A Tale of Getting Mired in Landscapes Past and Present on King Arthur’s Downs
It was windy up on Bodmin Moor, blowing hard from the north, with the sort of force that makes you want to hold out both arms, turn around and lie back supported only by the strength of the moving air. Underfoot was sheep shorn lumpy sward. The scrub was spattered with vibrant gorse blossoms. A quick perusal of the map at Matt and Jo’s holiday let had revealed several points of archaeological and historical interest within walking distance on the intriguingly named King Arthur’s Down. A path led almost directly from the house up past King Arthur’s Hall, several stone circles and up onto Garrow Tor which, according to the map, was encrusted with ancient field systems and settlements.
We strayed off the path sooner than intended and headed into the wind up the boulder-strewn hillslope crowned several times with false summits. Knowing we were off-track we kept aiming to check the map when we get to the top by that big stone sticking up and see if we can see where the path’s gone. Of course we reached the stone and it’s tiny, not protruding into the sky, nor remotely near the top of the slope. We ended up on a road towards a different farm, with the plan that at least once we got there, we’d be able to locate ourselves and head off in the right direction.
Out of the farmyard we headed on up towards a stile which indicated the existence of some sort of footpath or other. Some mangy-looking cows stared intently at us as we trudged past. Beyond the next field boundary the ground looked considerably more moor-like: rougher, less green, more rush and bilberry threading in with the tussocky grasses. True Common Land and the Right To Roam. The weather was opening up too. Garrow Tor ahead looked sunny under a lid of blue sky. The fierce wind was at least blowing the greyer of the clouds away and making way for more sunshine. There was still no sign of the path, though. I wasn’t too concerned: what manifests itself as a pink-dashed line on an OS 1:50 000 is often, in my limited experience, much less obviously laid down on the hard earth.
Matt was just observing that despite the fact we were clearly now on the right track even if we weren’t exactly on the path there was still no sign of the Hall. Up on the head of the slope to our left I could see a section of fenced land, too small and too uniform to be either of pastoral use or total insignificance, I thought. I was right: enclosed in a wire fence was a long rectangular bank studded on its inner berm with squat standing stones. The central hollow was filled with rushes and looked too marshy to be a comfortable interior for a hall. We wedged ourselves in the lee of the bank and dined on a squashed packed lunch in King Arthur’s Hall.
I wondered about the stones. Unlike some archaeological sites the Hall had no signboards or information. I felt the Arthur link was tenuous, despite the prevalence of Arthurian links and local legends in the area. I wondered if the evenly spaced stones were of the correct number to suggest King Arthur’s knights, until I remembered that they were generally supposed to be seated at a Round Table.
Later on when I got home I made some brief enquiries about the place. I was right about the link to Arthur being unsubstantiated, though both the Hall and the Downs on which it stands have been named for him for several hundred years: long enough for the reason behind the association to have been lost. Cartographer John Norden described it in 1584 in his A Topographical and Historical Description of Cornwall the Hall as ‘situate on a playne Mountayne, wrowghte some 3 foote into the grounde; and by reason of the depression of the place, ther standeth a stange or Pool of water’. The site has been dated as Bronze Age or Neolithic, and despite its historical importance and uniqueness in Britain (there is one other site like it in Ireland, and one in Brittany) it has been relatively little researched. It seems to have been used historically as a pound for livestock, but considering its age, size and complexity in construction it almost certainly had a more significant purpose that remains undiscovered. For one thing the standing stones are too large and too numerous to warrant their installation merely to corral animals, and for another the work that would have gone in to constructing the bank would not have been worth it unless the end result was something really important. Suggestions so far include a ritual ceremonial site, a place of worship or possibly a burial site. A conservation work party who set out to clear away some of the more intrusive gorse bushes on the site just a month ago made the accidental discovery of apparent inner revetments within the bank itself.
I’m a relative stranger to history. I mean more than I ought to be: all of us – even the best-informed academics – are inevitably so removed from the past however much we surmise or claim to know. It’s frustrating, but fascinating, these lives, events, places we are so close to and continuously brushing against but can never really know the truth about. Even the parts of the past recent enough to be documented are at the mercy of those documents. That is part of the appeal, of course, the fact that to ‘understand’ the past we have to fit as many pieces of the puzzle together as we can from the evidence we can obtain, and then use our existing knowledge and skills to make sense of what was, in whatever way we feel we and others can relate to it now.
