Digging The Past

Living here in Cornwall, at the extreme South West of the UK, I am frequently reminded just how lucky I am to be a resident in one of the most beautiful parts of our country. Actually I go a bit further, just living in our country is pretty OK too..despite Brexit and a host of other things!

You see the thing about Cornwall is that it’s a land of moods and a matter of choosing what you fancy today. If you want rugged cliffs and stunning coastal vistas, then head for the North Coast. High Tors and rolling moorland are on Bodmin Moor, whilst more pastoral scenery nestles on the banks of the River Tamar and the Roseland Peninsular. Not forgetting the sun-kissed miles of golden sand and some of the best surfing in the world at Gwithian and Praa Sands….we’ve got most needs covered!

The other thing that we’ve got in abundance is history, it’s everywhere and again there’s something for everyone’s interest, from the Stone-Age to Twentieth Century stuff via the Middle Ages and the Industrial Revolution.

So when the opportunity comes up to mix a couple of these points of interest together and throw in a bit of motorcycling, Dookes is always available…! So last Monday I started up Harls and hit the road.

Over on the North Coast, about 20 miles from Dookes H.Q. stands the bastion of Tintagel Castle. Perched on a high cliff-top above the wild Atlantic waves these mysterious and evocative ruins are, legend says, the birthplace of the mythical King Arthur.

Tintagel Castle

The reality is a bit different, in that the remains of the castle we see today were built in the 13th Century by Richard, Earl of Cornwall, who was brother to King Henry III. On the headland where this medieval castle was constructed evidence exists to show that the area had been inhabited for many hundreds of years previously. The problem is that no-one really knows what was happening here!

You see, apart from the 13th Century castle, the only other remains have been dated from what were once euphemistically referred to as “The Dark Ages.”

At this point I can almost hear the sharp intake of breath from various archaeological friends…these days, apparently, we must say “Early Middle Ages!” All I know is that it was a bloomin’ long time ago, between the 5th to the 10th Centuries to be precise!

One of the reasons that this period gained it’s “Dark” moniker is that following the decline of the Western Roman Empire very little literature or cultural output occurred and few relics have been found, especially in North West Europe; that’ll be here then!

Since the 1930’s Tintagel has been subject of a number of archaeological investigations into its unknown “bits,” that’s the stuff not including Richard’s castle. The view as to what was going on has varied from; Monastery, Trading Port and has now shifted to “possibly a Royal Palace,” delete as applicable and the mood takes you!

This summer staff and volunteers from the Cornwall Archaeology Unit have been undertaking a “Dig” to try to piece together some of the jigsaw. They were building on work that had been started last year, following a new geophysical survey of the headland that had given some interesting pointers where to start digging.

To say what they have found is impressive sort of depends on your viewpoint, but certainly there’s been a lot of hard work put in to uncover another tantalising glimpse into the past. Hence why I popped into to see for myself.

The excavation site lies on the very Southern edge of Tintagel headland, in a sheltered spot under the lee of higher inland cliffs. The view our 6th Century ancestors had can’t have changed very much and must have been as impressive as today.

The dig team have unearthed substantial remains of walls, giving an interesting perspective of what must have been a most impressive structure. What exactly it was, remains to be unearthed, if you’ll excuse the pun, but being positioned on a sloping cliff-side I’m not at all surprised that it’s walls were substantially built!

Amongst the stones they have also found a veritable treasure trove of pottery shards, oyster shells, animal bones, charcoal, fragments of glass and possibly the remains of a metal blade.

Is this a 1600 year old blade?

The media have been quick to enthuse that this “suggests” that “early Cornish Kings” once lived and dined lavishly at this place… only it doesn’t – and that came from one of the archaeologists!

What it really does is add more weight to Tintagel being an important trading point; precious local metals out; wine, oil and spices in.

5th Century Pottery shards from the Mediterranean.

It was fascinating to talk to some of the team and watch them at work. There’s clearly a lot more to be discovered and here’s hoping that they will be back next year to keep digging. I spent a happy couple of hours on site and left with a head more full of questions than answers, but archaeology is like that.

Then it was time to fire up Harls and head home… and take a lot longer route than the 20 mile hop to get to Tintagel!

Catch you soon.

