Central Places in a Wildscape - 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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Central Places in a Wildscape

Ancient Sites

Neolithic Tor Enclosures



Two neolithic tor enclosures: Trencrom Hill with Carn Brea behind
Neolithic Tors - Trencrom Hill with Carn Brea behindThis is where the long story of the megalithic era in West Penwith begins.

When neolithic Penwithians first developed an urge to move earth and rocks around, roughly 5,700 years ago, they worked with a wild natural canvas as yet unmodified by humans.

Much of the land was covered with woodland. The climate was warmer and more agreeable than today. West Penwith's population around 4000 BCE numbered probably just a few hundred people, most of them likely to be at least distantly related to each other.

Dominating this landscape were outstanding physical features such as granite tors and other hills, carns (outcrops) and headlands (cliff castles). These were the most noticeable features of the area. They were later to serve as the basis, the natural framework, or the canvas, on which the locations of future megalithic constructions in West Penwith were based.

Here we'll look at the granite tors of the peninsula. These were the centres of activity in Penwith, probably from the time when humans were first here. Around 3700 BCE neolithic Penwithians started modifying them, building 'tor enclosures'.

Together with cliff castles, quoits and, later on, chambered cairns, these were the first vestiges of the megalithic era - the monuments of the neolithic period.
St Michael's Mount, from Trencrom Hill (telephoto shot)
St Michael's Mount from Trencrom HillOnto this topographical canvas in Penwith was laid a geomantic system that made use of prominent physical markers such as hills and cliff castles as its basis. At first, in the neolithic, this was possibly intuitively driven - choosing sacred sites because it simply felt right - but a millennium later, in the bronze age, there was more of a system to it.

Hills, tors and carns


Prominent hills and also rock outcrops (carns) were important in neolithic people's thoughts around 3700 BCE, when things started hotting up in West Penwith. Together with cliff castles, and probably also special trees and woodland glades that now are gone, plus springs, they were the places toward which people would gravitate.

Everyone knew the tors and based their sense of local geography on them. They were locations that people felt to be special - places where the spirit of place, or genuis loci, was strong.

Serving as important landmarks and viewpoints, the high granite tors were key central places in neolithic people's mental maps. The tors weren't permanently occupied as living places - except perhaps for some nights during the height of summer, or on fullmoons, or for periodic overnight stays.

They were revered as sacred or magic places and used as gathering places. In a forested environment in which human life was swamped by nature, such special places were important. They gave a sense of place. People could get above the forest to gain a sense of perspective. These were like the city squares and landmarks of today - everyone knew them.

Aligned hills in Penwith


A number of the prominent hills of Penwith are themselves naturally aligned. This is very strange. Such hill alignments, though not common, logically shouldn't happen at all.

  • Isn’t it remarkable that Carn Lês Boel, Chapel Carn Brea and Bartinney Castle line up with each other? (In a 7km alignment they are just 80m inexact.)
  • Or that Treryn Dinas, St Michael’s Mount and Carn Brea (near Camborne) are aligned?
  • Or Cape Cornwall, Zennor Hill and St Ives Head?
  • Or St Michael's Mount, Trencrom Hill and St Ives Head?

The last three alignments are more exact than the first one - and they are natural, not man-made.

So is this ‘mere chance’, or does it suggest a level of beauty and magic, even 'intelligent design', that somehow even affects the way that the land's topography has evolved?

If indeed it is pure chance, it’s a very elegant, remarkable kind of chance - a wonder in itself.

Penwith's Tor Enclosures


The four known tor enclosures in Penwith are Carn Galva, Trencrom Hill, Carn Kenidjack and St Michael's Mount. Also, within sight of West Penwith is Carn Brea, near Camborne, another tor enclosure.

There were other hills that, in the neolithic period, were also significant: Chûn Castle, Chapel Carn Brea, Sancreed Beacon, Zennor Hill, Lesingey Round, Bartinney Castle and, outside Penwith but visible from it, Godolphin Hill. There are only scraps of proof of their significance in the neolithic, but it's highly unlikely that they were not significant. All four tor enclosures have a rather mythic visual profile.

