Wednesday, 21 August 2013


Today we drove around Cornwall looking at ancient sites in the Penzance area. Our first find was the well of Madron. This is probably the most famous well in the area. Water runs to the ruined chapel 12th century with a doorway to the north (unusual in Christian churches as it is sometimes considered the Devil’s Door), an altar to the east and a simple stone font in the southwest corner (Madron Ancient Chapel) where it fills a simple baptistry. The chapel measures about 24 feet by 16 feet, is roofless and has an altar at the opposite end to the baptistry. There are simple granite seats down the sides. There are many stories of cures that have taken place here, the most quoted being that of John Trelill, a cripple for 16 years, who washed in the water and was cured, early in the 17th century.  In terms of healing, the infirm and crippled would come here, often in May to coincide with Beltane (the astronomical festival of fertility). The sufferer would enter the water three times naked, circumnavigate the well clockwise three times and then rest on a nearby hillock named St Maderne’s Bed. A piece of cloth would be torn from their clothing (specifically from the afflicted area) and it was believed that as the rag deteriorated, so the ailment would improve (of course, clothes were made from natural fibres back then!). Some deem the well’s unusually high radiation levels as connected to its restorative powers. Despite its altar and dedication to St Madern, this tiny and beautiful place is believed to be originally rooted in pre-Christian Pagan worship. St Madern is oft considered a Christianised corruption (including a sex change!) of the Celtic mother goddess Modron.

First, let me clarify that there was not a "St. Madron". Madron, or Modron, is the goddess also referred to as The Mother of Fates, the Spinner of the Threads of Life, the Provider, the Creatrix. She is part of a triad of the Triple Goddess with sculptures of her in the Triple Goddess form found all over Britain, most always near wells. As in most other sites of Pagan origin, the ancient names have been altered through the assimilation of Pagan dieties to those acceptable to Christianity.

Mara Freeman proposed a very interesting theory in her article "Sacred Waters, Holy Wells" that St Maadron's was not only a healing well but also a "Dream Temple". Evidently many sacred wells have a radioactive quality which makes many people drowsy and to actually fall into a sleep while visiting the wells. During this time dreams occur, many of a divinatory form. The altar, or dream seat, according to Freeman, "was customarily used for dream incubation purposes" at St Madron's. This practice of soliciting sacred dreams appears to have been a replacement for the ageless oracles which were normally consulted at sacred wells as being Wells of Wisdom. Earth scientist Paul Devereux noted that dream temples occurred in 300 locations in the Mediterranean area in Greco-Roman times and that a dream temple dedicated to the god Nodens was built at Lydney near Gloucester in England. Deveraux wrote "all dream temples were located at major water sources. The patient would bathe in and drink the waters, then incubate a dream in special cells known as abatons. Ideally the dream would reveal instructions from the god how the illness was to be dealt with, or, in some traditions, the 'Temple Sleep' was considered healing in its own right."

The moon over the water from our window

Lanyon Quoit is a very impressive structure, but it is not a true historical representation. Originally it was taller, of sufficient height for a horseman to sit under. Its capstone had an original circumference of 47 feet, however a piece has since been broken off. This size together with an average thickness of 20 inches made the capstone extremely heavy. Unfortunately its capstone and one of its supporting stones collapsed in 1815. These were re-erected in 1824 but were not put back in their original position. In the mid eighteenth century, the landowner had a dream which led him to have the quoit excavated. A six foot deep pit was dug and a grave was found of which no recordings survive. The quoit was further disturbed more than once. All these disturbances together with the extreme weight of the capstone was probably the reason why it collapsed after standing for thousands of years, rather than the accepted explanation of a severe storm.

