Going from winter to summer in 24 hours landed me in the humid air of Heathrow. Body clock shot, seasonally confused.
I had forgotten the feel of England in summer and I have spent the subsequent week revelling in it. Lush and verdant. Despite the depressive homogeneity of the high streets and chainstores, industrial estates and service stations (the same anywhere). There is a great deal to be relished and delighted in. Old stone buildings, field patterns, the thick and effulgent trees and grassy meadows at their peak, the familiar insects at dusk.
This is the view from the house I grew up in, looking up the Pentewan valley on a warm evening. Something I had been able to look at every year until the last one.
The air is thick with summer and I am relatively at peace trying to catch up with old friends and full of new resolutions for the months ahead.
Restless. I suppose we are all inclined to self-criticism; I should have done this or seen that, should have saved more money, should have spoken to that person but in the end I guess that we do what we do.
The spring came through the winter and we were stir crazy. So we went south. Traversing the ‘Forgotten Highway’ out of Taumarunui.
North Island countryside follows a certain pattern, one largely laid down by its hugely explosive volcanic past; sharp, angular grassy hills in jagged rows.
This was a journey between two volcanos. Mount Ruapehu, the irregular giant at the end of Lake Taupo taking up the heart of the North to the uniform, neater cone of Mount Taranaki, guarding the southwest coastline and looking out to the brutal Tasman sea.
The Forgotten highway cuts through the central plateau linking Stratford and New Plymouth to Taumarunui. It is a long, old road carving through precipitous gorges and the ubiquitous farmlands and then, suddenly, it ends and the landscape becomes flat as the fertile plains emanating out from the nearly symmetrical Mount Taranaki are reached.
And so New Plymouth, a coastal city with a definitive beachy vibe, interspersed with some colonial architecture and modern glass shopping centres. A small shiny, bright city. Like the air here.
New Plymouth is so named due to it being here that the first landfalls of the West Country settlers were made. Mount Taranaki would have been the first thing that met their eyes as they neared this part of Land of the Long White Cloud. An alien sight to the people used to the relatively gentle hills of home, although the battered coastline around the south-western cape called to mind immediately areas of North Cornwall around Treyarnon, Trevose and Harlyn so perhaps it also did to the first Cornishmen on the William Bryan.
The ‘settlement’, incidentally, did not go well. Heavily affected by famine, disease, mutual distrust and eventual war with the local Maori Iwi. Taranaki is sacred in Maori lore and the surrounding plains were relatively densely populated by the Maori during European colonisation so conflict was inevitable
Mount Taranaki is a startling sight, magnetic, I had to force myself to keep my eyes on the road as the clouds lifted from the summit.
The Surf Highway follows the hemispherical coast and the coast circles the mountain. From the air the peculiar landscape is made obvious.
The odd green circle is the National Park boundary, where the native bush starts and the fertile, artificial farmland – mainly dairy – ends.
These mountains have a certain mystique about them I find, being so singular and dominant. I can perfectly understand why Maori legend personifies them into separate quarrelling entities, ancient god-like beings, a conceptualisation brought all the more sharply into focus when their latent geophysical power is taken into account.
Taranaki then was once standing with other Volcanoes in the central plateau but was sent retreating to his lonely position after viciously losing to the powerful Tongariro in a battle for the affections of the diminuative but beautiful Pihanga, where it is said that when he remembers his lost love he calls the clouds in to hide his tears.
And that was how we left him, returning to Taupo after a clear night under a Supermoon and inverted constellations.
When we started to drive, with teenage abandon, around the lanes that connect Polgooth, Sticker and St. Ewe a story started to trickle down into our hot-boxed Peugeot 106.
In between St. Ewe, Polgooth and Pengrugla there is a little triangle of woods, a copse really, that the road dog-legs around, which we called Nunnery woods. The local legend we nurtured states that if and when you see a silent, solemn Nun standing by the side of the road here, late at night, your death is close at hand.
