Back in 2020 Mayes Creative ran a bit of a bonkers project where I asked you all to take photographs of Venus and the Moon wherever you were in the world. We had lots of people take part and loved how enthusiastic everyone was about joining in. One of these was the late eminent astronomer Jay Passachoff who had written about the method that could be used to measure the distance from Earth to the Moon.
I had been fortunate to meet Jay and hear all about his travels to see solar eclipses at a Society for the History of Astronomy Conference in 2018 and have been saddened to hear of his passing this week. He was always very encouraging of grassroots astronomy.
So I feel blessed to have had his support with this fun socially interactive project. Here is how what we did to measure the distance to the moon and the results we obtained.
The idea was to re-enact the historical ‘Transit of Venus’ which astronomers travelled around the world in order to measure the distance to the Sun using parallax. We attempted the same thing but with the Moon and Venus using social media with people sending their images back to us digitally. Once all the images of the Moon and Venus were received we worked out how to get a distance to the Moon using similar historical techniques. This was done by photographing the position of the crescent of the Moon in relation to Venus, as this would change depending on where you were positioned on the Earth. Over the past 3 months, we had great responses from around the world which enabled us to measure the Moon’s distance.
We wanted to report back on how close a result we got from our ‘Measure to the Moon’ parallax project.
February – the first event/ trial run.
We had a good response but mainly from the UK, the furthest image we had to use as a baseline for the Parallax was from Portugal, we saw this as a trial run. The resulting distance we calculated was 271,734km and the Moon was 360,461km away from Earth, so we were a whopping 24.6% out.
March – the second event.
We had many images for the March attempt, including some from the Abu Dhabi Observatory and also the Philippines which really helped us get a better idea of the parallax shift. This resulted in a calculated distance of 340,014km, the Moon at that time was 357,122km away so just a 5.03% difference, which we thought was pretty amazing.
April – the third/last event.
The final attempt in April was marred by clouds here in the UK, although there were clear skies in the South-West. We did have a number of US observers taking part including members of Flagstaff and Jay Pasachoff in New York – making the project international. We got a resulting distance of 315,736km, the Moon at this date was 356,906km away, so we had a difference of 11.5% – pretty respectable.
So overall the March attempt had the closest result due to the number of photos we received from all over the world. There were lots of lessons learnt along the way, but we were pretty pleased with the results. We really enjoyed this and may run something similar in the Autumn involving Mars.
A Mayes Creative intern wrote a short computer program which scale-plated all the images and came up with averages. Then made all the calculations with guidance from astronomer Carolyn Kennett.
If you have enjoyed this maybe you would like to check out the following which eminent astronomer Jay Pasachoff shared with Mayes Creative.
Pasachoff, Jay. M., Gährken Bernd., and Schneider, Glenn., (2017), “Using the 2016 transit of Mercury to find the distance to the Sun,” The Physics Teacher 55, 3 (March), 137-141: cover illustration plus article: http://doi.org/10.1119/1.4976653
Please be aware Goodaver circle is on private land and permission must be sought before visiting it.
Within the digitalised Stanley Opie collection of photographs in Penzance’s Morrab Library, there are three images entitled “Unidentified stone circle. Possibly on Bodmin Moor”. The photos give an impression of a typical Bodmin Moor circle in the style of the Stripple Stones, situated on open moorland with extensive views. But on closer inspection, it cannot be the Stripple stones as the stones and landscape do not match details in the images.
Stanley Opie was an archaeologist who liked to take photographs of historic sites and archaeological digs in Cornwall. Born in Barncoose, Redruth in 1884 he used an Ensign Cameo No. 2 camera with Imperial Eclipse plates to take his photos between 1930–50. The collection is housed in the Morrab Library in Penzance and has been digitalised and is now accessible online and through authorised visits. During his career, he imaged many sites around Cornwall and some further afield and it must have been a huge job to try and identify some of the places in the images.
Examination of the three images shows them to be of Goodaver stone circle on Bodmin Moor. This may surprise people as a visit to the circle today is an entirely different prospect. The circle is surrounded by trees that have been grown as part of the local plantation. It gives an enticing view of how the circle may have been positioned and the possible sightlines. It allows us to postulates about astronomical alignments which may have been of importance to the original builders.
In recent times the whole site has become encircled by trees, other than a view to the west where the hillside drops to the farm and river bed below.
There was an opportunity to visit the site and image the circle before an attempt was made to match the orientation of the Opie photos and the landscape features within. It would be interesting to identify the possible sightlines from the circles if the trees were not in place, sightlines that the original builders may have had when choosing where to position their circle.
The Rabbit stone helped orientate the circle in the photos (to the left of the image
It helped that there are a number of unusually shaped stones. One in particularly got named the rabbit stone after having a similar profile of the Lindt rabbit, it can be seen on the left of this image. (I should say at this stage that the circle was heavily restored in 1906 and some of the stones are thought to have been replaced incorrectly, even upside down).