An unusual and attractive Cornish site, the Mên-an-Tol is believed to belong to the Bronze Age, thereby making it around 3,500 years old, though little evidence has been found. It consists of four stones, the most memorable being the circular and pierced upright stone. Only one other example of a holed stone exists in the county: the Tolvan Stone near Gweek. The other three stones are more regular granite pillars commonly used in stone circles, with one dressed flat side. There is speculation that these were simply four of the stones of an ancient circle, further large stones having been discovered lying just below the ground nearby. Another theory is that these stones once formed a chamber tomb, a hole of some form apparently being quite commonly used in fertility rituals involving the passing out of exhumed bones from the tomb. Measuring approximately 1.3metres across with a large hole at its centre, the Mên-an-Tol (meaning 'holed stone' in Cornish) has had many a curative and magical power attributed to it, certainly in terms of more recent folklore. The local moniker the 'Crick Stone' alludes to its alleged ability to aid those with back pain and children suffering from rickets and tuberculosis were also taken to this stretch of moorland near Madron in past years. In all cases, passing through the hole was central to the healing process with importance being attached to the direction, the number of times (commonly 3 or 9) and the point on the lunar cycle. With its obvious feminine symbolism, the holed stone was also believed to aid fertility and its powers were sought by barren women, pregnant women seeking easy childbirth and farmers seeking bountiful crops.

Chûn Castle is an Iron Age hillfort on the summit of Chûn Downs, commanding extensive views north and north-west to the Atlantic Coast and south towards Mounts Bay. Pottery evidence from excavations carried out in the late 1920s and early 1930s suggests that the main period of occupation extended from the 3rd century BC until the early 1st century AD, with a possible re-occupation in the 5th or 6th centuries AD.

It is roughly circular in plan with two impressive stone walls, each with an external ditch. Within the interior are the remains of several stone walled round houses, heavily disturbed by later activity. One of these is oval in shape and may be connected with the later phase of re-occupation of the site in the post-Roman period. Traces of stony banks may be the remains of later animal pounds. The only entrance to the site is a stone-lined passage through the larger inner rampart on the west side with an offset opening through outer rampart, suggesting a defensive function, which is reinforced by a short length of bank outside of the opening through the outer rampart providing defence in depth.

Originally the entrance through the outer rampart was set in line with the inner one and the entranceway was aligned towards the Neolithic chamber tomb known as Chun Quoit, though three or four thousand years separates the builders of these two monuments. The modification to the entrance may have been part of the later re-occupation of the site. In addition to Chun Quoit, which is sited 250 metres west of the entrance, there are two other prominent barrows on Chûn Downs, one sited to the north-west and another to the south-west.

‘Quoit’ is the Cornish name for a type of megalithic structure comprising a number of large stones set upright to support a massive horizontal capstone forming a small chamber. Also knows as cromlechs, the stone chambers thus formed were used for communal burials in the Neolithic period. Chûn Quoit is one of a small group of similar monuments restricted in distribution largely to Penwith, though there are two or three further east in Cornwall and they are also common in Wales, Ireland and Brittany. Archaeologists call such sites chambered tombs or portal dolmens, and date them to the 3rd or 4th millennia BC. The quoit is surrounded by traces of a large low stony mound, but this may never have been very high and the capstone at least was probably always visible. The mound is ringed with a low kerb of relatively small boulders and other stones visible in the top of the mound have been interpreted as the remains of burial boxes or cists. There may have been a ‘forecourt’ in front of the entrance to the chamber which would have provided the setting for funerary rites and rituals.

Chum Downs

This small quoit was just down the road on the corner of an intersection

We stopped along the way to admire the coastline at Trevean Cliffs.

