Mines, barrows and fogous: exploring the underground (pre)history of Penwith


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Welcome to St Just in Penwith.

Supposedly the most westerly town in mainland Britain, St Just's 5000-or-so residents live about 6 miles from Land's End, the official westernmost point of the English mainland, and barely more than one mile east of Cape Cornwall, where the land also ends, less eponymistically and touristically but equally dramatically, as the outcrop of Cornubian granite meets the Atlantic with high, rugged cliffs.

The name Penwith, like so many place names in the county, comes from Cornish, a Celtic language driven to extinction but now revived. Pen is an extremely common prefix meaning headland, and the 'with' part comes from Cornish for 'at the end'.

This region really is at the end of the land, and accordingly remote - by English standards, incredibly so. It took me 5 hours and that's from Bristol, supposedly already in the West Country - but the patient traveller is rewarded with plentiful prehistoric archaeology, wildlife, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and some of the absolute best landscape and coastline in the world.

OK, that's a big claim, and rather uncharacteristic for a channel that usually tends to pour scorn on such sweeping statements and superlatives, so I admit, I am highly biased; growing up, half my family lived in North Cornwall so I've spent a lot of time there over the years. Childhood nostalgia is no doubt a factor, but to me there's nothing quite so magical as standing atop a Cornish cliff - awe, exhilaration, danger, peace, contentment and perspective.

All this talk of beautiful and magical should not be confused with idyllic, however. Census data reports the majority of households in the district are deprived in at least one dimension - it ranks amongst the worst in England for many measures of deprivation and unemployment.

Partly this could be attributed to the aforementioned remoteness, but rather more directly to the collapse of the region's biggest and most famous industry - mining.

Derelict chimneys and ruined engine-houses are scattered along the coast - forming part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site 'Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape' in recognition of the exceptional influence of the mining here. There's some archaeological evidence for mining of tin and copper way back in the Bronze age, but it was in the 18th and 19th centuries when this really exploded into industrial scale. At various points Cornwall reputedly supplied more than half of the world's copper, tin and arsenic.

Today, these industrial ruins perched on the cliffs appear romantically picturesque, but their location was entirely a matter of engineering and economic pragmatism. The mines run up to a mile out under the sea, with shafts up to 1500 ft deep, so the most pressing technological challenge was keeping the tunnels pumped dry of water.

Devon-born inventor Thomas Newcomen kick-started the steam era with his early 18th century 'Atmospheric engine' - the first ever device to practically harness steam-power for mechanical work - which was invented specifically for pumping water from tin mines. In the century's later decades, the atmospheric engine was superseded by James Watt's steam engine design. Although Watt tried to sew up the market with a barrage of patents, Cornish mining engineers didn't stand still, and the likes of Richard Trevithick and Arthur Woolf created high-pressure compound steam engine designs that outperformed Watt's by some margin. These 'Cornish engines' soon led to railway locomotives, another field in which Trevithick was personally active and influential, but the technology was first born to power the ever bigger beam engines needed to drain ever bigger mines, here on the Tin Coast.

A collapse in the price of tin saw many of the mines close at the end of the 19th century; some pushed on through the 20th but ultimately they too closed in the '80s and '90s, as tin prices once again sunk to unviable lows. Those prices are some ten times higher now, though, and there are supposedly 150 years worth of tin reserves still down there; many of the guides we spoke to, ex-miners or from mining families, clearly had a defiant belief that the mines should reopen.

They may very well get their wish. One Canadian company is apparently in the process of reopening a tin mine near Camborne; another mine is being experimentally tapped for geothermal energy; and between filming this and actually getting round to editing it, the first lithium mining venture in Cornwall was officially announced. Lithium is a key component in electric car batteries, so Cornwall's underground economy may yet boom again.

Still, even when the mines were booming economically, it was a fearsomely hard and dangerous life, and the other traditional economic mainstay, fishing, is hardly a safe and cushy job either. The sea may look fairly placid here but I've seen the Cornish Atlantic in winter and the idea of heading out from these cliffs in all seasons... well let's just say it'd take a braver man or woman than me.

I don't think I'm being overly fanciful to say that this hard life is somehow reflected in the local vernacular architecture. Penwith can do picturesque, don't get me wrong: the fishing village of Mousehole nestles around its harbour in particularly postcard-worthy fashion, for example. But the vernacular of the area definitely doesn't have the overall cosiness of, say, the Cotswolds.

Local granite and slate make for a very grey colour palette, and whereas Victorian church-builders can generally be relied upon to have added some relatively extravagant architectural ornamentation to even the most average suburb or small town, the local tradition of Methodism favoured relatively stark designs for their chapels. It all adds up to an architectural vibe which I might carefully describe as... austere. To say bleak would not only be rude, but incorrect -- the lush subtropical plants in people's back gardens, exotic for England, are alone enough to keep it from feeling bleak – but 'austere' does seem fair game.

Probably the most notable historic feature in St Just is the Plen-an-gwarry, Cornish for 'playing place', a circular amphitheatre of sorts dating back to medieval times.

But by local standards, that's extremely recent history. The region is awash with evidence of human occupation going back to the Neolithic.

Less than a mile west of St Just, perched dramatically near the cliff edge you'll find Ballowall Barrow, also known as Carn Gluze. It was discovered in 1878, buried under tin mining waste, and excavated by a local man called William Copeland Borlase. Remember that name.

English Heritage describe it as a Bronze Age funerary monument, but Historic Cornwall's page claims it "incorporates multiple phases of use and funerary practice spanning the Neolithic and Middle Bronze Age periods". The truth is, it's impossible to be too specific about the dating and phasing of this site, because Borlase was not exactly an archaeologist by modern standards, more of an antiquarian, and the surviving records of his excavation are pretty patchy and full of discrepancies.

