June 2009 - Calstock Roman Fort

The Church on the Hill

Peeling back the layers of human history at Calstock

The church of St Andrew at Calstock stands on high ground which overlooks a sweeping bend of the river Tamar - at least it does when the vegetation is a littler less dense. With the riverside wharves below it and a geological assemblage of mineral lodes all around it, this area has been a magnet for prospectors and industrialists since the dawn of the modern age.

Much of the historical activity of the lower Tamar Valley is summarised in the pixel of the map that is the graveyard and the glebe land of this quiet rural church. With thanks to Canon Andrew Wilson, who visited us on site, we were able to sample the energetic remains of several millennia of human habitation here.

The earliest physical presence on the site dowsed as having been that of Bronze Age people, whose hut circles can be traced amongst the graves. They were followed, and overlaid, by a series of Iron Age round houses of varying sizes. These appeared to have been still in use, perhaps within a hilltop defensive structure when, probably materialising like aliens from the planet Zog, the Romans arrived with their well-oiled military machine to muscle in on the lucrative mining business.

Until very recently, it had been felt that the Roman presence this far west was probably no more than occasional trading or raiding parties, but the discovery of small forts at Restormel and Nanstallon changed that perception. The almost accidental discovery of the much larger fort at Calstock was a revelation. Archaeologists, working under the direction of Dr Chris Smart of the University of Exeter, chanced upon the site whilst researching the area’s rich mining heritage. The British Society of Dowsers Archaeology Group carried out an initial survey earlier in 2009, in support of the UoE, identifying ramparts and ditches constructed in the classic Roman ‘playing card’ format.

Although on this visit we were limited to those parts of the outline of the fort that run through the church grounds, we were able to pick up the width and direction of the defining earthworks, where they lie beneath the final resting places of later residents of the area. Group members came up with varying figures for the number of men stationed on the site at any given time, but despite the dearth of artefacts found by the archaeologists, the general view was that there had been a substantial military presence for at least part of the period of occupation.

In addition to the defensive works, recently excavated but subsequently neatly backfilled, we found the outlines of various buildings, including some from the second – fourth centuries CE. Given the Romans’ strict adherence to the ‘Fort Builders’ Design Code’, it was unsurprising that these were very much aligned to the cardinal directions. The buildings were a motley collection of barrack blocks, store rooms and administrative ‘offices’ - but unusually we were unable to dowse an obvious sacred site (but more later).

With the decline of Rome and the retraction of the longer tentacles of the empire, the soldiers departed, leaving little trace of their previously dominant presence. Some buildings dowsed as having been standing towards, or perhaps a little after the end of Roman era, but these were destroyed by fire or plundering in the subsequent decades.

We dowsed several chunks of the legendary Roman road network (part of which had been previously excavated and date-verified). In addition to the Via Principalis, we discovered several smaller roadways or trackways within the curtilage of the former camp. These ranged from about 24ft across for the major routes to just a couple of metres for the footpaths and animal tracks.

The demise of the emperor’s army, however, was far from the end of the story. We were able to dowse the outlines of buildings from the 12th century onwards, through the mediaeval period to at least the 18th century. These tended to be on alignments other than that of the Roman grid-iron plan, so it is likely that all trace of the former fort had been lost by then. Most were agricultural buildings or cottages with integral animal quarters.

We had a considerable consensus that the earliest Christian activity on the site dated from the 8th century, when a small wooden structure had been erected. This was replaced in the 12th or 13th century by a simple stone-built structure - the outlines of which are dowsable on the floor of the current church. Subsequent changes to the floor plan make accurate date-dowsing difficult, but the energy traces of walls from various periods were evident. Unusually for a Victorianised church, the relatively modern font appears still to be located in its original position, with the crossing water lines augmented by a sinuous earth energy line, clearly dowsable beneath it.

Again, it is rare to find such an ancient site bearing no ley lines, especially when you consider its elevated position. One ley line does skirt the northern edge of the graveyard, but the implication is that, despite the classic signature of earth energy and underground water lines, this was not a sacred site as such in pre-history. Before the first Christian building, there was some evidence of spiritual activity from the 5th century onwards, but it isn’t until the arrival of the stone structure that the energy concentrated by religious activity really starts to makes itself felt.

Interestingly, we dowsed the outlines of at least two Roman-era buildings within the nave and aisles of the current church - and the church itself is aligned with the fort.

The main energy centre of the church lies just inside the chancel, indicating that the main altar may have been moved eastwards to its current location at some point.

One strange energy feature of the church is the presence of a downshaft, just south west of the chancel. Effectively, this is a small subterranean waterfall, where an underground stream drops through a fault in the rock leaving a patch of disturbed energy to be found by the dowser. It would be unusual for this to be incorporated into the design of a pre-reformation church laid out on the traditional Masonic pattern, so one is led to the conclusion that it has developed subsequently, perhaps through minor geological instability or maybe as a result of mining activity.

Many thanks indeed to Canon Andrew Wilson for his kind permission to allow us to access and investigate this particularity pleasant part of his east Cornwall parish.

Nigel Twinn

Tamar Dowsers, June 2009