The story of King Arthur always captures the imagination. The Welsh, the English, the French and the Cornish all lay claim to him - and even though he is clearly, on one level, an archetype, the whiff of someone historically real is enough to bring out even the most hardened sceptics. So it was that some 33 members and friends of the Tamar Dowsers and the West Cornwall Dowsers pitched up at the Arthurian Centre at Slaughterbridge, near Camelford in north Cornwall, for a joint outing in April.
After a month of dry weather, the morning started menacingly, with most of us passing through showers on our way to Camelford. But the clouds cleared and the sun shone, and North Cornwall chose to show us its amiable, tourist-friendly aspect.
We were grateful to site owner, Joe Parsons, for an introduction to the centre, part of a farm that has been in his family for many years. The site itself is comprised of three main sections - a mediaeval village, a battle ground (possibly that of King Arthur’s famous last stand at Camlan) and an enigmatic stone, now lying by the side of a small stream, bearing inscriptions in both Latin and in Ogham.
The first of these was the most straightforward. The village, of which just a few scattered mounds are now visible above ground, does indeed dowse as being mediaeval - although like most sites it had been in use for millennia before that. We traced the outlines of buildings and animal pens, and found hearths, wells - and a few contemporary graves in the adjacent field. Jolly interesting - but not Arthurian. Joe and his colleagues are progressively excavating this upper section of the site, under the guidance of professional Archaeologists, with several digs coming up in the summer. Alan Neal agreed to revisit the site before or during these investigations to try to help the diggers identify some relevant targets.
The incessant twittering of the high-voltage cables traversing this part of the site were a real test for the dowsers - but the TDs and the WCDs are made of sterner stuff.
The battle ground presented much more difficult dowsing. The location indicated by the notice board seemed far too small a theatre to hold a decent battle, but the dowsing unveiled a few pointers. Firstly, there were at least two conflicts here. The potentially Arthurian set-to in the 6th century and the later, larger and better-documented confrontation of AD832. Neither seemed to be a pitched battle in the conventional sense. In the indicated field there appeared to be just half-a-dozen sites of the fallen, while the west bank of the valley had a dozen more. However, there seemed to be a greater number under the pylons and leading up to the main road. All this indicated that one or both of these battles were really running skirmishes, with warriors lying where they were killed, while their compatriots fell back to regroup or escape. There seemed little evidence of graves for these fighting men, just the remanences of bodies left on the grass.
The area would have looked much different in both the 6th and the 9th centuries, without the field boundaries, tracks and trees – and the ‘battles’ may well have sprawled across many acres. The dowsing evidence indicates that the ‘Cornish’ were pushed back westwards, perhaps in some disarray. While a further, more extensive, study would be needed to determine the area covered by each of these conflicts, in the responses to Joe’s helpful questionnaire, a number of people indicated where they felt men may have fallen - and where traces of them, or their artefacts, may still exist for the Archaeologists to find.
Strangely tucked away amongst all this carnage, is the recently excavated secluded private garden belonging to former owner Charlotte Falmouth. There was a general consensus that this was pleasant and peaceful place, close to the stream, which had a distinctively female energy. Perhaps this was where Lady Falmouth met with her friends - or maybe it was just her own energy etched into a favourite spot in her landscape.
And so to the stone. It now lies by the riverbank, although it is known to have formerly lain in or across the stream itself. It dowses to have been brought from some 12 - 20 miles away, probably from the Rough Tor area of Bodmin Moor. It was already a ‘sacred stone’ at that time, which indicates that by the date of its removal, the link between the stones and the sacred sites had already been partly lost. It may have been moved two or three times after its arrival at Slaughterbridge. Some felt it to have once stood on the site now called the Battlefield, while others identified a location on the other side of the stream, where the stump of this former standing stone may lie embedded in the bank. Perhaps both are correct. The stone appears to have been toppled by the Saxons on account of the reverence bestowed upon it by local people. The inscription on the Menhir certainly dates to the immediately ‘post-Arthurian’ period and does specifically mention one Artos (Arthur).
While the jury is still out on the precise nature of ‘King Arthur’, our dowsing did not preclude his existence. Whether he was 6th century royalty, or just a local chieftain rallying his fellow countrymen to stand against the numerically superior invading forces, is another story.
Either way, like so many of our folk heroes, there is a gap in history for Arthur and one that the Slaughterbridge site tantalisingly seeks to fill, with some justification.
Any dowser passing through North Cornwall could spend an interesting few hours at this inexpensive, attractively low profile and comparatively unknown site.
This field trip was a very practical example of how dowsing and Archaeology can be brought together to the benefit of both disciplines. It will be intriguing to see if the sites identified by the various dowsers do indeed lead the diggers to find new physical evidence for any of the eras of activity on the site.
There is much to digest here - and it is not something that can be understood in one session. So, no doubt we will return, either as organised groups or as individuals, at some future date, to carry on the dialogue.
Many thanks indeed to Joe Parsons for his welcome and hospitality - and to Alan Neal for turning the coffee break into an impromptu book signing event.