Carn Brea - an island of the past and present


Moonrise at Carn Brea castle

The green/grey mass of Carn Brea occupies a relatively small area on the map, but its reassuring bulk dominates the landscape all around, particularly to the north and east, from where the craggiest profiles present themselves. In the populous urban corridor between Redruth and Camborne, the open aspect of the hill is a visual release from the man-made environment.



On a late spring evening, the Carn is breath-taking; the muted colours and the soft outlines of old walls and shapes, the significance for their building - which must have been a Herculean task - now obscure, and the reason for their existence tenuously linked to the present only by the merest threads of pottery fragments and arrow-tips. Some of the huge granite boulders that must have once formed part of the hill, have made their way to the base, and been incorporated in to small tor-like features alongside the road through the industrial estate which runs along the north side. But many other boulders – larger, more rugged - still cling to the side of the hill, their trajectories so slow that from the perspective of a human lifetime, they seem to us to be frozen in place.


Once, this hill was home to our Neolithic ancestors. Traces of huts built in the Early Neolithic (4000-3500 years ago) have been discerned by excavations here - simple shelters erected close to thick ramparts, built at an even earlier date of perhaps 6000 BC. The status of the Carn is now inverted: a slice of nature amidst the developments of modern homes, factories and roads, rather than a place to live. 3500 years ago, much of the UK was covered in woodland, and human settlements here as elsewhere, would have been carved out of this arboreal cove, and raised areas such as this would have been prized for giving a good view over the surrounding landscape. The tables are turned now – the hillside is a green oasis for wildlife and human leisure, but largely denuded of trees; only the copse of birch along the Great Flat Lode trail on the northern side provides a hint of what the area could once have looked like.



Many species – some of them now extinct – would have been at home in this area, alongside the foxes, hedgehogs and badgers who still live here. From 800 BC, Iron-age man also sought refuge on this high ground, and archaeological surveys show evidence of at least 12 Iron age houses here, discerned most easily in the winter and spring, before the ferns and bracken re-establish their

dominance. In the Middle Ages, the Basset family from Tehidy used this area for deer hunting, and built the castle on the eastern promontory as a lodge with a chapel. Modifications were made in the 18th and 19th centuries but by the 1850s, increased mining activity in the area meant that the Carn ceased to be used as a hunting-ground.


Cornish engine houses - Wheal Uny
View south from Carn Brea towards the abandoned engine houses of Wheal Uny.

The strange-shape of this Carn – steep and craggy on the north face, and gentle sloping farmland on the south side – echoes the many faceted human history that it has experienced in the last 4000 years. The noise of the many lorries that pass near it on the adjacent industrial estate echo across

Carn Brea Castle
Up close to Carn Brea Castle: granite boulders form the foundation of the structure

its northern slopes, and the summit is dominated by the Basset monument, built in 1836, in memory of Francis Basset of Tehidy. Today, though the monument still stands proud, the Bassets of Tehidy are dissipated, and the sharp outline of the monument and castle are in contrast to the rugged shape of the hillside. For me, the beauty of Carn Brea lies in the co-existence of the Castle, monument and rampart remnants with a setting still dominated by nature, and reminds us that we, the human population, are but just one component of the whole.






Reference:

Mercer, R, 1981. Excavations at Carn Brea, Illogan, Cornwall – a Neolithic Fortified Complex of the Third Millennium BC in Cornish Archaeology 20, pp 1-204

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