Kenwyn - the Round and the River

The River Kenwyn is a feature I have long associated with the centre of Truro, as a fast-moving stream, confined between two walls near Castle Hill. But further from the city, the river that gives its name to the parish – and is wholly enclosed within it – takes on a different character.

To the north-west of the city, the River Kenwyn falls freely over mossy stones, and frequently incorporates tributaries emerging from wet, boggy areas. The river’s source is just to the east of the A30 - near Chiverton Cross - from where it winds eastwards through steep valleys and areas of inaccessible woodland. It passes the oak-rimmed fort at Penventinnie, standing in splendid isolation on a steep scarp, and flows on to the city centre where it is confined between walls, then culverted, before disgorging in to the muddied bed of the Truro River, at Lemon Quay.

Looking north west, towards Penventinnie (Governs) Round

The sinuous form of the Kenwyn River echoes the turbulent and meandering evolution of society through the ages, moving from the pre-literate Iron-age inhabitants of these lands, to the architects of Truro cathedral in the earliest part of the 20th century. The gradual coalescing of waters in to the river from both rushing rivulets and insipid, wet areas, perhaps mirrors aspects of life in the Iron-age: lives doubtless punctuated by sudden attacks from wild animals or unfriendly tribes, and underlain by persistent concerns about creeping illness or scarcity of food supply when the weather was inclement. To our forebears, the landscape here would have been both life-support and foe.

In the increasing fast-paced whirl of modern life, the undulations of scenery are so often seen through a car window, and the huge majority of our time is spent in the built environment, in the context of modern institutions that provide our immediate needs of food, health care and entertainment. Our separateness from the land that surrounds us has come relatively quickly, from an evolutionary perspective – Laurie Lee writes beautifully of the change of pace brought to villages by motor-cars in the early decades of the twentieth century. And perhaps the speed of changes in the last 100 years goes some way to explaining the disconnect we sometimes feel from all the pressures of fast-paced lifestyle, assisted and sometimes hindered by technology, and the balm felt from walking between trees and rivers.

Plate-like fungus on a young oak tree

Archaeological studies have shown that Penventinnie (or Governs) Round was inhabited in the Iron Age through to early Roman times. Its location – on the north-facing slope, of a steep incline, with the River Kenwyn below - allowed the inhabitants to see approaching dangers and benefit from a supply of fresh water. Today, the site is ringed by a stand of oaks and overlooks neatly-farmed fields and patches of forest to the north, the steep slopes on which it stands keeping this site aloof and separate. The fragmented evidence of the lives of those who lived here over 2000 years ago remain secreted in the soil that nourished them.

Following again the flow of the River Kenwyn eastwards, we pass along lanes where intricate weaving of arching oak branches creates a canopy against the light rain and sounds of the nearby trunk-road in to the city centre. Passing beneath the boughs of oak, some emanating from huge boles that dominate the old stone walls they are a part of, the sensation is one of moving from the past-times back towards the present. There is time to contemplate the transitions that society has experienced, and the institutions that mark our modern society as distinct from the one 2000 years ago. The coming of Christianity to the UK is, of course, the principal one, creating ripples of belief and networks of trust extending beyond the familial links, that would have been dominant across human societies up to that point. These networks grew and increased in importance alongside the strengthening of religious doctrine, which dictated acceptable marriage practice and personal responsibility; small, slow changes in behaviour, that over a long period, created societies with more institutions and increased emphasis on personal attributes. Even by the earliest Medieval times, religious centres were organising care for the elderly, long-term inform and those with infectious illness such as leprosy; in the last one thousand years, the importance of institutions and personal (as opposed to familial) relationships has continued to grow, and the dominance of global-scale companies in this earliest part of the third millennium is an extension of that trend.

A glimpse of Truro Cathedral spire - looking south-east

Our route dips up and down the valleys formed by the tributaries of the River Kenwyn; sometimes the view is only the width of the tree-lined lane, and at others a wider panorama opens out. At one point, the path leads across the top of a field dipping steeply down to the river below, and the spires of the Cathedral are just perceivable in the thick mist that has accumulated in the hours since we set off. It seems the perfect analogy to the journey of the past to the present: the water comprising the River Kenwyn has emanated from many different sources, and been filtered through many substrates before arriving in the riverbed, then flows onwards, merging in closed pipes and channels beneath the built environment. The suggestion of spires in the mist allude to a way-marker for our future, but in a largely secular society, their direction towards heaven is unlikely to be the one our future generations will take. We can hope that the mixing, sifting and combining of our skills, aided and accelerated by technology, will help to forge a future encompassing the components we need to thrive both as individuals and communities, encompassing the landscapes of our past as part of our present and future.

Inspiration from:

The Weirdest people in the World – how the west became Psychologically peculiar and particularly prosperous - Joseph Henrich

The English Hospital - Nicholas Orme and Margaret Webster

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