Dookes

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Keeping My Mouth Shut!

Hmm. There’s been a notable lack of posts from Dookes for the last few weeks. No, it’s not writers block…I’ve just not really had much to say.

I believe that Mark twain once said,
“It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think that you are a fool, than open it and remove all doubt.”

Thinking about it, I’ve known quite a few folk over the years that fell into the latter category!

As folk say here in Cornwall, “What’s on?” Meaning what’s been happening then?

Well, the season is marching forward and Spring has firmly taken charge. Wild flowers are filling our hedgerows, birds are busy building nests and only this week I spotted the first migrating swallows cutting across a clear blue sky at Dookes H.Q.. In many Cornish gardens magnolias and camellias are in full bloom, their blossom may only last a few days, but I think they are worth the space that they take up for the rest of the year!

Magnolia in bloom at Launceston Castle.

On the motorbike front things have been quiet-ish. ‘Baby’ has a new set of brake pads; the old ones lasted 15,000 miles and included two Alpine adventures, so I guess that’s pretty fair for a bike that weighs over half a tonne! ‘Harls’ has been serviced and is pretty much looking as gorgeous as ever, but hey I am biased!

So sexy!

For one reason or another I always seem to be pretty busy and unfortunately that’s been eating into riding time…but I have been out and about on ‘Harls’ for a couple of nice head clearing ‘fifty milers.’

It’s been pretty weird though, riding a motorbike with G’s major crash still very fresh in the old memory. The whole thing has really shaken me, not the least seeing the photos of the scene and also riding past the very site. I was recounting this to another friend the other day. I was sort of trying still to make sense, is there is such a thing, of what happened. He listened intently, then told me that he believed that as I was what he called a “logical” person he was sure that if I only stopped and thought about it properly, without emotion, that I could work it out.

You know what? He was right!

I accept that riding a motorcycle has it’s inherent risks; add into the mix a large dose of idiot/inconsiderate/impatient other road users and the odds start to stack up against any two wheeler, powered or pedal. It’s part of a bunch of reasons why I keep up my advanced riding qualification and have regular assessment rides; it’s all about managing the risks as low as possible. The unexpected can and as G proved, does happen. I’m also a bit fatalistic and every time I ride out of our drive I steal a look over my shoulder, just in case…

Talking of G, he is making steady, if very slow, progress. I try to see him every week and really look forward to my visits with him. We are a proper pair of “Old Gits,” putting the world to rights over cups of coffee, grumbling about just about everything and also fiendishly plotting future adventures.

 Of course a lot of our plans are based around and depend on G’s recovery.

Lets not under exaggerate it; G’s body is pretty badly smashed up. Add into the mix the continuing treatment he’s going to have, it’s going to be a long haul and that’s without the stress that he goes through thinking about it all. Last Tuesday G had to have some of he wires holding his right hand together removed; he told me that the surgeon used a tool like a high-tech pair of pliers to pull them out, no anaesthetic was used, ouch!

Understandably, G has good days and not so good ones. I try to be upbeat, which generally is my nature anyway, but I do find it pretty hard sometimes when he gives me a bit of a grim reality reminder. Fortunately our sense of humour is pretty similar, “warped” was the word Mrs D used once. I have thought on a couple of occasions that I should have been a little less hasty with my suggestions…such as offering to loosen the screws in his arm…!

Oh well, its only what mates do!

On another matter, planning has begun for my next big solo road trip and that’s always an exciting time. More details to follow…

“Call me the breeze
I keep blowin’ down the road…”

Catch you soon.

Dookes

Stonehenge

It probably seems that I just ride a pair of big American built motorbikes and yes, in some ways that’s true, but…in reality…I also ride two time machines!

Many countries around the world have ancient monuments, sites of great historic interest and significance. On my travels I like to look in on some of these places, but it’s strange it’s always the ones closest to home that you overlook or put off to “some other day.”

On a gin clear late autumn morning last week, I fired up Baby Blue’s engine, turned East from Dookes H.Q., rode 150 miles on the road and back 5000 years in time.