I had always assumed the story was the result of skunk induced paranoia so as I happened to be driving past with my camera I thought on a whim I’d have a gander into this strange little wood. You can enter into the copse by jumping a hedge. I immediately set about looking for evidence of buildings, if there had been a Nunnery here there would be evidence of foundations at least.
Nothing. Just the usual refuse to be found in wooded sites less travelled. Plastic oil drums, strongbow bottles and tyres mainly. There are a few ditches – for drainage probably – but little else of interest. I left after half hour or so fairly disappointed and leaning to the conclusion that our story was groundless.
Nagged by feeling of incompletion I thought to dig a bit on the net and found that the investigation was not over.
I had no idea until I saw this map that the hill around this wood is actually, legitmately called ‘Nunnery Hill’. Perhaps our folklore had legs after all.
The only references I can find are this, which claims there was indeed a Nunnery NE of this point and a small paragraph in Samuel Drew’s (Cornwall’s only well-known Philosopher) 1824 ‘History of Cornwall, Vol. II‘ who comes to the solidly academic conclusion that since it’s called ‘Nunnery Hill’ there was probably, once, a Nunnery in the vicinity.
Lanhadron Farm nearby is in the Domesday book but there is no mention of a Nunnery. So, if there was one it was likely in existence between this time, 1086, and the dissolution of the monasteries in 1541. I would say the evidence points to something of note here, the name is clearly not new, the road takes a strange detour around the area and there is a local legend attached.
So the folk-memory of a lost nunnery has persisted in a place name and a ghost story for over 400 years. Without our teenage re-telling of a story – presumably passed to us from previous generations – I wouldn’t have found a little lost piece of history. Lovely. Hope you don’t see any Nuns though, should you visit.
A few days ago I was reading of Norilsk, an unimaginably oppressive, filthy, cold, dank industrial city high in the Arctic Circle. Once known for its Soviet Gulag labour camps (in which tens of thousands of prisoners died), it is now a hub of mineral mining. Nickel primarily but also palladium, cobalt, arsenic and coal. The average temperature in the winter months is -20 degrees C. The concentration of relentless and remorseless mining and smelting industries here mean that it is one of the most polluted places on earth, with an average life expectancy of roughly 60 years. The Norilsk people essentially dig out and process hazardous minerals from the arctic tundra and live out their spare time in an almost eternally dark, frozen, carcinogenic smog. It’s also closed to anyone but those who work here.
I read of this and all I could think of is how much I want to go there. I am thus starting to accept I am drawn to the dark places of the world.
I should probably state that I approach almost everything on the skeptical side of agnosticism and as I have no tangible first-hand evidence of anything ‘paranormal’ I am a non-believer. But, as I have said before, some places have different feelings to them, some raise your hairs, some have powerful and inescapable lore attached to them that stir the imagination, some are too old to comprehend fully and these are the areas I like to seek out.
Either way I give you the first in a mini-series – or as many as I can get in before I exit the Country in a few days, whatever.
St. Denys Church. I’d heard a few stories about this place before I first explored it almost a decade ago. My own Mother – not known for her indulgence in such things – had to leave the graveyard due to an overwhelming fear. Others spoke of it quietly, that it was always colder than the surrounding area.
I remember feeling trepidation on my first approach. Even from a distance there is something about St. Denys church.
The first thing you will note is that it sits perched at the apex of a perfectly conical hill, looming above the surrounding area. The next is that crowning the top is a perfect ring of trees, surrounding Church building itself, leaving only the top of the buttressed tower visible from a distance. When you enter the churchyard through a rusted wrought iron gate indeed the light is diminished. The trees that crown the hill and surround the church all seem to reach inwards towards the granite tower and create a strange enclosed feeling. I’m not sure I’ve seen this before in any church. Usually trees are manipulated by prevailing winds. Lastly the radiating down from the churchyard is a lovely and ancient complex of fields enclosed by brittle granite dry-stone walls. The whole site is made all the more peculiar sitting as it does now amongst the white mountains of the Clay.
