11. Jam

That’s my blood darkening my hands but it’s not as bad as it looks. There’s probably blood on my shins too but I don’t have time to look. Nature guards her treasures well; she’s red in tooth, claw and thorn.

I’m not sure why I’m pushing deeper into the fringe of this bramble, particularly since it’s between a gorse bush and a holly tree. Those plump, shiny blackberries, just beyond my reach, which are nodding enticingly to me in the late afternoon sun, are surely no better than the plump, shiny blackberries within leisurely reach just yards further along the path. But they do look good; tasty, juicy and if I just lean a little further into bush — ignoring the pricking in my chest, the biting on my shins and the snagging of my shirt sleeves — they are mine. It’s easier to walk into a blackberry bush than walk out again. Those thorns are hooked backwards towards the root, an arrangement which helps the plant to climb but which also makes escape from its clutches increasingly difficult and painful the more you pull.

My neighbour goes out with a bowl and a smile claiming that blackberries are “free food”. They’re not free. They’re paid for with blood and suffering. At least they are when I go out collecting.

I straighten up from the stretching. Wincing from muscle pain and lacerations, I rip myself backwards out of the tangle, dropping the handful of hard-won treasures into an ice-cream tub tucked deep into the canvas shoulder bag that’s bumping against my side. The haul is good so far. When I started out at the foot of the hill berries seemed to be drumming and rolling in the empty bottom of the box for a long time, but the cache is now deep enough that new additions arrive noiselessly. I need about a kilo of fruit today and I’m about two thirds of the way to achieving that. It’s a satisfying stage; past the half-way mark so most of the work is done but still with space to bring in more of these glorious black berries. I hate to see things go to waste and this year I’m going to collect and preserve as much of this wild harvest as I can. For the first time in my life I’m going to make jam. Enough jam to see me deep into the winter.

Pausing to release the kinks from my stiff back, I gaze out across the valley through a golden early-September haze that softens the view of North Cornwall. This path between medieval fields rises from the village to the rim of the moorland plateau. It looks down and out across hills, fields and woods to the distant coast. A milky sun is out there, now almost directly to the west, lighting up a curve in the far off river estuary and a silver sliver of the Celtic Sea beyond. Swallows are skimming the warm air, scooping up insects as they fatten for the flight from autumn. There’s the faintest hint of garden bonfire on the air.

And autumn is coming. You can feel it.

When I was young you’d have to be on your toes to get the best of the blackberry crop because so many other villains were desperate to get their stained and grubby hands on them. The trick was to know where the best bushes were, visit them often to watch for the berries ripening, and hope that no-one else got to them first. You had to get in quick or lose out. When we lived in Ireland we employed grandpa’s loop-topped walking stick to hook down the out-of-reach extremities of the bramble crop. It meant we could reach the parts that other foragers could not.

Humanity had a complicated relationship with the bramble in those days. Through most of the year we would curse them, slash them, grub them out and generally detest them. Then for one choice month and a half we would worship them, often travelling miles to visit a good one.

Nowadays the competition for wild blackberries is almost non-existent. I’m not sure why that is because they are very good for you and in the late summer they are everywhere and free. I saw blackberries for sale in the supermarket the other day — a couple of quid for a 150g punnet. Outside that self same shop the hedge around the car park was festooned with ripe and succulent blackberries, begging to be picked and looking dejectedly at their plastic wrapped imported cousins from Mexico, Guatemala and Kenya. According to the industry group, British Summer Fruits, an amazing £51 million was spent by customers on supermarket blackberries alone last year. Maybe people aren’t so much buying a product as they’re buying convenience. The roadside stall belonging to a farm at the top of my village is selling field-gathered mushrooms in much the same way. Wild mushrooms are everywhere, easy to identify and literally right there at your feet, but folk just seem to want to buy them.

Looking at my bloodied and stained fingers now though, maybe it makes better sense. I’m picking stray thorns out of my fingertips. Constellations of tiny scabs and wet scratches are scattered across my bare forearms. It would look to a casual observer as if I’d been mauled by a wildcat but only because the blood is mingled with dark red smears of juice so it looks like a lot more of my essential body fluids have been spilled. In reality I’m not so much bloodstained as blooded and stained.