Opie Photograph no 1
This image took a bit of matching. The two central blocky looking stones and the rabbit-shaped stone on the right of the image helped orientate it. In my image below the rabbit, the stone is also to the right and slightly obscured by the rocks in front of it.
The rise in the ground beyond the circle is Brown Gelly, this is towards the southwest. This Tor is obscured by the trees in the left of the more recent image. The area has a number of interesting ancient sites on it including a number of Cairns on the top, which can be seen on the ridgeline of the image. There can be no solar or lunar alignment with these local cairns as they are too far to the south when standing within the circle.
This second image gives a more expansive view looking out from the circle to a number of ridgeways and hills beyond.
Looking at the stones in the image, the tall pointy stone and gap, next to the man at the front of the circle helped orientate the image, as did the rabbit-shaped stone behind him. The image looks from the south of the circle facing north.
The hill towards the centre-left of the image is Leskernick, it is possible that Bronn Wennili (Brown Willy) is visible to the left of the image. This is exciting as it means that standing in the circle you could have seen the summer solstice sunset over the distant hill. This is an extension of the line which starts at the newly discovered menhir on the ridge above the Hurlers circle, extends through Craddock Moor circle and the avenue at Craddock Moor, onwards to Goodaver circle. Making it possible to see the same summer solstice sunset at a number of important prehistoric locations across the moor.
Continuing to the centre-right of the image is the local plantation ridge. Fox Tor which is relatively local to the circle would have been to the right of the image.
The pointed stone which the man is stood beside in the Opie image is front left in the recent one. My image is orientated slightly differently from the old image. It would have been pointing directly down the field to the right of the modern image. Looking down the neighbouring field in recent times there is no possibility of seeing what hills lay beyond.
The Opie photo shows stones in profile against the sky above with no plantation beyond, the rabbit-shaped stone is in the front row of the circle on the central left. Matching it to my photos of the circle, it has been taken from the northwestern side of the circle down the ridge a little way. Kilmar Tor would have been visible if the photo had been taken with slightly increased elevation. This Tor is directly east from the circle and in the position of the rising sun at the equinox (midpoint between the solstices). The modern photo has been taken from higher up the hill and the craggy tops of Kilmar Tor can still be seen through the gaps made by the less dense boundary of trees.
A plan of the matched direction of the photographs taken by Opie numbered 1-3
From matching the photographs old to modern I was able to make a plan of the directions that the Opie images were taken in: The plan below it is as follows:
R = Rabbit stone
L = taller long stone
Credit: Annotated Google maps image
Finally, I should add that within the Opie photographs none were taken in the direction of Hawks Tor in the west. This has been identified by Cheryl Straffon and John Barnett as an equinox setting position when standing in the circle. When visiting the circle in more recent times the Tor can still be seen in the gap made by the plantation to the west and is the one remaining solar alignment that could be viewed in action. Maybe one day the larger plantation trees will be replaced with smaller saplings and make the other viewpoints possible.
Access to the Stanley Opie collection and all the other wonderful historic digitalised images that the library has can be made here:
The importance of the Sun has been recognised throughout history. This luminous body defined the lives of people it shone on and the clocklike regularity of its rise and the set was well understood by humanity. Due to its significance symbolic representation of the Sun stretches far back into prehistory. Designs including the Sun weren’t uncommon and by the Bronze Age examples of solar symbolism are found across a range of mediums. Drawings and designs were often abstract in nature. Representation included circles, waves and cross shapes. The cruciform shape in particular has been linked to the Sun by Mary Cahill (2015) and her work on Irish Sun discs. These are flat circular objects made of gold, designed to shine brightly when sunlight radiates onto them. The etching of a cross on the surface shows the rays of the Sun in a conceptual way, maybe representing various solar events such as; Sundogs, pillars, rays and halos. Although no Sun discs have been found in Cornwall, these golden objects have also been linked to the lunula. A lunula was found with a pair of Sun discs in Coggalbeg, Co Roscommon, confirming an association. Furthermore designs on lunula lend themselves to observation with sunlight. There are examples of lunula found here in Cornwall and if you get the chance it is worth visiting the Penlee House Gallery where the Penwith Lunula is on display.
Sun discs with cross-shaped designs were found at Tedavnet, Co. Monaghan Ireland. Image Credit: The British Museum.
