So on I went to gain the summit of this famous carn, which looked so distant from my father’s door,
This Misty Mountain is not the Brigadoon of legend, emerging from the fog only once every 100 years, but it has been compared to that mystical land due to its fantastical appearance and the many stories associated with it. Notably, it has been cited as proof for the existence of giants, in particular a character named Bolster, who could stand with one foot on the hill and the other on top of St. Agnes Beacon 10 miles away. This is not surprising, given the size of the tors on Carn Brea. You can’t help but speculate how they came to be there, and the factual description of the area’s history and prehistory only adds to the mystery.
738 feet above sea level, Carn Brea overlooks the towns of Camborne and Redruth in southern England, or Cornwall. From Pencoys village, it is less than an hour’s walk, accessed by following Loscombe Road and the dirt lanes that meander among flowering hedgerows between the fields. If you start out in the morning, it is likely to be as misty as its nickname suggests, but on a sunny day, the fog will burn off as you approach the summit. The wild and colourful groundcover is as coarse as what is found in the highland moors, and not unlike tundra in places. Well-trodden paths ensure that you won’t easily lose your way.
The tor enclosure that you discover is worth the steep climb up one or another sides of the hill. Imposing granite ramparts line the bank, forming an eastern and a central enclave. The stones themselves command your attention, but your eyes will be torn between them and the expansive view of the countryside and villages below. Such Neolithic (4,000 – 6,000 BCE) structures could have served many purposes: ceremonial, defensive, community, but there isn’t enough evidence to say for certain what happened in the ancient days on this hill.
Nevertheless, Carn Brea continued to captivate people’s imaginations. Pottery, Bronze Age tools, and Roman coins have all been found at the site. In the Middle Ages (1379) a castle that served as a hunting lodge and chapel was erected by ancestors of the Basset family, using some of the enormous boulders on the hill as a base. There are at least two tunnels leading from Carn Brea toward Redruth and St. Euny’s Church, which were blocked for safety reasons after 1970. Partway down the hill, St. Euny’s Well is named after the Celtic saint who brought Christianity to the area around 500 CE.
Photo credits: Jon Law
Photo credit: David Albans
In addition to the tor enclosure with its massive outcroppings of rock, the carn is recognized by the 90-foot stone cross that graces its summit. The granite obelisk (1836) is a monument to Francis Basset, Baron de Dunstanville, who became a member of the nobility partly as a result of his efforts to defend the port of Plymouth from Spanish and French fleets with an army of miners. A mine owner himself, with 700-year-old Cornish roots, Basset was a philanthropist who worked to improve the conditions of miners throughout the southwest. Or so the story goes. Some historians describe Basset less sympathetically, suggesting he was grasping as a politician and controlling as an employer, giving with one hand and taking with the other.
Tin mines were the main sources of employment in the region throughout the Industrial period. Their abandoned chimneys define the landscape of Cornwall, which sent many of its sons overseas during the 19th and early 20th centuries to help establish mines in places as far away as Mexico, New Zealand, and South Africa. Whatever opinion these young men held of the Baron de Dunstanville, they grew up in the shadow of his memory, and their voices still carry on the winds of Carn Brea.