As I say, this is the first time I’ve planned to make jam but I have done my research before coming out. A substance known as pectin is needed to make it set properly and that comes in the more bitter fruits. One source tells me tossing in a few slightly unripe berries will help boost the pectin levels and therefore help the setting. This I am doing… as well as a few other things. I’m taking the established advice but I’ve also come up with a few ideas of my own. Jam may have been made successfully in Britain for the thick end of 500 years but that won’t stop me coming up with my own completely unfounded theories about how to make it better.

For instance I’ve decided (from what feels like past experience) that blackberries picked after dull wet weather are probably juicer but less tasty than those picked on a sunny day. Therefore I’ve decided, in my own infinite wisdom, that the perfect blackberry will have formed and ripened after a shower of rain has helped it swell and a full day or two of subsequent sun has boosted its natural sugars and flavours. So I’ve come out picking at the end of a bright sunny afternoon a couple of days after the bushes have had a bit of a watering.

Also, because this year has brought forth such a healthy crop, I can afford to be picky about the blackberries I use. Rather than plucking from every bush, I’m flavour-testing each new one I come on because some are definitely more tasty than others.  There are apparently over 400 microspecies of wild blackberry in the UK alone so it seems obvious that many of the differences in flavour are due to more than just sun and rain. Working my way along this path I’m eating a berry or two from every new bush, by turns rejecting an entire stretch for its insipid unpleasantness or getting inordinately excited about discovering a particularly flavoursome crop. The unfortunate side-effect of this tasting is that I’ve eaten far too many blackberries and I’m starting to feel a little queasy. I’m now at the stage of tasting and spitting… unless they’re particularly nice examples.

But on I go, focused and fighting for every prize. The tub in the shoulder bag is filling quickly and because I don’t need to hold it I can use two hands to pluck at the fruits where they’re most plentiful. I can now tell quickly if the blackberry is ripe enough by the amount of resistance it gives when being pulled. If it falls away too easily I let it drop without a second look; it’s over-ripe, the core will have turned from clean white to musty brown and it’s starting to go off. If it holds on too tightly I let it go; it hasn’t ripened enough yet, it might come away with a short section of the spiny stem and calyx and the time and effort tugging this one free could be better spent on the next one. There is, it seems, a perfect and detectable amount of tenacity displayed by the brightest and best of the brambles. This isn’t scavenging for survival, this is foraging for quality fruit.

The tub is full to the brim as I reach the end of this section of the path. I have what I need and turn  for home. There’s a wide smile on my face and not just because I’ve got food for free. I’m sure it chimes with an inherited folk memory and is, in itself, a thing which just feels right; it’s a road down which humanity has travelled since it was a breed of hunter gatherers. Foraging for wild food at this time of year is part of the timeless instinct of preparation for winter, particularly when that food going to be preserved to keep you going through the lean months. The same is true of gathering, sawing and splitting wild timber to feed the fireplace against the cold and dark. It feels right because it is right. Fair enough, there’s practically no danger of me dying of cold and starvation as the dark season settles on the northern hemisphere but I still feel like I’ve failed the autumn if I haven’t taken up Nature’s offer of help. It feels rude and ungrateful.

It’s twilight in the garden and the kitchen light is on. I’ve carefully and thoroughly washed the empty jars I’ll need and, guided by the advice I’ve read, they’re now in the oven being baked dry and sterilised. The largest of my saucepans is on a medium heat and heaped with a layered combination of washed blackberries and sugar. I’ve squeezed the juice of a lemon into the mix and, because I’ve read that lemon peel is high in pectin, I’ve gashed the empty shell of the fruit with a knife and dropped it into the pan to aid the cooking process.

Now nervous and excited, I put some music on. Beethoven’s sixth symphony, the Pastorale, which has been a soundtrack to my dreams of the countryside since I was a young boy.

