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The thin layer

Old copper mine workings on Caradon Hill on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall, part of the Copper Trail - a long distance hiking path Old copper mine workings on Caradon Hill on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall, part of the Copper Trail - a long distance hiking path Helen Hotson
29 Mar
This month, the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)'s Discovering Britain walk takes Tom Hart to Cornwall's ancient moorland hub

For more great walks, trails and viewpoints, be sure to check out the new Discovering Britain Facebook page by clicking here.

Discovering BritainOne of Britain’s last cavemen was an ace mathematician. On Bodmin Moor his strange geometry can still be found, etched into granite.

‘Perhaps he was thinking about Euclid. These are certainly mathematical symbols. Some look like Pythagorean theorems,’ says Mike Scott, a retired teacher who has been visiting the moor for more than 50 years.

On a granite slab above a cave, the marks are clear – a cube broken with a straight line. From the cave top there’s a view down to an ancient tomb and a Bronze Age circle, above it lies a Neolithic camp. Our caveman’s name was Daniel Gumb. He built a cave up on the moor in the 18th century to escape the taxman and find time to think about astronomy and mathematics.

‘He was a remarkable young man, born in the area to a simple family,’ says Scott, who devised this Discovering Britain walk across Bodmin Moor. Self-taught in the sciences, Gumb started as a stonemason. Gravestones with his signature can still be found in nearby villages

‘Gumb’s great love for and skill in mathematics, geology and astronomy made him useful as a surveyor,’ says Scott. His plan was to retreat onto the moor to think and live, tax-free. But Gumb was not alone in his retreat.

‘He had a couple of wives,’ says Scott.

A couple?

‘Not concurrent ones, no.’

Along with his wives – eventually there were three – came 13 children to tumble about the cave. But Gumb’s ever-expanding clan didn’t stop his mathematical cave drawings, and there was also time to play a role in England’s porcelain industry. William Cookworthy, a local chemist, wanted to end England’s dependence on imported clay. ‘He decided there might well be some places to exploit in the West Country, and he asked Daniel Gumb’s advice for where to look,’ says Scott.

Deposits were found on Bodmin Moor, and also near St Austell. If there was any profit from this, however, it did not change Gumb. He died as a on the moor, age 70.

daniel-gumbs-cave-photofilecornwall-REPGumb's cave on the moor (Image: photofile cornwall, www.photofilecornwall.co.uk)

Blood under pressure is the only sound in Gumb’s cave – which is a reconstruction made by quarry workers after quarrying destroyed the original. When the family was out, it would have just been Gumb and his heartbeat.

Today transatlantic jets occasionally growl over the moors, but stepping outside the cave the jet is just a white dot in the sky. In the city, the sound is usually so hidden that it’s a surprise to realise a jet that high could even be heard from the ground. Military jets sometimes charge over the moors, but it’s a rare event, according to Scott.

That said, silence is the norm on the moor, a quirk for our time and for Gumb’s. To look out from his cave is to look back to a busier time.

Below the cave are medieval or Bronze Age lode-back pits where minerals were worked from the granite. Aerial photography shows this apparently blank landscape to be marked with track marks from the mines – Cornish Nazca lines.

‘I didn’t realise it before,’ says Scott. ‘One of the things you notice up on the moor is that there are lumps and bumps all over the place. I was walking there with a geologist who pointed to the three lode-back pits walking up the hill.’ The lines are not just random bumps and hillocks. They fit patterns.

Mixed among the pits is an even older earthwork. This is Rillaton Barrow, the largest burial mound in Cornwall. It was probably a tomb for a Bronze Age chief. In 1837, stone workers uncovered a skeleton, a bronze dagger and a gold cup in the barrow.

‘The cup is in the British Museum now, but it was stored away in one of the Royal Palaces before that,’ says Scott. ‘It was apparently used as a shaving cup or something to put a toothbrush in.’ An East Anglian find matches the Rillaton cup, and both are very rare Bronze Age ornaments, Scott says.

A lintel marks the opening to the barrow. ‘At the price of muddy knees, I have looked in through the small opening and, as my eyes got used to the dark, I noticed a luminous moss on the back wall of the cavity,’ says Scott. ‘It’s known as ‘goblin gold’, and only grows in dark places like underground caves.’

Beyond the barrow is the Hurlers stone circle. Set up around 3,000 years ago, the circle’s purpose is unknown. Two stones stand outside the ring and lore says these are pipers frozen in stone for playing music on the Sabbath.

‘Northwest of the pipers, there’s another stone circle. It could be a ley-line,’ theorises Scott. ‘There’s a track-way through the Hurlers going toward Rillaton Barrow. Whether that has a central point as far as the Bronze Age is concerned, nobody knows.’

