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History Around the SW Coast Path – Part 1 – Prehistory, The Age of Megaliths, Bronze and Iron

SWCPA Chair Bob Mark is a keen historian and to celebrate the 50th-anniversary of the charity he has written the first article in a series that will explore the history of the landscape that the South West Coast Path traverses. This first part will take us back in time to the age of megaliths, the Bronze and Iron Ages, remnants of which have left their indelible mark on the landscape, helping to form what could be called the ‘wonders of the South West Coast Path’.

So often our goal when walking a length of the Coast Path is time bound.  We avidly read the guidebook walk directions, measure distances, figure out transport, pack the sandwiches, check the weather, and we are off. Revelling in the beauty and the joy of being on the trail.  Perhaps congratulating ourselves that evening over a pint on a brilliant walk which has made us feel alive, refreshed.   Others though have made these same steps over the centuries, shaped the landscape we know today and are half-remembered in histories and stories, leaving us to pleasantly puzzle over ruins and oddities which dot the landscape at every turn.  Let’s begin at the beginning.

Kent’s Cavern Torquay

Where do we go to find the very oldest prehistoric remains? Caves.  Just off the coast path at Torquay, we can still visit Kent’s Cavern (pictured below), owned, and managed as a visitor attraction by the fifth generation of the same family. This cave complex was excavated between 1865-1880 by William Pengelly. A pioneering archaeologist, Pengelly recorded his finds in meticulous detail. Torquay Museum, one of those delightful little town museums so often out of fashion for the modern tourist, contains Pengelly’s finds. The oldest known human jawbone from NW Europe, dated from 40,000 years ago; and many stone tools, some of the oldest in Britain, perhaps dating to around 525,000 years ago.  The museum, begun in 1844, has a treasure trove of over 350,000 objects.         

Land’s End peninsula – an ancient landscape

In much of Britain, you have to dig to find prehistory. Not in Penwith. The Land’s End Peninsula is one of the most impressively ancient landscapes in Europe.  Quoits, a type of great megalithic chamber tomb dating from the Neolithic (3500-2500BC) are unique to West Penwith.  Chun Quoit is the best preserved not far from Pendeen.  Cornish legend has it that capstones on the Quoits came to be here because they were thrown by giants enjoying a game of quoits. The farmland is of tiny, irregular pastures, separated by great banks, each formed of a row of ‘grounders’, huge granite boulders, topped off level with lesser boulders and earth. Why are they here and who built them?  The peninsula is a miniature Dartmoor, with a moorland covered granite dome surrounded by a belt of more fertile land from which the granite boulders left from periglacial times were cleared by the early farmers. Looking closely, we can see that in places these ‘Cornish hedges’ zig-zag to include monster stones which were immovable.  These banks are contemporary with the fields, once formed they are difficult to alter. They have been roughly dated by the bronze age (2400-750BC) objects buried in the banks.  From high points it’s possible to follow the banks by eye and get a picture of how these ancient farms were organised. 

West Cornwall is full of iron age promontory  forts, standing stones, pre-historic villages and even iron age ‘fogou’. What I hear you ask is a ‘fogou’ – Good question.  We can describe them – underground passages and connected chambers, dating from roughly 400-500 BC, – what they were for, whether they were refuges, storage chambers or shrines no one knows.  The best preserved is Halliggye Fogou near Helston on the Lizard.  Chysauster Ancient Village, now in the care of English Heritage, perhaps brings us closer to the lives of these people. The village, dating from about 400BC,  consists of nine stone-walled ‘courtyard houses’, each had an open central courtyard, surrounded by thatched rooms, there’s also the entrance to a fogou.

Isle of Ictis and the land of tin

There are hints and snatches of description of late prehistoric Britain from Greek and Roman writers.  Diodorus, a Greek writing in the 1st century AD gives an account of the working of Cornish tin – an essential ingredient of bronze.  ‘The inhabitants of that part of Britain which is called Belerion [Lands End], are very fond of strangers and from their dealings with foreign merchants are civilised in their manner of life. They prepare the tin, working carefully the earth in which it is produced. The ground is rocky but contains earthy veins, the produce of which is ground down, smelted and purified. They beat the metal into masses shaped like astralgi [knuckle-bones] and carry it off to a certain island off Britain called Ictis.  During the ebb of the tide the intervening space is left dry and they carry over to the island the tin in abundance in their wagons ’.  Most authorities accept that ‘Ictis’ is St Michael’s Mount, unfortunately, no traces remain there of this important early trade.  

St Michael’s Mount by Luisa Voita

Tintagel and the legendary King Arthur

Remarkable discoveries from excavations in the 1990’s at Tintagel however revealed pottery from Carthage, the Byzantium and elsewhere in the Eastern Mediterranean.  Tintagel is forever linked in legend with King Arthur. The whole topic of Arthur is hotly debated. He seems  to have been a hero of the 5th or 6th century leading a resistance to the Saxons.  In 1136 Geoffrey of Monmouth produced his best-seller ‘Historia Regnum Britanniae’, [History of the Kings of Britain] the only known source for the link between Tintagel and King Arthur.  Still, who knows what ancient sources Geoffrey might have used.  From Tintagel’s archaeology there does seem to be strong evidence that Tintagel was the seasonal seat of Cornwall’s Kings, at least 900 years before Richard of Cornwall built the Castle in the 13th century whose ruins we can still see today.

Another wonderful tale stretching far, far, back, is that of the tragic lovers Tristan and Iseult. North of Fowey lies the Iron Age hill fort of Castle Dore.  A huge rough circle of banks and ditches, peaceful in the landscape now, with the occasional grazing sheep.  Castle Dore is said to be the palace of King Mark, (no relation so far as I know), many post holes of this period were uncovered, and there is thought to have been a great hall 90 feet long, aisled, and imposing. King Mark was the uncle of Tristan, and sent him to fetch his bride to be, the young and beautiful, Iseult from Ireland.  On the journey, Tristan and Iseult drank the love potion intended for her and King Mark on their wedding night. They kept their love secret at King Mark’s court until they were betrayed by an enemy. Tristan fled the king’s anger, Iseult was heartbroken. They were finally united in death. From Tristan ’s tomb grew a vine which spread along the walls of the Royal vault and descended into the grave of Iseult. Cut down 3 times. Each time the vine grew more vigorous than ever.  

Many say echoes of a pagan past still persist in Cornwall.  John  Betjeman caught this sense. He recorded a still night, the last of April, the first of May. At about 2 in the morning, starlight, the moon shining on Padstow harbour a song begins .. ‘With a merry ring and a joyful spring, for summer is a come unto day. How happy are those little birds which so merrily do sing in the merry morning of May’.  The men of the town go round to the big houses singing below the windows verses like this. ‘Arise up Mr, I know you well affine, you have a shilling in your purse, and I wish it were mine’ and so on until the masked ‘Obby ‘Oss’ begins his strange dance.  No one knows this ancient festival origins.

As we have seen Cornwall is particularly rich in prehistory. The Romans came but left little trace.  Devon and Dorset are much richer in Roman remains.  Exeter had its fortress, forum, and baths. Topsham was its port. Sleepy Axmouth was the terminus and seaport for the Foss Way, stretching via Bath to Lincoln. The future Emperor Vespasian in AD 43 conquered the mighty Maiden Castle in Dorset. One of the largest and most complex iron age hill forts in Europe.  So, pause a little as you stride the Path. Slow down, venture off the beaten track and history will reward you.   

Written By Bob Mark
Chair, South West Coast Path Association

Discover a selection of Heritage Walks on our website and explore the past as you travel.

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