Thursday, August 14, 2008

You want old stuff? I have some really, really old stuff

I'm off to Cornwall for the weekend to visit my folks so I thought I'd share a few photos with you of some of the antiquites that can be found around where I grew up. I'll start near Penzance at a place called Madron. It's a pretty wild and desolate area of moorland that was mined for copper and tin during the 17th - 19th centuries. But long before that, the area obviously had some significance for my Celtic forbears as it's peppered with ancient monuments. First up is the Men Scryfa. In the old Cornish language, the name means 'inscribed stone' or 'stone with writing on it'. It's around 6 feet 6 inches tall and probably dates from the Bronze Age. There are many such single standing stones in Cornwall, some much larger than this one. But this is one of the few that bears an inscription, albeit a worn and barely visible one. The words 'RIALOBRANI CUNOVALI FILI' were carved on one side sometime around the 5th or 6th century AD to commemorate the death in battle of a royal warrior. The inscription translates as 'Royal Raven son of the Glorious Prince'.

Not far from the Men Scryfa is the Men an Tol or 'stone with hole'. As a child I can remember climbing through the hole on many occasions. And it still goes on today as legend says that you can prevent or cure childhood rickets and tuberculosis by passing your nippers through the hole three times and then dragging through the grass three times toward the east. Adults seeking cure from rheumatism or spinal troubles should crawl through the hole nine times against the sun. The Men an Tol was probably once the entrance to a burial chamber.

And while we're talking burial chambers, Lanyon Quoit stands just a short distance from both the Men Scryfa and the Men an Tol. Quoits, known as Dolmens or Table Stones outside of Cornwall, are also the remains of neolithic or Bronze Age burial chambers from which the piled soil has eroded. However, it would be wrong to say that they are an accurate representation of the original structures as many were re-erected by Victorian philanthropists. The second photo is of Chun Quoit which is elsewhere in Cornwall but no less impressive.
Now, imagine that you've jumped into the car with me and we're now heading back towards Penzance. Let's take a little detour and go the back way via St Levan and Lamorna and take a look at the Merrie Maidens or Dans Maen (dancing stones).
The Dans Maen is a near-perfect circle of standing stones 78 feet in diameter. Each of the 19 stones is around 4 feet high, and evenly spaced at about 12 foot intervals. There is a larger gap 20 feet located at the east, which may indicate an astronomically-related entrance to the circle. There is a legend that the stones are young women who were turned into stone for dancing on the Sabbath. Two tall standing stones nearby are known as The Pipers and represent the equally naughty musicians.
Now we come down the hill from Newlyn and into Penzance. Almost immediately we can see, across the wide expanse of Mounts Bay, the fairytale castle of St Michael's Mount.
Home of the St Aubyn family for over 300 years, the castle sits atop a small island just off the coast at Marazion. At low tide, it can be reached by a stone causeway but at other times there is a regular water taxi. The modern castle was built during the 1600s but there has been a religious community on the island since as far back as 550AD and it was a trading port for hundreds of years before modern calendars began. It was then known as Ictis. About 2000BC, it was a hill in a marshy forest that has since been inundated by the sea ... which may be the kernel of truth at the heart of the legend of Lyonesse; the ancient kingdom that supposedly once stretched from Lands End to the Scilly Isles but was destroyed by Merlin the Magician during King Arthur's final battle. We'll return to Arthur in a minute.
First, however, we need to head North. As we do so, we will pass hundreds of long-dead tin and copper mines. These old granite pump houses dot the landscape like ancient teeth, slowly decaying from exposure to the elements. They are probably the most readily identifiable landmarks in Cornwall.
We now find ourselves driving across Bodmin Moor which, along with Devon's Dartmoor, once made up the major part of the ancient Kingdom of Cornwall. At the heart of it stand two tall hills; the highest points in the county. They are called Rough Tor (pronounced 'roe tour') and Brown Willy. No, really. It is. Here's the view from the top of Rough Tor.
The wind and the rain have carved the granite into fantastic shapes. It's easy to see where sculptors like Dame Barbara Hepworth drew her inspiration. They certainly inspired 1970s album cover guru Roger Dean as some of these rocks appeared in his painting for the cover of Tales from Topographic Oceans by Prog Rock geniuses Yes.
Further North and we come to our final stop - the extraordinary castle of Tintagel. Legend tells us that this is the site of Camelot, King Arthur's royal seat. I don't know if Arthur or his castle ever existed but if they did, this is about as good a site as you could hope for. It's magnificent; a place of mysterious caves, waterfalls, plunging cliffs and dramatic coastlines. The castle headland is separated from the mainland by a deep gorge that you cross by a bridge before beginning the perilously steep climb up to the castle ramparts.

