Stone Circles and Standing Stones of Cornwall
Cornwall has a landscape rich in ancient sites. Some of these date as far back as the middle part of the Stone Age or 20,000 years ago. However, most of the sites, and certainly the more impressive ones are from the New Stone Age or Neolithic period between 4,000 and 2,500 BC.
To a large extent the ancient stone circles, standing stones and burial chambers are concentrated in the moorland of the far west of Cornwall and Bodmin Moor in the east. With plenty of Cornwall holiday cottages to rent in the area there are no shortage of suitable base-camps for exploring
There are several basic forms of ancient site to be found in Cornwall, these include; Quoits (or dolmen), Stone Circles (cycoliths), Fogous and Standing Stones (menhirs). Below are some examples of each of these.
The Merry Maidens of Boleigh
The Hurlers - Minions
Stone Circles, or cycoliths to give them their correct name, can be found in both the east and west of Cornwall. There are often folk stories about how these circles came to be, most of which revolve around failing to acknowledge the sabbath.
The best known example in the west of Cornwall is the Merry Maidens of Boleigh. It is said these stones were once high spirited young girls who were turned to stone for commiting the sin of dancing on the sabbath. Possibly a little bit on the harsh side!
The circle dates back to the late Stone Age / early Bronze age (about 2,500 to 1,500 years ago) and consists of 19 stones standing about 4 feet high in a circle measuring about 70 ffet across. Located in a field about a minutes walk from the road this is about as accessible as ancient Cornwall gets!
At the other end of Cornwall, on Bodmin Moor are the Hurlers. These are in fact 3 stone circles consisting of 9, 13 and 17 stones. Again the story goes that they were turned to stone for the heinous act of playing ball (or hurling) on the sabbath. They are also of around the same period
These are also known as dolmens, but round 'ere we like to call 'em quoits! Although hard to imagine by looking at one, quoits were actually burial chambers. What has happened though is over the years the earth covering has weathered away leaving the impressive structures we can see today.
A quiot typically consists of 3 or more upright stones (the legs) and a large flat stone (the capstone) on the top. They often look like giant granite tables.
Perhaps the best known (or at least most photographed) quoit in Cornwall is Lanyon Quoit near Penzance. However, this is not 100% bonafide - the original was flattened by a storm in 1815 and the present day quoit was crudely assembled from some of the parts. It is still however an impressive monument and well worth a visit.
An equally impressive, if less well known site is Trethevy Quiot near Bodmin Moor. Also known as the 'Giant's Quoit' Trethevy is the largest of its type, made up of seven slabs with a huge sloping capstone estimated to weigh 10.5 tons alone.
It is now partially collapsed with the capstone sloping precariously. Apparently the quoit was covered by an earth mound up until the last century.
The Pipers of Boleigh
Cornwall has standing stones a plenty. Often these have stories attached that are similar in nature to those of the stone circles. The Pipers, for example, near the Merry Maidens are said to have been turned to stone for making the music to which the maidens were dancing on the sabbath.
Whilst there is little to seperate solitary standing stones except their location a personal favourite of mine is Men Scryfa which translates simply as 'inscribed stone'. Set high on the West Cornwall moors with Carn Galva as a back drop this 2 metre high stone is inscribed with the text 'RIALOBRANI CUNOVALI FILI' which is Cornish for 'Royal Raven son of the Glorious Prince'.
The inscription is thought to date back to around the 5th century AD, much later than this early Bronze Age stone, and is beleived to commemorate the death in battle of a royal warrior.
Carn Euny Fogou
Other Ancient Sites
There are various other ancient sites around Cornwall including settlements, cliff castles, holy wells and fogous. Some of the most impressive of these are the fogous which are subterranean burial chambers.
The fogou at Carn Euny in West Cornwall is an outstanding example. Set in the midst of a Bronze Age village the fogou consists of a 20 metre tunnel with a circular chamber off to one side. The engineering is pretty impressive for something over 3,000 years old. The whole structure is just below the surface and can safely be walked over such is its integrity.
The fogou is said to have been discoverd by miners in the 18th century.
Another favourite site of mine is Men-an-Tol which for obvious reasons translates as 'holed stone'. Whilst being one of the best known monuments in Cornwall it is unclear what the purpose of the site was, and indeed how much of it is original. It is almost certain that the site has been rearranged within the last 100 years or so and there is evidence that there was originally a stone circle here.
Whatever the case Men-an-Tol casts a striking image and over the years much folklore has grown out of it. Most involve crawling through the hole for various curative or restorative results including curing rickets and 'scrofulous taint'!
From the Historic Cornwall photo section of the Cornwall Guide (© All rights reserved)
More by this Author
I've just spent the last 3 days haring around Somerset with a camera. When you read through the list below please don't expect to manage it in 3 days - I am the fastest thing on 2 legs with a camera and I have the sore...
Bodmin Moor is Cornwall's last great wilderness. Although it only covers around 80 square miles the moor feels much more remote. Despite its harshness and bleakness this is not a featureless landscape. I find it both...
An A to Z of surfing terms from air to Zog's it's all here. If talking the talk is important to you apres surf then this list of surfing terms should prove invaluable!