Climb a Hill, Look at a Rock Day

We decided to have a wing-it kind of day. We left the hotel in search of adventure and ancient man. Cornwall is filled with rocks. Rocks are terribly exciting to look at, aren't they? Well, I was determined to see rocks. But these aren't just ordinary rocks. They are big rocks. They are old rocks. Yes, lots of rocks are big and old. We were determined to see those rocks put there by ancient man; the quoits, stone circles, standing stones, holed stones, wells, and crosses.

We began by going toward St. Ives, a lovely coastal city. We pulled into a parking lot, and since we needed to pay big bucks to park there, we decided to take some time and look around this lovely town. The parking lot was situated on the top of a massive hill, and thus begins "Climb a Hill, Look at a Rock Day". We climbed down a steep pathway until we came into the centre of town. The shopping district was bustling with activity, with plenty of touristy shops open, selling postcards. We bought some. We sniffed the Cornish Pasties in the bakeries. We walked by the harbour and were accosted by every boatman wanting to take us for a ride, for a price of course. After about an hour we decided we needed to leave this delightful town, so we could see some rocks.

The unfortunate thing about leaving your car at the top of a hill when you walk to the bottom, is that you have to climb that hill again. We did. I survived. That's all I'm going to say. At the top of the hill, I took some photos of the town, harbour and the bay beyond.

Here's a little ditty we picked up on our visit to St. Ives.

As I was going to St. Ives
I met a man with seven wives,
Each wife had seven sacks,
Each sack had seven cats,
Each cat had seven kits:
Kits, cats, sacks, & wives,
How many were there going to St. Ives?

The answer is one. YOU!

As we left St. Ives, I began to scour the countryside for signs of rocks. As we turned a corner, I spotted a big pile of rocks on the top of a hill. I have no idea what it was, but I also noticed two menhirs, or standing stones, nearby. These menhirs are everywhere around Cornwall, and have stood proud for 5000 or more years. No one knows what they were used for, but they are tall slender stones, standing on end, as a sentinel for an age long past. These particular menhirs, and the mysterious pile of rocks, were out of reach, so I settled for a quick look and a photo.

Around the next corner we discovered the remains of the engine house of a tin mine. We pulled into the parking lot, an interesting affair because they had taken two menhirs and put them at the entrance, barely far enough apart for a car. We roamed around the site, and I noticed another pile of rocks on a hilltop, and a menhir. The scrub was prickly, I was wearing shorts, and it was a pretty long hike up that hill to go see an unknown pile of rocks. We took photos of the mine, and I explored the brush a bit. I did find a menhir close to the mine, which was about four feet tall. We could see also see St. Michael's Mount for this vantagepoint. We can't be sure of the age of the tin mine, but it is likely the engine house is approximately 200 years old. I am going to have to go back to Cornwall to learn more about the tin mining industry, which has been going on for millenia.

After some maneuvering, we got the car out of the parking lot. It seems some brilliant developer also moved one of the menhirs to exactly where Bruce needed to put the car to angle through the two at the entrance. Car unscratched and us on our way, we turned another corner to discover another spectacular view of St. Michael's Mount. We stopped for some pictures and as I looked back at the tin mine, I noticed the pile of rocks I had deliberated climbing to see. It seems that they were a rock wall, probably put there by some farmer only a few hundred years ago.

Iron Age

We did have a destination in mind as we were roaming this lovely countryside. We were traveling to a small prehistoric village called Carn Euny. This small farming hamlet was inhabited from 500 BC to 300 AD (in other words, an Iron Age Village). To get to the village, we needed to follow a pathway up a hill, around 450 meters, or we could take a shorter path, but it went right through a field of cows. The children weren't so sure about coming face to face with a cow, so we chose the longer route.

Within the village, now not much more than a few stone walls, are two interesting underground chambers. One is called the beehive hut and is built somewhat like an igloo, but with stone, and under the ground. There is a small recess in the wall opposite the entrance, which appears to be an altar. It is believed that offerings were brought here and were illuminated by the midwinter sun, which would have shined for an hour into the entrance of the hut.

The other structure is called a fogou, which is an underground passage. There are several theories as to the purpose of this particular structure. No one knows for sure the real answer, but it is fun to investigate the possibilities. Some evidence, not only from Carn Euny, but also other fogous around Cornwall is that they may have been used to store supplies. They also theorize that it may have been used for habitation, or protection from enemies. The final theory is that it was used for some ritualistic or religious purpose. I think it may have had something to do with a fertility ritual, but that's just based on observation, astronomical projections and legend.

The kids had the most delightful time climbing walls, which created a sort of labyrinth. They were very disappointed when it was time to move on. We decided to go back to the car through the field of cows, because we could see they were resting in the heat of the day, and wouldn't be charging us.

