In the Shadow of the Hill: The Rough Tor Triangle. A totally speculative article but with a hint of truth to it?

Text and images © Roy Goutté

Rough Tor as seen from Middle-Moor cross on Bodmin Moor’s North-West perimeter

Nestling neatly in the shadow of Rough Tor lies the wonderfully rustic stone circle of Fernacre. Just 2km to the west of it is the equally rustic Stannon circle and 800m to the south east of that a third in this triangle of large Cornish circles…Louden. All three are believed to have been built in the Late-Neolithic although a lack of dating evidence in Cornish circles is a problem.

But that is not the only triangular thing about these three circles built on the north-west fringe of Bodmin Moor in Cornwall, for within their settings they all feature a single large triangular granite upright. It is these iconic Cornish tri-stones and their possible meaning and connection to Rough Tor that I would like to concentrate on in this article and not so much about the circles themselves other than their basic details and possibly why they were erected where they are.

Fernacre circle has so much in common with the other two circles that it doesn’t take much figuring out that the three are likely to be contemporary with each other and possibly erected by the same people because they are so close together. All are very large by Cornish standards but are surprisingly made up of a large number of small stones. Stannon has around 70 laid out in an irregular ring but originally there may have been as many as 82+. Fernacre also has a large number of stones in its setting, Louden fewer, yet the three circles are the largest in Cornwall along with the Stripple Stones henge circle at the base of Hawk’s Tor and could have been amongst the first to be built. All three are irregular in shape and may have been laid out by eye instead of using a central peg and rope, rather like children marking out a demarcation area for a football pitch in the park with jackets and jumpers!

Unfortunately, Stannon circle lies immediately to the south of a huge china clay works, which, to my mind, destroys much of the magical feel associated with moorland circles we are used to seeing in an open landscape. I wonder if in these more enlightened times permission for this type of activity would still be allowed adjacent to a Scheduled Monument?

Stannon circle looking north-east toward the huge china clay works

All three circles have been labelled as ‘ceremonial’ in certain quarters, but I’m not quite sure what that is based on but may well be true. In my mind I visualise ceremonial circles as being not only large in size, but displaying magnificent uprights within their settings with a true look of grandeur. But this is not the case here as it almost seems that any size stones the builders could get their hands on were used in their construction and in this instance, quite small. It suggests to me that each circle was just one part of a much larger blueprint, so individual grandeur and precision was not required and their use different to other stand-alone circles…whatever that may have been!

Fernacre circle sits in a magnificent bowled landscape. Brown Willy to its east, Garrow Tor to the south, Louden Hill to the west-north-west and the daddy of them all and we believe most revered, Rough Tor to its north.

Aside from its own feature tri-stone it has around fifty-five stones remaining out of what some believe was around as many as ninety which indicates the smallness of many of them! It’s almost like the stones just marked out a temporary demarcation area rather than a permanent and functional structure to be admired. It is this side of things I find really odd.

Although it is just as irregular in its own diameter as Stannon circle, Fernacre is slightly larger being forty-six by forty-four metres, so again, somewhat slightly elliptical in plan.

A section through Fernacre circle looking toward the south-west. Louden circle is away to the top right on the left-hand side of the track. Note the selection of small stones for such a large circle and common in all three

It does appear that stone circles are located within the landscape in relation to other foci with sacred or spiritual significance, not all of which are necessarily visible today. The spacing of individual circles throughout the landscape has also been thought by some to represent a tribal gathering point for specific social groups and Fernacre, being set as it is within a landscape rich in contemporary ritual monuments, settlements and field patterns, demonstrates the complex integration of ritual practice with domestic and agricultural organisation of the landscape during the later Neolithic and Bronze Ages. (Access to Monuments. Cornish Heritage).

Louden circle, in elevation terms, is the highest of the three with Fernacre circle seen down from it to the north-east. It has an irregular diameter of between forty-five and forty-three metres and although now reduced in numbers, it probably had up to 40 stones in its original setting. Of the three, Louden circle is the least obvious to the eye due to recumbent and buried stones, but fortunately it still has its iconic tri-stone in place as a guide to finding it. However, a clearance of the turf now enveloping the fallen stones would be of benefit to finding it as PastScape list it as being on Louden Hill…which it isn’t!

Rough Tor Triangle 4 (2)

Louden circle. Less stones than both Stannon and Fernacre circles, but equally small ones

Let us turn our attention now to the iconic singular large tri-stones within the settings of these three circles and ask the usual questions…what is their meaning or purpose?

It was only when I was in Louden circle recently and taking a photograph of the tri-stone with Rough Tor in the background, that it suddenly dawned on me that I was seeing something close to a double take! I then ventured across to Stannon circle to take a similar photograph and to my amazement witnessed the same and wondered if the builders had purposely made an attempt at replicating the image of Rough Tor as best they could within their ring settings by erecting tri-stones which can be found amongst the clitter masses on the various tors and hills in the area. The same applied at Fernacre and it left me thinking!


Rough Tor as seen from the far side of the Louden circle and tri-stone


The Louden tri-stone as viewed from inside its circle…an attempt at replicating Rough Tor?


The iconic tri-stone at Stannon circle with the equally iconic Rough Tor in the background. Note the ‘notch’ in Rough Tor’s peak as seen from the circle

Stannon’s tri-stone as seen from inside the circle. Note the notch in the peak. Was it selected in an attempt at replicating the notch in Rough Tor’s?


The Fernacre tri-stone


Fernacre’s tri-stone with Rough Tor looming large in the background

The top photo is a natural tri-stone on Treswallock Downs and the lower the same on Leskernick Hill

So, we have three large irregular stone circles of similar size and with similar sized stones of all shapes and all with a prominent tri-stone in their ring settings and all in close proximity to each other.

It would be easy to suggest that if the people of their time revered or worshipped Rough Tor, then the tri-stones in each of the three circles may well have been seen as near images of their ‘God’ and revered during ceremonies carried out in the circles.

Let’s leave that thought for a moment though and look further into those tri-stones and consider where they are positioned within each circle as it could also tell a speculative but interesting tale.

Remarkably, the circle to the east (Fernacre) has its tri-stone positioned due east in its setting and the circle to the west (Stannon) has its tri-stone positioned due west in its setting. To complete the set, Louden, the southern-most circle, has its tri-stone due south in its setting. Why should all three circles have their individual tri-stones on the side of the triangle they themselves form in the landscape? Draw a direct line between those three circles and note that they form a scalene triangle (no equal sides) which ‘by ‘chance?’ just happens to be a mirror image of Rough Tor!

Copied directly off an OS map for accuracy, the triangle formed by the three circles produces a mirror image of Rough Tor in profile!

So, is this then the ‘finished product’ of the blueprint I referred to earlier and not the individual circles themselves? Are the circles just the demarcation points where boundaries joined up and possibly ritualistic ceremonies took place in…or just pure speculation on my part? In the photocopy above it can be seen quite clearly that the greater majority of solid black circles, rings and enclosure boundaries in the area (cairns, hut circles and field systems) are within the triangle. Black denotes Prehistoric, red, Medieval or Post-Medieval. Did our prehistoric ancestors not only live, work and get buried within sight of Rough Tor, but also within its mirrored image?

Furthermore, are there comparisons elsewhere?