I first came here to try and find something and found absolutely nothing other than a feeling that it is a special place.
Which it most certainly is, St. Denys church is actually built directly within the remnants of a Hill Fort. This is rather rare. Glastonbury Tor is probably the most famous example of this overt Christianisation of pagan sites but whereas Glastonbury is warm and inviting, St. Denys is cold and aloof.
It is of course the overwhelming age of the site that gives St. Denys church its power. Hillfort earthworks have their origins to the Iron Age (600bc – 60AD) but just as Christian sites were oft sited on pagan hallowed ground, hill forts were often a new type of fortification on a more primitive hill-top defence system used right back to the Neolithic, 3000bc.So when you walk around the cool air of St. Denys churchyard, amongst the Rowan and the Yew you may well be walking around a somewhere that has been site of spiritual significance for 5000 years – possibly seeing the ritual sacrifice associated with the Celtic period. I think that amount of sedimented human life and belief in such a small, concentrated area is probably going to leave something in the air.
Just off the south side of the arterial A30 that cuts the Moor in two one can find Temple. A collection of farm houses and out of the way cottages, there is not much other than the small community that dwell here.
Temple Church is the prime attraction. You see, if you blunder across anywhere in England that has the name ‘Temple’ in it, you can guess, with some accuracy, that the area or buildings had something to do with the Knights Templar at some point. This solid, stolid little church is the only Templar site I know of in Cornwall, although no doubt other areas and buildings would have had connections to the group.
I’m not going to go into reams of detail about the Templars – there really is a great deal of utter shit spoken about them – suffice to say they were an early fraternal order of Knights (wealthy, landed men who were trained to fight) started in the early 12th century, who grew pretty rapidly to hold a great deal of financial, political and military influence across Europe towards Jerusalem. They were a very early form of bank actually and their financial practices and habits of lending earned them a great deal of money and had a lasting influence. This was a time when Europe was largely working together under a fanatical religious imperialism to ‘reclaim’ what is now Israel plus parts of Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. I speak of The Crusades, of course. If this all seems a bit familiar then that’s probably because with a few different phrases, ideologies and name changes we can largely take the rhetoric of the crusades and apply them to the modern conflicts in the area. Nice to see we learn.
The Knights Templar were eradicated in the very early 14th century; dislodged, ousted and delegitimised through a fairly transparent but effective campaign of fear and disinformation led by the French King Philip IV and Pope Clement V with the last of the Grand Masters, Jacques de Molay, burned alive in Paris. That’s largely it for the real, historical Templars.
So why the fudge did they built a tiny Church in the Moors? Places like this were refuges and stopping points for pilgrims on their way to various places and pilgrims = money. Irish pilgrims to the Holy Land would often save themselves the perilous seas around the Cape of Cornwall and travel overland from Padstow to Fowey and then onto France. Hence this convenient moorland stopping point, a days hard walk from Camelford.
The Church passed to the Knights Hospitaller after the suppression of the Templars and led quite the life of intrigue and macabre detail afterwards. It remained with the Knights of St. John until the dissolution of all things Catholic and Papal under Mr. the VIII, upon which it somehow managed to retain a legal loophole through which the young and wildly impulsive couples of Cornwall could elope across the moors and marry each other without the need for banns or licence. This was ended in 1753 whereupon the church was left to crumble (which it did so upon a remarkably unfortunate vagrant sheltering inside, killing him). It was rebuilt by the great Cornish architect Silvanus Trevail – who later shot himself on a train to Bodmin, which is perhaps understandable – in 1883 after a community funding effort.
These days this isolated rural church doesn’t have many services and has somehow gained a reputation for the occult and magical rituals, perhaps due to the history, perhaps due to the occult in general having fascination with the Templars or perhaps due to its isolation.
