The Ancient Sites of Bodmin Moor
Although today Bodmin Moor is a sparsely populated wilderness area, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that it was once a bustling hub of civilisation and many parts of the moor are literally covered with the remains of ancient ritual sites and settlements. One of the most impressive of these is Trevethy Quoit, near Minions, a spectacular example of a Neolithic portal tomb, in Cornish a 'quoit', of which only around twenty exist in the world. These types of structures were used to deposit the ash from cremations during the Bronze Age. Seven slabs of the original quoit survive at Trevethy with the four meter long capstone weighing an estimated ten and a half tons and leaning at a somewhat precarious angle since the rear slab collapsed several hundred years ago. In the past, the stones would have been invisible, covered by a massive mound of earth and boulders. A small and mysterious rectangular opening has been cut into the front closure stone in order to provide access to the quoit, known locally as 'The Giants House'.
Also within easy walking distance of Minions is one of the best-known landmarks on Bodmin Moor, a collection of three aligned stone circles known as The Hurlers, which date back to around 1500BC. The Hurlers, so called after a local tradition that claims they were once men, turned to stone for playing the local game of hurling on a Sunday, are strategically placed on high moorland between the tributaries of the River Fowey to the west and the River Lynher to the east. Multiple stone circles are commonly found in places such as this, where travellers and traders could meet, and the central and northern circles would once have been linked by a granite pathway running through their central axis. The central circle is the largest, retaining fourteen stones. The northern circle has fifteen of its original twenty four stones, although four are fallen, while the southernmost and smallest circle is incomplete and has only nine of its original stones.
Both the Hurlers and two standing stones nearby known as The Pipers stand on flat ground beneath the famous rock formation known as The Cheesewring, a massive pile of large flat boulders precariously balanced on top of one another, some of which are over thirty feet in circumference. Unlike the stone circles, the Cheesewring was formed naturally as the result of erosion. Legend tells a different story, however, and claims it is the result of a dramatic fight between the saints and the giants. Fed up with the saints claiming ownership of land which had been theirs for centuries, the giants challenged them to a stone-throwing contest. In spite of the fact that the giants were so much larger, the saints won the contest with help from the angels, managing to throw larger rocks onto the giant's smaller ones. There is a signposted car park about two hundred yards from The Hurlers, located a few miles south west of Minions.
Numerous other stone circles have been found on Bodmin Moor, including the famous Nine Stones of Altarnun, an easy walk south of Altarnun village and one of the few circles in Cornwall that has a central stone. The Nine Stones of Altarnun was reconstructed in the nineteenth century, although some of the stones have since fallen or are leaning at precarious angles.
Manor Common, near the villages of Blisland and St Breward, is home to Cornwall's largest and most usual stone circle, known as the Stripple Stones Henge, which stand uniquely within a henge-like circular bank and ditch. Located on the southern slopes of Hawk's Tor, fifteen of the original twenty eight stones remain of which only four are still standing. The fallen central longstone is an impressive fourteen feet long. Nearby, and accessible by driving a short way down the track towards Hawk's Tor Farm, is another stone circle known as The Trippet Stones.
Both the Stripple Stones and The Trippet Stones were erected around four thousand years ago when the moor was densely populated and would have served as part of a ritual landscape that also included large settlements such as that which can still be seen on the south western slopes of Carburrow Tor. Two cairns on the summit of Carburrow Tor, one of which (on the eastern side) was hollowed out during the second world war to form a lookout post for the home guard, are said to conceal two golden coffins, watched over by a flock of birds who chase away intruders.
Just south of the A30 and accessible via Temple bridge lie the remnants of another large Bronze Age settlement. Black Tor ancient settlement consists of a huge complex of ninety four huts and enclosures of which numerous upright stones are still visible, probably former south-facing doorways. There is some evidence of field enclosures to the south east of the settlement and three cairns are located in a field to the north. The settlement is barely visible in summer due to an overgrowth of bracken. Further settlements have been found on the southern slopes of Brown Willy, whose south summit is also topped by a burial cairn.
