We delve into Cornwall’s ancient past with a sightseeing tour of some its most iconic and fascinating monuments.
Cornwall is steeped in myth and legend, boasting a rich cultural heritage wedded to its landscape, where fact and lore remain indelibly intertwined. Out in the wilds of the far west – where rugged rock meets roaring seas – the landscape is dotted with ancient monuments that hint of a mysterious, enigmatic yet tangible past; one that continues to seep into our lives, with customs and rituals that remain alive today. Many of Cornwall’s most celebrated and long-held traditions and festivities hark back to earlier times, seeking to draw a line from our ancestors to the present, while morphing, evolving and integrating other trappings along the way to create a novel and uniquely Cornish identity of their own.
“Cornwall is full of places where people can access the ancient past,” says Peter Hewitt, of the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic. “There are hundreds of ancient monuments such as standing stones and chambered cairns which date back thousands of years. The folk customs and lore… may be said to survive in rituals and festivals as well: go to Padstow on May Day, or to the winter festivals in Penzance, or to the Hallowtide festivities in Boscastle.
“All these things are conscious interpretations and revivals of an ancient way of being that help people today reconnect with their ancestors, the landscape around them and to alternative ways of seeing the world.”
Each monument has its own local traditions too, such as the Neolithic stone circle near St Buryan, affectionately known as the ‘Merry Maidens of Boleigh’, after the 19 maidens who supposedly got turned to stone for dancing on the Sabbath. Two additional stones that look on are ‘the pipers’ who had been accompanying the dancers before trying to make their escape, only to suffer the same fate. So the legend has it, if you stand in the middle of the circle (in a noticeably worn patch) and kiss your loved one, the relationship will last forever.
But while legends take root, embellished over time as they become deeply ingrained in local lore, the physical monuments themselves are all-too real. What’s more, you’ll find certain monuments that are almost entirely unique to Cornwall itself.
English Heritage’s Matt Bulford, explains the allure of these fascinating sites. “Visits to places like Chysauster Ancient Village and Tintagel Castle help us discover how people lived in Cornwall during parts of our history that remain steeped in mystery,” Matt explains. “From the courtyard houses at Chysauster – so different to contemporary villages found elsewhere – to the little-understood ‘Dark Age’ settlement at Tintagel, Cornwall is blessed with so many unique and enigmatic places. Today, they make superb days out, perfect places to let the imagination run wild…”
Indeed, as we always attest, the best way to learn more about anything is to experience it yourself firsthand. After all, there’s nothing better than exploring the Cornish landscape and coastline with the family, followed by a hearty pub lunch. And there are many examples of all shapes, sizes and origins to be found across the Duchy, should you want to discover more about Cornwall’s fascinating pre-history. Many sites are also free to visit. So, to give you just a little taster, we suggest a few ideas for your own sightseeing tour of Cornwall, from the north coast to the wild moors, to the far west.
The North Coast
Arguably nowhere in Cornwall is enshrouded in greater mystery and legend than Tintagel Castle perched ominously on the north coast. A key stronghold in the fifth to seventh centuries, Tintagel was first mooted as the birthplace of the mythical King Arthur, many centuries later, by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his epic 12th century chronicle. While Arthur’s very existence itself remains contested, there is no doubting the very palpable appeal that the legend still commands to this day. Young or simply young at heart, believer or sceptic, surely no one could fail to be impressed by a visit to this ancient ruin hugging the headland. While much still remains unknown about the genuine inhabitants of Tintagel, a visit will reveal some fascinating insights and artistic reconstructions based on historic and archaeological research. (Discover more at www.english-heritage.org.uk)
The tour of the ruins is bound to work up an appetite, so a stop at the Beach Café is a must. We’re told the crab sandwiches are worth the trip alone, while the children’s meals come complete with bucket and spade which can then be put to good use on the beach below the castle. Plan your visit carefully and you’ll witness Merlin’s cave, revealed as the tide ebbs.
Boscastle’s Museum of Witchcraft and Magic always makes for a fascinating and entirely unique day out. “We are about a ten-minute drive (or a fabulous one-hour coastal walk) from Tintagel,” says Peter Hewitt. “About five minutes drive from the Museum is St Nectan’s Glen and Kieve, an ancient site in woodland that is a living spiritual retreat for many; and not far from here are the Labyrinths – mazes cut into the rock of a wooded valley.” (Plan your trip and discover lots more at www.museumofwitchcraftandmagic.co.uk)
Stonehenge, in Wiltshire, may be the iconic example that everyone immediately thinks of, but Bodmin Moor, in the very heart of Cornwall, contains 16 identified ancient stone circles. On the edge of the Moor near the village of Minions, you’ll find a particularly intriguing group known as The Hurlers. It’s fairly unique in that the Late Neolithic or Early Bronze Age site is actually made up of three sets of stones. The legend of The Hurlers is almost identical to that of the aforementioned Merry Maidens (complete with its own pair of pipers); the only difference, of course, being that the stone figures who suffered their sorry fate here were local men partaking in the traditional Cornish pastime of hurling.
The Hurlers are immortalised in the song by another south west folk legend, celebrated musician Seth Lakeman, with sample lyrics: “Bodies silver, our hearts of stone, we make no shadows, we stand alone.” It is also said that it is impossible to count the number of stones. The Hurlers are free to visit during daylight and there is parking a short walk from the sight. Dogs are welcome on leads, but be mindful of sheep and ponies which graze in and around the area. The Moor is exposed to the Cornish elements, so wrap up warm and head off prepared for all sorts of weather!
While in the area, head to nearby Trethevy Quoit, a fine example of a Neolithic ‘dolmen’ burial chamber, near St Cleer, dating from around 3500 to 2500 BC. The huge capstone weighs a whopping 20 tonnes – amazing when you consider that this was moved and positioned without the aid of modern machinery! Finally, complete your trip with a visit to King Doniert’s Stone, fragments of a much later ‘Celtic’ cross dating from the 9th century, commemorating Dungarth, King of the ancient kingdom of Dumnonia, which encompassed Cornwall, Devon and parts of Somerset.
In Cornwall’s far west, you can’t venture too far without stumbling over an ancient monument or stone circle, like the Merry Maidens, particularly in and around the Penwith peninsula. Many of the sites situated here are completely unique to this very specific part of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. Take Tregiffian burial chamber, for example. According to English Heritage, on entrance graves such as this: “Of 93 recorded examples in England, 79 are on the Isles of Scilly, and the remainder are confined to the Penwith peninsula at the western tip of Cornwall.”
Chysauster Ancient Village opens to the public at the beginning of April and is definitely one to visit for those looking to connect with the past. Set in stunning, rolling countryside, this well-preserved settlement of stone ‘courtyard houses’ is the perfect place to let off steam and take in the fresh Cornish coastal air. Look out for the ‘fogou’ – a mysterious underground passage, unique to the area, possibly used for storage, shelter or ceremonial purposes. Carn Euny, a short drive away in Sancreed, is another ancient village, occupied in the Iron Age, then abandoned around the end of Roman population. Finish your day by heading into Penzance for some well earned fish and chips on the Promenade, from Fraser’s.