We have lost count of the number of hillforts we have seen, climbed and contemplated… but Carn Lês Boel would be our first true promontory fort. These Cornish ‘fortifications’ or ‘cliff castles’ seem to be nothing of the sort, though, and the fortifications, such as they are, seem to defend something other than a settlement.
The narrow, rocky promontory juts out into the sea, surrounded on three sides by sheer and dangerous cliffs. On the landward side, it is bounded by a bank and ditch which, even accounting for the effects of erosion by centuries of weather, still seems a meagre defence, more symbolic than practical. It extends in a wide arc around the entrance to the headland and would take a lot of men to defend it against aggressors.
The natural defence of the headland is the land itself. Just a few men could hold the narrow neck of land that joins Carn Lês Boel, the ‘bleak cairn’, to the mainland and few could attack it at any one time. Not that there is any evidence of aggression or of defensive action there. In fact, there is no sign of anything to defend at all… no hut circles, burial sites or any trace of a settlement at all. So, what on earth was going on?
The area enclosed by the cliffs is inhospitable. There is nowhere on its rocky, boulder-strewn surface where you could build a home, even if you were foolhardy enough to brave the wind and storms that drive in from the sea. Another Cornish promontory fort gives the clue; Treryn Dinas, a similar site, was comprehensively excavated and found to be a Bronze Age site with ceremonial and ritual significance that played a central part in the life of the local people. Perhaps Carn Lês Boel fulfilled a similar role?
The entrance to the ‘fort’ is flanked by a pair of standing stones, one of which has now fallen. The remaining stone is very obviously deliberately placed and chocked into position. It was on this stone that the little bird was waiting. The cliffs were wreathed in the thick sea-mist that had dogged our footsteps throughout our time in Cornwall… which was a shame as we should have been able to see Land’s End from here.
We stepped between the stones and walked out onto the headland. “Come on, guys,” I raised my eyes to heaven. “Give us a break!” And, right on cue, They did. The mists parted, lingering just above the distant cliffs. For just long enough to explore, we had immaculate blue skies and the most incredible colours and vistas.
The timing was just too perfect to ignore. Even the birds were in on the act, it seemed, as a wide-winged hawk sailed into one of the shots that should have contained only the soaring gulls and dark cormorants. Feeling uncomfortably like some unlikely weather-mage, I wondered whether the weather was not giving us another clue to the ancient purpose of the ‘fort’. Was this what the Bronze Age ancestors were attempting to do here? Temper the weather that governed the sea routes that bore the early tin-traders across the water?
The working of ore, the alchemy of turning stone to metal, was a new thing. The advent of metal for tools and weapons instead of stone heralded great change in the way we lived. The old legends paint the smiths and metalworkers as magical, often godlike beings… surely a folk memory of the respect and esteem in which those who forged the precious bronze were once held. For a people in tune with the natural world, and dependant upon fair weather to sail both for trade and to fish, it would make sense that they might seek to influence the weather. To call in the mists…or dismiss them.
One main reason for visiting Carn Lês Boel, though, was that it marks the place where the Michael Line… the dragon-line that runs right across England… makes its most westerly landfall. Hamish Miller and Paul Broadhurst had dowsed and mapped the lay of the ley in their book, ‘The Sun and the Serpent’ and we had brought a copy with us for reference, so that we could visit some of the sites that fall on the Michael Line.
Within that book is an iconic picture of Hamish Miller seated on the rocks of Carn Lês Boel… and, in homage to his work and vision, we wanted to recreate the image in essence, if not in detail. The rock was not hard to find, being the one distinctive feature of the headland.
As we left, the mists closed in once more. We felt we had been gifted with a brief glimpse into another world…or the Otherworld. And we still had to take the long misty pathway back to the car. But the place was not yet done with us, it seems. Doing the research as I wrote tonight, I caught sight of a picture of the beach below Carn Lês Boel… Nanjizal Cove.
The image stopped me in my tracks and left me staring open mouthed at the screen. I have searched for years, wondering if it were a real place or some confused but magical memory of the Durdle Door or some northern beach. Yet, it is a place I know well… I know its pools and textures, the sound of its waterfall and the waves through the portal called the Zawn Pyg, the ‘Song of the Sea’, yet I have been there only in a recurring dream that has been with me as long as I can remember.
I will not tell all of that dream, for some things, I think, may be broken when held up to too much light. Suffice it to say that within it I met the people of the sea and they showed me how to dance with the waves, how to scale them like mountains and laugh as I fell, one with the water as it crashed on the shore. I may never swim in those waters in reality, but one day, I think I need to visit that hidden cove…