There is certainly an unusual sense about Temple Church though, its interior is remarkably spartan. It has simple wooden chairs rather than ornate pews, it is also pleasingly entirely lit by candlelight and the altar is a very basic oak table with a dusty copy of the bible placed upon it. The walls are clean and whitewashed and lead to a bare slate floors and a relatively simple oak beam ceiling. The whole building feels like an empty scene – a set, strangely calm and serene.
As far as I would ever go is to say that places have feelings to them and Temple Church has a particular feeling. A lot has happened on this little patch after all. I have no idea about the details of the rituals undertaken here by witchy-folk, but generally speaking (I am a layman) ritual that takes place on overtly Christian land tends to be somewhat dark in nature – as it is meant to be intentionally blasphemous to Christianity. I don’t really care what happens here to be frank. People believe what they like, but certainly each thing that does happen here adds to the building’s intriguingly rich and often macabre history.
It used to confuse me that this little village nestled in the lee of Rame Head and facing the beginnings of Devon from across Plymouth Sound is nominally divided into two. Cawsand and Kingsand. The actual reason is that the border of Devon and Cornwall once ran though the village until they changed it to line up with the Tamar River, benignly showing by way of a small, insignificant coastal village just how arbitrary and ridiculous such things can be.
My Dad, who grew up here, always just called it Cawsand and that would be why I do too. It would also be the reason I feel I know this place ridiculously well.
I have always found places and landscapes to be the most evocative things. The village of Cawsand holds a lot of memory of the nostalgic, happy and sunny kind and through anecdotes, shared memory and genetics it has become a geographical bond between my Dad and I. If Cawsand holds a great deal for me then it holds even more for him.
As a disclaimer, and because she consists one of the 5 people who read this, I do share a geographical bond with my Mother but it applies to Northfield in Birmingham. If you don’t know it then it is not quite as picturesque but perhaps more poetic. Another time for this and besides, Birminghamunbound does not quite have the same ring.
I walk here a fair bit these days. Living in the South East corner as I now do it’s a go to for an easy and meaningful stroll. I also have a strange relationship with the place. I can walk through it like it’s home yet I know no one and, equally, no one knows me which is kinda nice.
Only the oldest of the inhabitants, the Jagos or the Chapples, not yet pushed out by the steadily increasing number of holiday homes, would remember my family being here or indeed remember the stories of them. Stories as ingrained in my memory as if they were my own – which I suppose in a way, they are.
Stories of my second cousin, Nick – a swashbuckling, womanising Marlon Brando lookalike – dashing himself (non-fatally) on the rocks falling from the sea-wall after a daring sea rescue of a beloved parrot, who had perched itself atop a buoy in the bay. He was handed a rotten rope apparently. Possibly proffered by a cuckolded husband.
No doubt that some of the men would remember my Great Aunt Josie, the aforementioned cousin’s Mother who lived fast and cared little.
Oh and this lady, who happens to be my Grandmother, who was not like her Sister in personality but very much admired, as my Dad was assured by an old gent in a cravat a few years ago. She died when I was young. I have an image of her outside our house in Pentewan late in her life. She had a large turquoise ring on tanned, liver-spotted, elegantly shaped hands and a creaky, multi-layered voice.
I only really remember Betty and Lou from the village itself. None of my family lived there during my lifetime. Old even when I was a boy, they lived behind the sturdy purply-pink Sea Wall at the far end of the village on the Kingsand side. You had to climb a ladder to their patio which overlooked the bay from behind the defenses, I remember being sharply reprimanded by Lou for some reason or another, who was a formidable man. I remember too their Westhighland Terrier and the admiring tones my Dad and my Uncle spoke – and speak – of them in general. Lou died years ago and Betty now lives in an old folks home in Torpoint.
Past Betty and Lou’s there is a large expanse of ragged purple rocks, reaching down to the sound and within these rocks I gained a weirdly lingering love of rockpools. Indeed the aptly named ‘longpool’ – you can’t miss it – contains a good many hours of my childhood.
