Three days and countless ancient places earlier, our attempts to visit the Cheesewring with Alethea and Larissa had been thwarted by the roiling mists of Bodmin Moor. Mists or not, we were determined to try again on our way home, so once again we found ourselves walking through the triple stone circles of the Hurlers.
This time it was sunny and there were people wandering the stones with us… lots of them. There is much to be said for choosing a day of poor weather when visiting ancient sites. It is not that we object to sharing them but it is much harder to get to the heart of a place when it is full of visitors. It is also unpleasant to see how some… a very few… treat these important parts of our heritage. We view them as the sacred places they were to those who built them and accord them the reverence and respect we would accord to any place of worship, ancient or modern. We do not always have to share a faith to recognise that, at its heart, when humanity turns its face to the stars we are seeing the same Light.
So, leaving the stones and its visitors behind, we passed through with a moment’s acknowledgement of their presence and headed for the Cheesewring, a precarious pile of rock named for its resemblance to an old type of cheese press. It stands at the centre of a once-inhabited landscape and would doubtless have been revered for the spirit of the stone. The formation, over thirty feet high, is natural, carved by thousands of years of weathering… or so the prosaically-minded will tell you. Others will recount how the rocks were piled during a wager between a giant and a saint.
The Giants of Cornwall were unhappy. Christianity had come to the land and the saints were taking over their holy wells and sacred hills. One of the biggest Giants was Uther (who just happens to share his name with King Arthur’s father… but I digress…). Uther was not only the strongest of the Giants, but also amongst the cleverest and he was chosen to represent the Giants’ cause and get rid of the encroaching saints.
He went to Saint Tue, a frail, ascetic man who fasted much and proposed a rock-throwing contest, to which the saint agreed. If the Giant won, the saints would leave the land, returning the holy wells and their offerings to their rightful owners. If the saint won, the Giants would accept the new faith. Uther threw the first stone, a huge boulder which landed on the summit of Stowe Hill. Tue looked at the stones and, his heart full of prayer, lifted lightly a great rock and hurled it at the hill.
Time after time the two contended, until they each had a pile of rocks twelve boulders high, perfectly poised, one atop the other. When Uther hurled the thirteenth rock it missed his pile and rolled down the hill. Tue hefted the final stone, praying with all his might… and an angel carried it to the top of the pile. The Giants had lost and were converted to Christianity and the face of the West Country changed forever. But atop Stowe’s Hill, the stack of boulders remains, still perfectly balanced.
But was it the saint’s or the Giant’s stack that was left standing? Either way, the topmost stone is said to turn three times around when it hears a cock crow, which does bear some relationship to the Biblical story of Peter’s denial… and Peter was the “rock”. On the other hand, the antiquarian, Borlase, recorded that even until relatively recent times, “the vulgar used to resort to this place at particular times of the year, and payed to this stone more respect than was thought becoming of good Christians”.
Giants were not the only problem, though, according to the legends, for the Druids too were not all happy at how the new religion that was sweeping through the land. Beyond the stack of stones is the Druid’s Chair, and the tales tell that whoever sits in that chair will become a poet or a lunatic. The Chair belonged to a Druid who owned a golden cup that never ran dry. Perhaps it is he who was buried in the Rillaton round barrow? Although the golden cup found in the barrow predates Christianity by nearly two thousand years and the barrow by almost as much… But then, what is a mere matter of time to a Druid?
Legends aside, there is enough to occupy the attention on Stowe’s Hill. Half of the hill… and who knows how much archaeology… was eaten away by quarrying. The quarry has its own history, having supplied the limestone cladding for another British icon… Tower Bridge in London. The Cheesewring and the other monuments above the quarry were mere feet away from being destroyed by the ongoing harvesting of stone, until, in the nineteenth century, public outcry and the Duchy of Cornwall put a stop to it. Today, just a couple of feet of earth and stone, and a few strands of barbed wire, separate the Cheesewring from the edge.
While the summit of Stowe’s Hill is crowned with naturally weathered boulders, neatly, if precariously, stacked, that is not all that needs protecting. The hill is ringed with two enormous dry stone walls that form a Neolithic or Bronze Age tor enclosure. The smaller rings the outcrop at the southern end of the hill while the larger one surrounds the rest of the ridge.
Within its boundaries are one or two important structures that were totally ignored when the blasting started at the quarry. Just the odd stone roundhouse, two Bronze Age cairns… and the small matter of a hundred house platforms, all dating back four thousand years or more. But there was a time, not so very long ago, that the old stones of our collective heritage were not seen to matter or to have any bearing on modern life.
Even now our heritage is constantly under threat, although we are generally pretty good at preserving the past… especially at sites where there might be money to be made, or is that too cynical? Oswestry hillfort was fighting for its life recently as housing developers tried to build beneath it, destroying the wider landscape which is an integral part of the site. Mere minutes from my home, the site of Sir Henry Lee’s Manor has been buried under a housing estate. Sir Henry was a prominent figure at Queen Elizabeth I’s court and her Champion. A mile further along, the site of the Battle of Holman’s Bridge now lies beneath another housing estate, at a spot where five hundred and ninety men died when Prince Rupert of the Rhine was defeated by Cromwell’s Parliamentarians in 1642. The landscape of Stonehenge is under threat from unsympathetic planners and a five and a half thousand year old barrow cemetery, containing forty-one burials of ‘national importance’ is now buried beneath the playground of a new school at Bicester.
Britain is incredibly rich in ancient remains, with over a thousand known stone circles, let alone the wealth of other monuments dating back to the beginnings of mankind’s story in these isles. The complexity and construction of many of these sites gives the lie to the old supposition that our ancestors were primitive. It would have taken a community working together with a common goal and common beliefs to build these places… and many show that those beliefs were rich, complex and encompassed a knowledge of land, stars and psychology that we would never have guessed without studying these sites.
This is our history… and part of the greater story of the human race. We have barely begun to scratch the surface of understanding, and yet, in all too many places, monuments go unprotected, preserved only by the goodwill of the landowners and farmers on whose land they stand. Arbor Low, the ‘Stonehenge of the North’, is on private land and well cared for, but that is not always the case and we know of at least one stone circle where the farmer’s views destroyed the site utterly.
When we walk amongst the old stones and carved earth we do so with reverence. Not only because many of these places were held sacred by their builders, for many are no more than domestic hearths and homes, waymarkers and the last vestiges of early agriculture… but because they hold the keys to understanding great chapters of the human story. Thus, they are part of my life and yours… and a little respect is the least we can offer.
By writing about these places and sharing the legends, folklore and myths they have engendered over the centuries, we stand in awe of mystery. How did the story of the Druid’s golden cup survive for four thousand years in the folk tales of Bodmin Moor? A cup that was found in a barrow not far from the village where the story is told. Somehow, memory survived… what else do we still have to learn and uncover that may shed light on who we are and where we have come from? And what will we lose if these sites are lost to future generations….