Carn Kenidack from Tregeseal
Carn Kenidack from Tregeseal
Carn Kenidjack or the Hooting Tor, though it is not very high, is visible from many points on the peninsula, presenting a broody, mysterious character. Its rocky granitic outline, which includes two simulacra or zoomorphic-shaped rocks, is very noticeable, rather archetypal in form. It looks west and is noticeable when looking over the sea at the mainland from the Isles of Scilly. It also hovers atmospherically over the stone circle at Tregeseal. Originally the tor would have emerged out of the trees, a definite landmark.

Carn Galva with Men Scryfa in front
Carn Galva with Men Scryfa in frontCarn Galva is like a dragon with two main humps, commanding an imposing presence over much of the landscape - again, visible from many different places on the peninsula. It presents a very different shape when seen from different directions. Though neighbouring Watch Croft is higher, Carn Galva has prominence and looks higher - one's eye is magnetically drawn to it, as if it is a hub, a centre of gravity or an omphalos (Greek for 'navel') for the whole of Penwith. It lies at the centre of the upland area in the northern half of Penwith.

Trencrom Hill from Porthtowan
Trencrom Hill from PorthtowanTrencrom Hill on the east of the Penwith peninsula has spectacular views over both the north and south coast, with a fine view eastwards to Carn Brea, a commanding neolithic tor above Camborne. Trencrom looks imposing from the east and acts a guardian or gateway hill for Penwith, together with St Michael's Mount. Both of these had defensive qualities, though there is no evidence of either being involved in significant conflict. As mentioned above, St Michael's Mount, Trencrom Hill and St Ives Head (in St Ives it's called 'The Island') mysteriously align with each other. Trencrom would be a lovely summer residence for a small tribe of people.

St Michael's Mount as seen from Caer Brân
St Michael's MountSt Michael's Mount, with its rather mythic outline, today topped by a castle built from the 1100s onwards, guards Mount's Bay and is visible from many other places, including the Lizard peninsula. Once you pass between Trencrom Hill and St Michael's Mount (on the A30 at Crowlas), you're in West Penwith.

St Michael's Mount has had a long and varied history, not only as a neolithic tor enclosure and cliff sanctuary but also as a famous ancient and medieval trading place, a monastery, a fortress, a stately home and now a National Trust property. Now an island at high tide linked to the land by a causeway at low tide, it was once part of the land, up to about 1500 BCE and surrounded with woodlands. Legend has it that Joseph of Arimathaea and Jesus visited there. Before that it was also visited by a Greek explorer, Pytheas, in the 300s BCE, in the time of Alexander the Great, not least because it was well known as a tin trading place, trading as far as the Mediterranean.

Friends in high places



The ancients liked high places, and the northern highlands of West Penwith, stretching from Carn Kenidjack near St Just to Rosewall Hill near St Ives, are littered with early ancient sites and settlements. The climate was warmer than today during the neolithic - comparable to the climate of Bordeaux in France today.

So hanging out on hills was sensible and desirable - fewer flies, less mud and brambles, more light, air and a sense of perspective. The kids wouldn't get lost in the woods lower down and they wouldn't be surprised by boars or wolves. These were the places to be. In winter, people would live downhill in the woods - more sheltered, with plenty of firewood.

Today the tor hills look rather rugged, bleak and lonely but, in neolithic times, they poked above the woodlands and would have been far less bleak. They provided clear areas that people could call 'our space', even if they stayed there only periodically for special occasions or in summer, or for meeting up, get-togethers or ceremonies.

They were social and spiritual central places. Meeting other people, assembling for fullmoons and communing with the sky-gods at the tor enclosures were big events in people's lives.

Central places



The woodlands of West Penwith, CornwallIt's crucial to understand the psychological effect of living in almost endless woodland. It's very different to being in the more open agricultural landscape in Britain that we are accustomed to today.

When you're in woodland, visibility is short-distance. One mile's distance is a long way, five miles is a long trek, and the forest goes on forever. There are obstacles and dangers. You can get lost. Your universe is narrow and shrouded by the canopy of the trees. It can be rather claustrophobic after a while. (The author knows this from experience since he lived for some years in the endless forests of Sweden.)