There’s even evidence that a paved causeway led to the Hurlers. The site was once a busy crossroads. In today’s silence, it’s easy to imagine the circle had some religious significance, though that could just be false reverence. The Hurlers could have been a market place or a parliament, but in the silence it requires imagination.

‘Let your imagination go, especially on a thick misty day when strange shapes can appear from rock formations,’ says Scott.

hurlers3,000 years old, the purpose of the Hurlers stone circle is a mystery (Image: Tom Hart)

On the skyline above the once busy landscape lies the Cheesewring tor, granite stones balanced atop each other as if a bored giant was trying to see just how high the rocks could go before tumbling down. In fact, a rock-throwing competition between giants is the unofficial local story. If that’s so the giants were remarkably lucky – or skillful – with their shots.

‘People do climb up the Cheesewring. There are old photos of people having picnics on the top,’ says Scott. The top stone is flat enough for a good picnic table, albeit with a precarious view into the quarry face below.

On a nearby tor, two ravens quarrel over lunch. ‘There are curlews and ravens. The usual common moorland birds like snipes. Skylarks, if you’re lucky,’ says Scott. ‘A prop was put in near the bottom of the Cheesewring because they thought it was going to topple over.’ This is all personal history for Scott, his wife – a local girl – first brought him to the Cheesewring in 1962.

Tors are found across the Bodmin landscape. Formed as granite joints were worked through ice and thaw, the Cheesewring is a geographical formation that looks man-made, a natural counterpoint to the Hurler’s circle below.

Beneath the Tor is the quarry, founded in the mid-1800s. It provided granite for Tower Bridge, the Albert Memorial and the docks in Calcutta.

A climber takes a rest on a large step three metres up the quarry side. ‘I’m getting back into practise after a triathlon injury,’ he says. ‘Perhaps I should use a rope,’ he adds.

P2178444The Cheesewring, formed naturally by the weathering of granite slabs (Image: Tom Hart)

Beyond the quarry shards is a ravine that leads out to barbed wire enclosures that mark filled in mineshafts. This is Stowe’s Great Lode, a moor-bound bounty in tin, copper and iron ore.

When author Wilkie Collins walked the area in the mid-1850s, quiet reflection was impossible: ‘We had been walking hitherto amid almost invariable silence and solitude; but now, with each succeeding minute, strange, mingled, unintermitting noises began to grow louder and louder around us. We followed a sharp curve in the tram-way and immediately found ourselves saluted by an entirely new prospect and surrounded by an utterly bewildering noise,’ he wrote in Rambles Beyond Railways.

Near the mine’s remains, quarry workers’ cottages sink back into the landscape, serving as a paddock for moor ponies.

‘The ponies are owned, and belong to the farms. As with Exmoor ponies and Dartmoor ponies, they belong to people but range freely, and are rounded up now and again,’ says Scott.

Setts or sleepers for a railway line mark the course of the path. The granite has weathered down to a grey ivory colour, while a diversion from the track leads down to Phoenix House – the mine captain’s house. The houses stud the moors like industrial tors, always standing out on the horizon.

Behind Phoenix House there’s a playground for geologists, a spoil heap thick with minerals. The area is a Site of Special Scientific Interest though, so rock hunters beware.

P2178450Bodmin Moor pony. In the distance, echoes of the Cornwall's mining history (Image: Tom Hart)

The mines brought the railways, and the railways brought a railway village. Minions is today’s population chip on a moor that has seen a busy 5,000 years. Cattle still range up the main road chasing after feedbags, and the brightest light at night comes from the old, red phone box.

Minions is so dark at night it feels like there’s nothing between it and the Milky Way. Once the mines and railway went away (around 1917), the village grew silent, save for some brief US Army manoeuvres during the Second World War. But sometimes the world makes itself felt over the village. As we walk, a helicopter passes low over the rooftops, and fifteen minutes later a farmer’s 4x4 pulls over next to us.

‘Did you see that chopper? Which way did it go?’ the farmer demands of us. When the pilot lands, she’s determined to say exactly what the helicopter did to her horses.

‘Not much has changed in the village over the years,’ says Scott. ‘The tea room opened, but that’s about it. Over the years we’ve learnt so much about the area that you’re really aware of what has happened over the centuries.’ The Cornwall and West Devon area has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2006.

What appears to be empty is only resting. Human activity on the moors comes in layers, thick and thin. As with Daniel Gumb’s time here, we’re currently living in a thin layer. There’s a certain freedom to be had up on the moor.

‘That’s part of its appeal,’ agrees Scott. ‘Having been brought up in Surrey, where you have to follow footpaths, here you can make your own plans on the moor'.

WALK Details
• Location: Southwest England
• Type: Rural
• Distance: 2.5 miles
Click here for more details

Unearth more of our nation’s history and find more great walks, trails and viewpoints around the UK at discoveringbritain.org or via the new Discovering Britain Facebook page.

This was published in the April 2015 edition of Geographical magazine.

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