Other objects discovered in Cornwall from this period incorporate a cross design. Although perhaps not as glamorous as a golden disc, local urns can include a similar decoration. Trevisker style urns are a design of urn which are predominantly found in the South West of the UK. Dating from the Bronze Age the style is known for its hash/dash and zig-zag lines and use of local materials such as gabbroic clay from the Lizard peninsular. On occasion, the urns have a cross or cruciform design within the interior of the base. This seems to be a rare occurrence but there have been examples of cross based urns found at the Trevisker village excavation, Boleigh barrow, Tregeseal chambered tomb and an example from further afield in Kent. This final example was placed in a ring ditch, and the soot recovered from inside the Urn was radio carbon-dated to 1600-1320 cal BC. It was found shattered into over 200 pieces but was reconstructed, with its internally crossed base being clearly observable. The urn from the Tregeseal chambered tomb was recovered by William Copeland Borlase in 1879. Found at the end of the passage, in a separate area, it was recovered almost complete by Borlase during his excavation. It now resides within the British Museum. Tregeseal Chambered tomb is part of a group of Bronze Age entrance graves in Penwith which include Bosiliack, Tregiffian and Pennance. As an aside radiocarbon dating results on a burial at Bosiliack gave 1690-1510 cal BC (Jones, A and Thomas, C. 2010) a similar date to the urn found in Kent. The Tregeseal urn is a large example and is 21 inches in height. The Cross shape was meticulously drawn in plan form at the time. The plan was reproduced in the London Illustrated Times and it can also be seen on the wall of the Penlee House Gallery Museum in Penzance.
Trevisker Urn from Tregeseal. Image Credit British Museum Collection Online. The cross itself would not be integral to the structure of the urn. There seems to be no practical explanation as to why an urn of this size would have this addition in the base. It is therefore interesting to consider if some Trevisker urns could be following the tradition of Sun discs and offer a design that is indicative of solar symbolism? One aspect which strengthens the case of this idea is that the Urn would have started as a disc shape on which the cross shape would be added. Then the sides would have been added to the urn creating the final vessel. Looking down from the mouth of the urn it would have clearly taken on representation of the Sun in a similar way to the Sun disc design. An alternative explanation has been offered by Kavanagh, R (1973) who suggested that the cross was added to demonstrate a bottom of a basket and was a nod to the basketry traditions of the period.
The Tregeseal Urn base – in plan. Image credit: Report by W.C Borlase circa 1879
The Tregeseal example was discovered within the tomb base up, containing cremated remains. So the cross would have been above the remains. This could have been intentional. Many funerary urns are found base up. A cross at the top could represent a number of ideas. A Sun in the dark? A route to the heavens? A set Sun? There was just one time of the year which the Sun would shine down the chamber to its rear. This was the winter solstice sunrise. A recent survey undertaken by Carolyn Kennett and Grenville Prowse supervised by Penwith Landscape Partnership archaeologist Jeanette Radcliffe found the passage to be orientated at 128degrees. This orientation towards the solar extreme of winter solstice sunrise is in common with local tombs at Bosiliack and Pennance. On this day the sunlight would shine down the passageway hitting the back upright stone at the rear. The urn was positioned behind this back stone in a separate area or cist. Although currently it is difficult to understand the full design of the tomb, as this rear section has been removed and our understanding is reliant on the original plan from the Borlase excavation. It is also worth considering if the positioning of the urn in a separate section was intentional? This position would ensure that no natural sunlight would reach the urn at any time. The symbolism may have shown that it was providing its own light, even on this important day of renewal in the solar calendar. A photograph taken by Gibson and Sons at the time of the excavation shows a possible blocking stone at the start of the passageway, which would have further limited light down the passage on the solstice. There is no evidence remaining of this stone now, so it is difficult to understand the overall effect this would have had on limiting light at the solstice. It is worth remembering that the final resting place of this urn probably came after a life of servitude. The urn in Kent had traces of animal fats within it and was probably used as a transportation vessel for food before its final role as a funerary urn. Trevisker style urns are not the only vessels to include crosses on their base. Although in general this cruciform addition to urns is rare and seems to be reserved for the more decorative funerary examples. Other examples of cross based urns have been found in Ireland, Scotland and Yorkshire. As a final thought, I doubt we shall ever know the full truth behind this oddity in the design, but it is a nice idea to consider that the cross was added by our ancestors to bring light to the darkest of places.
Cahill, M. (2015) Here comes the Sun – Solar symbolism in Early Bronze Age Ireland. Archaeology Ireland 29(1), 26-33,, 2015.
Jones, A and Thomas, C (2010) Bosiliack and a reconsideration of Entrance Graves. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society. 76, 2010, pp 271-296.
