There was one more site we intended to see before we hit the road in earnest, and that was Lanyon Quoit. It is one of the best-known dolmens in Cornwall, probably in part because it is so easy to access, standing in a field right beside the road and not far from Mên-an-Tol. We were really looking forward to seeing this site and so, it was with some excitement that we climbed the stile into the field.
It looks amazing in the empty landscape. The huge capstone, weighing around thirteen and a half tons and over eighteen feet long, is supported on three upright stones. Old stories tell that a man could ride a horse beneath the capstone, but today you must bend your head to enter the chamber that would once have been encased in earth. And for once, it was not a happy place.
The ancient burial chambers that we have visited are usually warm and welcoming. There is no sense of any fear of the dead, but on the contrary, an invitation to enter and commune with the ancestors… those distant kin whose presence gives access to the Otherworld. Where the tombs are sealed by earth, stone, or archaeologists, there is a feeling of vague disappointment and yearning, for these were places meant to be visited, where the womblike darkness of the earth could lead to a rebirth for the dead and, perhaps, a spiritual rebirth for the living.
Lanyon Quoit, though, we didn’t like. It was hard to explain… it didn’t ‘feel’ right. Stuart thought it might be because one of the uprights was not in place, although we have visited dolmens a worse state of repair and not felt this sense of loss and sadness.
Still, we dutifully explored the dolmen and the surrounding area, full of stone burial cists and the traces of another dolmen, now almost gone. The stones once formed a chamber beneath a mound of earth and at least some of the cists may have been placed within the structure, whilst others may be later additions to the site. We wandered off, exploring other stones, both of us, I think, feeling unaccountably guilty that we could not like this ostensibly impressive and undoubtedly famous quoit. But we didn’t like it at all… it was an uncomfortable place and a sad one. As if the stones themselves wept. And we couldn’t figure out why…
It had everything going for it. There are still traces of the sixty-foot-long mound that once enclosed the stones, though there is a theory that this site was never completely covered and the stones may have been left exposed for ritual purposes, while the capstone may have been a site of air burial, where the bones could be cleaned by the birds. The site itself is around four and a half to five and a half thousand years old and it is an imposing monument. It is also known as the Giant’s Table, for obvious reasons, and the Giant’s Tomb because the local legends tell of a giant’s bones being found within the structure. Maybe those of Albion himself, who knows? But, no matter how much we tried… the feeling of discomfort remained, and we did not linger.
It was only on returning home and starting the research that the pieces of the puzzle fell into place. The quoit had collapsed in a storm in 1815, the ground beneath it having suffered at the hands of treasure-hunters. For years its stones lay scattered on the ground until, nine years later, enough money was raised by public donations to allow the site to be rebuilt by Captain Giddy of the Royal Navy.
While this was undoubtedly an admirable endeavour, the reconstruction was not as precise as it should have been. One of the fallen uprights was too damaged to put back in its place, so the capstone now rests on three, rather than four legs. The height of the capstone was considerably lowered and the monument now stands at right angles to its original position… which, it is believed, was once aligned with the cardinal points.
Mystery solved. The megalithic builders did not simply plonk down stones willy-nilly. They were carefully sited, aligned with landmarks on the horizon, with astronomical and seasonal events, and with regard for the currents of the earth. The theory is that such sites either harness or augment the earth’s natural currents, that are not unlike those unseen lines of force that manifest when you sprinkle iron filings around a magnet.
If there is any truth to this theory… and anyone who ‘feels’ these sites or dowses them is likely to be convinced that there is… you cannot turn them around and expect them to ‘fit’ the landscape or to continue to fulfil their true role within it. But the antiquarians of the nineteenth century were as yet unaware of the hidden complexity of these sites. The interest in the stones and their builders was a nascent and unregulated study and most people still thought such structures had been built by either the faeries, the Druids or even the Romans. Our discomfort and the dissonance of the stones was explained.
We retraced our footsteps and pointed the car towards our convoluted route home. We were not planning on stopping again until we reached our hotel and that would not be for another few hours. But well, this was Cornwall… we were almost obliged to get distracted…