Ancient stones

I’m endlessly fascinated by stone circles, quoits, burial mounds and so on, and West Penwith in Cornwall is full of them. To me they give a sense of an ancient past, one which we can’t really understand, and perhaps our failure to understand the purpose of many of these stones is part of the appeal. These stones have become an essential part of the landscape, part of the natural habitat though made by people of whom we know nothing, or very little. These were not decorative, or practical, but were often, possibly, part of a kind of worship – of nature, of the sun or the stars, of the world around. Interestingly, as far as I know none are situated in sight of the sea.

One of my favourites is the Merry Maidens or ‘Dans Maen’ (Dancing Stones), near St Buryan (images above). The IMG_3235myth is that girls were dancing on a Sunday, in contravention of the Church’s edicts, and were turned to stone – as well as the stone circle, to each side there is another stone, the piper and fiddler who played the music for their dances, transformed as they tried to run away. There is also a burial chamber. As with so many things, the Victorians’ well-meaning attempts at restoration have altered the original circle, possibly adding a stone, and changing their positions slightly. But the site is still fascinating, filled with wild flowers, and despite the regular arrival of tourists it is a peaceful place with wonderful views. There is more detailed information about the Merry Maidens here. Wandering around the circle, the stones are warm to the touch, the grasses dancing where the girls no longer do; there is something magical in the air. There has been speculation for over a century that another stone circle stood close by;

Another popular site is the Bronze Age Men-an-Tol (more details here). This is a fascinating holed stone (which is the meaning of the Cornish name) with two other upright stones, and it has historically been considered part of a fertility ritual, or as having curative powers (one is meant to crawl through it a certain number of times at sundown, or something like that – the legends vary). Again it is a beautiful situation, in open land, surrounded by fields and with a distant chimney of a tin mine on the horizon. The Historic Cornwall website suggests that this may once have been part of a stone circle, and that “the holed stone would probably have been aligned along the circumference of the circle and would have had a special ritual significance possibly by providing a lens through which to view other sites or features in the landscape, or as a window onto other worlds” – an appealing idea.

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These stones are part of a pre-Christian pagan landscape, in which the stones were imbued with magical qualities. I’m not someone who believes this is still the case – though there are many who do – but there is something mysterious, ancient and powerful in these places. Madron Well and Baptistry indicates early Christian worship, in the tiny ruined chapel, associated with both pagan and Christian worship, which is near a cloutie tree (a tree with ribbons or rags tied to it). Until recently I understand local Methodists held outdoor services here. This, like many other sites, is looked after by the Cornish Ancient Sites Protection Network, which offers more information on its website. There are many, many more such sites across Cornwall (and indeed Britain), but the concentration of them in Cornwall, and their survival into the 21st century, perhaps indicates the ways in which Cornwall’s physical isolation from the rest of England has enabled it to maintain such a distinct heritage.

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Ancient Cornwall

One of the many amazing things about Cornwall is the sheer number of really ancient stones and monuments that are literally just lying in fields, waiting for people to notice them. Once you’ve visited a few, you find yourself peering past every hedge looking for more. Every year we revisit a few favourites, and I always find them fascinating and inscrutable. The legends which often surround them are also fascinating. Probably my favourite is the Merry Maidens (left), near to Trewoofe and Porthcurno, which is the most complete stone circle in Cornwall – 19 granite stones, of similar sizes and perfectly evenly spaced. Legend has it that they were girls who danced on a Sunday, and were turned to stone for not observing the day of rest (this legend was probably put about by the early church to discourage pagan practices in Cornwall). Their pipers, who provided the music they danced to, are represented too, by two stones at either end of the field.

Another amazing place is Men-an-tol (right), which means “holed stone”, near Madron. There’s plenty of information about it here, but I must say that I am particularly amused by the legend that a person suffering from rheumatism or spinal problems should crawl through the hole nine times, facing the sun, in order to be cured. It’s not a very big hole, even for bronze-age adults, and I decided against trying to see if I would fit, but surely if you are in pain already this is the last thing you’d want to do! It’s a fascinating place, though, and there are spectacular views from Men-an-tol.
Another place not to be missed is Lanyon Quoit (below), an ancient dolmen also known as the Giant’s Table. Apparently, this used to be much taller than it now is, and until the eighteenth century, one could ride under it on horseback. Then, one of the supporting stones broke, and when it was repaired, it was much shorter. Now, you might be able to ride a small dog under it, but I couldn’t stand upright. It may have been a burial mound or a cenotaph, and it seems that some kind of pagan ceremonies were performed there. I imagine it’s popular with local druids and hippies.

There are loads more places – you could spend weeks wandering from one to another (and getting quite lost in the process – we were helped greatly by a recently purchased ordnance survey map). One of the places I haven’t yet been, but am keen to go, is Chysauster, an ancient village just outside Penzance now managed by English Heritage. You get a wonderful sense of how truly ancient Cornwall is, looking at these places and imagining what might have gone on there in the past.  There’s plenty more information on Cornwall’s Archaeological Heritage site, which is very helpful.