Walk: Boxing Day Race against the Dying Light on the Penwith Moors

A hurried afternoon hike on the Penwith Moors taking in some of west Cornwall’s most important megalithic sites.

  • 6 miles
  • Starts and ends at Carn Galver mine, Rosemergy, on the St Just to St Ives coastal road
  • Takes in Carn Galver, Nine Maidens stone circle, Ding Dong mine, Men-an-Tol and Men Scryfa standing stone

It’s been a busy couple of weeks here in Penzance what with the Solstice celebrations of Montol last week, and then Yule followed by Christmas over the last few days. Finding myself with a day off work on Boxing Day I decided to squeeze in a shortish walk before heading back into the fray.

There were plenty of reasons I could have used as an excuse not to head out today. For a start, the weather was pretty atrocious with high winds and another Atlantic storm blowing in. Furthermore I was feeling under the weather, with a sore throat and a slight temperature. And to top it off, I’d spent the morning shopping for bargain food items in Morrissons (10p for a bag of sprouts! 8p for a litre of milk!) and had thus left it late. The Penwith Moors are not a good place to be in the dark during a storm, and I thought that leaving it until almost 2pm before I set off was cutting it a bit fine.

Speaking of storms, I was accompanied by one on my walk. No, Storm’s not a weather phenomenon, he’s a dog!

Parked up outside the mine at the foot of Carn Galver, which translates as ‘Rocky lookout’

I drove out of Penzance to the abandoned mine at Carn Galver and parked up, a journey of about 20 minutes that passes over the moors and takes you from the south coast to the north. The ruined tin mine here was abandoned in 1878 and is named after the spectacular granite tor that rises above it on the moor – our first point of interest on the walk.

Carn Galver engine house

Behind the engine house is a fairly steep descent to the sea, where waves were crashing against the granite cliffs and a howling northerly wind blew in. There was a dell behind the buildings filled with stunted mossy willow trees.

Setting off to the south I immediately realised that the last four months of almost solid rain had turned the paths into gently flowing streams, or else stagnant quagmires. It was also at this point when I realised I’d forgotten to put on my walking boots and had to return to the car to do so.

Believe it or not, this is actually the path

I started slogging up the hill, water swirling around my booted feet. Walking was difficult in such conditions and I again wondered whether it was such a good idea to be setting out with less than three hours of light left.

The pathway up to the huge natural rock citadel of Carn Galver is ancient. It is comprised of stones and boulders embedded into the moor and must have been some kind of important route – ceremonial or otherwise – for the people who lived here thousands of years ago. Along the way are huge stone blocks which appear to have either tumbled down from the heights above, or else are part of damaged structures now half submerged and smothered by the heather, bramble and bracken.

There is still a clear pathway through the boulders. You get the sense that this route was once important.
It seems improbable that these rocks could have arranged themselves naturally like this. Could the big one be a capstone for what was once a quoit (dolmen)?

We walked up to the northern summit of Carn Galver, and I braced myself against the wind which nevertheless pushed me off my feet at one point and blew my glasses right off at another. If you want to experience elemental nature in all its power the Carn Galver is the place to be – this rock giant is not to be messed with! Speaking of giants, legend has it that one used to live up here. The gentle giant, so it is said, used to enjoy playing rock tossing games with a local in the nearby village. One day he accidentally killed his friend during one of these games and spent the rest of his years grieving. In his frustration he tossed all the rocks around that we can see today.

The views from the top are stunning. At least, they are when you can see anything. Today it was a mixture of belting rain and fast moving mist … but here’s a picture I took from the top in July when the weather was a whole lot nicer.

View from the top of Carn Galver in the summer, looking north

The carn itself is a long ridge, like the spine of a submerged beast, and there are two summits. I walked along this ‘spine’ and took a peek at the southern summit but didn’t bother going up it today due to the high winds.

I then slipped and skidded down from the hill and headed out towards open moorland. The rain had subsided by this point but the paths were so muddy and slick that I could only plod along, one foot each side of the squelchy mud. Luckily, however, my boots were not letting in any water. Yet.

The next mile or so was spent traversing an old compound and skirting some abandoned mine works. These moors are littered with holes and abandoned mines, and every year there are stories of dogs – and occasionally humans – falling down into them never to be seen again. I made sure Storm didn’t run off too far from me.

