The Penwith Papers

Managing Without Maps part one: Dykes, disputes, and the Drama of being on the right side

The answer, it turns out, lies not exactly in the soil (for those with long memories of radio), but certainly in the landscape. Before reliable large scale maps, boundaries would be related to such natural features as rivers, hills - and the results of human activity such as footpaths and trackways. Within the landscape could occasionally be seen such huge constructed boundaries such as Hadrian’s Wall and Offa’s Dyke – and their lesser counterparts.

Roads and rivers often often served as boundaries.  Can you identify these local landmarks? Roads and rivers often often served as boundaries.  Can you identify these local landmarks? 

Roads and rivers often often served as boundaries.
Can you identify these local landmarks? 

Where watercourses, old tracks and notable landmarks appeared, it was reasonable to assume that they would always be present. But to make sure that the boundaries were visually marked, boundary stones or even crosses were set up - with dire punishments for those who moved or interfered with them. The great king Offa of Mercia built his wall (accessed 30 7 2019) along the Welsh border, and most researchers seem to go along with the traditional view that – rather than to mark a mutually agreed boundary – its purpose was to keep the Welsh out. That present-day Offa Donald Trump is not the first to take it into his head to create a Big Boundary.

While Offa was building his wall to protect Mercia, the kings of Wessex were expanding their territory westwards, granting land to the Church and to prominent nobility. Land grants in Devon and Cornwall were confirmed by charter, but these do not always specify in detail the features in the landscape which mark the boundaries of the granted land. A grant to Glastonbury Abbey made in about 729AD does, however, list rivers, streams, and roads. Added to these as boundary markers are a wolf-pit, an alder grove and even an alder tree.

Less than a hundred years later, the Saxons had entered Cornwall. After taking a century or so to get their feet under the table, they are known to have granted land to the college of canons of St Buryan in 930 AD. King Athelstan had – at least in theory - extended the rule of Wessex to the Land’s End.

The coming of the Normans in 1066 was swiftly followed by the commissioning of Domesday Book in 1086. This text is more concerned with taxation than with the boundaries of the manors listed within it. And this brings us back to Penwith, and to the parish of St Erth.

The parish was built around the manor of Gurlyn, or Wroselyn as it appears in Domesday. It was partly bounded by the Hayle River, running between Relubbus and Townsend. The Manor was almost certainly bounded by the River on its western and southern sides.

The River Hayle near St Erth with the church tower visible in the background
cc-by-sa/2.0 - © Sheila Russell -

The River Hayle near St Erth with the church tower visible in the background

Yet this cannot be the whole story. There are parts of the Parish which extend westwards beyond the Hayle River, and into land outside the manor of Gurlyn.  These include such important holdings as Trewinnard, Trevessa and Tredrea. If the Hayle River was the natural boundary on the southern side of the parish, then why was it ignored by those who set the other boundaries of St Erth? 

The answer comes down to scale, revenue and feasibility. The Domesday manor of Gurlyn was too small to support the clergy and the church of  St Erth - or Lanuthno, as it was called at the time - so lands were taken out of the principle manor of Conerton, and other neighbouring manors, and added to St Erth to make the parish viable. 

Boundaries were often the subject of disputes. One example is a dispute between the parishes of Lelant and St Erth at the time of Bishop Bartholomew of Exeter. The trouble began in about 1159 – and ended up involving the Pope, who referred the matter to the Precentor and Chancellor of Wells who were tasked with making an award. Did they make the long and difficult journey from Somerset to Cornwall to hold court? Or was the whole matter settled by correspondence? We have no idea – but residents of both parishes would have had to swear - on oath - as to where they believed the disputed part of the boundary between their parishes actually was.

At last the award was made, and the boundary between  St Erth and Lelant was defined as running along the ‘Great Road’ from the Cross of Aldrou to a point a little way up what is now Canon’s Town Hill.  This is very interesting. The present A30 road already existed as a ‘great road’ by about 1150 AD but terminated in Lelant - at that time an important port, not yet choked by sand (for more on Lelant, see the second part of this Penwith Paper, to be published in September 2019).  The Cross of Aldrou, which gives its name to Rose an Grouse (‘ros’- heathland and ‘grouse’- cross), has long gone. But it was an important boundary marker, and must have existed before the boundary was fixed.

The cross is only now remembered in the place name, and the signs along the A30 road as it passes the St Erth Station Transport Hub. This is itself becoming notorious; perhaps it will feature in 22nd century histories of the area?


The A30 at St Erth, 2019The A30 at St Erth, 2019


The place name that tells the storyThe place name that tells the story 

There were also disputes  about glebe lands (held and farmed by a rector or vicar of a parish) claimed by neighbouring landowners. And boundaries were occasionally involved in crime – which could turn nasty. It may have been a boundary dispute which activated two crimes of violence on the part of a vicar of St Erth called Galfridus. On St Erth Feast Monday in 1350, Reginald Eyr of Trelissick, who had property bordering on church land, was actually beaten up by the vicar. Galfridus turned up again seven years later on the Monday after the Feast of  St Mary Magdelene, at the chapel dedicated to her at Bosworgy, St Erth. The Bottreaux family held Bosworgy and their servant, Robert Thenge, was the victim on this occasion. 

Both incidents happened during a feast; Mary Magdelene would perhaps have been pleased that people were enjoying themselves on her day - but not so happy that they were indulging in common assault.  In the fourteenth century drunkenness among the clergy was not unknown.

Borders affect us all, and it is not only in West Cornwall, and in the remote past, that people have had great faith in their significance. Here are three stories from local historian and Penwith Local History Group member Cedric Appleby.

After the 1917 Revolution in Russia, Lenin granted Finland its independence. Right on the border there were houses - and the people living in them were asked which side they wanted their houses to be on. ‘Not in Russia. I’ve heard it’s very cold there,’ one person is said to have responded.

When Cedric worked in Wales close to the Shropshire border, he had a colleague who had played football for Wales. This man wanted a son to be born in Wales so that he could play for that country. The nearest maternity unit was in Oswestry, Shropshire, but had to be avoided at all costs!

Hayle Causeway – but which parish?
cc-by-sa/2.0 - © Stuart Logan -

Hayle Causeway – but which parish?

And finally, to bring us back to West Cornwall – Cedric’s late sister was a maternity nurse in Penzance and, during the night, she had to accompany a patient in the ambulance to Truro. The lady gave birth on Hayle Causeway. Someone had to sign a form which had to give the parish in which the baby had been born.  One end of the causeway is in St Erth, and the other end is in the civil parish of Hayle so, on the word of the ambulance driver, and perhaps Cedric’s, the population of St Erth increased by one that night…

…Perhaps that  child grew up to be a proud native of St Erth. And perhaps they are reading this and will get in touch. Stranger things have happened.     


Part two of this Penwith Paper – ‘The Road to Nowhere,’ about the boundaries of Lelant - will appear in September


References: (accessed 30 7 2019)

 ‘The Ecclesiastical History of the 109 Western Parishes of Cornwall’ Charles Henderson,  Part 2 (1960) pp. 153-4

Based on a talk given at Penzance Literary Festival, July 2019

Other ‘Penwith Papers’ based on this year’s Festival talks will appear over the next few months

The Penwith Papers:

Penwith Local History Group
The Penwith Papers:

Growing Up in West Cornwall. A Publication by the Penwith Local History Group

"Growing Up in West Cornwall"

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Sally Corbet

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