By Ellen Hawley
Living in Cornwall, I’ve almost gotten used to ancient monuments—stone circles, standing stones, the remains of prehistoric castles and forts and settlements. You’ll find them in fields and on moors, where if there’s a public footpath you can walk up to them anytime you like. If there’s no footpath, you’ll need the landowner’s permission, but at none of them do you have to pay admission and you won’t find anyone around warning you not to touch. They’re a part of life here, and it’s absurd how easy it is to go from, “My god, will you look at that!” to “We should stop on the way home and pick up a can to tomatoes.” It’s not that I don’t see them, but I do have to grab hold of myself sometimes and say, Look, you idiot.
In October, I spent a week reminding myself to look. I was in the opposite end of Cornwall, the southwestern tip, roughly between Penzance and St. Ives, which was more heavily settled in prehistoric times and has more ancient monuments than the area I live in. The oldest of them are Neolithic—late Stone Age; roughly 4000 to 2000 BCE, give or take 500 years.
When I was a kid, I managed to confuse Stone Age people with knuckle-dragging cavemen, and I still have to fight the idea that Stone Age people sat around grunting and banging two stones together because they were too dumb to do anything else with them. I suspect I got the image from a cartoon.
Be careful what you plant in kids’ minds, because it’ll stick there like peanut butter.
Standing in front of Chun Quoit (pronounced choon kwoit), though, I had to accept that Stone Age people were us—modern humans minus the technology we’ve inherited and, in my case at least, can’t claim any credit for creating.
A quoit looks, basically, like a giant stone ironing board. Its supports hold up a huge stone slab with a flattish top. No one knows what they were for. Worhsip? Ritual? Burial? Status? Marking territory? It’s all guesswork and invention. All we can say for certain is that they serve no obvious practical purpose and that they took a lot of work. In his excellent book Cornovia (Halsgrove, 2009), Craig Weatherhill estimates the weight of the top slab at Zennor Quoit at 9.4 tons. That was lifted onto supporting stones that were 2.9 meters tall. Even with modern equipment, that’s no job for someone who spends the day grunting and banging two rocks together.
If you look at the undersides, you’ll see that some of the top slabs were worked so they’d slot into place on the uprights and stay for a millennium or three. As most of them have. So these were people with serious skills, and with enough food that they could commit endless person-hours to something so spectacularly useless.
I’m using the word useless loosely. Culture, belief, story, and all the other things that hold a group of people together are never useless. But if you weigh them against bringing in enough food to survive the winter, you know which you’d choose.
They built these and survived the winters.
It was later people, in the Iron Age, who built Chun Castle, which is a short walk from Chun Quoit. The people who built the castle were roughly as distant from the folks who built the quoit in the Stone Age as we are from the Iron Age builders. Two very different ages; one small parcel of ground, still carrying visible traces of history.
The castle is circular, with an inner stone wall surrounded by a ditch and a raised earthen wall, and it has a view of the sea in two directions. Local legend attributes the castle to Jack the Hammer, who’s associated with tin smelting, and archeologists have, in fact, found traces of a smelter inside the walls, although it would take a better educated eye than mine to find it. The castle’s well, however, is still visible.
Sadly, most of the stones here, and at many other ancient sites, were carted off to build other things. In the case of Chun Castle, they were used to pave the streets of Penzance. Worked stone was too valuable to leave in place. But enough stone is left to show the full shape of the castle. Unfortunately, the only way to show the shape in a photograph is to shoot from the air.
If you go, you’ll find leaflets and booklets on individual ancient sites or groups of sites, but I recommend investing in Weatherhill’s book. Not only does it give directions to many sites and, in places, reconstructions of what they might have looked like, but his introduction sets them in a clear and memorable context.
Cornwall in Focus has several pages devoted to the ancient sites of the West Penwith area, and they’re worth spending some time on. If you get there, why see only one ancient monument when there are so many, so close together?
What you need to know if you go:
- Access to the monuments is not controlled. Most can be reached by public footpaths, but for the ones that are not you’ll need to ask the landowner’s permission.
- Public transportation in the area is designed to move between towns. To reach the monuments, you’ll need a car and an Ordnance Survey map. These are large, fold-out maps with an incredible level of detail. You’ll find the ancient monuments marked, along with the smallest roads and even individual farms. The one you want is Landranger 203, Land’s End and Isles of Scilly.
- Chun Castle and Quoit are (very) roughly a twenty- and thirty-minute walk from the parking area. Take the road from Penzance to Morvah. About 3 miles northwest of the town of Morvah, at Bosullow Common, you look for a small sign to Chun Castle. This takes you down a narrow lane to Trehyllys Farm. Park where you won’t be in the way, and if you see the farmer, say hello. The footpath is marked by a large, white-painted stone. Like most Cornish footpaths, this one is hilly and somewhat uneven, but it’s not difficult enough to challenge a moderately able walker.