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Published: October 17th 2014
The Devil's Chair
Millions of years of erosion have ground the moor's peaks down to their hard, granite bases. Known as Tors, these outcrops often look as if they are piles of rocks stacked one on top of another by playful giants. © L. Birch 2014
A sudden drenching downpour of rain had me diving for cover in the lee of 2 large outcrops tucked in below a towering rock wall, grey and dripping wet from the low cloud scudding across the peak. From my relatively sheltered position, I looked back across the moor toward the shattered summit of Trewortha Tor – only just visible in the almost horizontal rain driving in off the Atlantic out to the north west.
I was on the tallest of the 3 peaks that made up Twelve Men’s Moor on the eastern edge of Cornwall’s wild, Bodmin Moor. Not surprisingly, I had it all to myself but even on a good day, I very rarely encountered anyone on walks across the moor, the odd fellow hiker perhaps or a group of marines on exercises - dressed in camouflage gear with blacked out faces. But on this particular day, my only companions were the ravens and buzzards that occasionally soared overhead - announcing their presence with lonely wind snatched cries. Smugglers, Tin Mines and Mystic Stone Circles
We had the current good fortune to be living in a small village that sat huddled in the shadow of the eastern
Stowes Hill Sunrise
A moody winter's sunrise breaks over the summit of Stowes Hill on Cornwall's Bodmin Moor. © L. Birch 2013
moor. From the bedroom windows of our house, you could just make out the summits of Sharp Tor and Caradon Hill, their slopes painted different colours depending on the seasons; emerald green in spring, russet brown in autumn and winter. It was a place steeped in history with just a hint of the mysterious thrown in for good measure. Daphne Du Maurier had obviously thought so too for her book, Jamaica Inn
- a dark tale of ship wreckers and smugglers - was set on Bodmin Moor. With its rugged tors and wide open spaces it was also a place well suited for long walks in wild and often dramatic surroundings.
I had started my walk in pastoral countryside, following a public footpath through farms and across arable fields where cows had watched me with bovine disinterest, until I reached the edge of the moor. Leaving the last fence behind, I climbed steadily up onto the high moor and began tracing the long spine of Kilmar Tor, its knuckled summit stones looking for all the world like the vertebrae of some gigantic, long-dead creature
The flanks of the tor were carpeted with wortle berries (in taste and texture,
Its head carved with a Celtic cross, this standing stone may actually have stood on Bodmin Moor long before the first Christian missionary's arrived from Ireland. © L. Birch 2012
very like blueberries only smaller) and I had just stopped to harvest a few when the rain began. I could see it sweeping across the moor, engulfing Trewortha Tor first before heading in my direction… time to find some shelter I thought. It didn’t matter that it was August. Moorland weather was unpredictable at any time of the year so it was advisable to be prepared for anything. As it looked as if the rain had set in for a while, I dug into my pack for a pair of gaiters to go over my boots – it seemed likely I might need them after all. Munching on a few wortle berries, I checked through my kit; flask of tea, snack, map and compass, gaiters, ice axe and shark repellent. Yup, I was well prepared. Shark repellent? Well, I work on the assumption that you can never be too careful and besides – it was on special offer at the local chemists in town… I never could resist a bargain. Which reminds me of that old joke: why don’t sharks attack lawyers? Professional courtesy. And as I didn’t have a law degree, I figured I could do with all the
The bare branches of a wind sculpted tree frame the rocky peak of Fox Tor - Bodmin Moor. © L. Birch 2014
help I could get. I also reasoned that if it was good for sharks, midges might have second thoughts about it too.
Eventually, the rain began to clear and I could once again see across to Trewortha and Hawks Tor beyond, its distinctive granite blocks layered like a stack of pancakes. Tors, I should explain, are something unique to this part of southern Britain. The word has its origins in the Celtic language and is used to describe a particular kind of rock formation found on the moors of Devon and Cornwall – usually, a free standing geologic formation topping the summit of a hill. Often, these rock formations have been eroded from much larger geographic features. In the case of Dartmoor and Bodmin Moor, the tors we see today are the remnants of a chain of mountains that first appeared more than 280 million years ago and once ran the entire length of the Cornish peninsula. The highest peaks in this mountain chain were believed to have been as high as those of the Dolomites in the Italian Alps but over millions of years, tectonic activity and the forces of erosion ground them down to the core granite
Beneath Fox Tor
A stone circle, probably erected around 2,500 BC, its purpose now forgotten - stands as lonely testament to a long dead race who followed the stars and worshipped the spirits of rock and water. © L. Birch 2014
base rocks seen today. Frequently, these tors assume bizarre and often fantastic shapes – many looking as if some giant force has stacked a pile of huge rocks, one on top of another.