Stirring at this high-piled stage is a careful process. One or two berries escape onto the hob top but they’re soon recaptured. It’s surprising how quickly the mound of fruit starts melting to juice and settling into the pan. It’s a thick-walled pan and it warms through evenly, but I just keep stirring. As the temperature rises the aroma bleeds out into the kitchen. Fruity and syrupy it stirs memories of mother’s jam-making exploits when I was a boy. We didn’t have much money. I strongly suspect home produce was more of a necessity for her than it is for me.

Mother made jam with a traditional 50/50 mix of fruit and sugar. I’m making a slightly less rich version with two parts sugar to three parts fruit. The simple concoction is steaming but not yet boiling. With a wooden spoon I’m squashing berries against the side of the pan and occasionally pummelling the husks of lemon peel as they surface and sink, acid yellow in the deep sweet purple. The sugar is dissolved and the mixture is runny and lumpy.

As the contents of the pan get hotter the alchemy begins. Bubbling begins slowly and can be easily stirred down, but it gains insistence and persistence until I’m managing a gently boiling froth that’s continuously rolling around the spoon as I stir. The berries have broken down to a puree, each individual fruit dissembling to become one with its companions, but the mix is still loose.

It’s around now I turn off the oven that’s been heating the jars.

The “wrinkle test” is a way of making sure your jam will set properly before you commit to pouring it into those jars. A pre-cooled saucer is taken from the freezer and a small spoonful of the hot mix is dropped onto it. If after 30 seconds you can only stir it up with your fingertip the jam is not yet ready and you must prepared to test again in five minutes. But when the surface shows wrinkles in front of your moving finger the time has come to act. For seasoned makers of sugary preserves this is probably a tedious climb of false peaks; a procession of alternating expectation and disappointment. For me, as a first-timer in a warm kitchen surrounded by the rich redolence of toffeed fruit, these tests progressively ratchet up the levels of excitement. No sign of a wrinkle first time. Five minutes go by. No sign the second time. Five more minutes. Third time… is that a hint of a wrinkle? Fourth time, no doubt at all; that jammy rascal’s wrinkling like a good ‘un.

My jam is made! My first ever pan of jam! I am nothing short of an alchemist, turning base elements into precious produce.

I fish out the husks of lemon peel, give them a last squeeze and leave the pan for 15 minutes to settle and cool a little. An oven tray with eight hot jars and lids is lifted clinking onto the table. The saucepan is heavy.  Using two hands I position its spout and start to pour but the jam comes out in a broad, flat sweep twice the width of the jar neck. Half of it has missed and spilled onto the tray. Damn. I’ve come too far to throw this all away now. It takes a strong right wrist and the dexterous use of a tablespoon in the other hand to cajole and corral the jam into the jars without wasting any more. But I’ve clearly miscalculated how much I would end up with. By the time it’s all poured four of the eight jars still stand shiny and empty, shrugging their shoulders at each other and silently asking, what now?

The empty jars may feel temporarily shunned but for me it’s only a minor disappointment. With the garden in darkness and the kitchen smelling sweet my first steps in the production of home produce have now been taken and there’ll be no stopping me. I must make more of this while there’s still ripe fruit on the bramble. I’ve spent the past few weeks clearing, cleaning and constructing a new pantry under my staircase and as soon as the first shelves have gone in next week I will have jars of home-made blackberry jam labelled and lined up on them well in advance of the winter famine.

As for the quality of the finished product, I scraped the spilled sample off the oven tray, spread it on some toast and thought it delicious. Mother, who has taken part in, and judged, many Women’s Institute competitions over the years has declared it a class-winning entry. My ex-wife says my next project should be to crochet a cushion cover.


The Shop of Whispers – a Christmas tale

Two days before Christmas I decided I needed a new bowsaw blade and axe handle. Confident neither would turn up in my stocking the decision was made to go to Camelford, a few miles away from where I now live here in Cornwall. Late afternoon rain was blurring the windscreen as I dove along the darkening lanes, avoiding all but the biggest puddled tongues of water lapping out from the verges. A rising wind dragged ragged through the hedges, shuffling the over-arching branches in the valley woods. The old car splashed along roads made river, pushing a cone of yellow light through the fading twilight.

