Exploring Helman Tor

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Cornwall Wildlife Trust sign

Katie Taylor, a third year History student, undertook a research project exploring the cultural landscape of Helman Tor. Here, she tells us her discoveries and where the project led her, as well as the people that she met.

I am a third year student currently studying History at the University of Exeter at Penryn Campus. Last year, I undertook a module called Public History which lasted two terms and involved a research project. There were about twenty students on the module, and we either worked individually or in pairs. Various sponsor organisations were attached to the research. These were The National Maritime Museum, Tremough Archives, Truro Cathedral, the Cornish Record Office and the Cornish Audio Visual Archive. I was sponsored by the Cornish Audio Visual Archive (C.A.V.A), along with students Will Orchard and Abi Stocker, who were doing a different project to me.

My project was based on Helman Tor, near Bodmin. Whilst I was affiliated with a sponsor, I still had free rein over my project. The projects module allowed us to explore and use different types of sources that we do not necessarily have the scope to do during our normal assignments. It allowed us to really develop our research skills as historians and made research an ‘active process’. Each project had certain outcomes to achieve. Mine was a touring exhibition and this article for Cornish Story magazine. Other projects had displays in the Penryn Campus library, Twitter feeds, websites, display cases in The National Maritime Museum, as well as blog posts. The idea behind these outcomes was to make our research ‘public’, as the name of the module suggests, and for it to reach an audience larger than our university lecturers and peers.

Helman Tor
Helman Tor

Helman Tor, a tor based near Bodmin moor in central Cornwall, is situated in the heart of a great agricultural area and former tin mining area. There are three parish boundaries close to the tor; Lanlivery, Luxulyan and Lanivet. This closeness made searching the archives for material at the Cornish Record Office quite challenging as I had to check records for all three parishes before ruling something out or checking that something was correct.

Helman Tor from Gunwen graveyard
Helman Tor from Gunwen graveyard. Photograph by Pete Keen ©

The purpose of my research was to determine how people had interacted with Helman Tor over the years. This is otherwise known as ‘cultural landscape’. Cultural landscapes are essentially how a culture or society interact with the landscape and how the landscape shapes that culture or society. Something that I really wanted to do was to have the voices of the community around the Tor heard and involved in the outcome of the research. Due to the nature of rural communities, ‘outsiders’ (those who are not locals or part of a certain community) need to form a relationship with members of a community in order to gain local knowledge.

I managed to get in touch with a lovely man called Pete Keen, a former police officer in Bodmin and a local to the Helman Tor area. I found him through Facebook, which may seem like a questionable method of research, but one that proved invaluable to my project. The method of using social media or an interactive website for research is called ‘crowdsourcing’, where an individual or others on that same site volunteer information for your research. Pete told me many stories about his childhood growing up on a farm which overlooked the Tor:

“One place where I could impress any visitor was the summit of nearby Helman Tor. This was a paradise for any child. A game of ‘hide and seek’ or simple tag was a thrill, whilst a game of Cowboys and Indians never ceased to thrill, particularly when armed with a simple Capgun of the time, loaded with a roll of caps costing 1p (one old penny) a roll. Our childhood cries and muted ‘crack of our guns were to be heard as we valiantly defended our particular group of rocks. The number of places on the Tor where one could hide were numerous. In order to give each other a clue, it was necessary, or at least we thought so, to name a particular rock or group of rocks on the Tor. Thus evolved such names as The Cave, The Bottom Cave, The Giant’s Doughnut, The Giant’s armchair, The Rocking Stone, The Fort or The Sandwich Rock”.

– Pete Keen, February 2014

Helman Tor
‘The Fort’ by Pete Keen ©

Pete’s autobiographical accounts of the Tor were a major feature of my research and of my final exhibitions. Facebook also put me in touch with Adrian Rodda – from the Cornish Archaeological Society – who also provided me with research. Adrian knew a fair bit about the Neolithic history of the Tor and had contacts with people who could provide further information. As a keen poet, Adrian also wrote a poem about the Tor which featured in my exhibition. Due to the location of the Tor, I heavily relied on Adrian to take me to the Tor and to meet up with Pete. One wet and windy day in January 2014, Pete took myself and Adrian on a walk around the Tor which then worked its way up to the summit. Pete showed us some of his hiding spots from his childhood, pointed out his farm from the summit and explained about other families in the area from when he was a child. He also took us into Gunwen Chapel (the former chapel on the site was built by William O’Bryan who subsequently founded the Bible Christian movement) which is right next to the Tor, and explained how the families from the surrounding farms would go every Sunday, with the children going to Sunday School downstairs, and about the family pews. There we met a farmer from the area, Ivan Philips, who told me stories about family walks up the Tor and local history.

Trebell Green Farm
Turning hay by hand, circa 1954 approx. in 2 acre field at Trebell Green Farm: Grandfather Hancock, Ted Keen, Margaret Keen and a young Pete Keen.

Getting to know various members of the community around Helman Tor was a lovely experience, and made the research I was doing more personal and hands-on. Research prior to getting to know Pete was virtually non-existent as there are no records apart from births, marriages and deaths to gather information from. Luckily, through Adrian, I was able to find reports on an excavation done on the Tor and what was found there, and he also helped me find some artistic interpretations on how Neolithic peoples interacted with the Tor. In the Cornish Studies library I also found parish newsletters for Lanlivery where I found out about a man called Eric Higgs who was an amateur-archaeologist who lived on Crift Farm near the Tor and who had found other bits of information.

All of this culminated into an exhibition which travelled around the libraries of Truro, Bodmin and Penzance in May 2014 along with Will and Abi’s research on West Penwith. In September 2014 I also took my exhibition to Gunwen Chapel for a ‘Crying the Neck’ event where it then stayed for a month so that the community could see the research I had done and see some photographs taken by myself and Pete.

Working with communities in such a way encourages historians to actually practice recording history for themselves, rather than studying existing histories. Without collaboration with Pete and other members of the community, the project would not have had nearly as much material as it ended up having or having any personal elements to it.

Public history is the practical face of history and gives historians the opportunity to go out and do the research on the ground and also gives historians the chance to get to know lots of different people.