Below, regular Broadcast writer Pete Geall takes a trip inland to an ancient stone circle, laid down by communities now long gone. Read on for a contemplation of the summer solstice and all it symbolises; life, death, rebirth and a strand of connection to those who went before.
As we shift into a new way of life, many of us will now be making the first cautious steps away from our homes and towards an expanded horizon. We’ve all come a long way since the end of the March. Daffodils and bluebells have been replaced with foxgloves standing proud in the hedgerows. Daylight freely doled out as the shortest night approaches.
With long, mild days stretched out in front of us, the perennial promise of summer will never fade. Despite this, the notion of celebration is still far from our collective thoughts. Instead of revelling in the advancing summer, photographer Jack Johns and myself decided to set a more modest intention: to seek solace amongst the light filled season.
Whilst the tempest has yet to pass, the clear, dry weather of late has provided the opportunity to venture out beyond walking or cycling distance from our homes in West Cornwall. Native coastal dwellers, we sought a different kind of inspiration away from the ruler edged horizon line of the sea. Instead, we turned our attention inland, towards the lucent landscape and ancient history of the Penwith peninsula.
That is not to say we haven’t already been exploring through spring. Being shaken around in the petri-dish of our homes has yielded some interesting results. A potent blend of fear and hope that will take some time to get used to. In the spirit of self-exploration, I have been working towards the premise that we can, and should, alter that jumbled cocktail into something more palatable. Something we can be proud of; something we want to share with others when the time allows.
Regular readers of the Finisterre Broadcast might have joined me on my daily lockdown walk around my home in Newlyn. The lessons learned within a short walk from my house, helping me make sense of the choppy waters ahead. The act of walking, looking and empathising with the past experiences of the community - providing a safe harbour to securely anchor my worries.
Whilst the coastal walk fostered a sense of solidarity with my community, it didn’t capture the physical attachment that I felt towards the land beneath my feet. Beyond my admittedly blinkered coastal outlook, I wondered what it meant to feel truly connected to the landscape?
On top of windswept moorland, carpeted in scented furze* and concealed in the napes of valleys, the rich megalithic history of the Penwith peninsula provided a direct connection with its ancient occupants. People who were embedded both physically and spiritually to the land.
On the short drive to my local beach, I occasionally catch stolen glimpses of standing stones hidden behind hedgerows. Whilst countless sites have been damaged or altered over the millennia, It struck me that subsequent inhabitants have for the most, respected these installations. The remaining standing stones, burial chambers and stone circles that pepper West Cornwall demonstrating a veneration for the land in which they are placed. Like Stonehenge in Wiltshire, most historians posit that the extensive megalithic sites of Penwith show a deep reverence towards patterns, calendar keeping and the importance of the solstices.
Nowadays it is easy to view the solstice as just another notification in our lives - a reminder of the changing seasons. As such, the solstice has a tendency to be viewed with an air of finality; the recognition of the unending march up and down the seasonal slopes.
In addition to being the longest day of the year, the summer solstice is in fact an exact moment in time. The literal point the northern hemisphere is most tilted towards the sun (vice versa in the southern hemisphere). As the solstice is independent of the specific rotation of the Earth, it can occur even during the middle of the night, as it will this year on the 20th June at 22:43 BST. The root of the word ‘Solstice’ comes from the Latin: Solstitium, literally ‘Sun-Stopping’. The horizon point where the sun appears to rise and set, stops and reverses direction after this day.
Setting our alarms for 4am, Jack and myself resolved to visit a local circle at dawn - to experience firsthand the crescendo of light before the upcoming solstice.
Nestled in the crook of a valley lies the Boscawen-ûn stone circle. The Cornish translation: ‘Elder Tree on the Downs’ is taken from a nearby farm. With its distinctive central stone tilted at an angle, elliptical shape and white quartz stone positioned at the western edge - Boscawen-ûn is as atmospheric as it is enigmatic. A set form within an endlessly moving universe.
The community that built this circle would’ve been innately part of the terrain they called home. Many of the ancient sites found nearby are connected by visual eye-lines, which allowed inhabitants to physically map their home and further deepen their spatial awareness of the landscape. It is plausible that the ceremonial purpose of the circle was a way for them to tether themselves to the celestial movements (The nineteen stones of the circle possibly relating to the nineteen year lunar cycle). Allowing them feel truly inter-connected with the sky as well as with the land.
The Boscawen-ûn circle’s central, tilted stone precisely greets the solstice dawn. On the bottom corner of the stone are two faint carvings of axe-heads, illuminated softly by the rising midsummer sun - sacred items imbued with the first rays of light.
With the sun beginning its long journey to the north-west horizon, I was left with an overwhelming kinship to the strand of human history that courses through us. A reminder that for thousands of years we have being trying to make sense of it all and that we will most likely still be trying to figure it out in thousands of years more.
Perhaps Boscawen-ûn’s greatest achievement is to not present the solstice as a totemic pinnacle. But as a new dawn. An opportunity to start afresh. A chance to shine the light on things we hold to be important. Renewal, the summer solace we had sought.
*Notes: "Furze" is the Cornish word for gorse covered moorland.
For further Information on these historic Celtic sites around Cornwall, visit the Cornish Ancient Sites Network (CASPN)