Kavanagh, R (1973) The Encrusted Urn in Ireland, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy: Archaeology, Culture, History, Literature, Vol. 73 (1973), pp. 507-617
During the last few years, in many ways, Boscawen-ûn became a second home to me. While waiting for sunrises and sunsets I observed the change in the seasons at the circle, all accompanied by the changing looks, sounds and smells. But one thing remained the same and that was the tranquillity of the site. I kept some strange hours, as I was mainly there for sunrises or sunsets and quite often at night. More often than not I was alone in the circle, sometimes for hours on end. One of these visits, in particular, comes to the forefront of my mind. Having risen when it was still dark, I drove to the circle with the beginnings of dawn, hoping the low developing horizontal cloud would clear. I arrived in time for the sunrise of the 25th June 2016. The week had been wet and the solstice had passed behind a thick blanket of cloud. I stood atop Creeg Tol willing the low bank of clouds to blow out of the way, even though I knew I was nearly a week late to see the summer solstice sunrise. The vantage point of Creeg Tol meant that I would see the Sun peer above the horizon, something that I could not replicate in person in the circle below due to the large hedge obscuring this direction. The dawn had a stillness about it which makes it one of my favourite times of the day. The clouds were starting to disperse and right on schedule, the Sun started to peer above the horizon, accompanied by the mixed dawn chorus of birds, roosters and cattle. I photographed the sunrise from my vantage point at Creeg Tol and set off down the hill towards the circle. About halfway down into the hill I started to lose the sunrise, the Sun was setting behind the hill it had just risen from. By the time I reached the circle the Sun was once again well below the horizon. I realised that without the hedgerow I could witness the Sun rising twice, in effect a double sunrise. Once from atop Creeg Tol and then again from inside the circle. I hoped this would work in reverse: with the Sun setting visually from the circle and once again from Creeg Tol. It was an idea I would test out repeatedly over the summer months with great success. I think this double sunset and sunrise during the summer months is one of the most visually beautiful aspects of the circle. A local settlement Goldherring, which has some Bronze Age round huts is north of the site and people could have accessed the circle from the direction of Creeg Tol. Double sunsets and double sunrises are something that we can all witness from the site and this is only the beginning of what makes Boscawen-ûn astronomically special.
It is important to consider Boscawen-ûn in the landscape as holistically as possible. During this project, I wanted to consider the way the circle sat at the base of the northern hill, in what would have been a marshy area and quite possibly difficult to get access to, particularly at wet times. Why had it been positioned here? What would have been seen in the sky? It was equally important to view the site as a part of a changing landscape, where man has shaped and changed the site itself over a large period of time as well as the surrounding landscape. I am a great believer in looking what archaeoastronomy ideas have been historically suggested about a site. These historic ideas brought another list of questions such as: Is there any truth in a Lunar link at Boscawen-ûn? Does the carving on the back of the central stone light up at summer solstice? These were just the start of a list of burning questions that would keep me returning to the site, making measurements, and calculating positions of celestial objects over the coming year. Hopefully enabling me to answer if the site was built with astronomy in mind.
I started by considering if there were any alignments between the circle and features on the horizon. This meant that I needed to map out all the natural and man-made features which would have been found from the period of the stone circle. This was in itself quite a task. The internet was a wealth of information, but local knowledge from people such as Cheryl was a great help to me. Many local sites such as barrows and menhirs had disappeared and I needed to try to reconstruct where they were as accurate as possible in relation to the circle. My final list identified 48 local features or as I would name them, targets. These targets would then be considered against a number of pre-selected celestial events. If all 48 targets were considered against the chosen celestial events, statistically a match would be highly likely. For instance, if we were to consider the targets located around the site in a circle of 360 degrees. If each target considered covered 1 degree with an error of +/- 0.5 degrees a total of 96 degrees or just over a quarter of our circle would be covered in targets. (The error from this project was set as 1.04 degrees this came from a small amount of measurement error as well as error for refraction, extinction, and parallax). Statistically, this would mean that it would be far more likely for a target to make a match with a considered event. Therefore to make the project more robust I needed to reduce the number of targets. I decided first of all to consider targets that were visible from the site and only targets that sat proud against the horizon. The reduction in targets could have been undertaken in a number of ways but I felt that this made the most robust format for retesting any results. This left me with just 7 remaining targets out of the original 48 to match with my events. These were as follows:
The Lamorna Gap – yes it is just visible from the site through the hedgerows. A smaller sea gap further south to the Lamorna gap, Creeg Tol. A barrow just west of Creeg Tol, Chapel Carn Brea, Boscawen-ûn Field Menhir and finally Bunkers Hill Menhir (East). Once the targets were identified I made on-site measurements of their azimuth and altitude and this was converted into an astronomical declination. Alongside the on-site measurements, I ran a computer program called HORIZON. This also gave me declinations for my 7 targets and it acted as a test of accuracy for the on-site measurement, as well as allowing for reconstruction of the horizon behind the hidden, hedgerow covered NE direction.
Boscawen-ûn Field Menhir, with possible fallen menhir in hedge behind (Credit Cheryl Straffon)
Next, I considered which astronomical events I would examine alongside the targets. I decided to look initially at five events in total. These five events would give 14 positions along the horizon: 7 rising positions and 7 setting positions. These were the extremes of the solar calendar or the solstices, as well as the solar equinox positions. I also considered the lunar standstill positions both for lunar major and lunar minor. I then calculated the declinations of these 14 events for a date of 2500BCE. The horizon position of a solstice Sun and the lunar positions in 2500BCE has moved slightly compared to its current position, whereas the equinox would be in virtually the same place. So a rising solstice Sun would have a declination of 23.9 degrees in 2500BCE whereas it would have a declination of 23.4 degrees currently which is on a flat horizon at the latitude of Boscawen-ûn equates to an azimuth difference of 1.02 degrees.