Moving out from the shelter of the rocks, I resumed my climb along the razor ridged backbone of the tor. I had no ultimate destination in mind, was just enjoying the elemental feel of being in such a wonderful place but there was something I was hoping to find. This landscape looks empty and devoid of human influence now but it has not always been this way. The Celts had left their mark on the land in the form of stone circles, standing stones and the remains of their early settlements – now hardly recognisable as such but there to be seen by those with an eye for such things. We can only speculate on what purpose the many stone circles once served. Were they some form of temple or celestial calendars perhaps? The truth is, we don’t know for sure. Many are associated with Ley lines – invisible lines of mystic energy that some believe flow across the land, binding everything together… a bit like
Engine houses, known locally as 'Cornish Castles', are a distinctive feature of the landscape and hark back to the days of a tin mining boom in the last years of the 1800s. © L. Birch 2014
“The Force” in Star Wars.
Stonehenge, Glastontonbury Tor and many of the stone circles on Bodmin Moor are all supposed to have been built on sites where several Ley lines converged and Earth energies were most concentrated.
Long after the Celts had gone, the industrial revolution arrived and with it a tin mining boom that made a lasting impression upon the moor. For a period of just over 100 years, the demand for tin was so great that huge mines popped up everywhere, the buildings and infrastructure that supported them littering the landscape. The boom however was short lived, the industry eventually undermined by cheaper metal imports from abroad. One of the legacies of that period are a number of old engine houses – many crumbling gently into the landscape around them and now more often referred to by locals as ‘Cornish Castles’. High Peaks, Bears and Cornish Rock Art
At about the same time, a demand for granite - highly prized for buildings and construction work in places as far afield as London - meant that large areas of the moor were plundered for the valuable stone. Like the engine houses that marked the presence of
Mysterious Rock Carved Symbols
...Like this Fleur-de-Lys motif can be found in secret places all over the moor. The reasons for some of these carvings may be obscure but this symbol was a warning to quarrymen not to take stone from the summits above. © L. Birch 2014
the mines, quarries sprang up across the moor which soon rang to the sound of the quarrymen’s hammer. There was even a quarry at one end of Kilmar Tor - once…. but you would be hard pressed to know it now. In the late 1800s, a railway line linked it with the Caradon Hill mines and the town of Liskeard, approximately 10 miles away. The only sign of it now is an eroded embankment where you can still see the granite beds of that long ago rail line. There isn’t much left to see of the industry that once so dominated this landscape but on this particular day, I was keen to find something that had long eluded me on previous walks. After a lot of searching, I eventually found what I was looking for among a tumbled pile of granite blocks – a delicate fleur de lys motif carved into the bedrock of the tor: like a little work of art that looked as if it had always been there. I had long wondered what these strange motifs were for but had since learned that they were placed there to indicate the points above which Victorian quarrymen were forbidden
Last light on a winter's afternoon - as seen from among tumbled rocks at the foot of Bearah Tor. © L. Birch 2014
to remove granite. Was it an early example of landscape conservation winning out over industrial greed perhaps? I liked to think so.
But whatever industry had done to the moors, nature had done a good job of reclaiming. Climbing up onto the ridge again, I was able to look out over the moor and trace the route I had taken along Kilmar Tor's twisted back…. It looked pretty wild out there. Off in the distance, and now that the rain had cleared, I could just make out the outlines of Rough Tor and Brown Willy over on the west moor. At 1,378 ft (420m) above sea level, Brown Willy was the highest peak on Bodmin Moor. The only thing that bothered me about Brown Willy was the English corruption of its Cornish name - Bronn Ughella
that meant “Highest Hill”. The Cornish have always been a little resentful of the English invading their county, which only made it seem all the more ironic that an Englishman's lazy pronunciation should have stuck, rather than the original Cornish name.
In the other direction rose Bearah Tor and beyond that, the distinctive and aptly named summit of Sharp Tor. On a
Evening Light on Caradon Hill
A late afternoon sun lights up the brown stems of sedges alongside a lonely moorland road. © L. Birch 2014
good day, you could see all the way across to Dartmoor in Devon but not on a day of low cloud and rain. It must have changed much over the years, even though it looks a timeless landscape now. The ancient forests that once clothed these barren hills several thousand years ago were home to wolves and bears - now extinct in the UK… at least, I hoped they were. Those darkly forested hills over to the south looked just the place for bears. If it was good for sharks and midges though, I was fairly confident that the shark repellent would keep bears at bay too: a good job I had some with me then.
The glory days of Cornwall's tin mining industry may be over but its legacy lives on in the form of engine houses, mine buildings and numerous other remains still present in the landscape today. Fortunately, all these sites and much of Bodmin Moor is now protected as part of the Cornish Mining World Heritage Site. To learn more, click on the link below Bodmin Moor World Heritage Site
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