When neolithic people started developing an urge to move earth and rocks around, roughly 5,700 years ago, they worked with a natural canvas with physical features such as hills, outcrops and headlands. These prominent places served as the basis, the natural framework, on which the future geomancy of West Penwith rested.
So this page looks at the granite tors of the peninsula and the neolithic centres that they were. Together with cliff castles and chambered cairns, these were the first vestiges of the megalithic era.
Hills, tors and carns
St Michael's Mount, as seen from Trencrom Hill (telephoto shot)
Prominent hills and outcrops (carns) were important in neolithic people's thoughts around 3500 BCE, when things started hotting up in West Penwith.
Together with cliff castles, and probably also special trees and woodland places that now are gone, they were the places toward which people would gravitate - special locations where the spirit of place, genuis loci
, was strong.
As important landmarks and viewpoints, they became key places in neolithic people's mental maps of the area. They weren't permanently occupied as living places - except perhaps during summer or for periodic overnights - but they were used as sacred or magic places and gathering places. In a forested environment where human life was swamped by nature, such special places were important.
The aligned hills of Penwith
Interestingly, number of the prominent hills of Penwith are themselves naturally aligned. Here our rational brains start struggling to explain things, opting for randomness and ‘chance’ as a get-out. Such hill alignments, though uncommon, 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? (It’s not totally accurate but very close - in a 7km alignment they are just 80m from exact.)
Or that Treryn Dinas, St Michael’s Mount and Carn Brea are aligned? Or Cape Cornwall, Zennor Hill and St Ives Head? Or St Michael's Mount, Trencrom Hill and St Ives Head? These alignments are more exact than the one mentioned in the paragraph above.
So is this ‘chance’, or does it suggest a level of beauty and magic that somehow even affects the way topography has evolved? If indeed it is pure chance, it’s a very elegant, remarkable kind of chance.
Onto this topographical canvas in Penwith was laid a geomantic system that makes use of prominent physical markers such as hills and cliff castles as its basis. At first, this was probably intuitive - choosing sacred sites because it simply felt right - but a millennium later, in the bronze age, there was more of a system to it.
Carn Galva with Watch Croft peeking up behind it, from Zennor Hill
Neolithic 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 Penwith is Carn Brea, near Redruth, another tor enclosure.
Other significant hills in the neolithic period are likely to have been Chû
n Castle, Chapel Carn Brea, Sancreed Beacon, Zennor Hill, Lesingey Round and Bartinney Castle - there's little or no proof of this, but it's unlikely that they weren't significant. Cliff castles were important too (more on the next page
All four tor enclosures have a rather mythic profile. Carn Kenidjack, though not very high, is visible from many points on the peninsula and filled with broody character. Carn Galva is like a dragon and commands an imposing presence over much of the landscape. Though neighbouring Watch Croft is higher, Carn Galva has prominence - one's eye is magnetically drawn to it.
Trencrom Hill has views over both the north and south coast. It looks imposing from the east and acts a guardian or gateway hill for Penwith, together with St Michael's Mount. As mentioned above, they and St Ives Head align with each other. St Michael's Mount guards Mount's Bay and is visible from many other places, including the Lizard peninsula.
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. Climate was warmer than today during the neolithic and earlier bronze ages, so hanging out on hills was sensible and desirable - fewer flies, less mud and damp, more light, air and perspective. The kids wouldn't get lost in the woods lower down or charged by boars or wolves. These were the places to be, in those times.
Today the tor hills, rising out of the uplands, look rugged and bleak but, in neolithic times, they poked above the woodlands, providing a clear space people could call 'human 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, and meeting other people and meeting the sky-gods were both special eperiences in those times.
It's crucial to understand the psychological effect of living in dense, endless woodland. It's very different to the more open and cleared agricultural landscape we are accustomed to today in Britain. When you're in woodland, visibility is short-distance, one square mile is a big area, five miles is a long way, 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.
This has its virtues too, and in those days it was 'normality'. But, seen from a hilltop looking over the trees, another hill five miles away is just over there, and you can see the stars. Getting above the trees thus 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 or observing the rising and setting of sun, moon and constellations. To call everyone in the neighbourhood together, you could light a smoky beacon, sound a horn or bang drums and the message would get around.
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, where all movement involved walking and it took hours to go quite small distances. The panoramas at Trencrom Hill, Galva and Kenidjack, Zennor Hill or St Michael's Mount brought uplift and inspiration. There is energy there. Other Penwith hills were probably significant too, even if nowadays not understood to be neolithic sites.
These are the places people went to, as centres and hubs. Being transhumant, following an annual round of seasonal residences, the neolithic people of Penwith likely gravitated to the hilltop enclosures in summer and to mark special occasions such as fullmoons or solstices - or perhaps just to catch the latest gossip. The importance of signalling shouldn't be underestimated either