When all this was considered I could look for matches between my 14 events and 7 targets. I could see immediately that 4 of my 7 targets declinations matched with one of the fourteen identified events, within the limits of the error I had set. The first and probably most primary of these is that an observer in the circle at 2500BCE would see the winter solstice sunrise rising from the Lamorna Gap. The Lamorna Gap at present is obscured by hedgerows, but without this vegetation would have been a subtle sea view at best. The Lamorna gap declination was measured as -23.6 +/-1.04 degrees, matching a winter solstice sunrise of 23.9 degrees. Also, you must consider that the sea view extends for more than 1 degree along the horizon and that this event could be observable over the coming millennia.
This first alignment extends through the circle to my second alignment. This is to a barrow which is no longer visible, it was located to the west of Creeg Tol. It would be in the position of the summer solstice sunset when observed from the circle. It had a measured declination of 24.3 +/- 1.04 degrees coinciding with the declination of 24.9 degrees. Equally an observer at the barrow would have been in a position to observe the winter solstice sunrise out of the Lamorna Gap. Its position just above the circle would give an observer a more advantageous height and a more pronounced view of the winter solstice sunrise from the Lamorna Gap. It is interesting to note that the winter solstice sunset at this time would just fall into the large sea gap at the Tregeseal stone circles. Although at Tregeseal the sea gap is far more pronounced, there is possible that there is a connection between the two sites on this date.
The other two matched alignments came between the circle and lunar major standstill positions. I found that the position of Creeg Tol matched the lunar major sunset northernmost position, it had a measured declination of 28.3+/-1.04 degrees coinciding with an event declination of 28.9 degrees. The nearby Boscawen-ûn Field menhir was the final alignment and it was in the lunar major sunrise position. This had a measured declination of 28.9+/1.04-degrees which coincided with the event declination of 28.15 degrees in 2500BCE. The position of the Field menhir was slightly to the west of calculated declination for the lunar alignment, but it is conceivable that another stone now recumbent in the hedge made a pair and this pair once framed the rising Moon at the extreme of the lunar major cycle. Although we should note here that it may not have necessarily been a full Moon at that time, as the Moon at its standstill declination can be at a number of positions within in its phase cycle.
Lunar standstill links are not well documented in Cornwall. They are considered a feature of recumbent stone circles in East Scotland but have also been found in western Ireland and more recently in western Scotland. The discovery of two lunar standstill points at Boscawen-ûn is both interesting and intriguing; raising more questions than it answers. Boscawen-ûn does have myths surrounding it which are linked to the lunar cycle, so this could be a feature of this site. Future work in west Penwith will consider evidence for lunar links. For instance, the Merry Maidens which I had discounted through my reduction of data, as it did not stand proud against the horizon is in the Lunar Major Standstill Southern rising position from Boscawen-ûn with a declination of 29.9 degrees. This concludes the main horizon findings but as I said I also looked at other features within the circle.
Boscawen-ûn hedge menhir (Credit Carolyn Kennett)
The positioning of the quartz stone to the SW of the circle could signify the start or end of the winter season, but due to its localised vicinity to an observer, it could never pinpoint an actual date, without another position to line it up. The stone on the opposite side could have well been used to align the position but this does not line up with anything calendrically significant. The quartz stone does though align with the cist (located in the NE of the circle) and the out of sight Boscawen-ûn Hedge menhir. The summer solstice sunrise would have occurred along this alignment around 2500BCE. This alignment was first suggested by Norman Lockyer in his consideration of the circle. There is another stone between the Hedge menhir and the stone circle, this would possibly bring inter-visibility between the circle and the Boscawen-ûn Hedge menhir. Even so, there are numerous examples of standing stones being just over brows of ridges that form alignments so this could be a viable consideration when looking at this alignment.
The edge of the foot at the bottom of the central stone is illuminated (Credit Carolyn Kennett)
Rock art carving (or either foot or axes) have been identified on the central stone. I was able to calculate the amount of time the art would be illuminated for in the year 2500BCE. The art on the back of the central stone is only fully illuminated in and around summer solstice sunrise. Without any vegetation, a full illumination would occur for 30 days on either side of the solstice. The maximum time in minutes that the art would be illuminated would occur on the summer solstice. This amount of time would reduce each day until a full illumination could not happen 31 days later. It must be noted that this measurement takes into account a completely flat landscape. Any vegetation would significantly reduce the length of time and amount of days the art would be fully illuminated. Partial illumination of the art also occurs and this time it happens both in the morning and the evening in and around the summer solstice, this partial illumination would occur over a much longer period.
