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April 2013 - Rillaton

In Search of a ‘Lost’ Manor House

The Thrillaton at Rillaton

In a summer of excellent outings, this was an absolute gem of a July weekend.  In over a decade of dowsing, the TDs have never had such a wonderful opportunity as this to participate in active, local, cutting-edge historical research, as was afforded to us at the hamlet of Rillaton in the East of Cornwall, UK.

The Manor of Rillaton is mentioned in the Domesday Book.  It also pops up in various well-documented mediaeval records and it has endured to the present day.  It was one of the seventeen assessionable Ancient Manors in Cornwall, assigned to the Duchy of Cornwall at its creation in the 14th century.  A manor house has never been definitively located, and the very existence of the building is a source of mystery and speculation.  To have a Manor of such wealth and renown without a significant building at its core would seem unthinkable - but not even the whiff of a trace of one seems to exist today.

Enigmatically, a carved granite block, dating from the mid-1630s was uncovered in 2012 amongst the remains of a demolished barn - a spoil heap which also included a variety of carved and moulded quoins, mullions and facing stones. These are, with the benefit of hindsight, clearly the recycled remnants of a building of much higher status, and probably from something that previously stood in the vicinity.  Scattered throughout Rillaton hamlet are a host of modest dwellings, workshops and barns - some of considerable antiquity - that seem to contain intriguingly over-engineered or strangely over-tooled pieces of dressed granite.  A train of thought flowed in the obvious direction, and the hunt was on for the ‘lost’ manor house of the Manor of Rillaton.  All that was needed was a method of finding the original building that had incorporated some of these tantalising masonry blocks.

So it was that, through a friend of a friend, the TDs were asked by the Rillaton Manor Research Project to have a crack at finding what a team of dedicated and experienced record researchers, and some technologically-supported archaeological geophysicists, had yet to pin-point.  No mean feat but, at the same time, not a challenge to be sniffed at.

In a hamlet this small, two days over a sunny weekend would seem ample to find the remanence of a substantial building, however misplaced.  Additionally, and to assist the process, preliminary map dowsing had been carried out some months earlier by the BSD’s Geoff Stuttaford from his home near Bristol.  In the absence of any better steer, we set off to investigate his work.

Alan Neal had suggested that any structure of substance from the pre-reformation period was likely to have been situated on at least one major ley.  Given that the strongest ley (at around 25 paces across) strides through the field in which Geoff had suggested that a ‘Manor House’ might once have stood, it seemed as good a place as any to get out the rods.

Hardly had we made it through the field gate before Alan, and fellow BSD member Gordon Ratcliff, were starting to flag up the ghostly outline of a rectangular stone building, which subsequently dowsed as dating from the early 1600s.   Although not the first structure on the site (the earliest dowsed as dating from the 10th or 11th centuries), this appears to have been the first building of its type to have been constructed wholly of stonework.   So far, so good - but, as with most dowsing sorties, the plot soon thickened.

A hedge line, dated by dowsing to around 1750, appears to bisect the northern part of the building’s footprint.  Even accepting that the part in the adjacent field may have been used for animal husbandry, it implies that the grand house, with its prominently carved dating stone, had largely disappeared by then.  If so, then the absence of any remaining visible foundations would make a little more sense.  A dowsing question to find out when the very last physical remains of the structure had been removed gave a date in the late Victorian period – and was probably the consequence of field clearance and the introduction of more comprehensive ploughing methods.

The outline in the building was delineated with standard issue BSD flags and incident tape.  GPS data was recorded and a plan drawn by our local host, marine engineer Mike Todd.  Extremely helpful local farmer, Chris Daniel, even provided a tractor with an elevating bucket to give us the chance to photograph the results of our initial work from above.

A former trackway dowses as leaving the front entrance of the building, running across a modern T-junction of minor roads, through a hedge bank (where a stile had still been in place in living memory) and across a field to the oldest surviving house in the village – East Rillaton Cottage (which has, inter alia, a recently-listed 16th century plasterwork ceiling boss).

As ever, when the dowsing is going this well, a few little rationalist doubts creep into the back of the practitioner’s mind.  Why would Rillaton be the only Manor House in the area to be sited on the crest of a hill, rather than in a valley?  How could it have disappeared so completely that it doesn’t even appear as a smudge of a crop mark on an aerial photo?  Most worrying of all is why, when standing inside the footprint and asking the specific dowsing question ‘Was this Rillaton Manor House?’ do the rods decline to answer - not a ‘no’, but not a ‘yes’ either?  Head scratching time.