Woodland has its virtues too, and it can be rich in timber and food sources, and in those days woodland life was 'normality' for people. In winter, with the leaves off the trees, the woods would have been lighter, more pleasant and quite sensible to be in.

But, seen from a hilltop looking over the trees, another hill five miles away is just over there, and you can see the stars and look out over the sea - the sea is visible from all of the neolithic tor hills. Getting above the trees served as a kind of breakout from this all-embracing wooded reality.

So hilltops were important for seeing the landscape and connecting with the sky and heavens - whether for observing approaching weather systems, looking around for campfire smoke showing where your relatives might be, watching for omens and signs in the clouds or in the movements of birds, or observing the rising and setting of sun, moon and stars. Up there, you could feel more free and above it all.

To call everyone in the neighbourhood together, you could light a smoky beacon fire, sound a horn or bang drums from a tor top and the message would get around. The importance of signalling in a sparsely-populated world shouldn't be underestimated.

For neolithic people these places were like the centre of town - places where things happened and people met up. They were definite places in a world without maps and roads. It was a world where all movement involved walking and it took hours to go quite small distances through the woods.

The panoramas seen from Trencrom Hill, Carn Galva and Carn Kenidjack or St Michael's Mount brought uplift and inspiration. There is energy there - it makes you look outwards, beyond your own little world. Other Penwith hills such as Chapel Carn Brea or Sancreed Beacon were significant too, even if nowadays they are not understood to be neolithic sites.

These were the places people went to, as centres and hubs. Being transhumant, following an annual round of seasonal residences, the neolithic people of Penwith were often on the move. At times they would have gravitated to the hilltop enclosures to mark special occasions such as fullmoons or solstices - or perhaps just to catch the latest gossip, have a clan feast, or to get fresh air and space when the woods got hot and humid in summer.

Abodes of giants


Carn Galva from Lanyon Quoit
Carn Galva from Lanyon QuoitLocal traditions tell of giants occupying the tor enclosures - occasionally engaging in rock-throwing battles with each other. Hence that they are covered with strewn boulders. These tales will have been derived from creation myths describing the formation of the local landscape, referring back to great beings of the distant past and to the mysterious people of the neolithic or the preceding mesolithic age.

Tor enclosures were the first big constructed sacred sites in West Cornwall. They started out as well-visited, unaltered hilltops, standing above the forest cover, enabling a god's-eye view over the otherwise pretty ubiquitous wildwood. Substantial woodland clearance started later, in the late neolithic and the bronze age.

Archaeologists reckon the tors were first used around 3800 BCE, and later on they were enclosed with stone-and-earth banks built between granite boulders and outcrops on the sides of the tor hills. Some archaeologists might interpret such banks as defensive - a rather unimaginative default interpretation - but it is more likely that they were built for the purpose of drawing a kind of magic circle around the summit of the tor hill. This was sacred, human space, and the banks were a statement that the hill was dedicated, consecrated, specially for humans, and for entry only on special purposes.

Carn Galva and Trencrom Hill are also noted for a preponderance of placed and propped stones - big, often interestingly-shaped granite boulders that had been deliberately placed there, or propped on top of smaller stones. What the purpose of these is, we do not know. The ancients might have seen this as a way of empowering rocks with energy or significance, or they might have used them for sighting parts of the landscape from the tor hill. Or they might have been a kind of furniture to the sides of hills, or they might have expressed a kind of artistic sensibility, as if enhancing nature.

These were precursors to menhirs - establishing the principle of erecting large stones, just as we erect monuments or street art today, to enhance cityscapes and give significance to specific locations.
Carn Galva
Carn Galva

Enclosure


At first the tors were presumably open-access, though when enclosing banks were built around 3700-3500 BCE, a selectivity was perhaps creeping in. This symptomised a more stratifying society - the tor enclosures might now have been reserved for druids, initiates, students, invitees and for special uses and occasions only.

It could be that all members of a tribe were also able to go there at special times - ceremonies, moots, rites of passage, or for educational purposes or star-gazing - but such spaces were increasingly reserved for specifically sacred purposes and for particular people.