There are many more suggestions that could be made particularly linking stellar events to the site. Without more accurate dating these suggestions must be taken under advisement. For instance, the Pleiades would set over Chapel Carn Brea in 1500BCE but at an earlier date of 1800BCE, it would have set to the south of the framed hill. I did consider if the central stone could have pointed at a star. The only bright star that it could have pointed at was Arcturus and this would have been at a remarkably early date of 3820BCE. This must be taken under advisement, as the stone could have moved over time. Overall the suggestions of stellar alignments without accurate dating are always difficult to suggest. It does seem that a number of astronomical features were considered by the builders of Boscawen-ûn. They certainly had an eye for the solar calendar within the design but perhaps more unusually a knowledge of the lunar cycle. This project, for me, has raised more questions than it answered and I will be continuing it by looking for further examples of lunar alignments within Cornwall and trying to draw more conclusions about the astronomical features at some of the other Cornish circle sites.
More of this story can be read about in my book Celestial Stone Circles of West Cornwall. Which can be accessed here
Winter Solstice is the day we mark the longest hours of darkness and the movement towards the lengthening of daylight hours once more. For many it is a powerful time in their calendar, a day to mark the start of a new year, to reflect on what they can leave behind and look forward to the time ahead. There are a number of ancient sites within Cornwall that have links to the Solstice and many of these suggest a relationship that our ancestors had with this moment within their in their lives. Connectivity that we feel resonating through the ages and is particularly heightened at times such as this one.
This year a small group of us decided to join the ancient pathway the Tinners Way to the north of Zennor and walk to the Tregeseal stone circle. A walk which we would start in the half-light before sunrise and end after we had watched the sunset at the stone circle. Anyone who knows me will hear me talk about my love of the wider Tregeseal landscape and how I believe it lends itself to a winter solstice gathering; where people can watch the sunset over the distant Isles of Scilly. The whole of Penwith is rich with prehistory, and a large number of the sites are along the Tinners Way and the direction of travel we would be moving in would take us towards the southwest and the setting sun. An imaginary line could be drawn through the monuments we were to visit and a number of them, if you had stopped there, would have the setting winter sun at another monument further along our journey, making a long winter solstice line of running down the spine of Penwith hills and part of this journey for me is to see how far people could process through the landscape, on the shortest day of the year, with a final destination in mind.
I am very interested in the ideas around processional journeys and movement through the landscape, particularly ones which would connect people to the ideas of cosmologies and be started in the time of dawn and end after sundown. I hoped the small group who joined me that day were also in the same mind. This was also a time for us to take a moment out of the daily grind and reflect on what we wanted to leave behind and how we would move forward, with mindfulness, into the next year of our lives. Walking has become a really important part of my life and during the last two years of upheaval and turmoil, I have come to appreciate the quiet and reflective time I can enjoy when out in the landscape, but it is always wonderful to be joined on an adventure especially a journey of such length, which would require both fortitude and endurance.
We met in Zennor just before dawn and the sky was in the main overcast, the clouds pink with the nearing sunrise. The Moon, which had been full two days prior, was still in the sky in the northwest, bringing an added element of light. Starting our journey we travelled up Rosevale valley, stopping to gather our thoughts for the day in the old and ruined miners cottage by the riverbed. It was commented on how we were a group of seven, six humans and a white wolf and in that moment of time it all felt a little otherworldly, like the start of a plagiarised fantasy tale., we all laughed at the sentiment and with the sunrise, we started on our way. Mulfra Quoit was a couple of miles away and we had to initially join the Tinners way, reaching it at the roadside near where the once impressive Tol Creeg passage grave had been destroyed and then removed in the 1960s. looking behind us we could see Zennor Quoit standing proud on the ridgeway and we got out first view of the southern coastline looking down the valley to the bay and St Michaels Mount.
The first hill of the day was in front, with Mulfa standing prominent on the top. We had settled into a nice pace at this point and think we were all excited about reaching our first ancient site of the day, one of many more to come. We had dropped into a rhythm of walking in pairs with the white wolf running back and forth between us covering triple the distance we were.
Mulfra was an opportunity to take a morning break. We huddled inside the quoit listening to the wind rip around outside. We marked the occasion with songs, poems and blessings while thinking about the journey ahead. We had a decision to make, would we continue along the Tinners or drop through Bodrifty courtyard house village and head towards Ding Dong mine, which would enable us to walk the processional route past Nine Maidens, we chose the latter. Walking down the hill to Bodrifty courtyard house village proved interesting, the white wolf, who often chose to be in front, stopped short and started to howl, spooked by something we could not see, but it nevertheless brought us all up short with notions of ancestors, meaning and what the animal could sense that we couldn’t. I must admit I really like Bodrifty, I often spend time here in the summer and as ancient sites go, I always find it peaceful, and have never had a sense of anything foreboding at the site, neither had anyone else when we discussed it, but its amazing how common ancient sites invoke feelings that we cannot explain, that connectivity with the past runs deep through us all and visiting some sites can have profound effects on peoples emotions and sense of being. With some convincing, the animal seemed to move beyond what had been bothering it and started to visit the ruined huts alongside us all. As we explored the sun started to send shafts of light onto the southern coastline and even at the distance we were from it, we could see part of the ocean shining golden. A promise of what was to come and a brightening of the skies ahead.
