When neolithic people developed an urge to move earth and rocks around, roughly 5,700 years ago, they worked with a natural canvas with physical features such as hills, outcrops and headlands - and much of it covered with forest. These prominent places served as the basis, the natural framework, on which the future geomancy of West Penwith rested.
Here we'll look at the granite tors of the peninsula - the centres of neolithic activity in Penwith at that time, from 4000 BCE onwards. Together with cliff castles, quoits and chambered cairns, these were the first vestiges of the megalithic era.
Hills, tors and carns
St Michael's Mount, as seen from Trencrom Hill (telephoto shot)
Prominent hills and outcrops (carns) were important in neolithic people's thoughts around 3700 BCE, when things started hotting up in West Penwith. Together with cliff castles, and probably also special trees and woodland places that now are gone, they were the places toward which people would gravitate - special locations where the spirit of place, genuis loci, was strong.
As important landmarks and viewpoints, the tors became key places in neolithic people's mental maps. They weren't permanently occupied as living places - except perhaps during summer or for periodic overnights - but they were used as sacred or magic places and gathering places. In a forested environment in which human life was swamped by nature, such special places were important. People could get above the forest for a sense of perspective.
The aligned hills of Penwith
Interestingly, number of the prominent hills of Penwith are themselves naturally aligned. This is strange. Such hill alignments, though uncommon, logically shouldn't happen at all.
Isn’t it remarkable that Carn Lês Boel, Chapel Carn Brea and Bartinney Castle line up with each other? (It’s not totally accurate but very close - in a 7km alignment they are just 80m inexact.)
Or that Treryn Dinas, St Michael’s Mount and Carn Brea are aligned? Or Cape Cornwall, Zennor Hill and St Ives Head? Or St Michael's Mount, Trencrom Hill and St Ives Head? These alignments are more exact than the one mentioned in the paragraph above.
So is this ‘chance’, or does it suggest a level of beauty and magic that somehow even affects the way topography has evolved? If indeed it is pure chance, it’s a very elegant, remarkable kind of chance.
Onto this topographical canvas in Penwith was laid a geomantic system that makes use of prominent physical markers such as hills and cliff castles as its basis. At first, in the neolithic, this was probably intuitive - choosing sacred sites because it simply felt right - but a millennium later, in the bronze age, there was more of a system to it.
Carn Galva with Watch Croft peeking up behind it, from Zennor Hill
Neolithic tor enclosures
The four known tor enclosures in Penwith are Carn Galva, Trencrom Hill, Carn Kenidjack and St Michael's Mount. Also, within sight of Penwith is Carn Brea, near Camborne, another tor enclosure.
Other significant hills in the neolithic period are likely to have been Chûn Castle, Chapel Carn Brea, Sancreed Beacon, Zennor Hill, Lesingey Round, Bartinney Castle and Godolphin Hill - there's little or no proof of this, but it's unlikely that they weren't significant. Cliff castles were very important too (more on the next page) - instead of rising above the woodland landscape, they stuck out from it on the coast, as headlands protruding into the sea.
All four tor enclosures have a rather mythic profile. Carn Kenidjack, though not very high, is visible from many points on the peninsula and filled with broody character. Carn Galva is like a dragon and commands an imposing presence over much of the landscape - again, visible from many different places on the peninsula. Though neighbouring Watch Croft is higher, Carn Galva has prominence and looks higher - one's eye is magnetically drawn to it.
Trencrom Hill has views over both the north and south coast. It looks imposing from the east and acts a guardian or gateway hill for Penwith, together with St Michael's Mount. As mentioned above, they and St Ives Head align with each other. St Michael's Mount guards Mount's Bay and is visible from many other places, including the Lizard peninsula. Once you pass between Trencrom Hill and St Michael's Mount (on the A30 at Crowlas), you're in West Penwith.
The ancients liked high places, and the northern highlands of West Penwith, stretching from Carn Kenidjack near St Just to Rosewall Hill near St Ives, are littered with early ancient sites. Climate was generally warmer than today during the neolithic and earlier bronze ages, so hanging out on hills was sensible and desirable - fewer flies, less mud and damp, more light, air and perspective. The kids wouldn't get lost in the woods lower down and they wouldn't be charged by boars or wolves. These were the places to be, in those times - on the tops of hills.
