Pencarrow Rounds, Egloshayle

by Peter Herring

A group of friends, including Peter Herring, of English Heritage’s Characterisation Team, were invited by Lady Molesworth-St Aubyn to visit Pencarrow’s hillfort at the start of this year and to have a chat with her about it afterwards. Here we print the notes Peter made following the visit.

I made these notes on a visit to Pencarrow on 2 January 2010. It was cold day with a light covering of snow; visibility was good.


This is an unusually well-preserved Iron Age hillfort, not archaeologically excavated, but its form is that of the later Iron Age with simple bank and ditch defences. It is probably of the 3rd to 1st centuries BC.

There are three circuits of defences; the inner defining a sub-circular space, the middle an egg-shaped space with the pointed part probably containing the entrance (reused by the South Drive), and the outer (a much lower bank with hardly any ditch) closely following that, being just 4 or 5 metres beyond it. In addition, there is an apparently unfinished angled ditch and bank on the west side that would have added further protection to the entrance. This ends abruptly about 15 metres short of the middle rampart at the east end of its north arm, and the east end of the south arm is marked by spaced-out pits rather than a continuous ditch. We may expect that this would have been made continuous when completed.

It is conceivable that the very slight outer circuit may be of an earlier period, its form being similar to other banks surviving at sites like Warbstow Bury, Castle-an-Dinas and Caer Bran. These could be Bronze Age and may have served as hilltop gathering places, ceremonial sites, often associated with barrows and ring-cairns. An alternative and probably more likely explanation for the slightness of this circuit is that it was a marking out for an unfinished more substantial rampart, and that the abrupt ending of the northern angle of the western entrance rampart may signal where its full-sized ditch and bank would have extended to.

This apparent abandonment in an incomplete state is of great interest as it suggests that the builders were interrupted in the act of hastily throwing up defences, presumably in the face of a live threat. Or perhaps the threat passed and the works were then abandoned.

Excavations of other hillforts in Cornwall would suggest that any Iron Age houses are within the small central enclosure and that the spaces between the outer circuits were used as places for securing livestock or similar. It is also likely that the site was not a permanent habitation, but a place resorted to at certain predetermined times (and of course whenever emergencies necessitated it).

The evidence for abandonment is particularly interesting as it suggests that the hillforts of Cornwall did have a function as defences, in extremis. This may seem obvious, but recent thought has been that they served more like medieval castles, as substantial and dramatic places or courts were people gathered occasionally to perform particular acts. They are seen as the Iron Age equivalent of Bronze Age stone circles, where people probably came together to perform rituals and ceremonies. It is thought that such gatherings provided opportunities to deal with a range of other necessary functions, like exchange, dispute resolution, gossiping, finding life partners, settling scores, etc. The ‘defences’ were as much to display status, instil pride and reinforce commitment to the community as to serve any military purpose, in the same way that few medieval castles ever expected to see violent action, but were instead local centres of power to which the local populace went to perform various acts of homage, etc. However, medieval castles were built to work as places of refuge when the need arose and it seems that hillforts were expected to work in the same way and that such a need did arise at Pencarrow in prehistory.

The site at Pencarrow seems to have been saved from the depredations that have affected many other Cornish hillforts by being latterly within a landscape park, before that in a deer park, and before that in rough ground (rather than in farmland). The effect is that outworks also survive. Other Cornish hillforts may have had similar banks and ditches set at some distance from the main fort, but these have generally been removed by later farming. Two banks with external ditches lie on the north-west slope downhill from the hillfort. Each is pierced by an earlier gap than that forced through by the South Drive. These gaps suggest that the route to the hillfort passed this way and made for the western entrance to the hillfort.

Here it may be mentioned that the hillfort lies on the north-west crest or brow of a broad rounded hill that continues to rise to the south-east. The effect of this is that the fort overlooks a sweep of country that extends from the west edge of Bodmin Moor around to the Camel valley and St Breock Downs. It seems significant that the entrance is also to the west, and suggests that the hillfort overlooked the territory it commanded and that this was effectively that of the middle Camel valley. The fort would have been visible skylined on the edge of the highest ground from many places within this territory. The land to the south-east was out of sight and may have been effectively irrelevant, being part of another hillfort’s territory.

As mentioned, our understanding of later prehistoric Cornwall has changed considerably in recent years and the density of patterns of settlement suggest that the population may have run into the hundreds of thousands. It is not surprising then that hillforts were themselves quite closely spaced, with each one having territories similar in area to two or three parishes. Near Pencarrow, there are hillforts surviving at Dunmere, just 1,700m to the south-east, Penhargard, 1,800m to the east, Killibury, 4,100m to the north-west, Castle Canyke, 6,200m to the south, and Helsbury, 10,500m to the north-east.


