If the map of the English county of Cornwall resembles the lower part of an outstretched leg, then the small peninsula of Penwith represents its curled toes. This south-western extremity of Great Britain contains the traditional starting point for end-to-end journeys at Lands End – a tacky tourist attraction on top of a rocky cliff – yet the area is also home to breathtaking coastal walks, sandy beaches, relics of the industrial past, and an impressive collection of prehistoric stone monuments. This entry describes a short circular walk across Cornish heathland which takes in a number of intriguing historical sites, including the enigmatic Mên-an-Tol – the stone with the hole.
As walks go, this is a relatively short and easy one. It's around four miles long, and will take you a couple of hours, plus stoppage time. You can make it longer and see more sites of interest if you have the time, and a good map or guidebook indicates the points at which you might do this. A few basics are worth mentioning, though. Take waterproof clothing (it often rains), stout, waterproof footwear1 (it's quite boggy in places, especially in winter), an extra layer or two (it can get cold), binoculars, mobile phone, Kendal mint cake, water, OS Explorer map 102, and a backpack to carry it all in. The area contains abandoned mine workings, so please stick to the marked paths.
Our journey starts and ends at a farm track on a country road between Penzance and Morvah. The area is marked as Bosullow Common, grid reference: SW418344. It's most easily reached by car, and there is some parking available on the nearby verges. Note that this isn't a car park in any civilised sense of the word, and you leave your vehicle there at your own risk. You'll often find half-a-dozen other cars there, though, which if nothing else helps you locate the starting point. The nearest public transport services are the buses which run along the B3306 coast road, just over a mile to the north-west – see the Cornwall Council buses website for details.
The map makes the first part of our route obvious. Follow the farm track north-east for about half a mile, until you see a sign and some concrete steps on the right (grid reference: SW425349). This path leads for 100 yards or so to a clearing in the heather where lies a collection of granite stones, each no more than four feet tall. Three of these are standing in a straight line; the central one, Mên-an-Tol, is circular with a large hole, giving the appearance of spelling out the figure 101. This is a popular subject for photographs. If you crouch down low you can snap the hole as it frames one of the flanking stones, or even the engine house from the abandoned mine on the skyline (of which more later).
Whoever constructed Mên-an-Tol didn't leave a guidebook. We have no idea of who built it nor its purpose. It's not obviously part of a stone circle, nor is it necessarily part of a burial site. Legend and folklore have filled the vacuum, however, and if you have any children with you, then now is the time to pass them through the hole three times (in an anticlockwise direction) to cure their rickets.
Retracing your steps to the farm track, continue as before in a north-easterly direction. After a couple of hundred yards or so, a stile on the left leads to a grassy and somewhat muddy field in which you'll find the 6ft-high standing stone Mên Scryfa, literally 'inscribed stone' (grid reference: SW427353). Into this relic from the Bronze Age has been chiselled the Romano-British words RIALOBRANUS CUNOVALI FILI – '(here lies) the son of the chief Rialobrane (or Ryalvran) – Royal Raven'. This 5th Century graffiti ushers us into a world of British warrior kings and Arthurian legends. Ryalvran is said to have lost his life in a battle to reclaim his territory from invaders. He was buried at this spot, beneath a stone which, at nine feet in total length, signified his exact height.
Nine Maidens of Boskednan
Return to the track and continue north-east as before. When a number of paths intersect, keep on, veering slightly right on a path which passes over the top of the hill ahead, through gorse and heather. A couple of hundred yards further on is the Nine Maidens stone circle (grid reference: SW434351).
Keen mathematicians among you will notice that there are in fact 11 standing stones, and five of these were re-erected in 2004; it is believed there were once 22. The Nine Maidens name may be a corruption of other Cornish words, or maybe it is just a reference to the mystical properties of the number nine in folklore. The legend of Boskednan is similar to that of some other circles across the country: a group of maidens were caught dancing on the Sabbath and immediately turned to stone.
Further photo opportunities abound here, especially those which include the ghostly, ever-present engine house on the horizon, towards which we will now turn.
Ding Dong Merrily on High
Our path leads on up a hill to the shell of the Greenburrow engine house from the abandoned Ding Dong mineral mine (grid reference: SW434344, marked on the map as 'Chy' - chimney). It's a place to take a rest and, with binoculars, you may be able to identify all the sites you've visited so far.
Engine houses from the now defunct tin-mining industry litter the Cornish landscape; a few have been converted into museums or dwellings, but many lie in sorry, yet romantic ruin. Greenburrow is one of the most accessible and stands proud. Now gutted and roofless, it once housed a steam engine which hauled ore up the adjacent shaft, which is visible beneath a metal grating. Its thick stone walls and large chimney evoke a sense of the power and noise of centuries past, as hundreds of men toiled to raise rock and feed the revolution. Yet, all now is quiet. Skylarks break the silence above the colossal wreck of this Cornish Ozymandias – round its decay, the lone and level heath stretches far away.
Mining has gone on in Cornwall for millennia, and Ding Dong is said to lie on the site of mine workings from 2,000 years ago. Indeed, one oft-repeated Cornish legend tells of a rather special visitor; Joseph of Arimathea is said to have once paid a visit with a young lad in tow – one Jesus of Nazareth.
We're on the return leg now. Follow the marked footpath at the south-western corner of the mine which takes you in a west-south-west direction along a track. After around 400 yards, a footpath leads off to the right which joins the road to the west of Lanyon Farm – a quicker route back to the start. Alternatively, stay on the track, meet the road to the east of the farm, then turn left and visit another prehistoric site: Lanyon Quoit.
You can't miss the stones – they're in a field on the left-hand side of the road after a couple of bends (grid reference: SW430337). In the size of its prehistoric stoneware, Cornwall can't compete with Wiltshire's Stonehenge, but its quoits are certainly impressive. Lanyon's consists of a large flat stone resting upon three uprights, looking not entirely unlike a house built of playing cards. At the beginning of the 19th Century it was tall enough to ride a horse under, but following an 1815 storm which caused the monument to collapse and one of the stones to break, it was reconstructed much lower. It marks the site of a prehistoric burial chamber, and is yet another photogenic subject.
Return along the road, past Lanyon Farm (which serves cream teas for tourists) and back to where you left the car. If you've a return bus to catch, then it's a little further to trudge.