Using a mixture of structured intuition, recorded facts and common sense, the story could have unfolded thus:

A timber-built longhouse was constructed in the 10th century.  It was subsequently rebuilt, possibly more than once.   A stone-built, high quality structure was erected on a similar footprint in the early 1600s, possibly by the Steward of the Manor of Rillaton.  By the mid 1700s, the building had been left derelict for some time (perhaps due to damage during the Civil War?) and a new hedgebank was planted, which ran through the northern end of the building’s footprint. This might have occurred when the larger open spaces in the area were being carved up through Enclosure.   The old structure (which had only stood for a century or so) was progressively robbed of its remaining valuable artifacts, and especially of its crafted building stone, right down to the foundations - with some of the best pieces, including the inscribed datemark, reused in a new barn at Lower Rillaton around 1800.  This was itself subsequently demolished in the early years of the 21st century.  At this point, the worked pieces of granite came back to light, and the hunt for the original building ensued.

From an enlightened storyteller’s perspective, this sounds like a credible tale - but only some hard dating evidence in the ground at Church Park Field will give it any real standing.

For the dowser, there are a few technical issues that give rise to further lines of enquiry.  The discovery of the potential site of a very old and high quality building located on a ley is a good start.  However, most buildings of this type and importance also contain a range of significant water and earth energy lines and spirals, which would tend to demarcate it from an ordinary, if posh, farmhouse.  The structure we investigated certainly had a modicum of such energy features, including the site of a well within the structure.  However, the site did not dowse as anywhere particularly special in that respect.

Old manor houses tend occupy sites that were previously used by other groups in former eras, often going back to the very edge of intuitive, let alone recorded, history.  Yet here, despite the prominent and stately position, there was little dowsing evidence of earlier habitation.

Almost as an afterthought, I asked where the nearest sacred site lies - and I found that it was about 900 metres to the south west, with the rods pointing straight at Rilla Mill chapel (which itself may not be on an ancient sacred site).  Again, this would be unusual, as typically the Lord of the Manor would have wanted his own sacred and enclosed space.  A small altar or shrine was detected, but even this lacked the usual definitive energy signature.

So, while a great deal was researched and mapped in a relatively short time, there is still much with which to come to terms.  Of course, from a more spiritual viewpoint, the lack of supportive and protective energy lines could have left the building vulnerable to the vagaries of a turbulent age - and the equivocal response to the ‘Manor House’ question could be simply that it was not a functioning structure for very long, in historical terms.

Another potential site, east of East Rillaton Cottage and now covered in modern barns, was dowsed with the approval of the current farmer.  Although there was the etheric remanence of a number of rectangular stone structures, all of them dowsed as having been modest farmhouses or tiny farm workers’ cottages.  Interestingly - and following on from our experience up in the Church Park Field - all of them dowsed to be ‘manor houses’ (ie houses belonging to the Manor), but none responded to Manor House status.  Indeed, none of them would have been anything like large enough to carry out that role. 

Another unresolved aspect of this work was that, although these buildings were contemporary with both the ‘missing Manor House’ and East Rillaton Cottage, none of them was built on the same alignment, being orientated at about 45 degrees to the current road.

Further dowsing, supported by local research and local knowledge, indicated the sites of former fish storage ponds (which went out of use due to water diversion about 200 years ago) and water-powered agricultural mills - all features evident in a stable and prosperous community.  This made the absence of both a village church and a local Manor House even more of a conundrum.

To approach the subject from a different angle, some of the group set off to investigate the grounds of Middle Rillaton, once shown on a map of the village as hosting an ‘ornamental garden’.  It was hoped that this might have been the successor to an apothecary’s garden, which might, in turn, have been associated with a Manor House.  Alas, the planting of the area was too recent to proffer any new clues, although a plot next door - now badly overgrown - did contain older species of plant, the relevance of which is currently being researched.

Several members of the Linkinhorne History Group were shown the rudiments of the dowser’s craft and all had at least some success.  This could provide a platform for the LHCAG to start to investigate their own micro-area in more detail.  I also offered the assistance of the TDs in continuing the project work and in helping to analyse ideas and data that might be forthcoming.  While we were pretty exhausted at the end of day 2, it was time and effort well spent.  In true Time Team style, just as we were about to pack our tools away and retire for a well-earned cup of tea, a member of the Local History Group asked me if we had considered dowsing at a large private house situated nearby, which has a history at least as interesting as the areas that we had covered to date.  This could (hopefully) be the start of a fruitful partnership.

Many thanks to Mike Todd and Peter Sharp of the Linkinhorne History & Community Archive Group/Manor of Rillaton Research Project - and to Kathy Wallis (in absentia) for the use of her cottage as a base.  Thanks also to local farming families, the Daniels and the Fords for permission to roam around the hamlet environs more or less at will, to Carol & Nigel Rigby at Middle Rillaton for access to their garden, to Alan Neal for once again leading the line - and to the inhabitants of Rillaton for taking such an personal interest in our work.

Nigel Twinn

Tamar Dowsers  


The Manor of Rillaton should not be confused with the ‘Hundred’ of Rillaton; an earlier administrative area that reached from Launceston in the north to Rame Head in the south.  It indicates that Rillaton may have been the centre of administration and a meeting place.

Linkinhorne History and Community Archive Group


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