Two Neolithic tor hills: Trencrom Hill with Carn Brea behind
This 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 natural canvas highlighted by outstanding physical features such as tors and hills, carns (outcrops) and headlands (cliff castles).
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 hundreds.
These prominent places served 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, at least around 8000 BCE. But 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.
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 3700 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. They were special locations which people felt were special - the spirit of place, or genuis loci, was strong.
As important landmarks and viewpoints, the tors became key central places in neolithic people's mental maps. They weren't permanently occupied as living places - except perhaps during summer, or fullmoons, or for periodic overnight stays. They were used as sacred or magic places and gathering places. In a forested environment in which human life was swamped by nature, such special places were important. People could get above the forest for a sense of perspective.
Here's a small digression...
The aligned hills of Penwith
A number of the prominent hills of Penwith are themselves naturally aligned. This is strange. 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? (In a 7km alignment they are just 80m inexact.)
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?
The lastthree alignments are all much more exact than the first one.
So is this ‘chance’, or does it suggest a level of beauty and magic that somehow even affects the way that the land's topography has evolved? If it is pure chance, it’s a very elegant, remarkable kind of chance - a wonder in itself.
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, in the neolithic, 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 West Penwith is Carn Brea, near Camborne, another tor enclosure.
There were other hills that, in the neolithic period, were significant: Chûn Castle, Chapel Carn Brea, Sancreed Beacon, Zennor Hill, Lesingey Round, Bartinney Castle and Godolphin Hill - there's only some proof of this, but it's highly unlikely that they weren't significant.
Cliff castles or sanctuaries were important too (more on the next page). Instead of rising above the woodland landscape, they stuck out from it on the coast, as headlands protruding into the sea.
All four tor enclosures have a rather mythic profile. Carn Kenidjack, though not very high, is visible from many points on the peninsula, presenting a broody character. Carn Galva is like a dragon, commanding an imposing presence over much of the landscape - again, visible from many different places on the peninsula. Though neighbouring Watch Croft is higher, Carn Galva has prominence and looks higher - 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. Once you pass between Trencrom Hill and St Michael's Mount (on the A30 at Crowlas), you're in West Penwith.
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. The climate was generally warmer than today during the neolithic and earlier bronze ages - 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 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 - on hills. In winter, people would live down in the woods - more sheltered, with plenty of firewood.
Today the tor hills look rather rugged and bleak but, in neolithic times, they poked above the woodlands, providing a clear space 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 the big events in people's lives that were available in those times.
It's crucial to understand the psychological effect of living in endless woodland. It's very different to the more open and cleared agricultural landscape we are accustomed to today.
When you're in woodland, visibility is short-distance, one mile is a long way, five miles is quite a 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's rather claustrophic after a while.
Woodland has its virtues too, and in those days woodland life was 'normality' for people.In winter, with the leaves off the trees, the woods would have been more pleasant and 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 tors. 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 the movements of birds, or observing the rising and setting of sun, moon and stars.
To call everyone in the neighbourhood together, you could light a smoky beacon, sound a horn or bang drums from a tor top and the message would get around. The importance of signalling 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 at Trencrom Hill, Carn Galva and Carn Kenidjack, Zennor Hill 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 were significant too, even if nowadays they are 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 were often on the move. At times they would have gravitated to the hilltop enclosures and to mark special occasions such as fullmoons or solstices - or perhaps just to catch the latest gossip, or to get fresh air and space when the woods got hot and humid in summer.
Abodes of giants
Carn Galva from Lanyon Quoit
Local traditions tell of giants occupying the tor enclosures - occasionally engaging in rock-throwing battles with each other. 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, unalteredhilltops, 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 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 to the rest of creation that it was dedicated, consecrated, and for entry only on special purposes.
At first the tors were presumably open-access, though when enclosing walls 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 special occasions only.
It could be that all members of a tribe went 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.
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 lean-tos, 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 too. Material sophistication is a lot more work - the workload of transhumant people around 4000 BCE was at least half of that of the full-scale farmers of the late bronze age around 1200 BCE.
What seems to have changed things was the Piora Oscillation of roughly 3200-3000, 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 3000 BCE 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 the manors of iron age chiefs.
Trencrom Hill and, in the distance, 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 alignment node in the West of Cornwall. It's on the Michael Line that crosses southern Britain, passing through Glastonbury and Avebury.
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 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 threshold of the Penwith peninsula. 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 sense of their land - probably not so much in the sense of owning it, but more in the sense of being children of this land.
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, adjacent to the Tregeseal stone circle.
The 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 Penwith - 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 the place in this vicinity where people lived, not Carn Galva - though there were settlements 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 Castle 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 later, in the bronze age. The centre of gravity moved down from the tors to the stone circles.
The tors were more for gathering than for living - settlements were nearby, lower down. They were landmarks and central places, probably good for weather forecasting, thanks to their specific positions. It would be possible to signal from Carn Kenidjack to Chûn Castle, and from there to Carn Galva, and from Chûn Castle to Castle an Dinas, then to Trencrom Hill and Carn Brea. Signalling was the neolithic internet.
While hardly any signs of a tor enclosure remain here, thanks to its subsequent history, St Michael's Mount was 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 - and, lo behind, the Merry Maidens stone circle is exactly on that line.
Zennor 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 a neolithic 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 - a big stone perched on smaller stones. Zennor Hill might well have been the centre of human activity in Penwith in early neolithic times, if there was one.
It was warm and equable in Cornwall at that time, but nowadays Zennor Hill has a bleak and quirkily shadowy atmosphere. It is easy to get lost and pixy-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.
So, in 4000-3200 BCE the tors, with their enclosures, were pretty much the most important places in Penwith - together with sites with some similarities to them, the cliff sanctuaries (or castles). 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.