Our destination: Stonehenge.
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One of the world’s most famous prehistoric monuments, Stonehenge has been acknowledged by the United Nations as a World Heritage Site of International importance. Archeological research suggests that it was built in several stages: the first monument was an early henge monument, consisting of banks and ditches started about 5,000BC. That’s 2500 years before the Great Pyramid in Egypt! The impressive stone circle that is the quintessential image of Stonehenge was erected in the late Neolithic period about 2500 BC. Many burial mounds were built nearby in the late Bronze Age, around 800BC, and dot the landscape around the monument to the present day.

Round Barrow Burial Mounds near Stonehenge

Round Barrow Burial Mounds near Stonehenge

Stonehenge lies on Salisbury Plain, a chalk plateau in Central Southern England that covers over 300 square miles and is renowned for its rich archeological heritage. Even today it is sparsely populated, a combination of its worth as agricultural land and also use by the military for training purposes. As an aside my Grandfather Charles spent much of his early Army service with the Royal Horse Artillery training on the Plain, before heading off to the horrors of the Western Front in 1915. The Plain is also a special place for wildlife, with two national nature reserves, many rare plants and a haven for wild mammals and birds.image

Now let me be clear, I’m no archeologist, but I do have a massive interest in all things ancient. The reason I am saying this dear reader, is because there are many more detailed explanations that have been written about Stonehenge by far more qualified folk than I! So what follows is my take on the place…if you want more detailed stuff, well it’s out there in all different forms.

A fantastic new visitor centre was built in 2014 and stands about a mile and a half from the stones, where a superb exhibition tells the story of the monument through displays of excavated artefacts, photographs and diagrams. I thought it was very well done.

An example of a burial from 4500 years ago.

An example of a burial from 4500 years ago.

You can park at the visitor centre and catch frequent shuttle buses to the monument or enjoy the walk across the Plain, taking in some of the other surrounding archeology and delightful woodland as I did. Actually after 150 miles of riding I was ready to stretch my legs!image

I first visited the stones as a young lad, many years ago. In those days the public were free to wander amongst the stones and touch them as you tried to make sense of it all. Unfortunately, people then started to chip lumps off as souvenirs and the increased footfall of ever more visitors began to erode the delicate archeology. Since 1977 visitors are no longer able to touch the stones, but are allowed to walk around the monument and through the henge ditch, however on the two Solstice days plus the spring and autumn equinox access is briefly permitted.image

Exactly what function Stonehenge had in ancient times remains a mystery, indeed it may have had several uses. Hypotheses range from ancestor worship, celestial calendar, a place of healing or simply a place of the dead, a funerary monument if you like. The modern thinking on the reason for Stonehenge is that it was first built as a place of burial. Cremated remains of 63 individuals were excavated in 2013 and carbon dated to around 3000BC, it appears that at this time the standing stones that we know today were beginning to be erected and this is where things start to get very interesting.
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There are two types of stone found in the monument; Bluestones and Sarsens.

The first to appear were 80 Bluestones, of which only 43 remain today. These monoliths are about two metres high, about one metre wide and 0.8 metre thick, each one weighs about two tons. Now the really fascinating thing is that this type of stone, a variety of igneous dolerite, is only found 150 miles away in the Preseli Hills of South Wales…So how to goodness did they get to Stonehenge?

About 2000 years after the Bluestones were erected, the ring of 30 Saracens with their lintels resting on top made their appearance. Now these fellas really put things into ever greater perspective! Each stone is around 4.1 metres high, 2.1 metres wide and 1.8 metres deep, oh yes and they weigh about 25 tons!

Part of the Sarsen ring.

Part of the Sarsen ring.

Inside the Sarsen ring stood five trilithons, two large sarsens with a third one set across the top, in a horse shoe shape. imagePutting the all the other stones to shame, these behemoths weigh up to 50 tons each, the largest stood 7.3 metres tall with another 2.4 metres buried in the ground. These stones appear to have been transported from a quarry that was 25 miles to the North of Stonehenge…even so, just consider moving and erecting one of these mammoths with nothing other than manpower!

The whole site and specifically the trilithons and heel stone, which lies outside the main circle, are aligned to the position of the sun on the solstice.

The Heel Stone, on the Midsummer Solstice the sun rises over this point.

The Heel Stone, on the Midsummer Solstice the sun rises over this point.

On the winter solstice the sun sets over the alignment and in the summer the sun rises in line with the stones.
Looking along the Midwinter Solstice line from the Heel Stone.

