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Roche rock, Cornwall

Cornwall is not a rich county; and here, in it post-industrial heartland, but with the Eden project pulling punters right by, one might be forgiven if every availably penny was wrung from the ‘historic environment.’

Yet here it is, in a area of rough heath hemmed in by hosing estates, football fields, abandoned clay pits: one of the most extraordinary sights in England, unknown, unexpected, and completely defying even the thought of a health and safety audit or a visitor assessment.

There are karst landscapes in China that look like this; and strange cloud-like tors that rear up in Flemish landscapes as I’ve their author had only ever dreamt mountains. Neither have the twin benefits of being surrounded by post-industrial wasteland – a little sublime with your unemployment, sir? – and being topped by a ruined hermitage. The resulting profile, as seen from the road, is extraordinary: a series of granitic (this is something far more obscure and complex than true granite) lups that reach up like rain-washed fingers, at once knottedly heavy and weightlessly vertical. These mountain-ette nodules rise to a central peak that clumbs almost ridiculously upwards, like a solid cumulu nimbus bidding to be a thundercloud; and it is this that is topped by the broken hermitage, the construction of which on such a site is an achievement in itself. The whole thing can be explored using a pair of terrifying, rusting metal stepladders bolted into the solid rock.

At first site its rather like the lower two stories of a Cornish Perp tower, but amazingly we have a dedication date, 1408, and it feels rather early for these. And although there is detail, at close look it is not completely confident; perhaps the mason were more used to slightly lower-grade stone buildings than churches: you might want bridge or castle experience to pull something like this off. Where it fits into the story by which, during the C15, Cornish patrons fell in love with the hard aesthetis of granite even as their wealth was increasingly derived from working and opening that material, is an as-yet-untold story. 

It’s a two-storey thing, or rather three stories if one includes a basement layer expressed by a lower string course, filling an area where the rock dips down; a hole in the E wall here may be connected with drainage or simply a putlog hole. The lower/’ground’ story above has been partly shaped into the rock, which takes a smooth sided and massive gulch to form its floor and large portions of wall. A south door faces the sheer drop and must always have been the main entrance. One assumes this lower storey is some kind of living quarters, but it may equally be about reception of visitors; certainly either whoever lived here (and perhaps visitors too) were expected to move through it as there is a very similar dooe on the north side, up a rock-cut stairway: in other words, access was required to the N; a simple internal ladder could have facilited access to the chapel otherwise. All in all, ingenious use of the from of the thing, though of course there is no way of knowing if there were not already structures here , or the rock had already been altered or become a focus of some kind of religious activity, before the C15.  The access routes could be interpreted a way ‘through’ – in one way, out another, bout they could equally well be purely practical. In any case how any self-respecting pre-modern person could *not* surround it with Belief is hard to imagine.

These two doors have rough mouldings, the scooped forms of the lower one marking out its status as main way in and speaking of some ambition over and above the strictly utilitarian. The northern one, and other areas of walling, especaily associated with arches, has blocks of a whiter stone – is this real granite? Can the sources of the rocks be established?

There is an aumbry-like rectangular gap immediately inside the main door, and a  single-light, off centre, east-facing window: squared headed Perp with a cusp to the outside, but oddly, arched within, leading to a faintly bizarre conflation of lintel and keystone in its design.

The upper storey is marked, tower-like, by a string mould, and its function is clear. The east window is central in the facade, arched and large enough to have taken two or even three lights: no traces remain of this; the arch, as in the doors, is more equilateral than four-centred, perhaps underlining the comparatively early date in the Perp sequence. In the wall immediately S, a pointed-arched unmoulded piscina; at floor level in the ground a recess: so this had an altar, and mass must have been said daily, strongly suggesting that someone resided or spent most of their time here.  Also two rough gaps or openings either side of the E window: just the kind of suggestive but inconclusive feature one often gets in these ‘cult-related’ (or at least sub-parochial) buildings, so interesting, so potentially illuminating, so unexplored, and once so very widespread. The roof was gabled and is open to the wide view over to Castles an Dinas and Dennis and the hail-spattered, half-landscaped Austell Lumps.

The obvious human intervention does nto end here: the upper story door leads to another, lintel headed, and one can easily walk on natural stone round the back/W of the upper storey and across a saddle, and here immediately SW of the chapel-thing anther portion of the topmost rock has been hollowed into a space; there are traces of rough granitic supporting walling at floor level, too; an area presumably also with some function. The lintel-door suggests this was not religious in nature.

There’s said to be a rock with a hole in at the bottom somewhere, into which water does mysterious things; and there are various legendary associations, not least with John Treccarel, my favourite Cornishman, whose sotires cannot fail to bridge politics and myth, uncertainty and clarity, ancient and modern, in ways that show an unnering sense of where the landscape justifies some myth-spinning.

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