Today the tor hills, rising out of the uplands, look rugged and bleak but, in neolithic times, they poked above the woodlands, providing a clear space people could call 'human space', even if they stayed there only periodically for special occasions or in summer, or for meeting up, get-togethers or ceremonies. They were social and spiritual central places, and meeting other people and the sky-gods were both special experiences in those times.
It's crucial to understand the psychological effect of living in dense, endless woodland. It's very different to the more open and cleared agricultural landscape we are accustomed to today.When you're in woodland, visibility is short-distance, one square mile is a big area, five miles is a long way, and the forest goes on forever. There are obstacles and dangers. You can get lost. Your universe is narrow and shrouded by the canopy of the trees.
This has its virtues too, and in those days woodland life was 'normality'. But, seen from a hilltop looking over the trees, another hill five miles away is just over there, and you can see the stars. Getting above the trees served as a kind of breakout from this all-embracing wooded reality.
So hilltops were important for seeing the landscape and connecting with the sky and heavens - whether for observing approaching weather systems, looking around for campfire smoke showing where your relatives might be, watching for omens and signs or observing the rising and setting of sun, moon and constellations. To call everyone in the neighbourhood together, you could light a smoky beacon, sound a horn or bang drums from a tor top and the message would get around.
For neolithic people these places were like the centre of town - places where things happened and people met up. They were definite places in a world without maps and roads, where all movement involved walking and it took hours to go quite small distances. The panoramas at Trencrom Hill, Carns Galva and Kenidjack, Zennor Hill or St Michael's Mount brought uplift and inspiration. There is energy there. Other Penwith hills were probably significant too, even if nowadays not understood to be neolithic sites.
These are the places people went to, as centres and hubs. Being transhumant, following an annual round of seasonal residences, the neolithic people of Penwith likely gravitated to the hilltop enclosures in summer and to mark special occasions such as fullmoons or solstices - or perhaps just to catch the latest gossip. The importance of signalling shouldn't be underestimated either.
Abodes of giants
Carn Galva from Lanyon Quoit
Local traditions tell of giants occupying the tor enclosures - occasionally engaging in rock-throwing battles with each other. These tales will have been derived from creation myths describing the formation of the local landscape, referring back to great beings of the distant past and to the mysterious people of the neolithic or the preceding mesolithic age - as nowadays we might refer to 'standing on the shoulders of giants'.
Tor enclosures were the first big constructed sacred sites in West Cornwall. They started out in the mid-neolithic as well-visited hilltops standing above the forest cover, enabling a god's-eye view over the otherwise pretty ubiquitous forest. Substantial forest clearance started later, in the late neolithic and the bronze age.
Landscape panoramas were important, and the tors had their practical purposes too, for watching birds, weather and sky, and as nice places to be in certain weathers.
Archaeologists reckon the tors were first used around 3800 BCE, and later on they were enclosed with stone-and-earth banks built between granite boulders and outcrops on the sides of the tor hills. Though some archaeologists might interpret such banks as defensive, it is much more likely that they were built for the purpose of drawing a magic circle around these sacred spaces. This was human space, and the banks were a statement.
At first they were presumably open-access, though when enclosing walls were built during the mid-neolithic, a selectivity was creeping in which later symptomised a more stratified society in which the tor enclosures might have been reserved for druids, initiates and invitees only.
It could be that all members of a tribe went there at special times - ceremonies, moots, rites of passage, and for educational purposes and star-gazing - but such spaces were increasingly reserved for specifically sacred purposes. Here lie the roots of a conceptual division of the spiritual from the mundane, giving rise to the notion of temples and sacred spaces, distinguished from ordinary reality, and serving as consecrated places dedicated to higher powers.
These people lived materially simple lives but their knowledge was not rudimentary - advanced ideas were developing in mathematics, astronomy, botany and physics, the crafts and engineering. Materially, their lives were akin those of native Americans around the time the white man invaded their land. Contrary to common modern belief, it is not necessary for a sophisticated culture to be materially sophisticated too.
In the late neolithic, after 3000 BCE or so, the climate cooled and dampened somewhat, forest clearings were increasing in size lower down and, after some centuries, newbuilt stone circles on lower land became the centre of attention. The tors probably remained places of initiation or retreat, but they lost primacy. However, much later, Trencrom Hill and St Michael's Mount enjoyed new leases of life in other times.