Worse still, his excavation wasn't so much as excavation, as an excavation plus rebuilding how he thought it would or should have looked, plus the addition of additional features to allow visitors a better view of the historic bits, all of which he built from the same dry stone rubble, so it's almost impossible to pick apart what was his and what was original, even if you were an expert archaeologist. Which I'm definitely not.

So I can tell you the chambered cairn complex contains an entrance grave and numerous stone-lined chambers known as cists - I think seven altogether - and that it yielded bronze age pottery and cremated bone remains, but I'll give you no overlaid arrows detailing exactly what's what, because your guess is as good as mine.

This derelict old chimney from the mines overlooking this barrow is a useful reference point as I do a quick teleport in video editing to a hill called Chapel Carn Brea. Here's that same chimney. You can't really make out the barrow with this lens and this light et cetera, but there is a direct line of sight, and I dare say that's no coincidence. Because at the top of Chapel Carn Brea is another chambered cairn, or to quote English Heritage's official and rather more unwieldy description, "An entrance grave re-used as a kerbed cairn with cist".

This site's construction and usage seems to broadly match up with Carn Gluze, with the earliest aspects being neolithic, the bulk of the funerary structures being Bronze Age, and the presence of Romano-British finds indicating ongoing use for a very long time. And this particular type of barrow or cairn is supposedly exclusively found in the very west of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, being apparently quite distinct from the umpty million barrows all over the rest of Southern England, although the precise nature of that distinction is beyond my understanding, never mind trying to explain it for youtube. Basically, while I'm trying desperately to avoid some sort of crass oversimplification that would have archaeologists fuming at it, it does seem likely that these two mutually visible barrows were built by the same society or culture.

The other thing they have in common is our friend William Copeland Borlase, who excavated Chapel Carn Brea in 1879. In his usual style he built as well as excavated, reconstructing the cairn as he thought it would or should have looked without the medieval interventions it had suffered. These medieval interventions explain the hill's name, by the way - the cairn was used as the base for a hermit's chapel. The chapel was first recorded in 1302, and destroyed in the early 19th century.

In WW2, Borlase' cairn was in turn flattened to serve as the base of a structure, this time a concrete platform for a radar installation. Thankfully this was all removed afterwards and the land now sits in the care of the National Trust, who graze a few Dartmoor ponies here as a semi-natural form of land management. A charming addition to a landscape which somewhat echoes that architectural austerity I was talking about earlier: its harshly windswept treelessness strays awfully close to bleak even on a beautiful sunny day like this, but it's too bustling with wildlife to be truly bleak. The froth of wildflowers attracted many butterflies, and we saw a rock pipit, a cuckoo, and what I'm fairly sure were buzzards soaring and circling, on the lookout.

It's the sort of place I could sit for hours. For those of you who enjoy the most-westerly-est-most stuff, this hill is sometimes touted as the most westerly in mainland England, and that's Land End itself, what with its minigolf, 4D media experiences, gift shops and novelty signposts, just over there, about 5 km away. Perfect distance really.

A tor with views like this would be magical even without any history or prehistory attached, but there's something extra special knowing this place has been important, perhaps even sacred to humans for literally millennia. We don't know the name of the person buried in this 3 or 4 thousand year old grave, or even the name of their tribe or society, but someone had left flowers for them all the same.

For those who prefer connecting to prehistoric life rather than prehistoric death, Penwith has you covered. A little over a mile's walk away, just behind these trees, or possibly actually slightly out of frame, lies the ancient village of Carn Euny.

This site was occupied from the late Iron Age through the Romano-British period. The earliest housing was timber roundhouses of which nothing remains to see, but they were superseded by the construction of a cluster of 'courtyard houses' in stone.

Courtyard houses are apparently almost unique to Penwith and Scilly in much the same way as chambered cairns are a local phenomenon. They entailed round or oval houses being built into one side of walled oval courtyards. When you're there, it's fairly easy to see the outlines of these features, but I must admit looking back at this footage now it does seem a bit of stretch to pick out what is a house versus a courtyard, or what's one house versus the next house. I don't have a drone so perhaps a glance at this information board's plan will help you guys get a grasp on the layout of the site.

The oldest part of the site is a large circular underground chamber, part of a fogou system. Today this main chamber has a concrete roof cap with metal grille, for safety purposes. It's linked to a long curving passageway which was built somewhat later. The purpose of fogous is not clear, with the main theories being food storage, places of refuge or shelter, or the archaeologists' staple fallback for the unexplained, ritual and religion.

The word fogou comes from the Cornish for 'cave', and just like chambered cairns and courtyard houses, fogous are yet again something which, as far as English archaeology goes, are apparently unique to Cornwall. Western Cornwall, at that.

But to keep describing these things as archaeologically unique or distinct to Cornwall within England risks painting a completely inaccurate picture, since similar structures going by the name 'souterrains' are found around the coasts of Ireland, Scotland, Brittany, and even Denmark. Sherds of Roman pottery found in this fogou date to some 150 years before the Roman conquest of Britain. Penwith, though thoroughly remote from most of England, was not some sort of isolated cul-de-sac, but very much plugged into Atlantic routes of trade and cultural exchange.

The thing about being the headland at the end of the land is that, with only a small change in perspective, it's actually the headland at the start of the land.

Anyway, that's all for this video. I know it was a bit of a diluted travel vlog kind of thing compared to my usual fare, which I wasn't too sure about, which is probably why it's taken me since May to actually cobble this together... but since you all claimed to be eager to watch forty minutes of industrial estate, I'm sure you can bloody well like fifteen minutes of Cornish scenery.