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A guest post by Alan S.

Desecration is a powerful word. The Oxford Dictionary suggests two main meanings of the verb ‘to desecrate’ – to treat (a sacred place or thing) with violent disrespect, or to spoil (something which is valued or respected).

Imagine the scene: You visit a world-class, fragile, prehistoric monument after a period of continuous heavy rain. On arrival you find that the monument is standing in a sea of mud. Do you:

a) experience what you can of the atmosphere of the site, but cause no damage, or
b) let your family trample through the mud and climb all over the monument for a photo opportunity?

A clue to help: The first is respectful of the site, the second is desecration.

On New Year’s Day, as I was on holiday in Cornwall, I had decided to walk up to Boskednan Downs to take a look at the stock-proofing measures being implemented prior to allowing cattle to graze up there. I’ve documented this walk in the past, a walk which can be quite pleasant in summer. Unfortunately, as anyone who knows the area will attest, the pathway up onto the moors is often flooded, and such was the case on this occasion. Although I could have worked my way around the waterlogged path, I decided to abandon the walk, and headed back down to Men an Tol.

As I approached the monument, I could see an extended family (2 sets of parents, and 4 pre-teen children) laughing and joking around near the stones. As I got closer, they were taking turns sitting on the holed stone for photographs, and trying to clamber through the hole. Sadly, all fairly normal activities when the weather is fair.

In fact, so much so is this activity considered normal that early in 2012, CASPN felt that some remedial work was required as the ground below the holed stone was quite worn away. After the appropriate permissions were acquired (this is a Scheduled Ancient Monument after all), this work was undertaken by CASPN on behalf of the Historic Environment Service with volunteers spending significant time and effort in the Spring to fill in the worn area, which was also re-turfed and seeded. Sadly the turf did not ‘take’, but some improvement in the ground level was achieved, ensuring the stone was stabilised. (This remedial work is currently due to be monitored and continued for a period of three years.)

The Men an Tol, after remedial work to the ground level. Sadly, the turfing did not 'take'.

The Men an Tol, after remedial work to the ground level. Sadly, the turfing did not ‘take’.

Now 7 months later, and after consistently heavy rainfall for an extended period, which has caused nationwide flooding, this family had popped out during the holidays with the kids for a walk to a national monument before lunch. Unwittingly (and I can only hope they didn’t know what they were doing – the alternative truly is unthinkable!) their actions have caused further potential damage to the stones, if not immediately, then certainly by wearing away the ground level still further, in the fullness of time.

The remedial work destroyed, by rain and wellies!

The remedial work destroyed, by rain and wellies!

Being outnumbered 8-9/1 as I was, I decided discretion was the better part of valour on this occasion and decided not to approach them about their behaviour, but hung around looking unhappy and annoyed, thus hopefully curtailing their time at the site – which eventually happened. They made their way, noisily and happily back to the path and down to the road, seemingly oblivious to my disgruntlement.

CASPN Sign

So what can be done? CASPN have spent a large amount of money on signage such as the above at various sites throughout the area, explaining that the monuments deserve respect and that any damage should be reported immediately. This family were not the ‘group of local lads’ thought to be responsible for recent vandalism at the nearby Madron Well and Chapel – all the indications were that they were just your average ’2.4 kids’ family. They seemed totally unaware that their actions could be in any way damaging to the monument rather than not caring one way or the other whether any damage was done. It was obvious from the state of the ground that the monument was potentially at risk – indeed, the path across the moor from the stile was sodden and very spongy underfoot, suggesting very little in the way of support for any upright structures. A series of questions thus present themselves:

  • Did they know of the history of the site?
  • Did they read or even notice the sign by the stile?
  • What additional measures are needed to make people aware?
  • Would outreach sessions in local schools help the youths of the area gain some knowledge and pride in the (pre)history and heritage of the area where they live?

Of course, in this particular circumstance, one family tramping through the mud pales into insignificance given recent decisions made concerning grazing on the moor. I mentioned above the measures being taken to stock-proof the moor. If the plans to graze go ahead – and all current signs are that they will – then there will be large cattle not only trampling around the stones, but also using them as rubbing posts! A similar scheme has been implemented on Carnyorth Common and the stones of the Tregeseal Circle there have been damaged, loosened and toppled by the cattle at least thirteen times since the scheme’s implementation four years ago. For more details of the grazing scheme, and the campaign to stop it, see the Save Penwith Moors campaign website or Facebook page.

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