The castle consists of broken walls and stacks of eroded slate and granite all of which looks as if it would tumble over if you sneezed too close to it. But it's stood there for a long time (since the 13th century) and will undoubtedly still be there long after I'm gone.
The whole village of Tintagel has become a shrine to the Arthurian legends, almost to the point of tackiness (I once had an Excaliburger there. No lie.) but does boast the oldest Post Office in the UK ... possibly in the world. It's 600 years old.
It's a well-known fact that we never appreciate what's on our doorstep. I work with Londoners who've never visited places like Buckingham Palace or Pudding Lane or Whitechapel or the British Museum. And when I lived in Cornwall, I was no better than them. I took it all for granted. I could see St Michael's Mount from the windows of my school. But did I pay any attention to such a fantastic view? I doubt it. But I'd like to think that the amazing places in these photos - and many more besides - have got into my psyche by a kind of osmosis. Certainly, Cornwall seems to spawn an indecent number of artists, writers and poets. It gave birth to two major schools of art at Newlyn and St Ives and it still houses a substantial artistic community today. And almost everyone I was best friends with at school has ended up in an artistic career. So who knows?
I'll be passing some of these places over the course of the weekend. And I will have my camera with me of course. I haven't begun to show you all that Cornwall has to offer.
Is it any wonder I get homesick?


Tess Kincaid said...

Yeah, yeah, yeah...I LOVE the OLD stuff!! This is fantastic. I'll be sitting here a while digesting all of this. mmmmm.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Glad you like it! Welcome to my heritage.

Debby said...

The pictures were wonderful and your anecdotes were perfect. Summer is my busiest time, and I cannot take a vacation then. I get my vacation thrills vicariously. Thank you for your post. I loved it.

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

I love Tintagel. Very mysterious and beautiful place, if you overlook the tacky. Wasn't Tintagel supposedly Arthur's birthplace...? With somewhere around Glastonbury the site of Camelot?? I don't remember exactly.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Debby - Poor you! Still, there's a lot to be said for off-season holidays when there are fewer tourists around. London in Winter is brilliant, as is Cornwall. As long as you don't mind the weather, that is.

PT&E - Well, if the legends were true (which they sadly aren't being mostly fabricated by the clergy and then romanticised by Mallory and the Pre-Raphaelites), then Arthur was born at Tintagel and, as I recall, was buried under Glastonbury Tor until 'his country needs him again'. The sad fact is that if Arthur did exist, he would have been a Celtic Chieftain. And if so, he'll be somewhat disappointed when he wakes up as his enemies -the very people he fought - are now the British! He would have warred against the Angles, Saxons, Danes and Normans ... who now account for around 95% of all Britons. Poor old Arthur.

Unknown said...

(Big sigh) Cornwall - somewhere I REALLY miss. So stunning, so wild and just fabulous, I intend to introduce the hubster next summer.

St Michael's Mount is amazing.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Good for you Sal! Even as I type this reply I'm in the wilds of Cornwall, near Camborne; right at the heart of the now-dead mining industry. The landscape here is very rugged and covered in scrubby moorland and silent granite pump houses and long-dead chimneys. Oh, I did I mention that it's raining? My entire childhood was spent in the rain.