On reaching the path to Ding Dong we swung our journey to face to the north and started to walk the pathway to Nine Maidens on the top of Boskednan moor. Taking a moment to stop at the barrow we faced the impressive rocky outcrop of Carn Galva and took a moment to reflect on the people past doing the same of what we were about to today. This ridgeway is lined with barrows on both sides and by moving along it towards Carn Galver you really are walking in the footsteps of the many who have come before. I thought about the people who had built the monuments, those that had excavated them in the Victorian people (bless William Copeland Borlase and his dodgy excavation techniques :)) and the people who still come here today. The circle itself was a natural place to stop and talk about the Moon. If you are able to return here in 2025, the standstill year, you will see the moon set over Carn Galva. I would recommend heading to see the bright winter full Moon which will set over the rocky outcrop. This is a possible reason for them positioning the stone circle as they did. From here we could see the hills which we would be approaching later in our walk, those of Chûn and Kenidjack. We could also see the marker Boswen’s Menhir, which has been positioned in the winter solstice sunset position from the circle.
This seemed like a good spot for a break for lunch, the ridgeway is exposed we headed for the ring cairn and its large triangular stone., where we chatted and watched the sun emerge from behind the clouds for the first time that day.
Rested up we headed down the hill to Mên Scryfa, an inscribed stone which was recommissioned in the early medieval period, originally, most likely, being a much earlier menhir. the inscription reads Royal Raven and could mark the resting place of Bran, Welsh King who had been hiding out at Caer Bran before being attacked and chased to his death at this spot. I like to think there is treasure underneath but maybe treasure from the Bronze Age, a Trevisker Style Urn with cremated remains in, rather than a king from the dark ages. The Mên-an-Tol was one of the first times we met people, others out marking the solstice day, a number of us took the opportunity to wiggle through the holed stone, the lack of water at its base made it a more present prospect than usual.
Once more we had a decision. we could head towards Chûn from here, but as we had time we decided to zigzag and include Bosiliack and Lanyon on our journey and I am so pleased we made that choice. A number of the group had never been to Bosiliack Scillonian style passage grave before and the adjoining Bronze Age village. This is such an impressive monument, perhaps even more so since it wasn’t known about until the 1980s when a gorse fire uncovered it from the undergrowth. The excavation revealed so much about the tomb, and it contained cremated remains from the Bronze Age, along with a much later dated skeleton. The tomb felt important to me to visit on this day, as it is orientated towards the sunrise at this time, and I have photographed it myself in a previous year. I doubt anyone would have been able to watch from inside, but it shows how as a community that wanted to mark this day and maybe bring light to their own ancestors who were buried within the tomb.
It had been a long time since I had approached Lanyon Quoit from this direction and although viewed from nearly everywhere else it sits within the landscape, this is one direction where it stands proud on the horizon, impressively towering up above everything around it. This quoit is interesting in that it was rebuilt after falling over and is not necessarily how the original designers, back in the neolithic imagined it.
From here we started to see the sun break through the clouds with more regularity, it was arching low in the sky and we realised that although we had a fair way to travel, the sun was well past the mid part of the day, time for us all to move on again.
The next stretch was longer again and we approached Chûn Castle from the farm in the dip. The wind was howling and we didn’t hang around too long in the Iron Age hill fort before we headed down the hillside to the neolithic quoit of Chûn. Unlike Lanyon this quoit is in fantastic condition, which says a lot about our ancestors. The people who came millennia later in the Iron Age and built the hill fort must have held some beliefs about the monument, as they left it intact on the hillside and did not rob the stone from their grand hilltop fortress. The quoit’s capstone is heavily decorated with cup marks and there is still room to wiggle inside, which is fun. Standing here for sunset you would see the sun dip behind Carn Kenidjack and a number of people were already making their way up the hillside, in the opposite direction to us watch the sunset from this location as we headed down the hillside to Tregeseal.
I had wondered if our small group were rocked out!! But they were still keen to see as much as we could and we stopped at Portherras cist and after much chatter all day we decided we would walk the next section to the inscribed stone in quiet, giving us a time to reflect on the journey we had made already and the time ahead at the stone circle. As we walked in the direction the sun was already dropping fast and low in the sky. This was a moment I think we will all cherish from the walk, as a group we can often lose the quiet purpose behind our decision to make the journey.
The inscribed stone was very apt, most likely a Christianised menhir this stones inscription reads TAETVERA. This is Latinised 7th century Cornish: Taithuere, or “exalter of the journey”. I have read that St Just himself could be buried here, once more I like to think that if anyone was then it is most likely an urn of Bronze Age cremated remains underneath the cairn at its base.
As we reached the holed stones it was incredible to see the low golden sunlight come along the row of stones, making shadows along the line of them. I love these holed stones and feel they have a really important role to play on the wider Tregeseal landscape, I reflected how long it must have taken for people to have made the holes and how they could have been used to mark the days, through the shadows and beams of light shining through the holes, possibly at this time of year. As we sat watching the sun from this location I checked my watch and the sun passed the actual moment of solstice. The time when the sun is directly above the Tropic of Capricorn. The sunset was also fast approaching and we needed to move to the circle below to watch it.