Looking along the Midwinter Solstice line from the Heel Stone.

I spent a couple of hours wandering around looking at the monument, taking photographs, reading the various interpretation panels, listening to the free audio guide and generally really enjoying myself getting to know the place again. image

I took the shuttle bus back to the visitor centre and enjoyed a very pleasant lunch in the café/restaurant, after a quick look around the impressive souvenir shop.

Soon it was time to head back West towards home. I pointed “Baby” into the setting sun, we hit the road and basked in the freedom that only two wheels can give!

West, into the setting sun.

West, into the setting sun.

The air was certainly beginning to turn cool by the time we got back to Cornwall, but heated gloves, jacket and handlebar grips kept me snug over the miles.

What a simply brilliant day we had!

I’ve got to admit that as I rode back, I couldn’t help but keep thinking of the hilarious lyrics of Spinal Tap…

“No one knows who they were or what they were doing,
but their legacy remains
hewn in the living rock…of Stonehenge”

Catch you soon.

Dookes

Admission to the monument, including free shuttle bus and the visitor centre exhibition costs £15.50 for adults and £9.30 for children, with a family ticket (2 adults and up to 3 children) £40.30. Best value is to buy English Heritage Annual Membership for a family (2 adults and up to 12 children) £92.50 or £52 for an individual adult. Concessions also available. This gives you unlimited access to over 400 historic places for a whole year. For Overseas Visitors EH offer passes that are valid for either 9 or 16 days. Family Overseas Visitors Pass (2 adults and up to 4 children) costs are £57 or £66 respectively. So you don’t need to visit many places before you start saving money and you can keep going back as often as you like!

Land of History

There are occasions when, as I ride around the Cornish countryside, I am frequently in awe of the rich history that is cradled in this small part of the world.

In recent posts I have travelled back to the times of legend and the Bronze Age. Let’s “shoot” forward a few years, drop in on the times of Henry the Eighth then fast forward to the Twentieth Century and do that all in one place and what a place it is! This is Pendennis Castle.

Perched atop a rocky headland that juts out into the open sea close to the historic town of Falmouth on Cornwall’s southern coast, the imposing fortress of Pendennis protects the sheltered mouth of the River Fal and the deep water anchorage of Carrick Roads. Over 400 years ago work began on this great fortification by order of King Henry VIII; by the 1540’s the elegant gun tower was built followed in 1600 by the ramparts which today still define the perimeter of the site.

PENDENNIS CASTLE Aerial view of the castle looking North West

Aerial view of the castle looking North West


The castle played an active role in the nation’s defence until the 1950’s, since then Pendennis has been treasured and conserved as a site of great historical importance. It is open to the public all year round, (weekends only during the winter) and should be on the “to do” list of any visit to Cornwall.

A couple of weeks ago I was lucky to be invited to visit by the staff of English Heritage, who are the custodians of the castle. Passing through the massive gatehouse on my new Ultra Limited was a thrilling and privileged experience, I must confess to wonder if this was the first time a Harley Davidson has entered the castle in its long history?

Royal Garrison Artillery barracks.

Royal Garrison Artillery barracks.


The first imposing building that greets visitors dates from 1902, it was the regimental headquarters and barrack block of the 105th Regiment Royal Garrison Artillery. The building is fronted by a parade ground where it is easy to almost hear the historical echoes of soldiers marching and the gravel crunching under their boots. The barracks today houses various displays showing facets of life in the British Army throughout he ages, at present there is a super exhibition to mark the centenary of World War One and is well worth a look.

Central to the inner bastion is Henry VIII’s keep, or gun tower.Pendennis_CastleBegun in 1539, this was built as a response to the then threat of invasion by French and Spanish forces. It has four sections: a guardhouse, a fore building, a central round tower and a surrounding gun platform known as a “Chemise.” Not only is it one of the finest examples of one of the first purpose-built Gun Forts, but it also has one of the last drawbridge and portcullis installed in a castle other than as a decoration.

You see the most fascinating thing about this place is that it is not a castle from the days of knights on horseback and bow and arrows, no, Pendennis has always been about guns, very big guns! Everywhere around the place you will find artillery pieces from the various ages of the castle’s history and most impressive of all, a lot of them are still in working order and are regularly fired; much to the excitement of any children visiting, this one included!

