A guest feature by Roy Goutté. Text and images © Roy Goutté

King Arthur’s Hall, Bodmin Moor, Cornwall

Many, many years ago, nobody really knows quite when, work began on constructing a banked ‘enclosure’ on the north-west corner of Bodmin Moor near St Breward, an area known for its collection of early stone circles, cairns, hut circles and settlements. The enclosure was eventually to become known as King Arthur’s Hall and the portion of moor it was located on, King Arthur’s Downs… but what was the exact purpose of this Scheduled Monument?

Many ideas have been put forward as to what its purpose was, including things as diverse as a Neolithic mortuary enclosure, a Medieval animal pound, a gathering place for ceremonial or ritualistic purposes or an ancient reservoir, but until it has been professionally excavated and dated in the quest for clues its use has to remain speculative as there is little or nothing to compare it with.

Basically, earth appears to have been extracted from a rectangular north to south orientated area 160ft x 66ft and banked up on the four sides of it, thereby forming a type of sub-level ‘tank’ with an 8ft ‘apron’ between that excavated area and the banks.

Removing the earth to form the banks from the centre of the structure strongly suggests that the sunken tanked appearance was a pre-requisite, otherwise the soil would surely have been either imported from elsewhere, or obtained from the immediate area surrounding the entire structure, thereby leaving a level surface internally. This lowered area must then surely be our first clue as to its possible use.

It then appeared that granite standing stones of varying heights and profiles were erected to the inner face of the banks on the apron in what appears to be a continuous pattern of stone-gap, stone-gap sequence until reaching what could have been an original entrance to the south-west corner.

However, I have now, due to a recent fortuitous discovery made by myself and a co worker as part of a team of clearance workers, re-named these standing stones the façade stones, as they stand immediately in front of what appears to be a revetment wall built to retain the inner bank that had never been recorded before as far as I can determine as it lay hidden within the banks. Due to time, and one assumes roaming cattle, sheep and ponies over the centuries clambering over the banks and those same banks being washed over the top of the revetment wall, the majority of what was once around 140 uprights, have now either fallen and lie buried beneath the ground surface, lying recumbent on the surface itself, or indeed still standing but angulated.

Discovering this revetment wall has made me rethink what the original sequence of build was and whether the upright standing stones were an original feature, or introduced later and if so, for what purpose?

The revetment wall lying behind the granite standing stones makes its presence known during a clearance of the eastern bank in 2013. A modest investigation in 2014 showed it continuing in at least a northerly direction with other stones beginning to protrude through the newly exposed bank

Prior to the revetment wall discovery, the former description is really all we knew about its possible method of build but nothing about its age and purpose, whilst others, myself included, believe it could be much older and possibly Bronze-Age or even Late Neolithic in keeping with many of the ancient remains over this moorland landscape such as the three ‘ceremonial’ stone circles of Stannon, Louden and Fernacre about a mile or so to the north, the twin stone circles on Emblance Down to the south-east and Leaze stone circle just beyond them about half a mile away from the Hall. To the immediate west and east are the settlements of Candra and Garrow. King Arthur’s Hall sits comfortably in the centre of this wonderful landscape overseen by both Roughtor and Brown Willy and it would be easy to believe that there just may be a shared connection between them all. I would seriously like to think that is indeed the case!

So what exactly could its purpose have been and why are there not more structures identical to this spread over the vast expanse of Bodmin Moor known historically for its roaming cattle, sheep and ponies if indeed it was just an animal pound as suggested in a study carried out by Cornwall Archaeological Unit (now Historic Environment Projects) in 1991:-

‘Although King Arthur’s Hall is actually on King Arthur’s Down in the Manor of Hamatethy, it features significantly in the landscape of the Manor of Blisland. The rectangular earthwork is considered to be originally an early medieval animal pound for the hundred of Trigg, later retained as a pound for both the manors of Hamatethy and Blisland’.