Tregeseal is such a special landscape to watch the winter solstice sunset from. A lot has changed since the circle was built. Originally another circle stood next to this one, and the huge hedge to the south was not put in place until the mid 20th century. Nevertheless, you can get a small sense of what it was like for people who made the journey to this site to watch the sunset on the solstice. There is a small glimpse of the sea, and on this sea gap on a clear day you can see the distant Isles of Scilly and it is on these islands that the sun will set. Suggesting connectivity which we can see reflected in shared monuments and material goods between the islands and mainland. At this moment more people came to add to our group and we celebrated the closing of one chapter and moved into the next with the setting of the sun on the shortest day of the year.
With weary legs and tired feet we had one more hill to climb back to our transport, we made this in the gloom of dusk; the night was fast approaching and by the time we reached the end, reflected sunlight could be seen on Venus and Jupiter. A reminder that sunlight was ever-present even in the darkest of times
I want to thank everyone who joined me on this walk and I am so pleased the weather was much improved to last years, Lanomrna Gap to Tregeseal.
We will be back next year with another walk, so if you are mad enough to want to join a hardy but fun bunch of people on a full day winter solstice walk let me know.
Mulfra Quoit, Bodrifty courtyard house village, Nine Maidens stone circle, Nine Maidens barrows, Ring Cairn, Mên Scryfa, Mên-an-tol, Bosiliack passage grave, Bosiliack bronze age village, Lanyon Quoit, Chûn Castle, Chûn Quoit, Portharras barrow cist, Inscribed Menhir, Kenidjack Stone row, Tregeseal barrows, Tregeseal stone circle
Tokens were issued in England from 1648. They were used to pay for goods and services – a replacement to coin. This was partly due to the country having no monarchy, Charles I having lost his head, leading to a republic headed up by Oliver Cromwell. How could England have coins when there was no monarchy to put on them? It was also due to the lack of coin available for people to use, leading them to make their own. The practice was outlawed in 1772.
A huge range of tokens were made but I know of only two with an astronomy link. One is in the British Museum Issued in 1666 by Richard Berry it shows 3 men with astronomical instruments. Possibly depicting a pub called The Astronomers from the dockside in London.
The other was issued in Maidstone Kent by Thomas Swinoke and is in the image below. It shows 3 men one with a globe and 2 with scientific instruments, possibly telescopes. It is possible that it depicts the pub the Worlds End.
On the 29th Feb about 6.45pm a large fireball was spotted by a number of observers streaking across the sky in Scotland. Along with the bright streak that lit up the sky there was also reports of a following sonic boom bang. The event was captured on a number of dash cams as well as static cameras making it possible to try and narrow down where to look for any meteorite debris from this event.
The hunt is now on for any meteorites, with excitement building over who will discover any debris first. Last night’s BBC TV magazine program called the oneshow even featured a Scottish meteorite hunter. Whom had a interesting if a little unusual golf club technique of finding meteorites.
One meteor hunter online suggests that the meteor seems to have disintegrated during descent in a ESE to WNW track and a good place to look for meteorites is roughly in a line between Aberdeen-Aviemore-Fort Augustus…but it also could be further west than this, too. The map above has also been produced with examples of where meteorites can be found from this event. All of this is a little ambiguous at the moment. So anyone who is going out there hoping to strike the cosmic jackpot – I say happy hunting to you. As you really are looking for a needle in a haystack!
On the 1st March 1744 comet C/1743 X1 reached perihelion. Although only the 6th brightest recorded comet. It will be remembered for its striking 6 tails which developed. It reached a blazing apparent magnitude of -7 and was visible during daylight, after it passed by the sun a relatively close 0.2 AU. It has been suggested that the multiple tails occurred due the at least 3 active nucleus, maybe as the comet tore itself apart during perihelion.
It was spotted by a young Charles Messier on whom it had a great effect and lead him down the road of becoming an astronomer.
Comets as bright as these are rare events. A similar but more recent example was comet Mcnaught or the great comet of 2007 as it became known.
Armed with my camera and tripod I headed up the hill again last night. My idea was to have a go at getting a star trail photo. I knew I had about an hour to get the shots in before the Moon started to rise and. So starting before full astronomical darkness I set up my camera and started to take the shots. I decided that I would face north so the stars would rotate around Polaris. I set my camera at 18mm to a ISO of 1600 and a F 5.6. I took shots for 1 minute each. Tbh its all a great learning curve. Next time I will wait until the sky is properly dark. As the first few pictures came out a bit on the bright side. My next target was the Milky way. I probably should have had a tracking mount for this one as the stars are starting to trail even with a shot of just 40 seconds. Finally I got in a quick shot of Orion before the Moon rose and I headed home.