There are more than 1000 stone circles in the United Kingdom, and one of the best places to find them is in Cornwall. The county is scattered with stone circles, stone rows and other prehistoric monuments. But where can you find the stone circles of Cornwall, and what were they for?
Stone Circles of Cornwall: Origins and Legends
The earliest stone circles were built around 3000 BC. There are varying theories about their purpose, ranging from ritual and ceremonial use to astronomical measurement. In fact, it is possible that both ideas are correct, as there is evidence that these were places where people gathered at significant times of the year, such as the solstices.
As well as circles, there were stone rows and individual standing stones (or menhirs). Again, no-one is sure about their purpose, but stone rows may have been used for processions during ritual ceremonies. Menhirs are more of a mystery, although they are often associated with other stone complexes.
What is certain is that the stones were subject to later cultural appropriation by the Christian church. Legends grew up around the circles, purporting to explain how they came into being. These legends tended to reinforce the teachings of the church, particularly regarding Sabbath Day observance. They also detracted from the pagan origins of the monuments.
Discovering the Stone Circles and Ancient Monuments of Cornwall
Around 16 stone circles are known in Cornwall, and there may be others, buried beneath the soil, yet to be discovered. Most of the known circles are publicly accessible, and relatively easy to find (exact locations are shown on Google Maps).
Here are just a few of them…
The Merry Maidens of Boleigh
The Merry Maidens, not far from Land’s End, is an almost perfect circle of 19 stones. It was restored during the 19th century, and it is possible that the stones were realigned at this time. Contemporaneous writings suggest that there was a second circle nearby, but no trace of this remains.
The legend is that the stones are a group of girls (the “merry maidens”) who were turned to stone for dancing on the Sabbath. Two standing stones in a field a little distance away are the Two Pipers, the musicians who accompanied the dancers.
Access to the Merry Maidens is from a lay-by on the B3315 between Lamorna and St Buryan. Further along the road is the Tregiffian Burial Chamber, probably the remains of a neolithic entrance grave. Look out too for the series of medieval wayside crosses: the Nun Careg Cross is a little way along the road from the Merry Maidens, and the Boskenna Cross is close to the burial chamber.
Nine Maidens Row, St Columb Major
As the name suggests, the Nine Maidens Row is a line of nine granite stones. Situated at the edge of a field, the stones are all of different sizes. Like the Merry Maidens, they are supposedly girls who danced on the Sabbath and were turned to stone as a result. A single stone about half a mile away is the equally irreligious Fiddler.
Finding the Nine Maidens Row requires a little determination. You can park in a lay-by on the A39 between St Columb Major and Wadebridge, but to enter the field you will need to walk some distance alongside the busy road.
Trippet Stone Circle
Trippet Stone Circle is one of several ancient monuments on Bodmin Moor. It was originally a circle of around 28 stones, but only 11 remain (of which 8 are standing, and 3 are fallen). The central stone is a more modern boundary marker. Once again, the circle is a group of petrified dancers (the name Trippet implies “tripping”, or dancing).
You can get to the Trippet Stone Circle via a track off the A30 north of Bodmin. The Stipple Stones (which I didn’t manage to see) are about a mile away to the east, but are somewhat less accessible, requiring a hike over private land.
Hurlers Stone Circles
The Hurlers Stone Circles are a group of three separate circles on Bodmin Moor. Because this was once a tin-mining area the stones have been disturbed over time, the central circle being the most complete. The legend here is slightly different: these stones were young men who were caught at the sport of hurling on a Sunday. They seem to have had musical accompaniment: there are two Piper Stones nearby.
If you only visit one ancient site in Cornwall I would recommend the Hurlers. Although they are not complete the arrangement of three circles is very unusual, and it is a larger group to explore. Of all the circles I’ve mentioned they are probably the easiest to find, being close to a car park in the village of Minion.
You might also like these articles on prehistoric places in the British Isles:
- Uncovering the Mystery of Avebury’s Stones
- In Search of the Stone Circles of Cumbria
- In Search of the Callanish Standing Stones
- Ancient Burial Places on the Isle of Man