Further on from longpool, beside the now derelict fishing stores there is a deep steep-sided cove conveniently large enough for a small cutter, evidence of Cawsand’s history of smuggling. Local lore states, this inlet will collect up any body drowned in the bay after the sixth day and is so named ‘Dead Man’s Cove’. I never swam here.
Beyond this is a little stretch which is the only place in Cornwall I have ever seen the classic wooden seaside huts of the English variety. I think they were taken by one of the succession of storms in the Winter of 2014. Either way they are gone and in their place now are temporary tent-like dwellings that are seemingly dismantled for the Winter.
Along from here you will find the small grainy beach of Sandways and from there, across the purple and red geology (the same as to be found in Talland Bay), the large, imposing crescent of Picklecombe Fort – now converted into a strange and exclusive residential area.
This area, surrounding the seriously important naval port of Plymouth is littered with Napoleonic Forts and Battery emplacements, some in use still such as the MoD’s Tregantle near Freathy, others now residential like Picklecomb and the dominating Cawsand Fort above the village. Some are abandoned entirely like Bovisand across the Sound.
It is at Sandways I contracted a genetic disorder.
English Cowry shells are small, ridged and fingerpad-pink. Found at certain specific, mainly east facing, beaches and they are devilishly hard to spot.
There are two types, Dottys and Nots. Representing the Trivia Monacha and Trivia Arctica respectively. Who ever taxonomically named these little beasts was not without a sense of irony, because despite looking a hell of a lot like Cowries (some might say, fucking identical), apparently they are not ‘true’ Cowries.
As any forager of small, rare things will know, once you find one you ‘get your eye in’ and no doubt more will present themselves but often it is a short window. It’s a good indicator of your own personality to note how much time you allow the inevitable obsession of finding more take hold.
I’m not entirely sure what it is about scouring a beach for the elusive Cowry but it’s oddly and powerfully addictive. It is also primarily passed down through families. My Grandmother taught my Dad and my Uncle and they taught me. These poor people have also been moved to write about it. As have these. It was thanks to these chaps I found out a few years back that our family wasn’t entirely anomalous.
There is something to talk about here with this affliction. Humans seem to have a deep psychological attachment to this peculiar little shell – something about the shape perhaps (one can see why they were considered a fertility symbol), or the scarcity. Neolithic humans – the same who were busy building stone circles – have been found buried with these particular Cowries. Also, interestingly, the Cowry (probably including the Trivia species of Northwest Europe) has been, and still is, in use as a form of currency. In fact this was a global currency, something that transcended culture, language and history, far older and more universal than coinage. The only other thing I can think of that has had enjoyed such a widespread level of status, covetousness and fame as an object of tradeable value would be Gold. Which also possesses a weird primordial allure.
Admittedly though, I am no expert on the global history of currency nor Cowries for that matter. I just look for them on beaches. A habit – along with nicotine addiction and a penchant for indolence – picked up from Cawsand and thus from my Father.
That Cornwall was once ruled by a separate and unique lineage of Kings ignites a schoolboy-like excitement. It makes me think of Tolkien. It also highlights that this little chunk of land oozes with its own idiosyncratic history.
Just the names of the Kings brings to mind a wild, fierce and proud people roaming a landscape that was far wilder, more disparate and sparse than Cornwall is today: Constantine, Caradoc, Geraint, Conan (!).
King Doniert’s stone, on the edge of the Moor, is a monument to that lineage. It commemorates King Dungarth, the ruler of an 8/9th century Cornwall that was, by this time, a failing and faltering remnant of the once ferocious and lore-inspiring post-Roman, Celtic kingdom of Dumnonia. Crumbling in the 8th and 9th century, after centuries of independence, to Anglo-Saxon hegemony. Indeed Dungarth was probably the last of the line. He was also possibly an under-king.
This particular King set in stone, is said to have died a fairly insipid death – drowning in the River Fowey which flows from the moor, over the Golitha Falls and, in a somewhat disappointing end to its moorland journey, through Trago Mills.
