Mount Edgcumb Barrow
On top of the burial mound, a puss moth. It lay between the long grass stems, white against yellow, furry among the clean lines of the plants. In the day they are easy to catch. I presented it between my hands to my daughter, who immediately asked if she could hold it too. She always approaches the world with this eagerness to be in contact with it. I wonder if eventually she’ll develop the obsession that I did, to try to know the place you’re in as well as you know your own home.
The top of the barrow was cracked. The sun fell hard on the soil, but disappeared below, in great dark cavities created by the wrenching of dry heat, which splits the earth apart. I doubt any of the cracks went down as deep as “real archaeology”, the layer where an expert might start to read evidence of the person buried, their goods and bones.
But the cracks are deep. The recent climatic trend towards prolonged dryness followed by extremely heavy rain breaks the land up. When the soil dries the cracks appear. If very heavy rain falls, instead of soaking into the ground it rushes across the surface and plunges into the open cracks, taking with it much fertile topsoil and any chemicals dropped onto the land to encourage crops or kill pests. All this hurtles into rivers, ponds, lakes, silting them, changing their chemical composition. Meanwhile, on the top of the barrow, small canyons are created by the water’s rush that do not close, grow wider with every storm.
On the barrow I tried not to think about this, but to admire the view across the Hamoaze to Plymouth, and the Sound beyond. Looking down, the drama of the view is obvious. But I’ve learned that the view most striking to modern eyes is not the only one to look for when you’re standing on a Bronze Age barrow.
So I look up as well, at the hill rising against the blue. When people built barrows they didn’t only have an eye to the spectacular nature of the view of the top, but also to the theatre of the approach. I first encountered this on a cycle ride with my wife from Salisbury to Stonehenge. Before we got to the main “Ancient Monument” there was a steep climb that we pushed the bikes up. We could see that at the crest of the rise we would pass between two barrows, then we’d be nearly there (no bad thing – it was pretty hard going through long grass).
We laboured to the top – and as we stepped into the gap between the barrows Stonehenge appeared framed by the grassy side of the old graves. It was a breathtaking “reveal”. The only comparable thing I can think of is my first sight of the Taj Mahal from a distance, after an interminable journey from Delhi. Suddenly I saw my destination, and it shone, beautiful.
Subsequent reading in British prehistory led me to the theories of Mike Pitts and Francis Pryor, that a significant element of the emotional and moral power of sites like Stonehenge, and even comparatively minor structures like grave mounds, come from the way they are positioned. In these readings of the landscape, the power of the ancestors/gods at least partly derives from the fact that they hide in the land – ultimately so as to be better seen.
The barrow we stood on at Mount Edgcumb on the easternmost side of Cornwall is placed like that. Certainly it sits commanding the Tamar Estuary and the land it drains from. But to reach it from further west would involve a climb and a pause on a ridge from where you could see it between you and the sea. To reach it from the east (and I speak from the limited experience of arriving on the Cremyll Ferry) would probably involve a circuitous route following the contours of the land. The barrow would sometimes be invisible, sometimes visible, but placed exactly for the moment when it lay dead centre on the path ahead.
Contrast this with the placement of Maker Church on the hill above. It stands on the highest point at the inland edge of the headland, so that it dominates. It is present all the time. It’s arguable that the end purpose of these structures is the same – to impress on visitors the power of the institutions that built them – and they both exploit the shape of the land around them. But the differences in the methods used are interesting: control by domination of the prospect, or control through rhetoric of concealment and revelation?
We put the puss moth back in the grass and looked out across the tiny hillside cricket pitch below the barrow towards the estuary and sea. Plymouth was under a slight haze, but many of the defences it has accreted over the centuries were clearly visible. Strange how many remain given that the centre of the city was flattened during the 1939-45 war. Below the gun platforms the immense natural harbour had the eerie grey-green-blue of the sea in a calm.
These harbours made the city – and unmade it during the 1940s – and now they are full of unique marine habitats that benefit from the highest European levels of conservation protection. The conspiracy theorist in me wonders if some of the euroscepticism going about is partly motivated by the prospect of the weakening or complete elimination of such protections, which would no doubt vastly increase efficiency. Or at least reduce the potential for companies and individuals to be prosecuted for the spillage of dangerous chemicals, say. It would be a mighty victory for British industry over those pesky foreigners.
From the barrow, great steel hangars and machines were visible around the city’s shore. The animals and plants were only visible from closer to, knee deep in the cold water – then the crabs, fish, anemones and seaweed appeared. In the liminal environment of the shoreline, specialised plants cling on, often having disappeared from elsewhere in the country. Among them sprout “imports” from southern Europe, brought in by centuries of shipping, and now well established.
This land and water have been politicised for a long time. The barrow is proof of that. In 705 the Mount Edgcumb area was ceded by the king of Cornwall to the king of Wessex, ensuring Anglo-Saxon control over all the harbours. It was reincorporated into Cornwall in the nineteenth century. Then, later the gun batteries were built. Even now the crossing between the two counties is a seedbed of rivalries – mostly jocular, as far as my experience goes. And from under the guns on the Cornish side, at the base of the hill on which we stood, the Beagle set sail from Barn Pool, setting in train both Darwin’s theory and its pernicious political distortions, both for and against, past and present.
None of this distracted my daughter from a game of “chase”, and we hurtled off the barrow across the scorched grass back to the path. Meadow brown butterflies rose up as we passed. We briefly stopped to try to catch them, but they were too quick for us and soon disappeared in the intense light. So we ran again, hot and sometimes jumping over the thick vegetation, back to the paths that led down to Edgcumb House or up and into the landscape.