built in the iron age - though many cliff sanctuaries started their careers in the neolithic.

You get a distinct feeling you're crossing a threshold into dedicated space. In former times you would have had to enter through the proper entrance, which could be closed whenever needed, so that entry and departure could be monitored and everyone knew clearly when they were in and when they were out.

There were practical reasons for building enclosing banks - protection against wolves, keeping children and livestock contained, providing wind-protection, and serving defensive purposes if necessary. There was also the matter of pride, wealth and status - hill camps were the HQ or summer residence of clan leaders, their entourages and their valuables, and around and below them lived the crofters and farmers of the clan.

A visit to Trencrom Hill, Chûn Castle, Bartinney or Castle an Dinas shows that they were hot properties with a panoramic view. Their owners drew a magic circle around themselves, a ring-pass-not to deal with spirits, animals and strangers, and to mark out safe space. This is ours, and our rules hold here. People had developed a need to distinguish human space from a wider sense of nature's space.

Since the bronze age heyday around 2000 BCE, Britons had become more territorial, anthropocentric and hierarchical - but then, they had good cause to love the land they occupied, and it was not a society of extraction and exploitation that later history cooked up.

Iron Age Society

St Michael's Mount from Trencrom Hill
Iron age people were tribal, and clan lands extended quite far. Penwith's population will have had various big families in it, but they were probably all members of one overarching clan.

Absolute sovereignty and rule over territories was not the case: across Britain there was a set of pan-tribal laws and traditions, with a judiciary (the ovates), the keepers of traditions and histories (the bards) and the priest-shamans (the druids) who upheld these customs, holding supervisory, advisory, political and jurisprudential roles. They welded Britain into a unified patchwork of domains without a national constitutional framework but with rules, laws and customs nonetheless. Britain was a confederation of large clans or first-nations.

There was a philosophy of justice and fair allocation of resources: if families in tribes grew or shrank in size, periodic redistributions of land and houses would occur to accommodate people's needs - this continued amongst the Scots Highland clans until the 1700s CE. If there were extraordinary needs, the tribe would support them since the strength, interdependence and welfare of the tribe as a whole were important.

Chiefs and local monarchs held resources on behalf of clan members and were accountable to them. Generally they were selected by merit from a number of eligible aristocratic candidates, and if necessary they could be removed from office. It was by not a perfect system and there were no doubt squabbles and injustices, but the traditional British social and legal system was admiringly noted and remarked on by outsiders. It had a common law system, and the British socio-political system of today has its roots in principles established in the iron age.

These were transitional times in which tribal and private rights were changing in relation to each other. Later in the iron age a money economy developed, and this 700ish year period saw an incremental shift by degrees from tribal toward more aristocratically-dominated conditions. It was the coming of the Romans and later the Saxons who took this further, affecting Cornwall even though they didn't take it over. The Romans gained a foothold in Britain because of inherent weaknesses in solidarity between clans at the time.

Why Hill Camps?

Some hill camps served as meeting and council places, law courts, druid and artisan centres, trading and festival places. The author believes that Caer Brân was the central moot-place for Penwith. Some hill camps were centres for farming, where livestock, seeds, tools and stores were kept, since these were high-value clan capital.

Some were strongholds for storing and smelting metals and valuables and for craft workshops, such as at Chûn Castle and Castle an Dinas - metal craftsmen were high-status, semi-priestly people.

Some were places for celebrating festivals (Caer Brân, Lesingey Round and Bartinney Castle) or for making trade (Castle an Dinas, St Michael's Mount, St Ives' Head, Lescudjak in Penzance and Carnsew near Hayle). Some were residential, such as Lesingey Round, Lescudjak, Trencrom Hill and St Michael's Mount. They all varied in nature and purpose.

In iron age times the climate was slightly more benign than today. Further back in neolithic times it had been distinctly warmer and calmer than today - and living on hilltops made more sense then than now. For residence though, many hill camps and cliff sanctuaries would have been mainly for summertime use.
St Michael's Mount from Caer Brân
Only some hill camps were suited to defensive showdowns. Trencrom Hill, Tregonning Hill (near Helston), St Michael's Mount and Chûn Castle were clearly defensible, but other so-called hillforts, such as Bartinney Castle, Caer Brân and Castle an Dinas, originating in the bronze age, were sacred enclosures for ceremonial and magical purposes.

Yet magical work had a defensive element inasmuch as ancient philosophy reckoned that, if the spiritual relationship between the the heavens, the earth and humans was good, the land would be secure, productive and blessed. Security and defence were by-products of this, and threat was unusual or non-existent. The intention was to bring heaven and earth together, to bring nature's forces into a kind of harmony that would mean that ill-fortune would not happen. That's a form of defence, and perhaps today we need to remember this.

Some ancient hills, such as Chapel Carn Brea, Sancreed Beacon, Chapel Carn Brea, Watch Croft and Zennor Hill, together with the old neolithic tor enclosures of Carna Galva and Carn Kenidjack, were never made into iron age hill camps. If iron age Britons were as conflicted and heroic as they're sometimes portrayed, it might be expected some would be fortified.

