The first day of a two week holiday, and (purely co-incidentally, honest guv!) the day of a guided walk organised by the Cornwall Archaeological Society.
We had been warned that if the weather was inclement there may be a last-minute cancellation, so it was with some trepidation that on a very cold, but importantly, dry day 7 souls plus our guide gathered in a small car park at Balwest, prepared for an attack on the heights of Tregonning Hill. A multi-period walk had been promised by our guide, Steve Hartgroves, covering Bronze Age barrows, an Iron Age hillfort and accompanying settlements, medieval field systems, right up to comparatively recent China Clay quarries and workings. All of this was delivered, and more!
Tregonning Hill stands some 6km West of Helston, and rises to the magnificent height of 194 metres, overlooking Mounts Bay to the SW. It is surmounted by Germoe War Memorial, and an OS trig point. The hill is a SSSI, and the major importance of the site is the occurrence of an extremely rare liverwort, Western Rustwort Marsupella profunda, which is found growing on bare outcrops of weathered granite within and around the old china clay workings. Tregonning Hill is the only known British location for Western Rustwort and internationally it is restricted to this site in Cornwall and a few locations in Portugal and Madeira. (source: Natural England)
Steve showed us several aerial photos and old maps of the area (which would be referenced throughout the day), pointing out the various barrows and features that we would be visiting, and then we were off! The main track from Balwest is metalled, and gave no difficulties other than the incline, and we soon came to a side track at which point we paused. An old (parish boundary?) wall was our first marker and an obvious kink in line of the wall, along with a couple of suspicious bumps, marked our first Bronze Age barrow. Continuing on, we soon found ourselves clambering down and up across a wide banked ditch – the fortifications of the Castle Pencaire hillfort at the summit. It’s difficult to actually make out the fortifications on the ground, as quarrying has impacted upon the defenses, much stone has been robbed out, (some of which was apparently used for the war memorial which stands within the fort) and what remains is hidden in the extensive undergrowth. We moved on up to the memorial, and sheltered from the biting wind in its lea. A short geology lesson ensued, Steve taking us back to the pre-Cambrian and explaining how the rocks below our feet were formed. Informative, but a little over my head, I’ll admit.
The views from the summit are extensive, but unfortunately there was a haze to the day, and the distance views were not as clear as they could have been, though the field patterns all around, and particularly to the north could be easily made out. Our prehistoric geology lesson over, we retraced our steps back across the ditch to the track. We continued south for a short distance before bearing off to the right, to an area with an information sign, ‘The Preaching Pit’. Our lunchtime stop, the ‘pit’ is the site of an old quarry, which provided a much needed break from the wind, and commemorates John Wesley’s visits to nearby Kennegy Downs and Breage in the mid-1700s. The pit was used extensively for Sunday School meetings on Whit Sundays, and is still apparently used at Pentecost for multi-denominational services.
After a picnic lunch, we moved further south to look at the main quarry, site of a plane crash in the war. A commemorative plate is apparently in place, quite near to the edge of the quarry, but we didn’t look too hard for it! The quarry was an early China Clay site, having first been discovered here in 1746 by William Cookworthy. There was some discussion around the quarry, but I was personally more interested in the prehistoric aspects of the walk. We continued to the south-east, toward a lookout house which dates to the Napoleonic era, until we reached an area marked ‘cromlech’ on the old map. This was actually a rather nice kerbed cairn dating from the Bronze Age, which I would guess is around 40 metres across. Many of the surrounding kerb stones are still visible, and there is an obvious mound in the centre. This was an undoubted highlght of the walk for me. Retracing our steps a short distance, we turned to the north, where alongside the track was yet another BA barrow. No real distinguishing features, but an obvious ‘bump’ in the landscape.
Finally heading downhill, discussion turned to the landscape of fields below, and an obvious progression from Iron Age enclosed fields, to medieval strip farming, and finally the much larger fields of today was presented to us. We passed an (inaccessible) Iron Age settlement area, or ’round’ near the base of the hill, but attention then switched to the ground to our right, which was the site of an old brickworks, with one of the kilns still in place, but the rest left as faint traces on aerial photographs.
As we moved across the north base of the hill, a field boundary was examined – a double bank and ditch identifying it as a partial boundary of another Iron Age Round. All too soon, the path started to incline again, and we knew the end of the walk was not too far away now. I’ll admit to struggling on the final climb back up to the summit, and our small band split into two groups – one lagging to discuss the mine workings between Tregonning and Godolphin Hills, and the rest of us eager to finally get to the top once more for a final look at the views before returning to the cars to make our way home.
So what were my impressions of my first CAS walk? I was impressed with the extent of knowledge shown and imparted by Steve the group leader – from the Pre-Cambrian to Napoleonic times, he covered it all with good humour. The other participants were not slow in coming forward if they had something to add to the discussions, and there were questions aplenty at all stages of the walk. If others are like this, I’ll make sure to coincide my holiday dates again in future!