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Feb 2011 - David Hooley

The Unfolding History of Bodmin Moor

A presentation by Dave Hooley

at North Hill Village Hall

History is being created all the time. Whether it was the building of the Hurlers, over 3,000 years ago, or the erection of the telecoms masts that overlook them from Caradon Hill, in the last century - the past is always with us.

Nearly 50 members and friends turned out to hear local resident, and English Heritage national Inspector of Ancient Monuments, Dave Hooley, describe many of the historic man-made features of this sector of our local countryside.

We now regard Bodmin Moor as marginal land but, as Dave pointed out, this has not always been the case. Much of what is now open moorland was once fertile farmland - as many of the remaining structures still indicate.

The huge dolmen of Trethevy Quoit is well known to dowsers and tourists alike, but there are others less well known, such as the similar smaller structure, now fallen and overgrown, below Bearah Tor. Dave’s picture of this looked fascinating and the dowsers were clearly taking notes. Although some bones had been found in these structures - and burial was certainly part of their use at times during their long history - Dave felt it was not their primary purpose. He considered that a less tangible function underlay their original positioning, such as a statement about land ‘ownership’ or a display of status. While dowsers would point to the many energy features that also surround such ancient megaliths, it was interesting to hear a professional archaeologist acknowledging potential alternative aspects of their construction and siting.

We found some further common ground when discussing the various embanked hilltops of the area. Dowsers have long struggled to find much in the way of military elements at these vast constructions - and Dave, too, felt that ‘Hillforts’ may have had more to do with announcing a sense of place and the presence of the tribe, than simply being over-massive defences.

The layout of the landscape on Stowe’s Hill, north of the Cheesewring, is of great interest. Part of it seems to have hosted no obvious habitation, but may have been used for religious or spiritual purposes. An enclosed area, bounded by edge-set stones, seems to respect the wonderfully sculpted natural outcrop of the tor. Beyond this, the level plateau of Stowe’s Pound bears the remains of a large number of house platforms - areas cleared of stones to allow domestic huts of wood and wattle to be erected. More scribbled notes by the dowsing community.

Despite the rapacious quarrying of the south of Stowe’s Hill, it was fascinating to appreciate that the Cheesewring itself had been spared - indicating that even the hard-nosed stone cutters might have understood something of the sanctity of the place, or maybe even sensed its accompanying energies.

We then had a look at the enigmatic Rillaton Barrow, former site of the Bronze Age Gold Cup - which ended up as a cuff-link container in the bedroom of King George V, but is now housed, more appropriately, in the British Museum.

Dave edged a little closer still to the audience, by explaining a straight landscape alignment of which he had become aware - running NorthWest/South East across Craddock Moor. It includes a number of archaeological features such as the stone circle, and also a pair of parallel embankments that seemed designed to emphasise the invisible line. Towards the northwesterly end of the alignment, a stone row appears to end abruptly against the line, as if blocked. This clearly interested Dave - and the dowsers were already earmarking it for a future visit.

Around the end of the first millennium AD, many of the open settlements of the area were abandoned, probably due to the high rainfall and the denudation of the wildwood. Mediaeval attempts to re-cultivate the land, reusing many of the prehistoric fields, were short lived. The Black Death saw the end of this venture as more fertile land became available to the survivors in a smaller population.

Parts of the moor continue to show the impact of later tin streaming - the stripping away of swathes of the surface of the landscape, by the use of water released from purpose-built dams. This activity had resulted in the silting up of harbours further downstream, such as at Lostwithiel.

In the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, German miners had been brought in to exploit the tin using new methods of extraction - and the moor still bears the pock-marking of their rows of pits dug into the mineral lodes.

By the 17th and 18th Centuries, deeper shaft-mining had become the norm, with horse-drawn water drainage pumping. This increased the scale and complexity of the operations, and required sophisticated water management and ore separation processing.

Towards the end of the Victorian era, concern was being expressed that the uncontrolled mining of the area was removing much of the moor’s past history, and certain features were ethereally ‘protected’ by the cutting of fleur-de-lys emblems on surrounding stones.

Dave illustrated one last feature, which might confuse both the archaeologist and the dowser alike - a small walled grass platform. Images from old postcards showed it to be the base of a peat turf stack. Dried peat was a valuable fuel resource for those living on the land that we now call Bodmin Moor, over the centuries.

Dave’s final slides showed the impact of changing vegetation since his initial archaeological work undertaken in the 1990’s. Growth had become more verdant in response to a reduction in the intensity of grazing - and had resulted in it now partly obscuring some of the smaller archaeological features.

Many thanks indeed to Dave Hooley for taking the time to talk to us about a fascinating part of our patch, which he clearly regards with a great affection. Many thanks too to all those who helped to put on this event - which was clearly much appreciated by all concerned.

Nigel Twinn

Tamar Dowsers

February 2011


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