The hill camps were strongholds for people at the top of the clan hierarchies. They hosted the clan valuables, providing organisational and judicial services, tribal governance and resources for bigger projects, as well as repositories for seeds, implements and stores, employment of artisans and expertise, and they had some sacred functions too - some chiefs were also druids or, failing that, they had wise people to hand. The myth of Arthur, the king, and Merlin, the sage, reflects this iron age tradition, and governance was not just a secular function.

The Hill Camps of Belerion

Caer Brân on top of the opposite hill, as seen from Botrea Hill
Caer Brân (SW 4075 2903) served as a central hub for Penwith. Elsewhere on this site it has been proposed that it might have been a kind of parliament and marketplace for Penwith, with ceremonial significance - perhaps a kind of neutral space. It is located in the centre of Penwith, between the northerly highlands and the southerly lowlands, and the ancient trackway from Sennen heading eastwards upcountry, serving the traffic from Sennen to the Isles of Scilly, passed just below it.

Inside, one is visually insulated from the surrounding landscape, even though Caer Brân sits in a panoramic location. It wouldn't serve well for military purposes since you have to stand on the perimeter bank to see what's going on outside - easy to ambush - and you'd need fifty defenders to protect the whole encircling bank and ditch. And what was it defending?

This psychic insulation at Caer Brân makes it a kind of a Faraday Cage, a sealed-off place unaffected by the world around, where one's attention goes inward or upward but not outward. This suggests ceremonial-magical purposes or a role as a moot place or court. It could host 200 people easily - good for seasonal fairs. It is reachable from all parts of the peninsula, yet it is out of this world.

It had three bronze age ring cairns inside it, which could have served as platforms for public address or ritual enactment. Its current rather overgrown state inside and around the surrounding banks doesn't do it justice. If you visit it, there isn't a lot to see there today (except an inspiring view of Mount's Bay, the Scillies and surrounding hills), but in bronze and iron age times it probably hosted impressive events.

Castle an Dinas (SW 485 350) has (or had) a similar insulated character, since it lies on a relatively flattish plateau overlooking Mount's Bay, with a wonderful view. It has a slightly dark, forbidding feeling today - perhaps an unhappy place-memory - but its circularity suggests esoteric, magical and ceremonial purposes. It feels like a place of power, and could have been a fair and moot site.

In later days it was possibly involved in the tin trade - lying roughly between the Ding Dong mine area and St Michael's Mount. Militarily it might not be a good place to fight from, and it would too big - Trencrom Hill or Lescudjak would be better, more defensible and strategic. There are no actual archaeological signs of military activity.

It would work best as a trading and market place, where Penwithians could meet outsiders from upcountry and foreigners landing at Mount's Bay or coming from Scilly. But it was most likely first built as a ceremonial place in the bronze age, coming into more mundane or mixed use in the iron age. Likely it was a mixture over time of all of these - it had a life-span of over a millennium, and a lot can happen in such a time-span.
The path up to Chûn Castle from Chûn Quoit
Chun CastleChûn Castle (SW 4051 3395) was undoubtedly a security-oriented stronghold, but not exactly for military or strategic reasons. It was a tin-industry centre, with stores, forges and craft workshops, so this place was wealthy and powerful. High-value metals, jewels and specialist tools were kept here, crafted and stored for dispatch.

It's a proud eyrie with a 360° panorama, perhaps for a grandiose lord whom everyone knew was boss. Even in iron age times it had a long heritage, having been a neolithic hill enclosure from at least the 3600s BCE, with its neolithic quoit just downhill from it. Downhill the other way is Bosullow Trehyllis, a large iron age settlement that no doubt serviced the hill camp. These three sites - the castle, the quoit and the village - are well worth a visit, and their history spans 4,000 years.
On top of Trencrom Hill
Trencrom Hill (SW 5172 3625) is a delight and a very desirable residence - at least, in good weather. It's very defensible, with steep slopes, remarkable panoramas and its own hilltop springwater source. Together with Chûn Castle, it's the only hill camp in Penwith where you can see both the north and south coasts. You can also see the uplands of mid-Cornwall and the Lizard.

In the iron age it was probably a residence for a chief and his or her extended family, with a fine view of the domain - perhaps during the summer months. With St Michael's Mount it guards Penwith. It was a beacon hill, in sight of Carn Brea eastwards and, westwards, Castle an Dinas, southwards St Michael's Mount and southeastwards to Godolphin Hill - well connected on the signalling internet between Penwith, the Scillies, the Lizard and upcountry. You can see the remains of round huts on top. It's a magic place. If you visit, don't go on a windy day.

Faughan Round (SW 4517 2821) near Paul is more a hill camp than a round, technically. It had two banks around it (not very high) and a magnificent view over Mount's Bay. Not particularly good for defence, it nevertheless held a commanding position over Mount's Bay and would have been a good surveillance and mustering place. It is simply the convex brow on the edge of a plateau, with a view to die for over Mount's Bay, so it would be a lovely place to live. More recent hedges and trees obscure its prominence. It has a pleasant feeling to it - it could also have been a fine venue for fairs.

