We stood at the gate in hushed awe. For a moment it seemed as if we were looking through a rift in the mists of time, back to an age that has passed beyond memory, when the land was still young and the old gods walked the earth. It was the silence before the thunderous applause that greets a virtuoso performance, the inbreath before a lover’s sigh and the hush of a candlelit temple. The mists that had closed around us as we crossed the fields now veiled the circle of stones from the eyes of the world. We were alone with history and magic.
There are places that are hard to describe, almost impossible to write about…not simply in order to do them justice, but because they reach inside you, lighting long forgotten corners of memory that are older than your own. It is hard to remember the details of what we did at first, how we passed through the gate into the enclosure that protects the circle with a ring of living green. I recall walking between the stones of the ‘entrance’ at some point, feeling the tension dissolve and the mist part as if a curtain had been drawn back for us… though that could not have happened. Or could it? At Boscawen Un, I am ready to believe that anything is possible.
The first thing you see is the central stone, almost ten feet tall, yet positioned at a deliberate angle so that its tip is only around six feet from the ground. Our first thought was that it looks decidedly masculine. It also looks like the gnomon at the centre of a sundial, though it is positioned just southwest of the centre of the circle.
Its shape is also reminiscent of a stone axe, a shape we have seen over and over again associated with these ancient sites. The stone axes were as much ceremonial as they were practical, with beautiful, polished examples being traded across Europe, even in the Neolithic era when the standing stone was erected. There are also traces of two axes carved into the stones, similar to others found in Brittany, just across the sea. The angle of the stone is curious and was thought, for a time, to be the result of disturbance by treasure hunters at some point in history, but excavations have shown how the stone is supported in a way that suggests the angle of its setting was deliberate.
The standing stone is the oldest part of the circle and may predate the surrounding stones by thousands of years. The official suggestion is that it was a place where rites were practised for the fertility of the clan and the land. This is often used as a simplistic blanket for all ritual sites that are not fully understood, but here… and given our initial impressions… I don’t think we would argue with that.
Around the central stone, nineteen stones form an elliptical dance up to eighty-two feet in diameter, dating to the Bronze Age. The stones each stand between three and five feet high and have smooth-worked surfaces facing the centre of the circle. The theory that the circle deals primarily with lunar energies is supported by the fact that there are nineteen stones, representing perhaps the Metonic Cycle… which describes the lunar cycle that takes nineteen years for the moon to return to an exact spot in the night sky. One group of stones is aligned with the direction of the midsummer sunrise, and one stone in particular has to be significant, being a huge, single block of white quartz streaked with scarlet.
This stone is placed directly behind the menhir at the circle’s heart and it makes its presence felt in no uncertain terms. It seems to be the feminine counterpart of the standing stone and has the feel of an altar. It may indicate the presence of the full moon at the summer solstice, and the circle itself is aligned with the summer solstice sunrise at Lamorna Gap.
Close to the ‘entrance’ are the remains of what seems, at first glance, to be a burial cist, though it is not what it seems at all. Its purpose remains unknown, though we felt it had something to do with dreaming at the circle. Nearby, hidden in the bracken, are the remains of a burial mound where decorated urns were found containing cremation burials. There are also a number of standing stones in alignment from Sennen, through the Field Stone close by, to a triangular stone we had noted right beside where we parked to talk to the farmer and ask for directions.
The circle is enclosed within a green wall of stones, earth and flowers that were erected to protect it in the mid-nineteenth century. In the hedge is an ancient elder… and the ‘scawen’ of Boscawen Un is Cornish for the elder tree, one of the sacred woods of the Druids and one with strong feminine associations in folklore and legend.
Boscawen Un is still used as a place of ritual. It is a place where handfasting ceremonies are performed. The modern-day Bards held the first Gorsedd Kernow here in 1928, based on the tradition of earlier gorsedds in the sixth century. It is doubtless used by local covens and certainly by visitors from every branch of the spiritual tree. We were struck by the impression that this is still a working circle, thousands of years after it was built… even if it is no longer used for all the rites for which it was intended, though the forces thus invoked still make their presence felt.
We knew none of this when we visited the circle. Snippets read here and there, perhaps, but no coherent picture had been built to shape our preconceptions; the research comes later. It is not about dissecting these sites, but about feeling them and learning what we can from the experience. Each site has its own unique character and song… and the circles of stone are not called ‘dances’ for nothing.
Time stood still. It felt like no time at all, yet my camera tells me that our visit took over two hours in all. We mooched around a little, but felt little need to do so. I set my back to the standing stone and let the earth flow through me then, by common and unspoken accord, we stood by a stone, just to the north of the quartz. Other than that one stone and the central menhir, the stones of the circle are an unremarkable grey granite, with, at first sight, nothing to recommend one above another. This one drew us. It was, we felt, the right place to be. A week or so later, we found out why… The Michael line we had been pursuing meets the Mary line at a node in the circle… and the Mary line enters through ‘our’ stone. Even the earth energies ‘mate’ here.
It was while we stood there that we heard the bellow of a stag, eerie in the mist. Over and over it bellowed, even though it was way too early in the year for the autumnal mating challenges…and even though the red deer in Cornwall are very rarely seen this far west. It is an unmistakable sound and one we had heard at close quarters one day, early in our adventuring, when we had been privileged to watch one such challenge. Why was the unseen stag bellowing in the silvery light? Was it really there, or a ghost of some arcane past called up by our silent presence in the dance of the stones?
As we left the circle, we turned and watched the unremarkable stones as they seemed to shift and morph, revealing faces and forms that we had not before perceived. The place was alive with magic and somehow, we had been blessed to be part of it for a moment that had allowed us through the veiling mists. We were reluctant to leave, and I will count that visit as one of the most magical of my life. And, once outside the gate again, when we looked back, the circle had disappeared.
There was a strange postscript to the visit to Boscawen Un… one that did not fully reveal itself until later. For a start, I realised that me, the serial photographer, had barely used my camera. Then there was the water. Utterly drenched for the past two hours, with our clothes dripping and with whole pints of water needing to be poured from my boots, we were obliged to change into drier clothes in the layby before getting back into the car. With the sheer quantity of cold water and a sunless morning, as well as my long-term health issues, I should have been frozen, stiff as a board, in pain and struggling after our visit. Instead, I spent a full twenty-four hours completely pain-free for the first time that I can remember. I felt like a girl, new-made, full of energy and care free… and if I can thank the stones for that, then I do, with all my heart. Mind you, it was just as well I felt that way, given what else we had planned for the day…