A ‘pound’ was where straying animals were impounded. Some probably date from the Bronze Age but most of them won’t be more than around 1400-1500 years old. When some of the early Cornish settlements were evolving into villages, many of the ancient Commons became literally just open fields. Although most of them were hedged the banks were often quite low and often in need of repair. As no-one in particular would have been responsible for their upkeep, other than collectively, they would, on occasion fail and stock escape. Livestock allowed to wonder and roam free on the Common land were often found straying on to someone’s private land so would have been driven into the local pound from which the owner could only retrieve them by paying a fine. About fifty of these pounds, or the remains of them, have been found in Cornwall although there would originally have been many more because every Parish had them, sometimes two or three. In fact Mawgen-in-Pydar is recorded as having four!

They weren’t always huge secure areas either as they varied according to the size of the parish and the likely amount of stock likely to be escapees. The pound at Stratton for instance only measured 20ft x 24ft and was still in use in 1826 when its 9ft high walls were rebuilt. The hedges around a pound had to be especially stock-proof in order to keep in livestock which had already strayed from home so were often built more as walls than hedges. Anyone who has sheep for instance will know that the first thing they do when introduced to a new field or paddock is look for a way to escape… and often do!

King Arthur’s Hall prior to its perimeter fencing being seriously erected. These sheep had no trouble getting in as well as out! Note the gap between the façade stones which would have allowed for an easy escape route at any stage in its history

There are too many differences I feel between King Arthur’s Hall and a typical pound in Medieval times on Bodmin’s various moors. Where is there another that has been built in the same manner and so grand? A level patch of scrubby land with a basic wall/hedge or timber stockade high enough to prevent an animal escaping was good enough without going to all the trouble of digging out a massive hole by hand, banking all the soil up around it and held back by a revetment wall that had to be built, then lining it with granite standing stones of varying heights, some only about 2ft high! Add the 2ft wide gap between most of them that an animal could walk over or through and it’s like being jailed in an open prison! It makes no sense at all.

Assuming the sub-level tanked area of King Arthur’s Hall was indeed an integral part of its usage and purpose which seems highly probable, then it would obviously have filled with water, either rising or from rainfall being the two natural ways. Now, was that water purposely retained until overflowing, or was it drained out automatically by a purpose made ditch or possibly a stone-lined gully to keep it dry or at least free of standing water if not a pre-requisite? There is an entrance-way to the south-west corner but that may be more recent and as it stands higher than the excavated base of the tank any drainage construct would have to be formed underground. This is an important point as it would help our understanding more of what possibly the Hall was used for. Obviously if the water was retained then it would certainly not have been built as an animal pound that’s for sure and if constantly damp would turn into a mud swamp if it was!

The depth of the excavated area seems to be variable but is now entirely silted up with sedge-type grass growing profusely to the outer perimeters of the tank and to around a quarter of its length to the southern end. It is this and the other vegetation/plant life that proliferates here that indicates to the trained eye that the excavated area to this southern end and to a lesser degree the northern end and all perimeters is shallower than the more central parts and this could be significant.

I have plumbed the depth as best I can with rods and have found the southern and northern ends to be two feet deep increasing to nearly three feet as you move further away from their perimeters. At the end of the sedge grassed areas the plant life changes and the depth increases and it gives an indication of being ‘stepped’ as the depth increases slowly. I was able to rod down to around 6ft toward the centre on one occasion but unable to reach the absolute centre as it became very bog like underfoot and dangerous as water is always present! I had to wonder if the base has been paved or actually taken down to bedrock as all my probing, with the exception of near the centre, was met with a solid feel to the heavily silted base. On another occasion when accompanied by a friend, we were only able to reach a depth of just over a metre when nearing the centre.

Without dating or a fully investigative excavation having taken place, the mind is allowed to go into a speculative mode and consider alternatives to an animal pound.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that it wasn’t used as a pound at some stage in its history, but too many things tell me that wasn’t its initial purpose, one being that there are no others like it on any of Bodmin’s collection of Moors and Downs which are famous for its wandering ponies and other livestock… in fact there is nothing like it anywhere in the UK! Why not if it’s just a pound?