The characterful and ancient Cornish village of Zennor lies on brooding, windswept moorland a few miles from Lands End, on the coast road from St. Ives. The village is steeped in history; man has occupied the spot since the Bronze Age. The small village of Zennor huddles around the medieval church between the West Cornwall moors and North Cornish coast not far from St Ives. In that church carved on the end of one of the wooden seats is a strange figure of a mermaid. Depicted with long flowing hair, holding a mirror in one hand and a comb in the other is the Mermaid of Zennor. Legend has it that many, many years ago a richly dressed and beautiful lady occasionally attended the church at Zennor. Nobody knew who she was or where she came from, but her unusual beauty and lovely voice made her the subject of much discussion. With such beauty, the lady had no shortage of want-to-be suitors in the village. One of these local men was Mathew Trewella, a handsome young fellow with the best singing voice in the village. He took it upon himself to discover who this beautiful stranger was. After a service one Sunday, the lady had smiled at Mathew Trewella so he had decided to follow her as she made her way off and towards the cliffs. He never returned to Zennor. Years passed and Mathew Trewella's unexplained disappearance faded into the past. Then one Sunday morning a ship cast anchor off Pendower Cove near Zennor. The vessel's captain was sitting on deck when he heard a beautiful voice hailing him from the sea. Looking over the side of the ship he saw a beautiful mermaid, with her long, blonde hair flowing all around her.

She asked him if he would be so kind as to raise his anchor as it was resting upon the doorway of her house. She explained she was anxious to get back to her husband, Mathew, and her children. For it turns out that the beautiful stranger from the church was in fact one of the daughters of Llyr, king of the ocean, a mermaid by the name of Morveren. Warey of stories of Mermaids the captain weighed anchor and headed for deeper water fearing the mermaid would bring the ship bad luck. He did, however, return later to tell the townsfolk of the fate of Mathew. It was to commemorate the strange events and as a warning to other young men of the dangers of merrymaids that the mermaid was carved into the church pew. According to a slightly different version of the tale, Morveren was drawn to the church by Mathew's beautiful voice and would dress as a human and listen at the back of the church. Every night at evensong the mermaid would come to hear him until one night as Mathew sang a particularly lovely verse Morveren let out a tiny sigh. Although it was as quiet as a whisper Mathew stopped and turned, Morveren's eyes were shining, and the net had slipped from her head and her hair was wet and gleaming. It was love at first sight. The mermaid was frightened and made her way back to the sea with Mathew (and a fair few of the townsfolk) in pursuit. In her haste to get back to the sea Morveren became tangled in her dress and tripped. Mathew now saw the tip of her fish tail poking out from beneath the dress. "I cannot stay. I am a sea creature, and must go back where I belong." But it didn't matter to him. "Then I will go with ye. For with ye is where I belong." With that Mathew picked up Morveren and ran into the sea never to be seen by the folk of Zennor again. However that doesn't mean they never heard him again. He would sing soft and high if the day was to be fair, deep and low if Llyr was going to make the seas rough. From his songs, the fishermen of Zennor knew when it was safe to put to sea, and when it was wise to anchor snug at home. 

Zennor's church of St. Senara dates back to the twelfth century, but contains some Norman stones. The church occupies the site of a sixth century Celtic church. It is said to be named after Princess Azenor of Breton, the mother of St Budock. The mermaid's chair within the church, carved from old bench ends is reputed to be around 600 years old. 

One of the best-preserved Iron Age villages in England, Chysauster was inhabited from 100 BC into the 3rd century AD. The village was probably created by the Cornish Dumnonii tribe. Eight courtyard houses have been found, laid out in two rows of four. Apart from this main grouping of huts is a further stone house, and there are several outlying buildings in fields surrounding the sloping site. Each of the main houses is similar in layout. The building is oriented on an east-west axis, which the entrance in the east. The east-west diameter is approximately 90 feet. A passage leads from the entrance to an inner courtyard of about 25 feet diameter. On the far side of the courtyard is a small circular room with chambers radiating out from it. Rooms for storage and living were built into the walls, which are as thick as 14 feet in places. In some of the houses there is evidence of covered stone drains. A quern for grinding grain can be seen at the site, as can a collapsed fougou, or underground tunnel. The inhabitants of Chysauster survived by farming and livestock raising. Evidence of field enclosures show where the herds were prevented from getting at food crops.
House 7

House 6

House 3

House 4

Fogou / Underground Cellar

Views from our room in Penzance

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