Still more evidence of ancient settlement peppers the landscape as you walk up towards the summit of Rough Tor from the car park. On the southern slopes, below the trademark stony clitter, are the remains of a large number of hut circles set around three or four small enclosures which join onto prehistoric field systems that have been overlaid with medieval ones. A more extensive though very similar settlement lies on the north-west side of the Rough Tor ridge. Here, more than a hundred hut circles and small enclosures sit alongside fragments of ancient field systems. The two Rough Tor settlements relate to at least three phases of occupation during the early to mid Bronze Age and represent more than a thousand years of settlement.
The Rough Tor area is part of a larger ritual landscape that includes several small cairns found in the fields nearby, at least two stone circles, numerous monuments and a rare Neolithic Tor Enclosure that sits on the summit of the hill and consists of several rough stone walls that link with natural stony outcrops to form an enclosed space, the original function of which remains unclear. Although many of the walls are now degraded, some are well enough preserved to give an excellent impression of what the enclosure must once have looked like, punctuated by numerous narrow stone-lined entrances. The foundations of a Medieval chapel have recently been discovered built into the side of one of the larger cairns on the Rough Tor ridge. The chapel is dedicated to St Michael and was first recorded in the fourteenth century. It sits next to an ancient trackway and is thought that it may have been used to guide travellers across the moor.
A curving line of five Bronze Age cairns run all the way along the ridge of Brown Gelly, Cornwall's third highest hill. The central cairn is massive, at around fifteen feet high, with steep sides and a discernible dome shape. There is another large cairn at the northern end of the ridge, this time with the top missing and the inside scooped out. Between these two is a giant ring cairn with an outer bank about three feet high and a depression about five feet across leading to a central mound.
Another impressive Bronze Age ring cairn has been found on a featureless bit of moorland known as East Moor, near Altarnun. The cairn is sixty foot in diameter, flat in the middle and surrounded by a low ring of stones mostly buried in the grass. Just to the south of the ring cairn is a traditional cairn with a mound in the middle as well as a long granite stone lying on its side, possibly one of several menhirs that once surrounded the cairn. North of the ring cairn is an archaeological mystery known as the East Moor Enclosure. Look very carefully and you will see around forty two stones, all are under ten centimetres high, which may have been part of a ritual enclosure.
The mostly flattened East Moor Stone Row sits between East Moor and the lower slopes of Fox Tor. At the western end of the stone row Fox Tor rises to a height of more than a thousand feet and shows traces of a boundary bank as well as former long houses. East Moor is accessible via the conifer plantation just south of the A30 near Bolventor. Alternatively it can be approached from the Nine Stones of Altarnun, although this is a long walk across boggy ground.
An even more fascinating stone row has been found on Cardinham Moor, on the slopes of Colvannick Tor. The three hundred and eighty metre long Colvannick Stone Row consists of much bigger stones, around one metre tall. Most have fallen although three remain standing, two of which are large enough to give some impression of the way the row may have looked in the past, clearly visible for miles around. The area of Cardinham Moor to the east of the stone row is littered with small Bronze Age barrows and there are a couple of hut circles on the east-facing side of Great Care Hill, hidden amongst the gorse. Watch out for the military firing range which has kept this area of Bodmin Moor relatively undiscovered. Footpaths exist, but are unsignposted.
One of Bodmin Moor's greatest mysteries is a rectangular enclosure known as King Arthur's Hall, situated north of the A30 on an area of open moorland known as King Arthur's Downs, also home to a flattened double stone circle. Fifty-six of what may have been one hundred and forty vertical flat stones border the inside edge of the enclosure. The original function of the enclosure is shrouded in mystery, although an ancient trackway crosses the moor nearby, marked by a couple of standing stones. The enclosure, which possibly takes it's name from the fact that the vertical flat stones resemble chair backs, dates back to at least 2500 BC. There are footpaths from St Breward church to King Arthur's Downs.