Trencrom Hill and, in the distance, Carn Brea
Round the tors
It is commonly thought that Carn Brea, occupied for 300 years, came to a violent end with fighting and burning, but this is inconclusive since its walls and water sources were inadequate for defence. It might instead have burned accidentally or in a ritual burning for cleansing or closedown (like a demolition). It's a focal alignment node in the West of Cornwall.
Trencrom Hill would have been a pleasant place in summer, with a flattish top for dwellings and human activity, a hilltop spring and fine views encompassing Godrevy Head, Carn Brea, Godolphin Hill, Castle-an-Dinas and St Michael's Mount. Later it was occupied as an iron age hillfort where most neolithic remains were destroyed, covered or recycled. It was full day's walk from Carn Brea, and trackways will have branched there toward the Zennor uplands, Castle an Dinas and southern West Penwith.
The twin-peaked dragon-tor Carn Galva, also with fine views, probably acted as a kind of axis mundi for the upland area of northern Penwith. Galva and Zennor Hill lay at the centre of neolithic activity in Penwith - the highlands of the north which, in the warm climatic conditions of the time, were the place to be.
Although the neighbouring hill, Watch Croft, is higher, Carn Galva looks and feels more prominent, and it is noticeable from many parts of Penwith. In a landscape temple context it was probably connected with the cliff castles Gurnard's Head and Bosigran Castle on the coast below it. Zennor Hill was the place in this vicinity where people lived, not Carn Galva.
Kenidjack Castle is daunting and characterful, though not very high. Yet it is nevertheless very visible from many points in West Penwith and from the Scillies. It has two notable rock simulacra near its summit, one of them reminiscent of the cartoon character Andy Capp. The other you can see on the right of the picture here.
Known also as the Hooting Tor, owing to reputed occasional wind effects during gales, it later became the overlighting landscape setting for the stone circle at Tregeseal just below, as did Carn Galva for the Nine Maidens. These stone circles were built later, in the bronze age. The centre of gravity moved down from the tors to the stone circles.
The tors were more for gathering than for living - settlements will have been nearby lower down. They were landmarks and central places, probably good for weather forecasting, thanks to their specific positions. It would be possible to signal from Carn Kenidjack to Chûn Castle, and from there to Carn Galva, and from Chûn Castle to Castle an Dinas, then to Trencrom Hill and Carn Brea. Signalling was the neolithic internet.
While hardly any signs of a tor enclosure remain here, thanks to its subsequent history, St Michael's Mount was a tor site and a cliff sanctuary rolled into one, and clearly it is one of the most charismatic sites of Penwith, stuffed with mythos.
In neolithic times it was not an island. The coast was then a mile or so out to sea, and the Mount was surrounded by flatlands. The remains of a submerged forest on today's beach near Marazion are sometimes revealed during storms (such as early in 2014). It became an island during the bronze age - perhaps a tsunami from Portugal or the Azores did it.
The Mount is a very important alignment centre affecting the whole of West Penwith and, throughout ancient times, it was a significant trading place, particularly for tin but earlier on for gold and copper. It was a meeting point for people visiting Cornwall from the European mainland.
Zennor Hill is a granitic massif with two upstanding tors, one looking over the north coast and the other looking more south, east and west. It once had its own rocking logan stone, and it has a propped stone too - a big stone perched on smaller stones. Zennor Hill might well have been the centre of human activity in Penwith in early neolithic times, if there was one. It was warm and equable in Cornwall at that time.
Nowadays it has a bleak and quirkily shadowy atmosphere - suggestive of something that might perhaps have gone awry sometime in prehistory. It is easy to get lost up there. Or perhaps it is simply the shadowy side of reality that lurks up there. It was probably more friendly and hospitable in neolithic times than today, a refuge from the steamy, dank forests. Zennor and Sperris Quoits are on Zennor Hill - possibly the two earliest quoits in Penwith. This was then a centre of Penwithian life.
So, in 4000-3200 BCE the tors, with their enclosures, were pretty much the most important places in Penwith - together with sites that have some similarities to them, the cliff sanctuaries (or castles). This led the early megalith builders to base the geomantic system of Penwith upon the tors and cliff sanctuaries, creating backbone alignments which themselves determined where many other ancient sites were later to be located. This backbone will have been established by around 3700 BCE, long before the first menhirs and stone circles were set up.