A wild walk through time
Words and photographs by Rebecca Bentley
“Carn Brea is one of the few wild open spaces in West Cornwall that remains unspoilt,” says Anne Lenten, a committee member of the Carn Brea Protection Group (CBPG). “It’s a precious and historically significant place, with a Neolithic settlement at its summit where you can still see evidence of Iron and Stone Age activity, as well as the Bassett Monument and Castle.”
The CBPG was founded in 1996, when it successfully ran a campaign to protect the area from council proposals that aimed to build a new car park and spray the bracken with herbicide. In summer, this bracken – tall growing ferns with large outstretched leaves – turns the hill a luscious green, and performs the same function as the woodland that grew here before mining changed the landscape: it takes the place of a tree canopy, and enables a plethora of interesting plants to thrive – bluebells, wood anemones, heather and gorse blossom on the hill, as well as honeysuckle, hawthorn and swathes of red campion and foxgloves towards its base.
To this day, group members work to retain the area’s unspoilt beauty by keeping litter bin and information post proposals at bay, so walkers can continue to enjoy the abundant sense of wilderness. “Carn Brea is important to a huge number of people – far more than actually live there,” says Anne. “Many visited as children, or moved away and have fond memories of the place they don’t want to see changed. For this reason, we’ve received support from all over the world and it’s become an international landmark.”
There are a number of routes to reach the top of Carn Brea, which towers over 700ft above sea level; and also a handful of walking trails around the area, such as the 7.5 mile-long Great Flat Lode. This is a fantastic route for walkers, cyclist and horse riders, winding its way past old engine houses and along pretty country lanes laden with summer blooms. The quickest way to explore the area is to drive up the hill from the village of Carnkie and park up near Carn Brea Castle on the eastern summit, or park in Carnkie itself and ascend the hill on foot.
The granite castle building is believed to date from around the 14th century, and was later remodelled as a hunting lodge for the prosperous Bassett family in the 18th century – it’s now an atmospheric Jordanian restaurant serving Middle Eastern dishes by candlelight. The imposing 90ft high Bassett Monument near the castle was dedicated to Francis Bassett, and can be seen for miles around. It was used as a viewing post before its interior staircase fell to ruin.
The tenacious bracken covers many of the Carn’s smaller rock formations and remnants of ancient settlements during the summer months, but the large tors still balance proudly on the hilltop and offer 360 degree views of the surrounding landscape – look out for Portreath Beach to the north.
Michael Tangye’s book, Carn Brea, includes a map of the area with details of where to find ancient wells and Neolithic and Iron Age huts as well as legends of the Giant Bolster who was said to step from St Agnes to Carn Brea. Sites such as the giant’s cups and saucers, giant’s head and giant’s well are worth seeking out.
“Lying as it does in the centre of a rich mineral area, it is not surprising that the Carn itself became the scene of mining activity,” Tangye explains. “By the 1750s, miners, like badgers, were burrowing into the sides of the hill in search of tin and copper. The old mining tunnels and adits, once spent and abandoned, were soon forgotten. Some were rediscovered during the 19th century and became objects of speculation.” One of these was The Smuggler’s Cave, indicating a use not improbable as Carn Brea adjoined an old route used by smugglers bringing contraband from Godrevy to Stithians.
The history of the Carn is not reserved for the ancient settlers, or even the Romans of whom evidence has been found; its history reaches right up to the present day, where it continues to provide a backdrop to those who live in the small village of Tregajorran at the base of the hill. You can park at Cowlins Mills and walk up to Carn Brea through the village itself, either following the road up and round to the right where you’ll find a public footpath two minutes further along. Alternatively, follow the sign in the village centre that points to the Great Flat Lode, from where you can explore the beautiful landscape at the base of Carn Brea before taking one of the many small (though slightly precarious) paths leading to the summit.
June Applebee, who moved to the village 36 years ago with her three children, says: “Before we moved in, we climbed to the top of Carn Brea and looked down on the village and the cottage, which has been my home to this day. For all of us, it became a rite of passage to climb regularly, and whenever my children and now grandchildren visit, the first thing we do is walk up the Carn and along to the monument and castle. We sit on the magnificent rocks and take in the views. I would not want to love anywhere else – I love it here.”