Scribbles from Devon and Cornwall – Part 7

20 05 2007

12-20 May 2007

Part1 | Part2 | Part3 | Part4 | Part5 | Part6 | Part7 | Part8 | Part9

Bodmin Moor

Ask any tourist on his way to Cornwall of his particular destination. He will say he is on his way to Land’s End, St Ives, Newquay, the Lizard and numerous other spots on the coast. He will say Redruth or Truro but only because they are accessible by rail and are close to the coast. He will say he is visiting any one of numerous gardens for which Cornwall deserves to be called the “Garden County”. Very rarely will he say that he’s visiting Bodmin Moor.

In my notes on the Isle of Arran, I had already alluded to the fascination of coastlines and coastal resorts. The idea of getting as far away from home as possible means that Bodmin Moor ought to be ignored. Add to these, the negative image of a moor – bleak, featureless, wet and boring. Add further the proximity of Dartmoor, which in many national polls comes top as the favourite and most loved British landscape. Finally, consider the fable of the “Beast of Bodmin” that might discourage the little enthusiasm left in those considering a visit to the moor.

Frankly, I needed a change of scene. I had had too much of the coast. While I could continue walking on the South West Coast Path, I was in danger of coming away with an incomplete view of Cornwall. The digression at Lanhydrock had been too brief. It was time to head back inland. I had hoped to give the moor two days of my time. I had difficulty finding suitable accommodation or transportation on the moor. So I have cut short my visit to a single day. I left Looe and arrived at Liskeard this morning. I hoped that I had not missed the connecting bus to St Cleer. Well, it was the same bus from Looe. It continued to St Cleer with a different route number. Not bad indeed. Cornwall is pretty well connected by bus services. The Truronian connects well with trains as well.

I am surprised how many places in Cornwall are named after saints. I have come across St Just, St Agnes, St Ives, St Austell, St Blazey and now St Cleer. St Cleer has a holy well that’s been restored in more recent times. I don’t remember anything else particular about this town. I alighted here so that I can walk to Trethevy Quoit.

“Quoit” is probably a word of Cornish origin. It is a chambered tomb of stone built in the Neolithic period. I have not come across this word in any other part of Britain, though similar tombs exist beyond Cornwall. Soon after leaving St Cleer I was in doubt if I had missed this ancient monument. I walked along a narrow path which was fenced on both sides. On one side the ground was higher. On the other side, houses stood so far removed from Neolithic times. “Where is this quoit?” I wondered. Suddenly, a stone peeped above the rising ground to my left. After a few paces, other stones came into view. What a dramatic entrance!

Stone circle at Bodmin Moor

Stone circle at Bodmin Moor

The fact that such a monument from about 3500 BC should stand close to modern dwellings robs some of the romance associated with pristine antiquity and wild isolation. But there is a point to this proximity. Here we see the old and the new, separated by age but brought together in space. We have come a long way from the ways of primitive civilizations. When we consider the ages that have gone by, when we consider the vast history of mankind, human life is too short. Here I am standing on a site where some primitive men once stood. On this very spot they had exercised their mystic rituals and beliefs. Their primitive thoughts and ideas have shaped the progress of mankind. Today Christians bury the dead and install a tombstone with an epitaph. They did it with rough and plain stones. Their beliefs had not been very different.

This quoit stands on a hill from where the countryside is visible for miles. In their own times, this landscape would have been wooded and not quite so open. Though the houses are a stone’s throw away, the quoit is enclosed in a separate field of good size. At least this way, it gets some respect and protection. The stones are not arranged in any precise manner but the intention is clear. They create a enclosed sheltered space within a little mound of turf covered earth. The upright stones of unequal heights and shapes stand in a rough circle. There is indication of a separate anteroom leading to an inner chamber. Little rocks are embedded in the grass. One of the upright stones has fallen inside. As a result, the capstone inclines at a dangerous angle. There are visible signs of modern mortar to keep the capstone in place. There is artistic merit in the way this capstone seems to slide to the ground but doesn’t. It appears that man created this tomb from the bare elements of nature. Nature didn’t like it all that well and designed to correct it as fancy took her. All these stones are unworked by man except for a curious hole in the capstone. The stones have been sculpted by a slow process which continues. As each stone touches another, in every caress of the human hand, there’s a touch of history.

As I was leaving this ancient spot, I met a elderly man walking his terrier. He spoke about the monument and then about the mining industry in this area. It appears that they had turned back under the belief that there wasn’t enough copper in these parts. Someone initiated a dig. “Then they found this whopping great vein of copper”, he concluded in excitement. The mining industry boomed. This was in early part of the 19th century. Barges carried many minerals, “copper, coal and whatnots” as he put it, along rivers. Employment was plenty and the town prospered. Granite from Bodmin Moor has also been mined. It is claimed that such granite was used in the building of Bombay docks and Singapore docks, among many others.

As I continued my walk on the moor I passed many abandoned ruins of the mining industry – pump houses, engine rooms, chimneys, unused tracks and spoil heaps. At the Minions Heritage Centre I learnt a great deal about the mining industry and local geology. Granite is often split by cutting groves into the stone and then forcing them apart with wedges. I had seen such groves or half-split and abandoned stones earlier in my walk. I understood the term “Maze Monday”. It was a day that followed pay day. Productivity was low as miners had hangovers.

It’s not just the quoit that was fascinating. Bodmin Moor is littered with ancient monuments. I passed Long Tom. This is a standing stone which was later decorated with a cross. Then I passed the Hurlers, two Bronze Age stone circles standing next to each other. The stones are not high or large but they have the same magic as the quoit. The largest stone is perhaps only five feet tall. Then I passed some burial mounds and cists. Finally, I made my way to the Cheesewring.

The Cheesewring seen on approach

The Cheesewring seen on approach

Cheesewring. What a wonderful name and how appropriate! Unlike the quoit and the stone circles, the rock formations at the top of this hill are wholly natural. They have been formed by a long process of weathering. Their distinct forms of rocks stacked up one above another have come about by selective weathering in which slate has eroded more quickly than granite. The rocks are smooth. In some cases, a rock is fused with the one below. In other cases, weathering has occurred to its limit whereby a rock is balanced on another at a few points of contact. At the top of one rock is a smooth basin, possibly formed naturally. I found rain water trapped in this basin. The sun was out. The water warmed up. It reflected the afternoon sun.

From this hill, the featureless moor stretched in one direction. Green and fertile farmland stretched in another. The masts on Caradon Hill towered in the distance. Ruins of mined quarries idled below. It was strange to see such diverse landscapes from a single spot. The Cheesewring itself is a beauty. It is delicately balanced at an angle. The heavier and broader rocks are higher up which makes it more spectacular. It stands on the edge of the hilltop and apart from other rock formations. A small prop has been added underneath one of its broad rocks. Without this prop of the 1860s, it would look even more spectacular.

View from the hill where the Cheesewring stands

View from the hill where the Cheesewring stands

Ultimately, the image of Bodmin Moor that I will carry with me for days to come is a simple one. I approached the Cheesewring by a slope strewn with rocks. I stood looking at the hill. I admired the profile of rock formations. A few sheep wandered along in front of me. A light wind blew white blossoms from a little group of hawthorn trees. The trees bent a little with the wind. Through the raining blossoms of hawthorn, I saw an image of rock upon rock formed as a piece of ancient art.

Part1 | Part2 | Part3 | Part4 | Part5 | Part6 | Part7 | Part8 | Part9

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11 11 2008
ontheroad - The Cheesewring in Cornwall

[…] highlight of this walk is The Cheesewring – the name given to a series of stacks of large, rounded boulders left in strange piles by […]

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