Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Men an Tol


One grey Sunday, Viv, her dog Titch, MollieDog and I set off for a walk in darkest Penwith. Leaving Penzance, we took the Madron road and after about ten minutes passed Lanyon Quoit and found a small parking space on the right, opposite an old granite schoolhouse.

In fact we didn't see Lanyon Quoit until the end of our walk, but it is clearly visible from the road which says little for our powers of observation. It is thought this was a burial chamber of a long mound and was originally tall enough for a horseman to sit under. It collapsed in 1815 and reassembled in 1824 but to a smaller size than its original position.
Having parked, we headed up a farm track and on our left spied a large black and white cat. Eerily we saw a similar feline on a walk at Carn Brea last year, making me wonder whether this was the same one lying in wait, knowing Viv's allergy to cats. Luckily it didn't pounce so we walked on and after 15 minutes turned right over a stile which led to Men-an-Tol. This megalithic monument is a wide, shallow stone one metre tall, carved into a circular shape and known as the Crick Stone or Devil's Eye. In the middle is a hole 45cm across and either side of this is a standing stone, about 1.2m tall. It is thought that Men-an-Tol is the remains of a chambered tomb, with the holed stone forming an entrance.
These stones are said to provide healing, so naked children were passed through the hole three times and drawn on the grass as a cure for tuberculosis and rickets. Adults would crawl through the hole as a cure for back complaints, but would need to go through nine times for it to work. Passing through the stone has also been used as a fertility aid, but there are many and varied stories attached to these stones.
Viv decided to try and cure her bad back. “But I'm only going through once, and it's far too cold to take my clothes off.” Having struggled through the hole, aided by our curious dogs, she emerged red faced and smiling. “My back's much better!” she pronounced, and promptly wrenched her leg.
I decided to leave my bad back and we retraced our steps, returning to the original path and looked out as the sun shone down over Bosullow Common, illuminating Ding Dong Mine in the distance. Here is open moorland but hardly a tree in sight; mile after mile of scrubland interspersed with the occasional farm. A view that some find uplifting and magnificent but others find too harsh: there are none of the soft rolling hills of South East Cornwall here.
On our left was Men Scyfa, a stone marking the grave of Rialobran, a sixth century chieftan warrior who was killed here around AD500. Poking our heads through a gate, we decided to give it a miss as the stone was in amongst a field of black cattle who stared at our dogs and licked their lips. So we continued up the very rough path fenced in by bronzed bracken, the last of the blackberries and desiccated heather: not a good time of year for vegetation.
Where the path splits in front of a derelict building, we took the right hand fork onto a track over moorland. This path climbed upwards, and as we walked, a small plane took off from Lands End aerodrome. We passed a group of smaller stones but headed further on to Nine Maidens which are 11 spaced stones that do not in fact make a true circle. Boscawen Un Circle, as it's known in Cornish, was an ancient Druid meeting place and the location of the first Cornish Gorsedd. But the name refers to the phases of the lunar cycle rather than the number of stones. Legend has it that maidens dancing on the Sabbath were turned to stone, and the fiddler who supplied the music and followed their fate was the Blind Fiddler Menhir.
Having admired this atmospheric spot, along with several other enthusiastic visitors – this is a popular walk – we followed a well worn path to our right through waist high gorse to Ding Dong Mine engine house. In the distance, not far from the mine, was an old campervan, with a large turbine strapped onto the back. As we grew nearer we admired the speed at which it spun round, and marvelled at the incongruity of it all. Any second now, I expected it to take flight, like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and soar over Ding Dong Mine, with children cheering in the back.
Sadly nothing as extraordinary occurred and we arrived at Ding Dong, reputed to be one of the oldest mines in Cornwall. According to folklore Ding Dong worked 2000 years ago and was visited by Christ and Joseph of Arimathea, but the earliest mention of the mine was at the beginning of the 17th century. In 1714 three separate mines were operating: Good Fortune, Wheal Malkin and Hard Shafts Bounds, but Ding Dong did not become famous until the turn of the 18th century.
By the end of the 1850s the mine employed 206 men and boys, but was struggling to break even. Due to the continuing fall in the price of tin, the mine shut on 11 July 1877 following an unsuccessful attempt to sell it at auction. Since that time three other attempts have been made to reopen the mine; the first failed because of water problems and the other two through local opposition.
Standing in front of the engine house, we took a path below, across a stone stile and followed the path downhill for about 15 minutes. Along the way we came across the only trees we'd seen: two gnarled hawthorns with autumn red berries. All the bracken was bronzed, dried out by the fierce winds that sweep across the open moorland. The path turned marshy here and the dogs rolled in fox poo with delight, promising a poisonously smelly drive home.
The narrow path appeared to be turning away from our destination of Lanyon Farmhouse, but as Viv was following instructions for a St Ives walk, this could be why we were slightly off course. We took a right hand fork and reached a metal gate between stone walls which led to the road where we turned right and before long found Lanyon Farmhouse where you can indulge in a cream tea. I was lured by a promise of Viv's award winning home made ginger cake, so we continued back to the van to eat cake there. (It turned out that she won third prize out of three entrants.)
From here it was a ten minute walk back to the car, passing Bosullow farm's stall of orange pumpkins and, surprisingly, red chillis. Viv bought one of each and insisted on lugging the dead weight back to the van, concocting recipes as she went. From now on I will always think of Bronze Age Cornwall in conjunction with Curried Pumpkin Pie.
Standing outside Ding Dong mine is a sight I will never forget. In the distance stretched the Lizard, lit by a sudden blast of sunshine, and below us was Mounts Bay, with St Michael's Mount in the fairytale distance. There is a dizzying sense of height, and depth, and space here and it's still possible to catch a glimpse of Cornwall as it was many thousands of years ago.

Landranger Explorer 102 Lands End, Penzance and St Ives
Distance: 3 miles
Length: 2 hours
Grade: easy going but some rough tracks and can be muddy in parts
Refreshments: Lanyon Farmhouse provide cream teas
Free parking

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