Lescudjack Castle (SW 475 310) also looks over Mount's Bay. It is now incorporated into Penzance, home to gardeners' allotments and surrounded by a housing estate. Lescudjack was probably a trading place - Penzance's out-of-town supermarkets lie below it, just to the east, as if to demonstrate the point. Both Faughan Round and Lescudjack Castle were more prime properties than forts - just as the rich and powerful of today like to stack themselves up in high-status skyscrapers, so it was then too. But Lescudjack did have defensive merits, being on top of a steepish hill, overlooking a strategic valley (along which the Penzance by-pass now runs) and with a panorama of Mount's Bay and the Lizard. It could be older than iron age - its neighbour, Lesingey, is one of the oldest sites on the peninsula.

Lesingey Round (SW 454 304) is very ancient, going back to the mesolithic era - the 4000s BCE - and reoccupied in the iron age. Today it is wooded, surrounded by open fields, but in ancient times it would itself have been cleared and surrounded with woodland. It would have been a lovely living or gathering place, situated nicely between Mount's Bay and the Penwith highlands and housing sixty people. It's not a classic round, more a hill camp or hillfort. It's worth visiting in spring at bluebell time! It has had a very long history and is a considerable alignment centre. Its 'power centre' is on the southest edge, on a bump there - not in the centre.

Carnsew, near Hayle (SW 5564 3713), not far from the viaduct, is hardly visible today, with a railway cutting slicing through it and houses built on and around it. It was probably a trading site and storage place for tin ingots, crafts and other imports and exports, just above the Hayle river estuary. Together with St Ives and its cliff sanctuary on 'The Island', it was ideal for trading with boats coming from the Celtic and Severn Seas. Carnsew and St Ives might have belonged to two different tribes. There would have been passenger traffic too, for people travelling from Wales, Ireland, Man or Scotland: they would have walked down to St Michael's Mount to continue their journeys southwards to Brittany or along the English south coast.

Geomantic Issues

Bartinney - a bronze age sacred enclosure
At hill camps and rounds, ancient site alignments pass sometimes through the centre, and sometimes they tangent the perimeter. It's difficult to say why this is so - this is common across Britain.

The banks around a hill camp perhaps represent the declaration of a force-field around the camp, significant as an energy-container. There's clearly a point and intention to the building of circular banks.

In the case of the distinctly circular hill camps at Castle an Dinas, Caer Brân and Bartinney Castle, there could be a spinning or 'cyclotron' effect that was sought after, to create a certain psychic vacuum or a energised field inside. This might sound strange until one thinks of the potent quietness of a library, encouraging focus of attention. Or inside a cathedral there can be a sense of holiness that invokes a different feeling to that which is outside.
Caer Brân
Caer BranThe Faraday Cage effect is important. To scientists and rationalists, what follows is distinctly inadmissable evidence. Yet if you are psychically sensitive, sitting inside such a space screens out interfering jangle and noise, and this facilitates benefits otherwise found only in caves or the chambered cairns of earlier times - or in church crypts.

It allows a capacity to gain a level of consciousness in which long-distance communication, healing, oracular work, invocation of deeper forces, focused ceremony or simple inner stillness are enhanced. This was arguably an important part of the purpose of these round quasi-henges, of which Penwith had three main ones - with Bartinney Castle looking west toward the Scillies and Castle an Dinas and Caer Brân looking east and south over Mount's Bay.


Rounds are circular lowland banked enclosures, often but not always containing the remains of settlements. Their main use seems to have been for homesteading and as enclosed farming hamlets or granges, presumably for prosperous farmers. Nowadays many of them have been ploughed over, appearing as a slightly raised circular bank or crop marks, though there are also cases of roundish field hedges following the boundaries of a round.

Some are located on quite strong alignments (such as Caergwydden Round and Faughan Round) and are definitely round in shape, suggesting sacred or geomantic thinking behind their design. So there is more to this than just protected farming strongholds and granges.

Kaer Round near St Erth Praze in East Penwith is on two significant alignments connected with West Penwith, suggesting it is more than a customary round, and probably older, and in existence for more reasons than farming.

Several churches sit on rounds, including Gulval, St Erth and St Buryan, adopting iron age sites for later Christian purposes. In St Just, the medieval Plein an Gwarry in the centre of the town, a site for public performances and gatherings near the square, was originally an iron age round.

Lesingey Round and Faughan Round are more like hill camps than rounds. Most rounds were only mildly defensible, nevertheless offering some protection to a hamlet or farm, keeping stock in and wild animals out. Again, it's the 'magic circle' idea, staking out 'our world'. Wind protection should not be ruled out as a contributing reason for the building of their banks - these could have been winter residences.

Most rounds were built between 200 BCE and CE 100, though some have earlier origins. A few might be recycled bronze age sites. The position of some rounds on alignments connecting with much older sites suggests either that the rounds might be older than we think, or that their builders decided to plug into older alignment systems.

There was something deliberate in the circularity of most rounds which is frequently forgotten - there's a feng shui aspect to it, even for quite functional rounds. The principles of bronze age geomancy seemed to be alive and well in the iron age, even if applied differently from before.

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