Today, the main reason that I was visiting Pendennis Castle was to watch the firing of the Noon-Day Gun. This is a tradition that was only resurrected only last year. Pendennis has long marked the accurate passage of time; for many years a time ball was dropped at 1pm every day so that ships could set their clocks, so vital for accurate navigation. This in turn led to the firing of a gun at noon and later still to the use of a siren.

The Pendennis Time Ball

The Pendennis Time Ball

Today the Castle staff use the historic artillery pieces to mark the passage of time, during my visit the chosen gun was one of two Quick Firing 25 pounder British field guns that date from World War Two and were still in service until the early 1960’s. It was the first time that I had ever been up close and personal with such a weapon, despite descending from two artillery serving Grandfathers! There must be some artillery in my genes though, as I was handed the firing pistol and asked to cock it, without hesitation I did just that and I’d honestly never even seen one before, strange!

The firing pistol.

The firing pistol.

Anyway, we all got excited as the gun was loaded with it’s blank round and waited for the signal to fire. Then wait a minute, we can’t fire because there are a couple of dog walkers beneath the ramparts. . . Henry VIII never had this trouble! The we got the “all clear” and boom, the gun was fired! The photo really doesn’t do it justice, but it was a good bang!

The Noon Gun Fires!

The Noon Gun Fires!

Then all that was left was to unload and clear the breach ready for tomorrow.

Smokin'!

Smokin’!

The collection of artillery pieces also includes an American 155mm “Long Tom” field gun, one of only four on display outside the USA and the only one that works.P1030908

Towards the Southern perimeter of Pendennis Castle can be found more recent defences. Known as Half Moon Battery because of its distinctive shape, this emplacement was first constructed in 1793. Over the years it was repeatedly rebuilt and modernised, from 1911 six-inch calibre naval guns have been in place. The guns were replaced twice during the Second World War the first time because they were worn out and the second occasion improved versions were fitted with greater range and power. The last time that these guns were fired in anger was in 1944 when Nazi surface vessels were engaged. The latter guns could fire a 100 pound shell to a range of 12 miles and were radar directed.

6" Mark 24  gun in Half Moon Battery

6″ Mark 24 gun in Half Moon Battery

Above Half Moon lies a low concrete building sunk into the rampart, this is the Battery Observation Post which controlled the two guns and provided accurate target information to the gunners. It has been restored to its wartime appearance and even houses an optical depression position finder, an early sort of computer for plotting the course and range of a target which was surprisingly accurate.
Inside the Observation Post, depression position finder in the centre.

Inside the Observation Post, depression position finder in the centre.


Beneath the battery are the powder and shell magazines; superbly preserved these chambers are open to visitors as part of informative guided tours, they include audio recordings of the guns in action together with the experience of being under attack from an air-raid and very interesting they are too, I’d certainly recommend tagging along if you ever visit Pendennis.
The powder magazine, bagged charges for the six-inch guns to the left.

The powder magazine, bagged charges for the six inch guns to the left.


Leaving the subterranean chambers behind I enjoyed a stroll around the ramparts and on the eastern side spent some time at Nine-Gun Battery. Overlooking Carrick Roads, the deep water anchorage, this dates from 1730 and is armed with nine classic muzzle-loading cannons from the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, Captain Jack Sparrow and his mates would certainly recognise these guns!
Nine-Gun Battery.

Nine-Gun Battery.

I see no pirates!

I see no pirates!


That reminds me! Pendennis Castle holds various events throughout the year to interest visitors of all ages. Pirates will next be attacking on Tuesday and Wednesday 28th and 29th July, whilst Medieval Jousting is held every Tuesday and Wednesday in August, for more details click here.

All that then remained was a visit to the rather excellent tea room for a spot of light lunch then hit the road again.

With particular thanks to Kirsty and Kate of English Heritage for facilitating my visit.

“Do you ever see in your dreams all the castles in the sky?”

Catch you soon.

Dookes

PS It was OK for me to handle the firing pistol, I hold a firearms licence.

Sorry that some of the photos are a bit dark, but I hope you get the drift.
Does my gun look big in this?