The street was empty of pedestrians as I rumbled down the hill into the small market town. Garlands of coloured lights overstrung the road and danced in the gale, reflecting coloured blurs in the wet tarmac and streaming shop-fronts. They tried, bless them, to spatter some seasonal cheer on the blue-grey evening. Steamed up windows and streaming gutters. Drenched plastic snowmen forcing festive grins at passing traffic.

Tightening my collar and pulling down the peak of my cap, I keyed the car door and walked quickly through the car park. The tool shop and farm supplies across the road was bright and warm inside. I swapped seasonal greetings with a farmer waiting at the counter and we made the customary comments about the weather. I emerged a few minutes later into the wind and wet with a smile. You wouldn’t believe how hard it had been this past few weeks to find a 30 inch bowsaw blade; I now had two. The axe handles would be in stock in a couple of weeks.

The river gushed white under the bridge in the town centre, rushing briefly into the light from the darkland beyond the park then flooding back into darkness on its continued way to the sea. I paused for a look then hurried on up the hill to the small CoOp where I bought bread flour.

On my way back I nearly walked past the junk shop. I was looking more at the Darlington Inn across the road, an old coach-house that shoulders a confident corner into the line of the road and is said to be rather persistently haunted. But as I passed, the shop window caught my eye. The display, if you could call it that, was an intriguing stack of shelves packed with things I recognised and things I didn’t. Most of it was old, much of it was a quiet mystery, some of it was made up of obsolete curiosities with no modern value to anyone other than the curious and collectors.

Despite the winter weather, a rack of old clothing wrapped in flapping plastic was still on display in the street. I looked beyond it and through the damp glass at a cluster of dusty old torches, a rusty model racing car and some other things which I just can’t remember. The contents of this old shop, glimmering with a low golden glow through rain-streaked windows, could not be classified or described. It would be virtually pointless to go in looking for ‘something in particular’. It was late – nearly five o’clock now. The shop would probably soon be shut. I walked on past the door and managed another few steps before stopping. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about the unknown, it’s that you never know what it might give you. I turned back and walked in.

You couldn’t really describe them as ‘aisles’ between the towering racks and shelves; more like gaps between the goods where you could just about see what was there. The room was rammed and the contents spilled on into the next room which was, if anything, even more densely packed. I sidled in, trying not to bump anything with my shopping bag. Climbing a few steps, body-swerving around another display cabinet, I found myself in the company of a pretty young woman sitting quietly behind the counter reading a book. Cocooned in a hollow among penknives, model aircraft, corkscrews and jewellery, she was the only other person on the premises. She welcomed me with a cheerful smile and asked if she could help with anything. I couldn’t imagine how anyone could be ‘helped’ through this mixed and disparate selection of wares, but I asked if she was about to shut. She explained I still had half an hour so I launched into my own exploration and gave her leave to return to her reading.

Outside, the wind tugged at the street decorations and rushed around the doorway. Rain spattered among the lurching shadows on the window but it was warm and dry inside as I turned my attention to the displays.

There’s an indescribable scent to shops like this, a scent which is probably the closest thing a sense of smell has to white noise. The essence of everything is crowding into the same space, swirling and mixing in a background grey but with some discernible ‘pigments’ emerging in kaleidoscopic confusion around the occasional large item or box of similar things. It’s the scent of overlaid history, the perfume of nostalgia, the smell of ghosts.

Rustling in my wet coat, I first plucked a dim-lit search through trays of toy cars and lorries, recognising some as like those from my own childhood. All were battered and chipped like they’d been played to death by generations of tiny hands. Some had missing wheels or bent axle wires.

Suddenly aware it would take an entire day to explore at this rate I picked up the pace a little. In the yellow electric light, carved Maori figures squinted out at me as I shuffled and squirmed along canyons of coats, leafed through LPs, rummaged through wooden crates of hand-tools. Model trains in model sidings, sat side by side with shoe-shine kits and 1940s gun polish. Military uniforms paraded with fur coats, art-deco ornaments swept elegant lines among garage signs, pots and kitchenware shared space with lamps and lighters, a box of old Georgian and Victorian pennies on the floor gave a rattle when I accidentally nudged it with my toe. Some of the objects were absolute mysteries and explanations demanded recourse to the brown paper labels; strange electrical goods with leads and buttons, combination pocket tools with puzzling attachments, a thing that looked like a large hip-flask with a landing-light attached to it.

