Albion, Archaeology, Books, Photography, sacred sites, Stuart France and Sue Vincent, travel

A Thousand Miles of History: The One with the Hole…

We had intended to visit this and another site on our way to Hayle the previous afternoon, but the map that has thus far led us without fail across Britain had refused to cooperate. It had been a long and eventful day… we had driven far and were feeling the effects of visiting so many sacred and historic sites… and so we had accepted that the land was steering us in a different direction. This time, though, as we prepared to head home, we were determined to find Mên-an-Tol, one of Cornwall’s most iconic yet enigmatic sites… and this time, we were equipped with a much more detailed map.

Turning up a road we had both passed and debated the day before, we found a parking spot by the gated track that leads to the stones. It is a fair walk, but we were now so high that the mists had finally lifted and we could see for miles over the Cornish hills. Had we done our research before the trip, we might have known of the other local sites… the barrows and standing stones… and in particular, Men Scryfa… a ‘raven stone’ we would have had to see and Boskednan stone circle, which we would have had to visit too.

Men Scryfa, a standing stone inscribed with “RIALOBRANI CUNOVALI FILI” which in Cornish means ‘Royal Raven son of the Glorious Prince’. Image: Jim Champion

Time, though, not being on our side, it was probably just as well that we were unaware of what we were missing. We still had one last site to see after this one…or so we thought… before a long drive to our next hotel.

The track climbs gently to the top of the hills, sheltered between old farm walls and banks of wildflowers. Once again, we were accompanied by birds, butterflies and the small, silent creatures that give life to the land.

An old spring and an ancient stone stile marked our progress as we climbed. The promised half a mile seemed a long, long way… a ‘country mile’ no doubt… but, just below the crest of the hill… and therefore exactly where you would expect it to be… there is a break in the wall and a path leading out into the moor.

The stones are small and barely visible, yet you can feel their presence from a considerable distance. We approached the site, which had just emptied itself of people, with a fair amount of excitement. No-one who has an interest in the ancient sites of old Albion can fail to recognise the stones of Mên-an-Tol, which simply means, ‘the holed stone’

Very little is known about this place, though recent archaeological work has begun to throw a little light on its history. The focus of the site today are the four stones that remain of a much larger monument. Two uprights and one fallen stone flank a central holed stone unlike any other in the country. The standing stones, like others at stone circles in the area, have one face that has been worked until it is smooth and would suggest that they were once part of a circle too. The holed stone stands upright between them, although antiquarian drawings show it may have been set at a slightly different angle in past times. We had already decided that we thought there should be a circle, after a brief look at the place and long before any research was done…

Close by there is a burial cairn, as well as the restored Boskednan circle, with its nearby menhirs and cairns and the Men Scryfa standing stone. Not far away are the remnants of ancient settlements and chambered tombs, as well as a number of other Neolithic and Bronze Age sites. Modern archaeology has identified a circle of buried stones around the visible stones at Mên-an-Tol too, and, given all that, it bears all the hallmarks of being part of a wide and socially important sacred landscape.

Men _an _tol5
Plan survey (after Preston-Jones 1993)

The official site for Cornwall’s archaeological heritage states that if the remaining stones were, in fact, part of the sixty-foot circle of stones found buried beneath the turf, “the holed stone would probably have been aligned along the circumference of the circle and would have had a special ritual significance possibly by providing a lens through which to view other sites or features in the landscape, or as a window onto other worlds.” I find it incredibly exciting that even officialdom can make that last statement.

The site is said to be a node point or junction for a number of leys and is a place where folklore and legends abound. It is, so the tales say, a warded place; some say it is guarded by a piskie, others by the spirit of an ancient wielder of magic, while yet others whisper that its guardian is Merlin himself.

In folklore, it is a place of healing. Pass through the holed stone and your back problems will be cured… and curiously, a modern osteopath has suggested that this may be true, as the angles required for a grown man to accomplish this feat could realign a spine. Or a grown woman… I can attest to that!

Pass a child through the opening nine times and you will cure it of rickets. Pass a woman through the holed stone seven times, feet first, on the night of the full moon, and she will conceive a child. Such children as are born after this ritual will almost always be sons, but if a daughter is the result, then she will be gifted with healing hands. The healing touch of the King’s hands, or passing the sufferer through the holed stone, were the only known cures for scrofula, and the stone was well known as a place to lift curses and to protect against or avert the effects of the ‘evil eye’.

Divination could be performed by crossing two brass pins and placing them on the top of the holed stone. The pins will then move of their own accord in answer to questions. As we had no brass pins, we could not test this particular bit of folklore, but it is curious to note that some researchers have reported background radiation levels as being very much higher than normal at certain times. Perhaps folk magic recognises something for which, these days, we need machines.

We had spent some time with the stones and I had already crawled once through the hole stone in both directions, although it felt as if we were missing something. In spite of the long journey ahead, we were unaccountably reluctant to leave, even when three American ladies arrived… and when we have had a site to ourselves for a while and another party arrives, that is always our signal to depart. Instead, we sat and waited while they looked at the stones. They were voluble and friendly… one obviously now a resident of the area, the others her friends come to visit. The local lady showed her friends how to seek the healing of the stones. “Touch the standing stone, crawl through, touch the other and crawl back. Touch the first stone again, then embrace the holed stone.” She demonstrated, her movements describing the infinity symbol, then coming to rest in the centre… which made perfect sense.

When asked where she had learned of this, she smiled and said, “The local Bard…”. Stuart and I looked at each other. He raised the eyebrow. So that’s what we’d been missing! And we’d had the answer to our question from a Bard, and a bard is either a singer of old tales and preserver of old lore, or a Druid… or both. It couldn’t be much clearer.

The ladies soon departed… and we once again passed through the stone, this time following the Bard’s instructions. That felt much better, although it was their use as sighting stones that resonated the most with me. It is easy to see how the holed stone could have been used to survey and construct other sites, but as a stone of vision it would have found use within a sacred enclosure, and we have seen other such stones that served that purpose, including the Seeing Stone at Barbrook and the stone that became a portal to the lands of the Fae at the Nine Ladies circle.

Reluctantly we turned our backs to the stones to begin making our way back to the car. We had gone just a few years when I spotted a pale shape rising from beyond the wall. My camera was in my hand and I snapped the distant form, not believing my eyes. A hunting barn owl, the mid-afternoon sun reflecting from its wings. We seldom see owls and, as I snapped, I bethought myself that we had been in the Roman temple of Minerva just a couple of days before… and the owl is her symbol, just as it is the symbol of my own home city. Although I had yet to make the astronomical and Templar connections there, I could not help thinking either of the snowy owl that had greeted us the very first time Stuart had come south when we had gone to Uffington and Wayland’s Smithy and our adventures had begun.

We took it as a good sign… and we were to see other owls in flight the next day, at least two and possibly three, as we continued our circuitous journey home. And if I choose to take the owls as a promise of further adventures to come, who is to say me nay in such a magical place?