Pretty soon I was heading up a path in the direction of the Nine Maidens stone circle. When I got there, the entire area was flooded and the stones seemed almost to be poking out of an inland lake or pond.

There was no way of getting to the Nine Maidens of Boskednan without getting wet feet!

There are several stone circles in Cornwall called the Nine Maidens, and this one is called the Nine Maidens of Boskednan to distinguish it from the others. I counted 11 stones still standing, although apparently there were 18 when they were counted in 1754. In the intervening years some have fallen over or been removed, and it is thought there were 22 in the circle originally.

I love stone circles, but I didn’t have time to hang around with the Nine Maidens as the light was fading and I still had most of the walk ahead of me. Next we headed towards Ding Dong mine, which we could see in the distance. It was another wet, muddy slog to get there, with the puddles in the path becoming alarmingly large.

The unusually named Ding Dong mine is actually part of a UNESCO world heritage site, allegedly named due to the fact that the bell from distant Madron Church could be heard here, thus signalling the end of the shift for the miners. The tunnels below ground here are said to be the most extensive in the southwest, with 22 lodes of tin stretching over 500 acres. Today the mines are abandoned and waterlogged, having failed to attract a single bid in an auction in 1877. During their heyday, around 300 miners worked underground here.

The pump house at Ding Dong mine is quite nicely preserved

From the mine we swung north again and headed across the moor to one of Cornwall’s most iconic sites. Mên-an-Tol means ‘the stone with a hole’ in Cornish, and it lies low in the landscape, hardly visible until you stumble across it.

Men-an-Tol … smaller than most people think

The pieces visible today are part of a stone circle that is no longer there. There are all sorts of claims about the stone with the hole in it, mostly to do with effecting cures or helping fertility. Interestingly, when I pass Storm through it ( I have tried this on several occasion) he becomes highly energised and races around like a mad dog! Furthermore, a friend of mine cured his bad back by lying face down through the hole. Interestingly, when I touched it today I felt a buzz on the skin of my hand, like a mild electric shock.

The Levellers wrote a song about Mên-an-Tol, which captures the mood it inspires pretty well in my opinion.

Men-an-Tol … a holey mystery!

Again, we didn’t have time to hang around as the light was really fading my now. Additionally, a family had turned up – the first people we had encountered on the walk – clearly holidaymakers from ‘up country’ with a couple of teenagers in tow. Next we headed the short walk to another mysterious monument. Mên Scryfa is an inscribed standing stone situated in the middle of a field. In the distance Carn Galver, where we began our walk, is clearly visible. The stone is about the same height as me and is likely a Bronze Age menhir that was then inscribed during the Iron Age. According to Wikipedia:

The inscription, in debased Roman capitals, reads “Rialobrani Cunovali fili”, which translates as “Rialobranus son of Cunovalus.” Rialobran is not known elsewhere, but he may have been a Cornish petty king or tribal leader. Rialobran (or Ryalvran) may be Cornish for “royal raven”, whereas Cunovallos may be British for “famous leader”, thus the inscription would read “royal raven son of famous leader”. Antiquarians, at one time, used to identify Cunovalus with the pre-Roman British king Cunobeline.

Mên Scryfa stands alone in a field
Time for a selfie

By now I knew it was time to head back to the car. We had covered a lot of ground in only a couple of hours, but it was already after 4pm and getting dark. We followed the path north again over open moors. It seemed like the paths were getting even more boggy!

We trampled and sloshed along. Storm was pretty muddy by this point having fallen in a pool of ‘quick mud’ that sank him up to his belly. My feet were still dryish thanks to the decent pair of walking boots I had invested in.

Soon we were heading down off the moors and following a path that led to the narrow coastal road. Large cows loomed up through the mist and bellowed as we passed, and some gorse flowers on a bush added some welcome colour to the drab winter landscape.

Houses began to appear and we were shortly on the coast road again, heading into the tiny hamlet of Rosemergy.

Finally we made it back to the mine where the car was parked. Darkness was by now falling, so all-in-all our timing had been pretty good. The winds had died down and, with darkness, came the sense of how truly bleak it could feel up on these moors, which were punctuated only by ancient sites, abandoned mines and farms, and wind-smoothed rocks.

We made it back just as darkness was falling

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