Presumably Doniert/Dungarth/Donyarth drowned at the mouth of the river, whereupon it is actually deep enough to drown without being seriosuly inept. Nearby to Fowey town after all you can find Castle Dore. A hillfort that would have certainly been inhabited around that time. This castle was also possibly a royal seat.
The history of Cornwall (and Devon as they were intertwined) after – and even during – the Roman occupation of Britain is somewhat convoluted.
To say the least.
I suppose this would be why we refer to the departure of the Romans up to the arrival of the Normans as the ‘Dark Ages’.
Generally it is agreed upon that from what is now Cornwall, Devon and a chunk of Somerset were homogenous in culture and practice enough to be called one thing: Dumnonia.
However History, being a somewhat modern invention, has a way of compartmentalising and taxonomising things for ease of understanding. So there is always the possibility that they were a (perhaps innumerable) loosely affiliated bunch of tribes, naturally sharing such things as language or farming/building practices due to their geographical proximity.
Sub-Roman inhabitants of Cornwall, Devon and Somerset where they around to be spoken to might have obligingly raised their eyebrows at modern historians for suggesting their similarities and then smashed their head in with an axe. I suppose this somewhat like the modern Cornish in certain circles.
The reason the actual history of the Kings of Cornwall/Dumnonia is so difficult to objectively ascertain is simply the ever-expanding myth, legend and fantasy of the Arthurian Romance. A myth largely starting with the Normans, it has infiltrated the facts to a startling degree and is possibly one of the most enduring and powerful in Western Europe. That is actually quite an impressive feat when you think about it.
What we do know is that there existed a series warlords, chieftains or Kings (perhaps a later label) of an independent and warlike people, with a strong Celtic past and identity.
We can also take the position that the Romans didn’t bother too much with them. Perhaps they were more trouble than they were worth, as there is little evidence of full-scale Roman occupation west of Exeter. Perhaps they just didn’t fancy it. Although it should be noted that there are some sites however, even as far west as Gweek, possibly indicating co-operation to some degree.
Another piece of definite knowledge would be that the Dumnonii had pretty strong links (naval, economic and cultural) and possibly an identification with the Welsh and probably Irish kingdoms and Kings (I love the term ‘High King’, it is again very Tolkien, but alas this seems to be mainly applied to the Irish).
The links to Wales, and to a lesser degree Ireland, are most obvious in the similarities of language and culture, but perhaps most importantly, from the 4th and 5th centuries onwards, Christianity. Spreading out, rather frighteningly effectively and rapidly, to Cornwall and Ireland from the nucleus of St. Davids in Pembrokeshire which provided a real binding of the Celtic ‘Nations’.
Lastly, following the departure of the Romans, we can also assume, from sources of the time, that there existed a remaining Romano-Brittonic aristocracy (the Romans were not entirely arrogant, as we often assume them to be, they empowered and mingled with the many of the local tribes and indigenous power to ensure compliance) that were connected to, perhaps strongly, perhaps not, to the independent Kings of Dumnonia. This is where the seed of the Arthurian story is sown.
There was certainly a strong native resistance to the (pagan) Saxons, Angles and Jutes who started to move over incrementally through the open door left by the Romans (‘immigration’ is a better word than ‘invasion ‘for this) and gradually pushed West. It is in this resistance that we find the only historical possibility of Arthur, who might have been a warlord or prince that led a confederation of Britons, including the powerful Celtic kingdoms, against the Saxons. A confederation that, according to the accounts at the time, won an important victory at the now famous Battle of Badon.
The Saxons gradually won this century battle of attrition but the warlike Kings and people of Dumnonia almost certainly played a part in this resistance.
Doniert’s stone, fittingly crumbled and broken, symbolises the last of his line and the last of the Celtic independence from and resistance to the Saxons. Or, maybe more accurately, resistance to change in general.