One of the things I was determined to see was a Celtic cross. Some of these standing stones, with Christian symbolism, seem to predate Christianity, but most are dated at the time the Celts were converting to Christianity. In some cases, it appears the crosses were carved at a much later date than the creation of the stone. These crosses are scattered throughout Cornwall and Wales, although they are often buried by brush or hidden away in a church.

We use an Ordinance Survey map, which gives incredible detail of the area you are visiting. These maps have every road, every historical site, and every cow (just about). But it does not show the crosses. Unfortunately, we did not discover a shop with references to point us in the right direction until much later in the day. So, I figured if we drove long enough, we'd find one. Now, the roads in Cornwall are small. I mean tiny. OK, so you put an American car on these roads, and you have about 6 inches of space between the car and the hedgerow. The hedgerow is 8 feet high. I am not exaggerating. It is like you are driving through a tunnel. These roads are not one way. You never know when you will turn a curve and come across another vehicle.

I was navigating. Bruce was wary. Every time I said, "Turn here", he knew it meant another tiny road. At one point I said, turn at the next road, but somehow we missed it. I said, "No problem turn at the next road." We did and as we drove by what was the end of the road I wanted to travel, we realized why we missed it. It was a cow path. Not even wide enough for our car to pass. Good thing we missed it, I guess.

At one point, I thought it would be a kick to videotape driving down one of these roads. Its hard enough to watch the hedgerows go by when you are just inches away, but imagine watching this go buy while viewing it in the 1" eyepiece. We went around a curve, and "AH" (that's not the word I used), there we were, face to face with a great big tractor. With nowhere to go, we had to back our car to a wide place in the road, and wait for the tractor to pass by. We felt safe to head on our way, went around the same curve and there was a second tractor. I wish I had the capability to transfer that video onto the computer and send it to you, although I would have to edit the audio.

I decided we needed to go to Sancreed. I don't even remember why, but there must have been something on the map. We got to Sancreed, and it was another tiny town. We never found what we were looking for. But we saw a sign for some other thing. So, we took another tiny road, found the layby and went to check out Sancreed Beacon. The kids, by this time, were getting a bit bored looking at rocks. They weren't thrilled with the prospect of climbing another hill. So, I told them I'd check it out and they could wait in the car. It turns out the Sancreed Beacon was used by ancient man as a place where they lit lights to send signals to other peoples around the peninsula. At the top of the hill is an outcropping of granite. Another interesting thing to see is an ancient burial chamber, somewhat buried, but still visible. I had to go see this. So, I headed up the hill. By now, the kids were bored and decided they needed to see whatever it was that had me so excited and climbing this hill. So, Bruce and the kids began to follow me. I got to the top, found the stones that marked the entrance of the tomb, somewhat disheveled, but still obviously placed there for a reason. I was having fun taking pictures, when they finally reached the top.

Vicki said, "So, what are we supposed to be looking at?"
I said, "These rocks."
She said, "We climbed up this hill to look at these rocks?"
I said, "Yes, these rocks have been there for thousands of years."
She said… well, you can imagine how exciting this was to a nine-year old girl.

The climb to the top of the hill was not an easy one. The brush consisted of fern and a very prickly sort of bush. But it was worth the climb, just to say I had been there. And the view of St. Michael's Mount was incredible! Although, by this time I wasn't taking anymore pics of St. Michael's Mount.

Ancient Stones

We headed back to the car, a few scratches, but still anxious to see more. I noticed on the map there was a quoit nearby, so I directed Bruce in that direction. As we were driving along the road I saw a sign marked "Celtic Chapel and Well", but since I knew I was treading on thin ice, I just put it in the back of my head for later in the day. The map was a bit confusing, and we actually drove right by Lanyon Quoit without seeing it. We found a layby, which was near a little artist's studio. There was a sign pointing to a place called Men-An-Tol. In the studio, I tried to ask the gentleman some questions, but he was completely uninterested in helping me, a poor lost tourist. Even after I spent a fortune buying guidebooks and postcards. I wish I'd had the guidebooks earlier, it would have been easier to plan walks to see more. Most of the really cool prehistoric rock things are off the beaten path.

Among our resources was a picture of this Men-An-Tol Holed Stone. It looked interesting, so I said, "Let's go look." I heard a deep sigh uttered from the fruit of my loins. This site was about a mile off the road, up a slight incline. When we reached the top, we saw four stones, one fallen and four on end, about 4 ½ feet tall. In the middle is a circular stone, on end, with a hole in the middle. This is a Bronze Age monument, about 4000 years old, although archeological evidence shows that the stones were moved at times throughout the ages. Holed stones have a religious significance, and is often associated with fertility. The stones have magical rather than astronomical use. Children were passed naked through the hole three times, then drug around the stone. Adults were expected to pass through the stone nine times to achieve the desired results of healing or fertility. Vicki and Zack both crawled through the hole, so I can only hope the effects aren't immediate.