The truth is that my descriptions are a distillation of my memory of what was there. Even though it was just a few days ago, I wish I had taken notes to be more accurate about the associations and placings. The whole eclectic mix made up a spinning galaxy of experience which was dizzyingly confusing. Trying to grasp any sense or theme was futile. All I could do was muddle on through as if I was exploring a forest, fuelled by curiosity, happy to delight in what I found but knowing with frustration that there were many fascinating things I had blindly blundered past.

The most valuable thing I found in the shop was the experience. I had wandered in with a vague idea I might find something useful but it now felt like I was in the opening chapters of a child’s adventure book. Two days before Christmas, I had been drawn by a random urge to set foot inside this mysterious, magical old shop. Every one of the items around me was whispering a history to me. Every toy had the prints of tiny hands, every tool the story of use and selection, every piece of clothing had been draped round the warm bodies of living breathing people, every ornament had gazed on the intimacies of lives and relationships, each penny coin smooth-worn by countless transactions with long-dead traders. And here, among the spiralling motes of time, surrounded by the quiet hush of sifting history, sat that beautiful young woman reading quietly to herself, lost in her own world.

Camelford, on the fringe of Bodmin Moor, is an old town that carries a thin mist of mystery draped around it. It’s surrounded by ancient stone circles, Bronze Age burial mounds and it even has mythical links with the magical world of King Arthur. Shuffling around this shop in a half-dream I half expected adventure to call; a voice from the deep basement salerooms which I knew were waiting below but for which I had run out of time. But the call never came and the magic was, if not broken, at least dented when someone else came into the shop as I was about to leave. Maybe they were the ones who heard the historic call of the king, found the way to Narnia, or unearthed the Box of Delights. I cannot say.

What I can say is that I found my own little scrap of magic on the shelves of that shop. Ever since I moved back to Cornwall I’d been quietly searching for an old single-ended spanner to work the griddle on the stove in my living room. I had been using a small double-ended 12mm wrench for the job but it was short, uncomfortable to use and kept slipping off. But among the tools at the back of the shop I found the very thing with a square slot and a £1 price tag. It was an unusual shape, made of black metal and hand-stamped as being a 7/16 inch wrench. I thought it was pretty close to what I needed and laid down my coin for the girl. We spoke pleasantly for a few minutes before I took my leave, turned my collar up and stumbled back out into the fairy-lit street.

Shops were shutting up but lights were still on in most. The wind-blown strings of coloured bulbs still struggled on their tethers over the town. Lights reflected off the trembling wetness on everything. Rain swept in twisting veils through the square. Gutters gushed. The shopping bag squirmed in my hand. My hat was near tugged from my head on the river bridge. But I made it to the car without losing anything, bundled in out of the rain and settled into the calm for the run home. 

Later, feet stretched to a roaring stove, a mug of rum-lace coffee steaming in one hand and mobile phone in the other, I did some online research into the markings on my newly acquired spanner. I was delighted to discover that it too had a history. I believe it was forged in Chicago, USA, some time between 1890 and 1910 and possibly made as a specialist tool for a lathe or a textile machine. I spent some time turning it over in my hand, dreaming into the fire about the places it had been and the things it could have seen and done. It will outlive me by many generations I’m sure but its journey is halted for now beside the stove in my Victorian cottage. You couldn’t say it ‘just about’ fits the griddle-bar, because it absolutely fits perfectly.

Finding it was a very minor miracle but the question now is, did I find it… or did it find me?

Bodmin Moor – Hiding in Plain Sight

by Mike Grundon


Sitting under the summer stars on top of Garrow Tor is a good way to immediately understand what Bodmin Moor truly is.

With a soft and scented summer breeze sifting up through the bracken on its way in from the North Atlantic, I’m sitting in the heart of a relatively populous Cornwall, but surrounded by darkness. Out there in the night is a necklace of distant market towns and villages, shimmering around my horizon, but the moor inside that loose ring is an empty black that’s rustling with wildlife.

