This year’s talk was given by Graeme Kirkham, who works for Cornwall Archaeological Unit (CAU), based in Truro. The Unit is responsible for a variety of excavations, surveys and other archaeological and historic building work in Cornwall. He thinks that the site of Michaelstow Beacon is of interest despite Davies Gilbert’s assertion in 1838 about Michaelstow that ‘There is little deserving of notice in this parish, except some doubtful remains of military antiquities.’ Mr Kirkham enjoyed the opportunity to look at the ancient site of Helsbury and made several visits to take photographs and view the surviving remains and wider landscape, including the ramparts, the site of the Chapel, cultivation ridges in the interior and the patterns of the surrounding fields.
The complete circuit of the inner rampart of the Iron Age hillfort is still visible, with a bank at least 10m across and an external ditch 4-5m ditch across which would have been cut down another metre or so from its present depth. Air photographs and historic maps also show an ‘annexe’ on the eastern side of the site, which survives as an earthwork, and a probable outer enclosure.
There has been no excavation on the site so there is little information about internal arrangements and other details of the hillfort. Only a single piece of pottery is known – recovered from a badger’s set – but geophysical survey carried out by the Tintagel Environs Survey Project may show the locations of a small number of roundhouses within the annexe. Air photographs and geophysical surveys in the wider area around Michaelstow Beacon show numbers of enclosed hamlets or ‘rounds’ dating to the Iron Age, and it is this local population which is likely to have constructed the hillfort , probably around 400-200 BC.
Helsbury is one of a number of hillforts in this part of Cornwall, with other impressive sites at Tregear Rounds (St Teath), Dunmere, Pencarrow, Bodmin, Cardinham, St Neot and Warbstowbury. Current thinking about hillforts is that they were not primarily defensive sites but rather were intended to look impressive as the focal points for particular territories. They were probably used for communal gatherings and ceremonies but the outer enclosures on some of the sites suggest that perhaps they also functioned as places at which livestock was mustered and managed.
Mr Kirkham also looked at the later history of the site. The hillfort formerly stood on an area of open downland, enclosed as fields probably during the 18th century; it is clear from maps and air photographs that the site is the oldest element in the visible landscape, with the road which passes to the north and adjacent field boundaries all later than the hillfort. The name Helsbury is first documented in the late 13th century and comes from the Cornish words ‘hen lys’, meaning ‘old court’ or ‘ruins’, with the Old English word bury added, meaning a defended site or earthwork. The elements ‘hen lys’ also appear in the place-name Helstone, and the whole area formed part of the Domesday manor of Helstone-in-Trigg, recorded in 1086 as henliston. The ‘old court’ referred to by these names was probably the ancient meeting place for the hundred of Trigg (a hundred was an administrative division in the medieval period) and it is possible that the hillfort at Michaelstow Beacon, or Helsbury, was the site for such meetings.
A ruined building within an enclosure in the interior of the hillfort has traces of medieval carved stonework, including a door jamb and an arch which probably formed the top of a door. There are no historic records of a chapel here, although the stones certainly appear ecclesiastical in style. The hilltop was referred to in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as St Syth’s Beacon, possibly a reference to the medieval female saint St Osyth, and this probably led to the first large-scale Ordnance Survey map labelling the ruins as ‘St Syth’s chapel’. A much more likely dedication for a chapel on a hilltop site such as this would be to St Michael, the dedication of Michaelstow’s parish church, and Mr Kirkham pointed out that the ‘chapel’ building would itself have been aligned towards the chapel of St Michael on Rough Tor.
The beacon on the hilltop was first documented with a symbol (resembling an upside-down ice cream cone) shown on a map by John Norden of about 1600. Beacons were used to raise the alarm across the county in case of invasion or other emergencies and that at Helsbury formed part of an extensive network across Cornwall. The beacon – in the form of a metal fire-basket on a pole – was probably located at a point on the western rampart of the hillfort from which there are extensive views in all directions. (A number of places now have replica beacons for midsummer celebrations; one has recently been installed in Lescudjack hillfort in Penzance for a midwinter community event.)
During WW2 Michaelstow Beacon was used as a Home Guard Observation Post. There are still signs of the site of a shelter built into the west side of the rampart. The observation post was connected to Michaelstow House by field telephone.
The whole Michaelstow Beacon site is a ‘Scheduled Monument’ and the chapel is a ‘Listed Building’. Such sites need to be managed and cared for to ensure that they are conserved for the future – the current regime of grazing sheep on the site keeps vegetation down and allows the earthworks to be seen. Gorse and scrub are a problem because of potential root damage and because when a site is overgrown livestock are concentrated onto narrow paths which erode easily. In 2011 and 2013, a group from The Conservation Volunteers, organised by CAU’s Scheduled Monument Management project, cleared gorse from part of the western ramparts; these are now much more visible to interested visitors and offer spectacular views out over the landscape. Care must be taken to avoid possible damage to buried archaeology when material is burnt on the site. Fortunately, for this work it was possible to burn the cut gorse on a site which had previously been used by local people for a celebration Jubilee fire.
Mr Kirkham very kindly offered to lead a guided tour of the site should enough people be interested. He was also in agreement with suggestions that a ‘Friends of Michaelstow Beacon’ group be set-up so that local people could be more involved in caring for and using the site, with, of course, the permission of its owners. Please contact the parish clerk should this interest you.
To find out more about the work of the Cornwall Archaeological Unit please visit the CAU website – www.cornwall.gov.uk/cau
website visitors may also find the Historic Cornwall website maintained by our colleagues in the Cornwall Historic Environment Record of interest – http://www.historic-cornwall.org.uk/
Article written by the parish clerk based on notes taken at Mr. Kirkham’s talk, then edited and corrected by Mr. Kirkham
Addendum from David Ford by email:
I just wanted to comment on your notes on Graeme Kirkham’s talk last year (which we were away for) ; well done for putting up a precis of it by the way. He doesn’t seem to be 100% sure about St Syth’s Chapel having actually been a chapel building. In Michaelstow church there is a granite cross which was illegally excavated and removed many years ago. The anonymous person who did this told Revd. John Brendon Cook that after his death it should be returned to the parish, and this was done ten or more years ago.
John Edward Collins mounted it on a wooden plinth and it now sits on the window sill at the east end of the north wall, beneath the window containing fragments of medieval glass. The archaeologist working for Truro Diocese when they put together the Treasures of the See exhibition had a look at it and thought that it was probably from a pinnacle of the chapel. Just a little bit of extra information.
It does highlight the point that we do need an up to date Church History/Guide putting together. Maybe the Friends organisation might be able to help when they get going.
It is very frustrating that there seems to be no written information on the chapel.