I didn’t like history at school, and never pursued it beyond the age of fourteen. I love it now, even if it feels so un-navigable. Perhaps what I love is the license for imagination. Even the most canon textbooks are essentially creative non-fiction to some extent or another. Picnicking in King Arthur’s Hall I wondered what it was built for, what it was, who it had really belonged to, whether it was even a hall at all. The chances of it being a hall at all are slim enough, let alone its belonging to King Arthur, if King Arthur, or the person we have created that persona for, even existed. I found myself imagining the built hall, its owner an unnameable lord, the place gradually falling into ruin, the landscape changing around it, the local history forgetting who’d built it, the timber rotting, the walling stones removed, all traces of its actual story eroded, faded, and finally lost. The remains of the place attributed by accident to King Arthur – someone telling a tale, telling a joke, making something up for the kids. It gets passed on. Someone hears it third hand and tells it to a stranger who takes it as canon. Eventually John Norden does his survey of the Duchy of Cornwall and the name gets put on the map. It is hard to imagine details and information that seem so important and unforgettable now being reduced to academic guesswork in the future. But then the Neolithic period was a long time ago – longer, really, considering it began 10,000 years before we started counting. An unimaginable length of time, really. The more I imagine of History, the less I can envisage it. I get bogged down in the expanse of it, the oldness of it, the unreachableness of it. Somewhere in the afterlife of the Neolithic – or maybe Bronze Age, who knows? – people who set the first stone in place the original owner/builder/custodian of the hall – or whatever it was – is laughing at us and our Romanitic Arthurian associations.
I brushed the sandwich crumbs from my trousers, pulled up my hood against the wind and we set off for the non-path again. We could see where we wanted to go to get up onto the tor, but were forced along a field boundary by a fence, a sign detailing Private Land No Public Access, and a farmer on a quadbike in close proximity. The fence ran along a dip in the land. The terrain was at its lowest and where it appeared to be getting rougher we discovered it was also getting marshier. We could see where the ground became firmer ahead by the change in colour and texture – not far, if we just made it across this bit we could make better headway up onto the tor.
We stood up on the highest dry tussock to scout the best route forward. Directly in front of us was a span of mossy ground just that little bit too wide to be able to jump, and looking treacherously flat and green. Matt decided to go for it. It was that or turn back, and it would be an equal distance to make it out sideways as it would be to retrace our steps the way we came. He gingerly tested the surface. It gave, but not badly, so he stepped ahead, splashing in up to his ankles with each step, which wasn’t too serious seeing as we’d all already overtopped our boots by accident getting as far as we had. He paused on the tussock to encourage us that it wasn’t anywhere near as bad as we’d been anticipating. A couple more steps and he’d be on dry land: just step where he had, don’t give yourself time to sink just step across quickly, aim for that lump of grass and we’d be fine.
It was the sort of thing that only happens in novels and movies. When I recounted the story that evening I was asked just how much I laughed when Matt took one more stride from off the tussock and was in up to his waist. To be honest all I could think about was whether or not he was going to get sucked further in by the treacherous swamp and drown – Grimpen Mire, The Swamps of Sadness, the Bog of Eternal Stench, the Dead Marshes – all the horrors of fantasy wetlands crowded into my head as I wondered how could I possibly pull him out, and would I end up floundering in the bog as well?
We abandoned all thoughts of Garrow Tor for the day and tried to figure out how to get back out of the bog. Ahead was impossible, however short. We went back for a bit, before hopping the fence to the moderately drier area on the other side of the fence.
With the sun out and the wind blowing at least it was good weather for drying clothes. Before long Matt’s trousers had a mottled camouflage effect where parts had dried more than others, but he still squelched all the way back to the house.
Back at the house we were all glad to get out of our damp boots and put the kettle on.
Unfolding the map to let it dry out on the carpet (it had been in Matt’s trouser pocket) we surveyed our progress for the day on its wrinkly sheets. We’d done just over five miles, although we had spent most of the afternoon wandering on roughly the right track, so to speak, without ever finding the path. It seemed strange, given how empty the landscape around us looked both on the page and in real life. It is only relatively recently that Bodmin Moor has looked so ‘empty’. Thinking back to King Arthur’s Hall and its Bronze Age or Neolithic origins, how different would the surrounding landscape have been then: heavily wooded, vastly populated, mined, forested, farmed… Now in its comparative wasteland it is as difficult to comprehend that past as it is to envisage the origins of the Hall itself. On closer inspection even an open landscape can be less navigable than it seems.
For more on the history and archaeology of King Arthur’s Hall and King Arthur’s Down, take a look at this post from The Heritage Trust blog describing the conservation expedition that was conducted just a few weeks ago to remove gorse from the banks of the Hall.
For those interested in Arthurian mythology The Fall of Arthur by J.R.R. Tolkien and edited by Christopher Tolkien is published by Harper Collins (2013) ISBN: 978-0007489947. It contains Tolkien’s only – and unfinished – work on the Arthurian legendarium, an extended poem in Anglo-Saxon alliterative form detailing Arthur’s expedition overseas, the treachery of Mordred, and the fate of Lancelot and Guinevere. For a sneak-peek at the text click here
You may also like on Open the Curtains: Happy St Piran’s Day or, if you enjoyed Matt falling in the bog and want to know about the time I fell in a river, you may enjoy what happened when I walked Helford – Coverack.