Here lie the roots of a conceptual division of the spiritual from the material, heaven and earth, giving rise to the notion of temples and sacred spaces, distinguished and enclosed from ordinary reality, serving as consecrated places dedicated to higher powers.

These people lived materially simple lives, residing in cabins, tipis and bivouacs, but their knowledge was not rudimentary - they had advanced ideas in mathematics, astronomy, botany and physics, the crafts, horticulture and engineering. Materially, their lives were akin those of native Americans around the time the white man invaded their land.

A sophisticated culture does not have to be materially sophisticated. Material sophistication involves a lot more work with building, clearance, maintenance and chores. The workload of transhumant people of the 3000s BCE was at least half of that of the full-scale farmers of the late bronze age around 1200 BCE. Since they did not have animals close to them as later farmers did, the neolithics were also freer of diseases - poxes from cattle and chickens.

Living quite a lot from gathered and hunted rather than grown and reared food sources, their diet was also healthier, and with low populations resources would have been plenteous most of the time. The seas around Cornwall had far more fish, seals, dolphins and whales than we see today in our emptied, over-exploited oceans - cliff sanctuaries would probably have served as places for watching the movements of shoals, seals and cetaceans. Someone on a cliff sanctuary could shout down to people in boats, telling them where to paddle to find a shoal or intercept seals. One seal could provide rich food for quite a large number of people.

What seems to have changed things was the Piora Oscillation of roughly 3200-2900, a sudden climatic downturn, caused possibly by  a volcanic eruption or an asteroid impact somewhere in the world which dimmed the sun and cooled the planet. Life became difficult, with possible crop-failures  and famine until people adapted and conditions eased. They moved downhill, clearing more land and becoming more engaged with material activities. Megalith-building  paused.

In the late neolithic, after 2900 or so, the climate warmed somewhat, forest clearings were increasing in size lower down and, after some centuries, newbuilt stone circles on lower land became the centre of attention. The tors probably remained places of initiation or retreat, but they lost primacy. However, much later, Trencrom Hill and St Michael's Mount enjoyed new leases of life in other times as iron age hill camps - the manors of iron age chiefs.
Trencrom Hill and, in the distance, Carn Brea
Trencrom Hill and Carn Brea

Round the tors


It is commonly thought that Carn Brea, occupied for 300 years, came to a violent end with fighting and burning, but this is inconclusive since its walls and water sources were inadequate for defence. It might instead have burned either accidentally or in a ritual burning for cleansing or closedown (like a demolition). It's a very prominent hill and a focal backbone alignment node in the West of Cornwall. It's on the Michael Line, an exact long-distance alignment that crosses southern Britain, passing from Carn Lês Boel through Carn Brea to Glastonbury Tor and Avebury, the world's biggest stone circle.

Trencrom Hill would have been a pleasant place to live in summer, with a flattish top for dwellings and human activity, a hilltop spring and fine views encompassing Godrevy Head, Carn Brea, Godolphin Hill, Castle-an-Dinas and St Michael's Mount. Later it was occupied as an iron age hillfort when most neolithic remains were probably destroyed, covered or recycled. It was day's walk from Carn Brea, and trackways will have branched there toward the Zennor uplands, Castle an Dinas and southern West Penwith.

When on the hill our attention is drawn eastwards, and it serves as a kind of guardian hill to Penwith, even today - the line from St Michael's Mount, through Trencrom Hill to St Ives Head forms the energy-threshold of the Penwith peninsula (you can feel this if you keep your antennae up when entering Penwith). Arguably it was not, or hardly ever, a defensive site, but it was indeed a stronghold, giving a sense of territoriality and identification with the landscape. People went there, and to the other tor sites, to get a feeling for their land and its place under the heavens - probably not so much in the sense of owning it, but more in the sense of identification with it, as their homeland, their stamping-ground.

If you draw a straight line from Carn Brea to Trencrom Hill, progressing onwards it eventually hits the Brisons, next to Cape Cornwall - and, guess what, it passes exactly through Lanyon Quoit and the Truthwall Barrows, neolithic barrows adjacent to the Tregeseal stone circle.

