I’d planned to look at the West Penwith commons a few weeks back, but didn’t fancy getting tangled up with G7 cavalcades or XR actions. So ten days ago, I braved the caravan-clogged A30 and headed back to an area where I lived between 2003 and 2008, the place where my daughter was born.
West Penwith feels like the end of the country, the last gasp of England before giving out to the Atlantic; the next land West of there, other than the Scillies, is the US. It’s also a geological relative of Bodmin and Dartmoor – granite high ground from magma rising up from the same ancient hotspot as the island of Britain drifted ever-so-slowly across it. And so you get plenty of tors and soil unsuited to agriculture but well suited for heathland grazing; unsurprisingly, that means you have plenty of commons. Look at a map of the area, and it’s a patchwork of access land – not all of it common but much of it. In fact, many of West Penwith’s iconic megaliths are here – Mên an Tol, the Nine Maidens stone circle, and Chûn Quoit.
I picked a walk which would take in several commons, in an area I know quite well: the coastline and moorland around the Geevor and Botallack World Heritage Sites. I worked as a postman in nearby St. Just, just about the most miserable job I’ve ever done, so know the area well enough to know how to pronounce the often-baffling placenames. I’d never thought of the patchwork of heathland I drove around in terms of it being common land, but it always felt possible just to enter and see where you got to and what you found. Bracken and bog permitting, they encourage a bit of exploring.
After a bit of road and field walking, taking in a terrace where I once delivered a Samurai sword, I headed up to Carnyorth Common, crowned by the twin outcrops of a radio mast and Carn Kenidjack (Kin-eejick), which take in sweeping views of St Just, a nearby air traffic control station (also on common land) and rough heathland leading down to Tregeseal stone circle. I love the juxtaposition of the radio mast and Carn Kenidjack, and classic moorland criss-crossed with tracks and paths which curl and curve around them. It makes the radio mast appear part of an ancient, ritual landscape, participating in the arrangement of features which make it up. Whether the stone circle calendar/temple/UFO landing pad or the mast looking out at St. Just and the Atlantic or the air traffic control, it’s all about communicating with something bigger, something intangible, isn’t it? The mast, all geometry and straight lines, in the midst of tangling heathland and granite, it’s Fisher’s weird: something where there should be nothing. And even the implications of radio, increasingly seeming like a redundant technology, harks back to the mid-c.20th and lost notions of progress; hauntology. I like that radio masts are often a feature of commons; of course, it’s partly because they’re on high ground, but there’s also the feeling that they’re there because no-one would mind if they were on a scrubby patch of not much – a more recent use of waste.
Carnyorth appears nowhere in the commons register. It’s marked as access land, and it doesn’t seem to be owned by the National Trust, though maybe it’s become such as it’s heathland. Obviously it WAS common, and this brings me back time and again to this thorn in the flesh about the complex difference between access land and common land; why does the designation even matter? If it looks like a common because it’s heathland, includes boundary stones and megaliths, if it was a common, if I can use it as if it’s a common, what’s the problem? This is a question worth coming back to (and still worth asking now a bit of research has shown it was re-registered in 2013 after a campaign from Save Penwith Moors and support from the Open Spaces Society).
I walked on to the wonderfully-named Woon Gumpus Common (the register tells me only an acre of this is common, though the site is much bigger than that) and on to Higher Downs, managed by Cornwall Wildlife Trust and which includes the famous Chûn Quoit, and Chûn Castle, where I had my lunch. The register doesn’t quite tally with all this, though I suspect it’s wrong (my scepticism about the register is growing thanks to beginning to understanding its imperfections and the problems this sometimes causes).
Anyway, looking out at the higher land to the north and the jigsaw of dry stone-walled fields, I realise just how much my thinking has changed as a part of this project; this settled and timeless land has now become inscribed with context and history as those dry-stone walls aren’t so ancient at all but the signs of enclosure. More, it’s tempting, and in some ways true, to see Cornwall as a country apart from England, especially when looking back across the centuries, but here is the physical and historic signature of something taking place nationally, enfolding Cornwall into a national narrative.
Speaking of enclosures, Higher Downs narrows to a thin path between stone walls as it enters Rose Valley Moor. You see such paths across the West Penwith Moors, and there are also plenty on Dartmoor, and it’s puzzling why they exist where elsewhere the walls are contiguous. To let cattle wander freely? It’s a strange feeling, these wild little corridors (the official path was completely choked with gorse and wild carrot and a diversion had been put in place here).
Leaving Rose Valley Moor, it was back to fields, tracks and roads until, just beyond Morvah, I joined the South West Coast Path at Morvah Cliff, with stunning views up the coast to Zennor Head. Both Morvah Cliff and Zennor Head are commons, but much of the coast here is owned and managed by the National Trust, so it’s impossible to tell where the commons end. It all looks the same and is used the same way.
Again, I’m brought back to ‘what’s the point?’ Perhaps this is where deeper research unlocks the subject; from a sensory, immediate perspective, there is no difference. For example, in Bristol, there are two major public parks close to one another: Clifton Downs and Brandon Hill. Brandon Hill was a common and Clifton Downs still is. Both are accessible 24-7 and both are used – and abused – recreationally. Clifton Downs is more open and a bit scruffier in places, while Brandon Hill is more carefully planted and maintained, but that’s about all the difference, and there are other municipal parks which are commons like either one. But where the plot thinking is in learning that Brandon Hill was a site of major political protest in the c.19th, and the focal point of a Chartist uprising. It was this event which caused it – as with Kennington Common – to be enclosed and gentrified. This difference, this idea, isn’t immediately perceptible, but a bit of knowledge and some careful camera work can express this difference; Brandon Hill was tamed and Clifton Downs was not (today, it’s a cruising ground, as is Clapham Common).
Anyway, I enjoyed the West Penwith moors, and I will go back, if only to explore the air traffic control station. Whether they’ll form part of the project in a more definite way, I don’t know, as what they offer me at present isn’t so different to what I can find closer to home on Dartmoor. What I do know now, and this is thanks to the Commons Register, is that Cornwall has a number of beach commons – more than any other county. This is something I want to investigate further – though only once those beaches are a little less hectic.