The south west of England has long been veiled in myth and legend. Author Phillip Marsden reveals five places in Cornwall that help explain our ties to this historic landscape
Cornwall’s second highest hill, lower than its neighbour Brown Willy but much more dramatic, Rough Tor is now believed to have been Cornwall’s most sacred hill (Carn Brea is also a close contender). Many archaeologists now identify Neolithic monuments – with which Cornwall is richly endowed – as being often positioned with a clear sightline of particular natural features.
The rocky summit of Rough Tor was the focus for a great number of ritual monuments both on Bodmin Moor and beyond. Sightlines to Rough Tor appear to explain the siting of a great number of central Cornwall’s cairns and barrows, stone circles and propped stones. Many were put up precisely at the point where the peak appears over a ridge. Once seen in this context, it is difficult not to look for the distant profile of Rough Tor when walking or driving around Cornwall. It’s a haunting presence. Climbing the hill, its summit ringed by the remains of a ritual wall (hard to discern among the loose rocks), is richly rewarding.
Next to a piece of boggy ground not far north of Penzance, is the holy well of Madron – one of dozens of healing wells around Cornwall. Madron has one of the most enduring cults associated with it. Numerous stories survive of its curative powers, and how supplicants needed to lie naked on a nearby hillock, or leave shreds of their clothes to rot at the site. The tradition remains strong (rites of sympathetic magic, rather than nakedness): nearby is a cloutie-tree, a willow always hung with an extraordinary collection of cloth and messages.
Quoits are basic monuments consisting of a few granite uprights and a large capstone. Often they are said to resemble mushrooms – certainly from a distance they are very distinctive, and Chun’s squashy-looking top makes it look like a boletus. Their function was unclear. Were they built in imitation of the nearby tors? Or were their flat tops used for excarnation, the practice of leaving dead bodies out to have the bones picked clean by birds?
Boscawen-un is one of the best preserved of Cornwall’s many stone circles, and the furthest west. Its name comes from the Cornish for elder tree, the '–un' probably from 'oon', which means 'downs'. Now it is approached down a ferny path, fairly hidden away. But once inside the stones, the powerful sense of location asserts itself. Most of Penwith’s stone circles have 19 stones, the number of years in the lunar cycle.
On the north-west tip of the island of Bryher is the region’s largest cairn field. More than a hundred burial mounds survive (how many more have been lost?), scattered amidst the wind-stunted gorse and heather. It is hard to avoid the thought that the location was chosen because it is far out in the ocean, on the far edge of the last island, off the last bit of coastline – and that for some reason this position had cosmological significance. More overt traditions survive at Finisterre in Brittany and Finisterra in Galicia, where the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela overlays a much older route to the headland.
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