A pair of tawny owls hoot and screech to each other in the dark smudge of trees down to the left of my rocky ledge. Small bats, probably common pipistrelles, are flitting at the moths in the open column of air a few feet in front of me. Something is shouldering its way through the bracken about 30 feet below my perch. I can’t tell if it’s a badger or a sheep.

Looking at the Ordnance Survey map, this rugged 100 square mile plateau of granite bulges up out of the surrounding farmland just north of the geographical centre of the county which forms the south-west extremity of Britain. Behind where I’m sitting now looms the highest point in Cornwall, Brown Willy tor, at 1378 feet above sea level. Beside it crouches the silhouette of the second highest ridge, Rough Tor which is correctly pronounced “Rowter”.

From up there on a clear day you can see for 30 miles to the north east, into the county of Devon. This is where Bodmin Moor’s much bigger and more famous neighbour, Dartmoor, wrinkles the distant horizon. Fame and tourist facilities bring 2.5 million visitors to Dartmoor every year. Bodmin Moor is often overlooked. It has no formal attractions so its visitors remain uncounted.

Up on its tors are heaped great, naturally occurring, slabs of granite. Their seams and fault lines have been scoured out over millennia by wind, rain and ice to leave them deeply sculpted into smooth, rounded shapes resembling delicately balanced piles of enormous pancakes or cheeses.


In the bracken and gorse between its hills and crags, there are prehistoric standing stones which long lost communities deliberately planted upright or arranged into loose structures and geometric shapes. They were placed so long ago that their meaning and use are lost to memory and lore. Some are estimated to have been there for over 6000 years.

This habitat is a rare haven for some of the best of British wildlife. Apart from the few public footpaths that ribbon across the landscape, much of the moor is such a tangle of thorns, boulders and bogs that it’s only rarely disturbed by the occasional rough-grazing cattle, horses and sheep that seem to wander the hills at will.

In a few days walking I have watched a pond full of thumbnail sized common frogs squirming out of the water for their first experience of raw sunlight, roe deer browsing on the scrub trees at the rim of a disused quarry, kestrels and buzzards scoping the ground for prey or carrion, a fat female adder hunting through the grass in the full blaze of the day, vivid metallic dragonflies skimming the pools in a moorland stream, a family of foxes playing in the sunset glow through a system of prehistoric field boundaries, and a small cete of badgers truffling under a dead tree for food in the late twilight.

Although great swathes of the moor are devoid of human habitation, that hasn’t always been the case. Utterly empty now and a steep hike from the nearest access road, Rough Tor has the remains of around a hundred prehistoric homes on its flanks. Garrow Tor has almost as many, dating from the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, through to Mediaeval times.

According to Historic England, “the multi-period agricultural and industrial landscape at Garrow Tor survives very well and is recognised as one of the most important archaeological landscapes in Cornwall, which itself is seen as a county that has a particularly rich historic environment”.

The public agency concludes that, “the upstanding remains of dwellings and fields of prehistoric and historic date provide an important insight into the communities that lived and worked here for millennia”.

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Despite its relatively diminutive scale, Bodmin Moor is so highly valued by the authorities for its historic remains and natural history that its future appears to be well protected. It’s officially recognised as a Site of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the most important sections of the moor have been designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest, and farming on the high tops is controlled and governed by commons grazing legislation.

According to local man Alistair Philp, one of the few threats to the area is confusion between various authorities and landowners over the best way to protect the historic sites. Alistair’s grandmother was born and raised in what’s now a deserted cottage in the lee of Garrow Tor. He is one of those who believe that recent attempts to protect the old settlements by fencing them off have led to them becoming overgrown, damaged by plants, and effectively buried from view.

Today, apart from the rough grazing and the low intensity, mixed agriculture around its fringes, there is very little industry that remains on Bodmin Moor. However, it has been exploited in the past.

Granite in various forms has been the main natural resource taken from here. Top quality building stone and ornamental slabs are still hewn in small amounts from the specialist quarry at De Lank. Back in the 1880s blocks were extracted from here to build the famous Eddystone Rock lighthouse and stone was taken to London to build Tower Bridge and the Thames Embankment.

