Framed by mountainous magnolias and riotous rhododendrons, the grounds of Pencarrow House near Bodmin in Cornwall seem a perfect and ageless example of the English country garden. Yet, as ever with dowsing, the Victorian veneer masks a history of continuous change that can be subtly peeled back to reveal an astonishing and unending chronicle of habitation and development.
Given that I had inadvertently organised this outing on Mothering Sunday, it was impressive that some 25 TDs and friends turned out to experience the glorious spring weather and the wealth of horticultural colour that surrounds this (originally Tudor) country house.
We were welcomed on site by the administrator, Sally Harvey, who has been known to dabble with the L-rods herself. After refreshments and a brief introduction, we were let loose, maps in hand, into a vast landscape virtually devoid of other people - as the house itself had yet to open for the 2009 season. With so much to have a go at, it was actually quite difficult to know where to start. So, in true TD fashion, in a few minutes we had all disappeared in different directions.
An ancient Cornish Cross now sits amid the luxuriant shrubbery, but this is just the latest resting place of this venerable artefact. It dowsed as having been moved several times within the grounds and several times before it even arrived at what is now Pencarrow. Some of us braved the brambles and the undergrowth to dowse a spot by an old hedge bank, where the stone had previously stood for several hundred years - only being moved to its current site after it had fallen. Some tried to find the site of the original shaft of the cross, with mixed results! There was a consensus, however, that the now ornate head had been carved from the top section of a former standing stone, perhaps 400-500 years ago.
In the woods to the east we traced the outlines of an enclave of several round-houses, dating from the late bronze and early iron ages. So, Sally’s subscript on the Pencarrow flyer - ‘Over 200 years of history’ - turned out to be quite a conservative estimate - but more of this later. We also found the sites of the wells used by these pre-Pencarrow residents and dowsed the paths they took to fetch their water.
We found buildings of various ages and functions across the Italian Garden and even in the turning head by the front door. There was certainly a phase of building dating back to the 15th century, overlaying construction of the 13th century, when the ownership of the land might have been in ecclesiastical hands. A whole raft of buildings, mainly agricultural in nature, seem to have been swept away just prior to or contemporary with the construction of the early phases of the current dwelling.
In a field just south of the Italian Garden, a labyrinth has recently been mown in the grass for the second season running. Although essentially a temporary feature, it was interesting to note that this piece of grass graffiti already appeared to be attracting some form of earth energy - even more so after the focussed attention of a couple of dozen dowsers.
The Grotto was a bit disappointing energetically - seemingly just a Victorian whimsy - and the Wishing Well, whilst certainly a ‘proper’ well, had no earth energy present and therefore the ‘wishing’ bit seemed just wishful thinking.
In the car park, a set of strange oblong holes are let into an exposed wall, for no obvious reason. Dowsing around the structures, we noted that there had once been a building, perhaps an agricultural shed, of which the wall with the insets was a part - so perhaps they were just storage shelves. We also noted that the floor level had once been much lower that it is at present and therefore the ‘shelves’ would have been closer to head height rather than waist height. A lot of architectural features look curious out of context.
As lunchtime approached most of us regrouped at the Peacock Café to discuss our findings and enjoy a bowl of excellent home-made soup.
The afternoon was devoted to investigating the main archaeological feature of Pencarrow - the Iron Age Hill Fort at the end of the Mile Long Drive.
The latest phase of the earthworks certainly dowsed as dating from around 300BCE, firmly in the Iron Age. However, there were earlier embankments going back through the Bronze Age, possibly into the late Neolithic - nearly 5,000 years ago. Although we often find the sequential use of prominent sites, this one seemed particularly striking and particularly well preserved, given the over-planting of much of the site with specimen trees, some of which dowsed as having been planted over 200 years ago. The edges of the various phases of the ditches and banks were easily found and provided good practice material (with visual feedback!) for the less experienced dowsers in the group.
The concept of the ‘Hill Fort’ is coming under some scrutiny by the TDs, as we rarely find much evidence of fighting or untimely death at these sites. The location might better be described as a protective encampment - a hamlet of round-houses inside an earthen bank and a wooden stockade, designed to keep out the night-time predations of unwelcome fauna, rather than the attentions of malevolent warlords.
Again, we found wells - and scores of hut circles, spanning a considerable period.
A wide ley line thunders across the central clearing of the camp, implying that human activity at this elevated site could date from the most ancient of times, with a history potentially going back well before even the earliest surviving earthworks.
With so much to sense, we were unable to study many of the features in any detail. There are visits when the Time Team’s three days seem positively languorous. With the prospect of searching for a ‘lost’ mediaeval chapel in a nearby field, when it is not being used for crops, we hope to be invited back to Pencarrow on another occasion.
Many thanks indeed to Lady Molesworth St Aubyn for allowing us to wander at will around her garden, to Sally Harvey for being so helpful and hospitable and to member Derek Palmer for setting up this fascinating day out.