I’ve always felt it was a gathering place, but for people (and maybe not all living ones), not animals, so the term ‘hall’ may not be far off the mark. The ‘tank’ is the sticking point because what would it have been used for other than containing water?

If what I’m saying is proven to be accurate, then it has a longish southern shallow end and sides with a deeper middle. What does that suggest to you in Neolithic or Bronze-Age terms… a pool where a possible ‘ritualistic’ or ‘ceremonial’ practise took place taking into account ancient man’s apparent reverence to water and the belief in the underworld and afterlife? Water rising out of the ground via a spring, a distinct possibility here as I have never once, neither in the height of summer or winter, not seen water in the centre section of the enclosure. This would have been seen as a very ‘holy’ place indeed if ever proven to be far earlier than Medieval times and purposely built directly over an active spring!

And why so complex for just a pound? Surely a stockade fence/wall erected on a level surface would have done the job in a fraction of the time and negated the need for this hand dug mammoth excavation! Aside from the excavation, the building of the revetment wall and the façade of standing stones that would have had to have been dragged over the moor from wherever they came from would have taken considerably more time? I can’t see it as much as I try. Even English Heritage’s own website, PastScapes, doubts it:-

‘There are no traces of associated linear banks or earthworks. The origins and purpose of the enclosure remains obscure but the effort required to both excavate or import material for a bank of such proportions and to erect the slabs suggests that it had a more important function than just an animal pound’.

More recently, after gaining permission to undertake a small remedial clearance excavation, a granite paved area was discovered by myself and two other Heritage Trust members when removing the turf from what was taken to be a fallen upright that was thought to have broken off from its base to the eastern bank. The ‘fallen upright’ although identified as such by probing, was actually paving with a raised centre-line and not a stone at all. It abutted the remains of the façade stone perfectly and gave the appearance of a possible buttress to it. If it was intended as a buttress, then it has succeeded, because the standing stone it abutted to is one of the only ones to have remained completely perpendicular! The paving itself was ‘proper paving’ inasmuch that it was around two/three inches thick, laid flat with no upturned corners and selected or cut to fit its allocated position perfectly.

Paving at the base of a façade stone to the eastern bank discovered in April 2014. As far as could be determined by probing, it continued throughout the whole immediate area

It is said that another small paved area was discovered in the north-west corner either on the apron leading up to the façade stones or indeed in the shallow area of the tank many years ago, but I don’t have, or know of, any official documentation for this claim. But why would you require paving for an animal pound? I can’t think of a reason, but can if it was for people to walk on or to cover something up!

While we were there a small incision was made above the assumed line of the newly discovered revetment wall in a northerly direction. I am happy to say that it did indeed continue and probing along the western bank at the same level also produced a positive result and at one point, stone was beginning to reveal itself naturally. We were more than a little surprised that this walling had not been detected before by more qualified people.

After removing the turf from above the line that the newly discovered revetment wall would have taken, it does indeed reveal itself running behind the façade stones

Walling/revetment stones revealed in the west bank

I am of the opinion that this entire site should be re-evaluated because I believe there is far more to it than currently understood as proven by the new findings. What else lies hidden here you have to ask? A section cut through a bank to confirm its construction and to determine the original land surface would be a good start, plus an excavation within the ‘tank’ to see what lies beneath… and of course a dating! At least that would really tell us what exactly we have and whether or not Cornwall has something really special and unusual on its hands… a distinct possibility… or just that Medieval animal pound all along!

Easily said, but how does one go about making it happen when there is likely to be no funding available and possibly not enough interest shown anyway. I firmly believe that this is a special place and hope that one day someone with more authority and knowledge than myself will finally get someone to listen!

Roy Goutté
North Hill