One of the many reasons why Pencarrow is an important site revolves around its imaginative treatment in the early 19th century AD. South Drive, one of the primary approaches to the country house of Pencarrow, was deliberately run through the fort sometime between 1810 (Ordnance Survey 1-inch map does not show the drive) and 1840 (Egloshayle Tithe Map does show it). It veered east from the obvious route from Double Lodge in order to take visitors through the monument, which was therefore put on display, presumably as a means of antiquating the Molesworth family (see plan overleaf). This is a neatly prehistoric thing to do as many Cornish later prehistoric monuments were themselves placed to respect and respond to earlier features barrows next to stone circles, stone circles near tor enclosures etc. The banks were sliced through on the site’s southern side, the material being used to create causeways to carry the drive across the ditches.

The fort seems to have been enhanced with the ditches deepened and banks heightened along those stretches which could be best seen from the Drive. A possible walk or drive was then run around the exterior of the middle circuit.

Sessile oaks were planted on and within the monument in clear distinction to the conifers, beeches and chestnuts of the immediately adjacent plantations. The oak would certainly have been regarded as the appropriate tree to associate with the Ancient Britons who would have been seen as the inhabitants of the hillfort. The dryads of the oaks and the ghosts of those Britons would have been regarded as close fellows. A space, a glade, was deliberately left in the western part of the small oak grove and it may be expected that visitors were brought here for picnics or more elaborate entertainments, perhaps with an ancient British, or ancient Cornish theme. A place for stories to be told.


Plan of the grounds at Pencarrow, showing the route of the South Drive, deliberately run through the Iron Age hillfort (Plan reproduced from the Pencarrow Guidebook by kind permission of Lady Molesworth-St Aubyn)

Plan of the grounds at Pencarrow, showing the route of the South Drive, deliberately run through the Iron Age hillfort (Plan reproduced from the Pencarrow Guidebook by kind permission of Lady Molesworth-St Aubyn)


There is an undated photograph of Pencarrow ‘camp’ (see overleaf) in the volume recording planting at Pencarrow [‘Trees Planted by Sir William Molesworth, 1833-53’]. It is signed ‘W Williams’. It has the character of a late 19th-century image (and most of the dated photos are also of this period). I asked Karen Willows and Steve Colwill, who make close studies of early Cornish photographers, if they knew of such a person and they have provided the following note:

Steve has done some research and the photographer is likely to be Walter West Williams who was born at Stonehouse, Plymouth in 1853.

Walter was a professional photographer and was boarding at the Barley Sheaf Pub in Bodmin at the time of the 1881 census, although he had only recently moved there as his daughter Helena (recorded as Nellie on later census returns) was just 7 weeks old and was born in Taunton. The 1891 census finds the family living in Scarborough and records a second daughter Daisy who was born in

Bournemouth in 1883/84. The family do not appear to have been based in Cornwall for very long and Steve has traced them up to and including the 1911 census and it seems they did not return to Cornwall.

It is of course possible that the photograph may have been taken on a one off later visit but it is more likely to date from between 1881-84.  In the absence of any other W Williams photographer in Cornwall, Walter would seem to be the likely candidate .

Now, there are a few uncertainties here, but the date range 1881 (census) to 1884 (Bournemouth) would fit well with both the form of the photograph and the apparent age of the trees shown on it. They look even-aged and around 40 or 50 years old. The South Drive and the broadleaf trees on the hillfort were shown on the Egloshayle Tithe Map of c.1840, but may not be much earlier than that as they were not on the first edition of the OS mapping of c.1810 and appear to have been associated with Sir William Molesworth (Register of Parks and Gardens).

Peter Herring’s notes make a valuable contribution to the history of Pencarrow and will be added as an Appendix to the CGT record in the Cornwall County Record Office.

The photograph of 'Pencarrow Camp' by W. Williams, stored in William Molesworth's planting book, was probably taken between 1881 and 1884

The photograph of ‘Pencarrow Camp’ by W. Williams, stored in William Molesworth’s planting book, was probably taken between 1881 and 1884

This photograph of the Iron Age hillfort at Pencarrow showing little change in character from the 1880s was taken in March 2008

This photograph of the Iron Age hillfort at Pencarrow showing little change in character from the 1880s was taken in March 2008