Kaolin, better known as china clay, comes from granite which has decayed so much that it can be pressure hosed from the ground and settled out in ponds. There is a handful of deep, pastel blue lakes associated with almost 150 years of clay extraction dotted around the fringes of the moor but none has been quarried here since 2001.

The clay industry’s lakes and surrounding spoil heaps have been effectively handed back to nature through landscape restoration projects carried out by the mining company Imerys Minerals, formerly English China Clays. The company got help from local councils, the Forestry Commission, English Nature, and the UK Government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Millions of pounds have had to be spent across Cornwall reshaping and planting redundant spoil heaps because for every tonne of clay there is around nine tonnes of spoil.

Copper and tin were mined in small amounts on the moor in the 1800s, but neither metal was found in commercially viable amounts so the work has left almost no lasting impact on the landscape we see today.

A hike across the northern half of Bodmin Moor in full summer sunlight is an uplifting walk under breezy skies that are trilled with skylarks and scraped by ravens. But when the cloud and mist bank in from the sea, the landscape takes on a dark and mysterious atmosphere. Alongside its substantial substantiated history, this timeless landscape is also home to legend and superstition.


When the chilling tendrils of mist work their way between the rocks and the darkening shadows, my sense of direction is dulled and my sense of position in the landscape fades to memory. It’s then that the deep rock starts to seep old magic.

There are so many standing monoliths, stone circles, quoits, barrows and cairns on Bodmin Moor that it’s possible to get dismissive of all but the most dramatic, but less than a mile from Garrow Tor is an exceptional enigma known as King Arthur’s Hall.

Fifty-six standing stones are arranged inside a rectangular earthwork, aligned lengthways north to south. They surround a patch of cotton grass growing in a boggy plot of ground that is said to stay wet even through the heart of the driest summer. No one knows for sure how old it is nor what it was for. Historic Cornwall says, “many suggestions have been put forward for its origin and function” but, “the date and purpose of the site remain obscure”. Historic England speculates that, “the effort required to both excavate or import material for a bank of such proportions, and to erect the slabs suggest that it had a more important function than just an animal pound.”

Only two other structures similar to King Arthur’s Hall have ever been recorded. One is in Ireland, and the other in Brittany. Whether it or the surrounding King Arthur’s Downs have any tangible connection with the mythical king of the Britons can only be guessed at. The names were first recorded in documents in 1584 but, according to Historic Cornwall, by then the area already had a long tradition of association with Arthurian legend. Speculation that the court of Camelot may have been near this spot is bolstered for some by the fact that the River Camel arcs closely around the north-west perimeter of the moor only a couple of miles from here. It’s also fewer than ten miles from Tintagel.


Local tales speak of melancholy ghosts that drift across the moonlit heath, and a mysterious black cat known as the Beast of Bodmin Moor that’s said to prowl the deep bracken and granite gulleys in search of prey. A display at the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in nearby Boscastle tells of two elderly women who maintained a pagan shrine on the flank of Rough Tor that was only dismantled when the last of them died just a few decades ago.

It’s an overcast and wet morning as I come down from my night spent sleeping under the vast skies of Bodmin Moor. I’d been tapped awake by the first spots of rain on my face shortly after 6am.

Pushing damp-kneed through the bracken to rejoin the main path at the bottom of the hill, I can understand why some locals have told me that this oasis of wilderness is being protected by its relative obscurity and lack of amenities.

Cornwall is internationally famous for its sandy beaches, dramatic cliffs and picturesque fishing villages, and as an increasing amount of money is invested in improving the transport links to the region, those attractions are getting increasingly busy.

Visit Cornwall says 4.3 million tourists came to stay in the county during the summer and autumn of 2016, but even on a sunny afternoon in the holiday season visitors can still go walking on Bodmin Moor and, beyond the immediate area of a car park, they might only meet around a dozen people.

It seems that as the tide of tourism rises all around it, this quiet granite upland with its untroubled wildlife and prehistoric remains, is still high and dry.