I went to a great deal of trouble to get the "perfect" picture of this site. When I got the photos, there was no question that this is a place used for fertility rites. While we were at the site, a lovely British lady with her son and his girlfriend, shared a few interesting bits with us, about other things to see in the area. She pointed out the Lanyon Quoit in the distance and told us there was a layby very close to the site. We also noted the Ding Dong mine, recently restored, which was also in view. Over the crest of the hill were apparently several other interesting sites, but as time was passing quickly and we wanted to get to Truro Cathedral for Evensong, we didn't explore those options.

Back in the car, we went back along the same road, and found the layby. The Lanyon quoit is a chambered tomb, which are the oldest stone monuments left in Cornwall. They are Neolithic, and date before the pyramids of Egypt. These rock structures were the passageways into the tombs and would have been mostly covered with a mound of dirt. Unfortunately, although this is the most photographed quoit in Cornwall, it is also the least authentic. Early in the last century, a storm caused the rocks to collapse, and stones broke. When it was restored, in 1824, they did the best they could with what they had available.

The quoit is made up of three standing stones, placed in the shape of a triangle, with a capstone placed on top. It looks like a three-legged table. The chamber is about 7 feet high and the capstone is 9 feet by 17 ½ feet. The other chambered tombs in the area are made of four stones, arranged in a box-like form.

At this point in our trip, it was pouring rain. But, I, willing to do anything to get "the perfect picture", went out into the rain. The kids, not wanting to miss out on anything (there was no hill to climb), decided to join me. Of course, all they wanted to do was use the quoit as an umbrella.

Ancient Stones

We traveled along the road again, and when we came to that sign for the Celtic chapel, I said, for the last time, "Bruce turn here." It was raining, but I had to see it. The lovely British lady at the holed stone said it was worth a look. When we found the parking lot it was pouring. I was willing to do this one on my own, and for a moment they were willing to sit in the car. But, curiousity got the better of them. I rushed ahead, hoping I could find this thing, and that it would be really boring and could get them back to the car before they were soaking wet. I think we walked nearly a mile into the woods. At least it wasn't a hill.

I arrived at the well, actually not much more than a muddy pit, although at times a stone enclosure is visible. This well has pre-Christian religious significance. It was a healing well. Even today, people go to these ancient wells and put "clouties" on the trees. These pieces of rag or tissue are placed there to ask the well spirits for healing. Farther along the path we found the remains of a 12th century building (although some parts appear to be pre-Norman). In many cases, around Cornwall, these ancient wells were converted to Christian use and given names associated with Christianity. There is a well on the north coast of Cornwall called "The Jesus Well". Tradition says that it became a holy well when Jesus of Nazareth used it on one of his trips to England with his Uncle Joseph (of Arimathea). The well itself was in use as a holy well long before Jesus' time, and I'll discuss the legends of Jesus in my next travelogue.

The Christians often used the pagan holy sites to erect chapels. There is a spring that runs from the well into a basin in the chapel. This was used for healing, especially sick children. In 1640 a crippled man named John Trelille was cured at this site. He bathed in the basin once a week for three weeks.

It is a small building, with an altar stone and some stone seats. Research has revealed that the holy wells are often very high in radiation, which may explain the healing power found there. The building is covered in ivy, ferns and wildflowers. I found it to be an extremely serene place to take a moment to pray.

Time was fleeting and we did not know what time Evensong was set to begin, so we wanted to be in Truro by 5 p.m. Bruce wanted to get gas, which in itself turned into an adventure. But we won't go there.

We arrived at the cathedral a few minutes before 5. Since the service was scheduled for 530, we took a moment to look around. Truro is one of the newer cathedrals in England, having been started in 1880 and completed 30 years later. Parts of the building are older as it incorporates part of the original parish church. The pillars cause you to look up at the vaulted ceiling and there's an incredible feeling of rising above earthly problems to the very gates of heaven. We enjoyed the service, taking in the sites and sounds of people praising the Lord. After the service, a gentleman I assumed was either the bishop or a dean, greeted us and told us how lovely it was that we brought the children. If only he knew how much trouble it took to get them there!

We roamed the streets of Truro, trying to find someplace to eat. We found "The Wig and Pen", a nice family pub, where we were served more food than we could ever possibly eat. Have you noticed how in America, with dinners they nearly always serve corn? Well, in England they serve peas. Frozen peas. Sometimes mushy peas. Don't ask.

Oh, and Celtic crosses? The only one we saw was in St. Ives, and was only 30 years old. I'll just have to go back to the West Penwith, one more time.

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