Granite outcrops close
to Land's End, Cornwall

South-west Cornwall: Mist and Magic of the Penwith

My alarm clock woke me up after an uneasy night of hazy sleep in my wind-battered tent. I realized it was nearly dawn and I quickly put on some warm clothes. Fortunately, the rain had stopped. Once outside, I forgot all about my discomforts and inadvertently held my breath at the sight of the first rays of the sun skimming the horizon: a spectecular lightshow accompanying the respiratory soundscape of the ocean behind me. I became aware of the fact that I couldn't have chosen a better place for watching the Autumn Equinoxal sunrise than here, at Carn Lês Boel, high on Cornwall's cliffs nearby Land's End.

To the superficial observer Carn Lês Boel is only a seven feet high, somewhat egg-shaped rock on an insignificant rocky promontory along the Cornish jagged-edged coastline. Being a puroposely erected sentinel stone, however, it is one of more than 2,000 pre-historic monuments that are concentrated in the 20 square miles that make up the Cornish Penwith district. Because of this, the Penwith has the largest concentration of these ancient monuments anywhere in Europe. What is it that made this southwestern extremity of Britain's territory so special to the Celts and their predecessors? As with all good mysteries, it becomes harder to find a clear answer to this question the more one tries to put together the clues.

The very name of the region can be traced back to the year 997 in written documents. It means "furthest end " or "end-district". In many ways the Penwith subscribes to this definition. Topographically, of course, it forms Britain's southwestern extremity. As is the case with most geographically isolated places, the Penwith's inhabitants have been introduced relatively late to historical and cultural changes. In this respect, the district can be considered Cornwall's most Celtic area. It was the last part of the ancient kingdom of Dumnonia (today's Cornwall, Devon and parts of Somerset and Dorset) to withstand the advance of the Anglo-Saxons, until it was finally incorporated in the realm of Wessex at the beginning of the 9th century. Similarly, it was the last stronghold of the Cornish language in the late 1700s.


Clear testimony to the country's Celtic background is the abundance of typically Cornish place names. When travelling around in Cornwall, it pays to find out about the meaning of these names, for they reveal much about the history of a specific place. The name of Penzance, for example, stems from the Cornish pen-zans, meaning "holy headland" (hence "Penzance" is pronounced with stress on the last part of the name). The name points to an ancient chapel which once stood on the low headland near the present church.

In Penzance's bay lies what appears to be a copy of the famous French island Mont St.Michel. The rocky outcrop is appropriately called St.Michael's Mount and features a priory on its summit, similar to its continental counterpart. The traditional Cornish name for the island is Cara clowse in cowse or Carrack looz in cooz, meaning "grey rock in the wood", which is an astonishing example of folk-memory: archaeological evidence shows that the Mount was once surrounded by a forest which was inundated by the sea as early as c.2500 BC.

Many Cornish places are named after early Celtic Christian saints. In the Penwith there are for instance St.Just (after Yestin), St.Erth (Erc), Sancreed (Sancred) and Zennor (from Senara, to whom the local church is dedicated, her name possibly a corruption of Azenor, a Breton priestess). St.Ives, a well-known resort of artists and holidaymakers, is named after the Irish priestess Ia. Another interesting example is name of the village of Brane, known in the 14th century as Bosvran. The Cornish words bos vran translate as "crow's dwelling" or "Bran's dwelling". Together with the nearby Iron Age Caer ("hill fort") Brane or Caer Brân the name suggests connections with the veneration of the Celtic raven-god Bran, about whom I wrote more in my articles on Mount Brandon, Ireland, in the previous two issues of Celtic Connections.


It is worthwile to look for connections between place names, local folklore, legends and history in the Penwith in order to gain some understanding of why this district is nick-named "The Witch Country".

One obvious reason is the already mentioned abundance of pre-historic sites. From the Middle Ages onwards, the Church often labelled them as places of devil-worship, black magic and witchcraft, in order to wean the peasants away from paganism. Hence, for instance, stone circles dedicated to the observation and veneration of the Moon (like the Merry Maidens) became associated with tales of girls who were turned into stone pilars as punishment for dancing at the Christian Sabbath. Folk tales turned Iron Age subterranean ritual chambers, locally called fogous, into even more forbidding places than their perpetual inner darkness could ever account for, and similarly, the huge stone skeletons of Bronze Age dolmens (called quoits in Cornwall) became altars for devil-worshippers in popular myth. Ancient sacred wells, on the other hand, were Christianised into holy wells and often dedicated to patrons of the local churches.

Taking the study of Penwith's pre-historic monuments one step further in his fascinating book Fogou, a journey into the underworld, author Jo May argues that the individual monuments interconnect into a greater plan of which the purpose is greatly beyond the grasp of our modern-day understanding. From this point of view May refers to his residential village and surrounding area near Penzance as 'the Lamorna landscape temple'. "If you look beyond the roads, villages and agricultural development, you can glimpse a much older order”. This order seems to be concerned with the shape and natural features of the landscape itself. Or, putting it another way, it shows sensitivity to the body of a living planet -- Mother Earth." Interestingly, the same area that May refers to appears to be 'fenced off' by an unusual concentration of early Christian road crosses. They seem to have been erected in an effort to contain the overtly pagan qualities of these 5 square miles, which include some of Britain's most famous pre-historic sites, like the Merry Maidens and Boscawen-Ûn stone circles, holy wells, beacon hills, alignments of huge standing stones and the remnants of the Carn Euny Iron Age village (possibly a Druidic centre of learning like its better known counterpart Chysauster, some 10 miles to the north-east).


Undoubtedly, the Penwith district offers a wide variety of choice for Ley-line hunters, folklorists and, in short, everyone with an open mind for an Otherworldly reality, which seems to be of a more tangible quality in this Witch Country.

Standing on the vertical cliffs of Carn Lês Boel, gazing at the restless waters of the Atlantic Ocean, it is not hard to mistake the glistening patches of sunlit waves for sun-reflecting rooftops and church spires of the legendary land of Lyonesse, which is said to lie submerged between here and the Scilly Isles. At this very spot the renowned current of earth-energies, called the St.Michael Ley-line, is reputed to start (or end) its serpentine track across Britain. On its way to Bury St.Edmunds on the English eastern coast, it includes (amongst many other sites) intruiging places like St.Michael's Mount, Glastonbury Tor, and the stone circle complex of Avebury. It thus strings together many locations with religious, spiritual or downright mysterious connotations, perfectly aligned with the point of sunrise at the ancient fire festival of May Day, also known as Beltane in the Celtic tradition.

Mysteries abound wherever one goes in the Penwith. It is a humbling kind of experience in this day and age of scientific triumphs and blind faith in rationality to realize there is so much we don't understand anymore about what is yet plain to be seen all around. In his study of The Fairy-faith in Celtic countries (published in 1911) W.Y.Evans-Wentz already observed this, though he didn't allow this notion to discourage him.

"But there in that most southern and western corner of the Isle of Britain, the Sacred Fires themselves still burn on the hill-tops, though smothered in the hearts of its children. The Cornishman's vision is no longer clear. He looks upon cromlech and dolmen, upon ancient caves of initiation, and upon the graves of his prehistoric ancestors, and vaguely feels, but does not know, why his land is so holy, is so permeated by an indefinable magic; for he is 'educated' and 'civilized'. The hand of the conqueror has fallen more heavily upon the people of Cornwall than upon any other Celtic people, and now for a time, but let us hope happily only for this dark period of transition, they sleep -- until Arthur comes to break the spell and set them free."

- © Paul Kramer