Carn GalvaThe twin-peaked dragon-tor Carn Galva, also with fine views, probably acted as a kind of axis mundi for Penwith - the centre of the Penwith world. Galva and Zennor Hill lay at the centre of neolithic activity in early Penwith - in the highlands of the north which, in the warm climatic conditions of the time, were the place to be.

Although the neighbouring hill, Watch Croft, is higher, Carn Galva looks and feels more prominent, and it is surprisingly visible from many parts of Penwith. In a landscape-temple context it was probably connected with the cliff castles Gurnard's Head and Bosigran Castle on the coast below it. Zennor Hill was a place in this vicinity where people lived, not Carn Galva - though there were settlements in the valleys below it.

Carn Galva has two main peaks, and the southern one has a double hump, seen from side-on. Seen end-on from the north or the south, Galva looks more like a pyramid in shape. Quite a few propped and placed stones have been found on the tor hill, possibly from a similar time to the building of the enclosure. In its heyday it probably did not look as stark as it does today, and it would rise out of the trees and scrub below, hovering above the treescape.

Kenidjack CastleCarn Kenidjack is daunting and characterful, though not very high. It is nevertheless very visible from many points in West Penwith and from the Scillies. It has two notable rock simulacra near its summit, one of them reminiscent of the cartoon character Andy Capp. The other you can see on the right of the picture here.

Known also as the Hooting Tor, owing to reputed occasional wind effects during gales on dark, forbidding nights, it later became the overlighting landscape setting for the stone circle at Tregeseal just below, as did Carn Galva for the Nine Maidens. These stone circles were built much later, in the bronze age. The centre of gravity and attention moved down from the tors to the stone circles.

St Michael's MountWhile hardly any signs of a tor enclosure remain here, thanks to its subsequent history, St Michael's Mount is seen by archaeologists as a tor site and a cliff castle rolled into one.

Clearly it is one of the most charismatic sites of Penwith, stuffed with mythic symbolism, today with its castle on top.

In neolithic times it was not an island. The coast was then a mile or so out to sea, and the Mount was surrounded by flatlands. The remains of a submerged forest on today's beach near Marazion are sometimes revealed during storms (such as early in 2014). It became an island during the bronze age - perhaps a tsunami from Portugal or the Azores did it.

The Mount is a very important alignment centre affecting the whole of West Penwith. Throughout ancient times, it was a significant trading place, particularly for tin but earlier on for gold and copper. It was a meeting point for people visiting Cornwall from the European mainland.

If you draw a straight line from Carn Brea to St Michael's Mount, progressing onwards it hits Treryn Dinas (a cliff castle near Porthcurno) lo behind, the Merry Maidens stone circle is exactly on that line.

Zennor HillZennor Hill is a granitic massif with two upstanding tors, one looking over the north coast and the other looking more south, east and west. It is not seen to be a neolithic tor enclosure, but it was a significant place in the neolithic. It once had its own rocking logan stone, and it has a propped stone too. Zennor Hill might have been the centre of human activity in Penwith in early neolithic times, if there was one.

While it was warm and equable in Cornwall at that time, nowadays Zennor Hill has a bleak and quirkily shadowy atmosphere. It is easy to get lost and pisky-led up there. It was probably more friendly and hospitable in neolithic times than today, a refuge from the steamy, dank forests. Zennor and Sperris Quoits are on Zennor Hill - possibly the two earliest quoits in Penwith. This was then a centre of Penwithian life.

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So, in 4000-3200 BCE the tors, with their enclosures, were pretty much the most important places in Penwith. Cliff sanctuaries (or castles) were very important too, as were other hills and locations such as Chapel Carn Brea, Lesingey Round, Castle an Dinas, Bartinney Castle and Sancreed Beacon.

This led the early megalith builders to base the geomantic system of Penwith upon the tors and cliff castles, creating backbone alignments which themselves determined where many other ancient sites were later to be located.

This backbone system will have been established by around 3700 BCE, long before the first menhirs and stone circles were set up. The evidence for this is that Lanyon Quoit, built around that time, is located exactly on the intersection of three of these backbone alignments - so its location was determined by alignments between tors and cliff castles, and that alignment intersection will have been identified before its building.

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