The following article was submitted by John Nash, Committee member for CASPN, and Local Monitor for the Merry Maidens site. Many thanks to him for forwarding this information.
The recent article (16th November) focusing on Cornish stone circles gave a glimpse of just how rich Cornwall is in ancient sites, especially in the far western peninsula of Penwith. This relatively small area, bounded on three sides by the sea, has literally hundreds of sites of historical and archaeological interest, and a great many of these are regarded as sacred places, in constant use today by locals and visitors alike for spiritual refreshment.
The article referred to above described perhaps the most well-known – the Merry Maidens; a perfect circle of nineteen stones, with the Pipers, two huge menhirs, close by. These two stones are the tallest in Cornwall, and with various other holed stones, burial chambers and menhirs close by, make up a complex sacred landscape dating back to the Bronze Age. Whatever one’s personal beliefs, it is difficult not to be moved by the sight of the sunset, which when viewed from the Merry Maidens, perfectly illustrates the sun’s majestic annual dance along the horizon. Volunteers from CASPN, the Cornish Ancient Sites Protection Network, care for this and many other sites, ensuring that they are protected and accessible to the public.
Recently though there has been cause for concern by a piecemeal development in the adjacent field, which although agricultural land, had the ruins of an old cottage in one corner. Abandoned since the 19th century, all that remained hidden beneath dense blackthorn shrubs and a full-grown tree were some granite walls varying between a few feet and a few inches high. Alongside it stands the lovely early mediaeval celtic cross known as Nun Careg. Clearly purchased as a speculative venture for development, the ruins have been cleared of vegetation and rubble, re-pointed, and an extensive, rather suburban looking garden created within a new stone hedge boundary, complete with a gate and postbox. The remaining field area has been grassed over and fenced off. This has all been done without the appropriate planning permission and despite the protests of both CASPN and local people.
In the summer some large marquees went up and the site was used to celebrate a wedding and parking for guests. The marquees were subsequently removed, but the site has been advertised as for hire for weddings and other events. On one occasion visitors were shocked to find that the peace of the Maidens was being shattered by a motorbike being ridden in constant circles around the field, just yards away. The owners recently advertised the field as suitable for allotments – not a bad use you might think, but could the fact that allotments are classed as ‘brown field’ sites have had any influence on this?
None of this directly affects the archaeology of the Merry Maidens and adjacent ancient sites, but development would have a very detrimental effect upon its use by visitors. CASPN has been monitoring what’s happening and made numerous complaints to Cornwall Council and our parish councillor, who have taken steps to prevent any further unauthorised work, but it remains to be seen what effect these constraints will have in practice.
For CASPN this dilemma of how we should respond to events that often don’t directly damage the sites we care for extends far beyond this single case. There are many other such threats – when parts of Penwith moors were turned over to conservation grazing we became embroiled in the increasingly bitter local disputes about the inevitable fencing that went with grazing. Whilst we’ve taken part in discussions with the parties involved to try to minimise the chances of direct physical damage to sites by cattle, the question of whether conservation grazing in general is beneficial is a debate that will run and run with genuine differences of opinion.
Another example we may soon have to struggle with are the scores of planning applications for wind turbines in west Penwith. On one level this makes sense, as Penwith is certainly a very windy place and the Government strongly encourages schemes that expand renewable energy sources. I personally have no problem with modest sized and domestic wind turbines, but one recent application was for a huge beast that would have stood higher than the famous 92ft tower of St Buryan church, used for centuries as a navigational marker by fishing vessels and believed by many to stand on one of the country’s most significant ley lines. Turbines may not directly damage ancient sites, but, as with the inappropriate domestic development at the Merry Maidens, what would be the overall effect upon the sacred landscape itself – one of west Penwith’s most precious and irreplaceable assets?
You can find out more about CASPN’s work on our website www.cornishancientsites.com
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