In the far west of Cornwall lies a trackway that has been trodden by many feet over many millennia. Once a central part of a wider network of tracks it is now only used by ramblers, dog walkers, horse riders and those interested in the sites along its way. What it was called in the past is unknown but today it has become known as the Tinners Way.
Paths and tracks traverse the landscape creating a maze of possible routes from A to B and are probably one of the least understood aspects of the past in Britain. The greatest issue is in the understanding of the chronology of this particular site type.
“Unmetalled roads and trackways are extremely difficult to date. They have no constructional material to aid interpretation and artefacts are rarely present. This difficulty is compounded by the fact that their form has remained unchanged from prehistoric to modern times and that many were in continuous use for centuries, even millennia” (Prehistoric Roads, Trackways and Canals – Historic England 2011)
Historic England/English Heritage have defined a trackway as a ‘linear route which has been marked on the ground surface over time by the passage of traffic. Trackways are usually relatively short routes for local use’. In west Cornwall the Tinners Way has been identified as one such trackway, one which in all likelihood has a lengthy history going back into prehistory. It follows the granite backbone of West Penwith passing by and sometimes through archaeological sites as well as the remains of later of tin mining.
So, from where does the Tinners Way begin and where does it end? Well the answer to that would very much depend on from what direction you are coming as it travels between Cape Cornwall and St Ives. For our purposes here we will begin at Cape Cornwall in the very far west, stopping at various points and ending up on the Island in St Ives.
It is probable that the Kenidjack Valley which runs alongside the Cape was the source of one of the earliest and most accessible deposits of alluvial tin ore. Tin was an important resource to the Cornish economy from the Bronze Age into the 19th century.
From here the trackway heads inland and up onto the moors of Penwith past Carn Kenidjack and the Tregeseal Stone Circles not to mention the mysterious holed stones. Continuing on to the fascinating sites of Chun Quoit and Chun Castle.
Back long before metals were exploited in Cornwall our Neolithic ancestors built great stone tombs, archaeologically these are known as quoits or chambered cairns. Although this is not the place to go into a lengthy discussion on the function of such sites it should be pointed out that many of these sites do seem to appear in significant places in the landscape and thus would seem to have a function beyond simple burial. Along the Tinners Way there are several quoits which serve to mark the way – Zennor Quoit, Mulfra Quoit, and of course Chun Quoit with the possibility of more having been ravaged by time.
Just past Chun Quoit are the remains of what was once a great stone walled hillfort – Chun Castle. The walls are still impressive even after the attempts at removal for use in other building projects (the pavement on Market Jew St in Penzance is made up of stone from the hillfort). Originally occupied in the Iron Age it straddles the trackway, interestingly it was later occupied in the 5th and 6th centuries – a time of unease – and the evidence does seem to suggest it was used as a stronghold for the storage of tin ore.
All along the Tinners Way there is evidence of tin mining (hence the name) – old mine shafts can be a hazard for those wandering off the beaten track (please remember to keep your dogs under control when walking along here). Much of the visible mining remains date from the 17th to the 19th centuries.
On leaving Chun Castle you pass the overgrown Iron Age courtyard house settlement of Bosullow Trehyllys – see an earlier article on the more well known courtyard house settlements of Chysauster and Carn Euny. From here the trackway follows the well trod path past the Men-an-Tol and Men Scryfa.
The first was probably once a chambered tomb which has suffered at the hands of people over a very long time. The latter an inscribed stone dating to the 5th/6th century and is a memorial stone to “Rialobrani Cunovali Fili’ – roughly translated as ‘the royal raven son of the glorious prince’. It’s position along this important route undoubtedly deliberate.
Not far from Men Scryfa is the Four Parish Stone. This stone indicates the point in which the boundaries of the four ancient parishes of Zennor, Gulval, Madron and Morvah meet. This is not the modern civil parish boundaries but the much older church boundaries. A document from the 17th century mentions this place in the landscape, referring to it as ‘Meane Crouse’ or ‘stone cross’ suggesting the presence of a stone cross which marked this important crossroads. Any traveller to Cornwall will note how stone crosses covered in moss and worn by weather are often found at road junctions.
From here the landscape is dominated by the impressive tor known as Carn Galva and whilst not the highest point in West Penwith (Watch Croft the adjacent tor takes that accolade) it is the most atmospheric of tors with its giant granite boulders standing silent sentinel over the millennia. It is now generally believed that Carn Galva is one of the few Neolithic enclosures to be found in Cornwall – Carn Brea, Helman Tor and Trencrom are the more well known.
Further on the walker can take a minor side trip to see the Nine Maidens stone circle and the remains of a roundhouse settlement probably dating to the late Bronze Age/early Iron Age (Bodrifty). Nearby the farmer at Bodrifty Farm has recreated a roundhouse and it is possible to visit but do ask first. After Bodrifty the trackway goes past Mulfra Quoit.
Alternatively and the most likely direction for the trackway to follow is across the moorland of Bosporthennis Common between the highpoint of The Beacon and Mulfra Hill to the parish boundary stone known as the Bishops Head and Foot.
“Used over generations, these trackways created permanent scars across hills and valleys, and formed a web of easily followed routes which were later utilised to mark the extent of private estates which had superseded previous communal use of tribal lands. When the system of parishes was established about the 12th century additional use was made of these muddy tracks to form their boundaries in conjunction with streams and prominent rocks” (Antiquities of West Cornwall – The Tinners Way. Ian Cooke 1991)
It is often speculated that the old parish boundaries are based on ancient trackways and at the Bishops Head and Foot there are important paths which traverse Penwith from Zennor to Castle-an- Dinas and Chysauster (both important Iron Age sites) and on to Mounts Bay. The Tinners Way as already demonstrated follows several sections of parish boundaries along the high ground. The trackway then continues through the parish of Towednack along the base of Rosewall Hill covered in old mining shafts and then onto the village of St Ives and The Island.
Although today there stands a small chapel to St Nicholas on the Island it is thought that originally the headland was a much older promontory fort. Its position which overlooks Porthmeor Beach and the wider expanse of St Ives bay including the entry to Hayle Harbour and with views all the way up the coast would suggest it was an important site.
The Hayle Estuary was an important trading port on this coast until the Medieval period. Dredging in the now silted harbour has in the past brought up finds from all periods including the Roman period and earlier. Overlooking the harbour is the ancient enclosure of Trencrom Hill which as mentioned before can be dated to the Neolithic and later.
“It used to be thought that the earliest routes in Britain were prehistoric ‘ridgeways’, long distance trackways…This idea grew up in the early years of archaeological studies when the most obvious prehistoric monuments, such as Bronze Age burial mounds and Iron Age hillforts, were found concentrated in upland areas.” (Pre-industrial Roads, Trackways and Canals Historic England 2011).
Even though there is no concrete way of dating this particular route there are certainly a lot of indicators which point to it being an important part of the landscape in West Penwith with a long and fascinating history.
A useful wee book to read if you can get hold of one is “The Tinners Way”by Ian Cooke. It is in essence a guidebook for walkers wishing to do the the Tinners Way, detailing the route and the various features along the way.