One and all: Discovering the distinctiveness of Cornish buildings

The Cornish Buildings Group recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. Dedicated to preserving and improving Cornwall’s built heritage, the Group has marked its half-century by publishing a short history of its achievements and a volume of conference proceedings that address the question: what defines Cornish buildings? Among the factors that contribute to Cornwall’s architectural distinctiveness are the county’s geology and building stones, as well as particular building types and the designs of architects who devoted much of their career to the county, as Chris Catling reports.


In his groundbreaking work on The Pattern of English Building, Alec Clifton-Taylor gave primacy to geology in creating the characteristics that enable us to recognise a typical ‘Cotswold’ building by its limestone, an East Anglian house by its flint, or a Lake District barn constructed of slate. But building stones are not coterminous with counties. The limestone belt extends from Portland Bill in Dorset to the Cleveland Hills of Yorkshire. Cirencester and Stamford have much in common architecturally, though they are located more than 100 miles apart. Arguably, Cornwall – almost cut off from its neighbour Devon by the River Tamar – is the one county in England where the geology is sufficiently localised to have resulted in a style all its own.

Clinging to the cliffs at Botallack on the Tin Coast, the 19th-century engine houses that once fired the Crowns Mines are today celebrated as part of the Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape World Heritage Site and as a filming location for Poldark. Photo: Andrew Bone, CC BY 2.0

Grounded in granite

That is not to say that Cornwall’s geology is homogenous, nor that it is exclusive to the county. The most abundant building stone is granite, which comes in a rich variety of colours, from rust red to cream – depending on the ratio of minerals in the matrix that formed when molten magma flowed across the landscape and cooled some 300 million years ago. Granite polishes well, but is extremely hard and difficult to carve, hence it is not easy to create sculptural detail or elaborate mouldings out of it.

Both of these characteristics can be seen in the shape of the Duke of Wellington’s powerful but austere sarcophagus in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral. Cut from a single block of luxullianite (named after the mid-Cornish village of Luxulyan), this is described in The Buildings of England as ‘impressively severe’. The main impact of the monument comes from its purple colouring, similar to Egyptian porphyry – much prized by ancient Roman and Byzantine rulers, and long associated with high-status monuments.

The Duke of Wellington’s imposing sarcophagus, resting in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral, is cut from a single block of luxullianite – named after the Cornish village where this form of granite is found. Photo: Colin Bristow

Wellington’s sarcophagus was carved from an enormous boulder found in a field near Luxulyan, and Colin Bristow makes the point in his chapter on Cornwall’s building stones (see ‘Further reading’ on p.35) that most of the granite used in Cornish buildings up to the 19th century was sourced as ‘moorstone’. Masons selected suitable stones from those lying on the surface of Cornwall’s uplands, shaped them roughly in situ, then transported them to the structures they were building – hence older buildings in Cornwall have the slightly weathered appearance of rounded and eroded stone, in contrast with the sharper edges and polished faces of freshly quarried granite.

The Treffry Viaduct, located one mile south of Luxulyan and representing one of Cornwall’s most impressive industrial monuments, was built in 1842 entirely from massive blocks of moorstone, pressed into service by Joseph Treffry (1782-1850). His various interests included tin and copper mines, stone quarries, and china-clay works, all linked by railways to the harbours that he built at Fowey, Par, and Newquay to enable Cornish products to be shipped around the world.

That viaduct marks a transitional point in the history of granite as a building stone: it was very little used outside Cornwall and Devon until the development of stone- cutting tools tipped with artificial diamonds made of silicon carbide, or carborundum. This enabled granite to be quarried on a large scale from the mid-19th century, when the stone was valued for its resistance to pollution and its impermeability – hence its use to construct London’s Tower Bridge from 1894 and any number of docks, breakwaters, and lighthouses. With its connotations of strength and impregnability, it was also used for prisons.

Enduring early architecture

Surface-gathered boulders provided prehistoric builders with the materials they needed to construct various monuments, which, while not unique to Cornwall, take a distinctive Cornish form. They include megalithic quoits, or dolmens, consisting of a massive capstone supported on three or more uprights, of which there are a dozen well-preserved examples in the county, including Trethevy Quoit, which is at St Cleer on the southern edge of Bodmin Moor, and Zennor Quoit, near St Ives.

In common with dolmens elsewhere in Europe, these seem to have been deliberately located at sites with views of natural granite outcrops, or tors (see CA 390 and 395), suggesting that the distinctive form of these rocky pinnacles had some meaning for Neolithic people. That could explain such distinctively Cornish structures as the tor enclosures of the early Neolithic period. Comparable to the causewayed enclosures found in other parts of Britain, these hilltop sites consist of one or more stone-built ramparts enclosing and incorporating natural rock outcrops and large in situ boulders.

The Foster Hospital Complex in Bodmin was the last work of the prolific Cornish architect Sylvanus Trevail. Designed in 1901, it is typical of his use of local granite combined with terracotta. The Cornish Buildings Group lost its battle to prevent the demolition of this locally significant building in 2013. Photo: Paul Holden

Carn Brea, near Redruth, was one of the first to be recognised. It was excavated in 1970 and 1972 by Roger Mercer (CA 47), who went on to record a similar monument at Helman Tor, between Bodmin and Lostwithiel. These probably functioned as gathering places for trade, socialising, and rituals associated with the seasons, with ancestry, and with territorial control – but with some kind of added significance based on both the difficulty of accessing them and their location on rocky summits with extensive views. Whether it had the same meanings for later generations or different ones, these hilltop enclosures continued to be refashioned over many millennia. In the case of Carn Brea, the Neolithic site evolved into Cornwall’s largest Iron Age hillfort, with an associated field system and 12 stone hut circles; then, in the medieval period, it was transformed into a deer park and castle, before being remodelled into a folly in the 18th century.

Some of the moorland field systems of the south-western peninsula are now known to date from a period in the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age when a benign climate enabled areas of upland Britain to be cultivated; agricultural activity in these areas then subsequently retreated with the warmer weather, thus preserving ancient features. Subtle differences distinguish the field boundaries that survive on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall from the reaves of Dartmoor in Devon. The latter consist of long, straight banks of stone that run across the moor, while Cornish field systems tend to follow the contours.

Trevethy Quoit, on the southern edge of Bodmin Moor, is just one of Cornwall’s mighty megalithic dolmens. Photo: Jim Champion, CC BY-SA 2.0

Both types incorporate roundhouses and small enclosed farmyards – more dispersed in Devon and more nucleated in Cornwall. English Heritage, which looks after Chysauster, one of the best-known examples (albeit from a much later date), even calls it an ‘ancient village’. Located north of Penzance and occupied between 100 BC and AD 100, the settlement consists of ten closely spaced farmsteads; each has a paved courtyard surrounded by a number of oval thatched rooms, all contained within a circular bank, some 30m in diameter. Chysauster incorporates a fogou, too (from the ancient Cornish words fow and/or gogow, both meaning ‘cave’). Similar to the souterrains of Ireland and Orkney, fogous consist of a stone-lined and roofed trench, typically 1.5m wide and 1.8m deep, and it has been suggested that they could have been used for food storage, as a refuge, or both.

The surviving courtyard houses are all located in West Penwith (also known as the Land’s End Peninsula), at the south-western extremity of Cornwall, and on Scilly; Jacqueline Nowakowski argues that they represent a ‘marked localised architectural style during the Romano-British period’. More typical of the landscape further east are ‘Cornish rounds’: more than 2,500 of these enclosures have been recognised, with a density of two sites per square kilometre in some places.

Prehistoric rock art at Carn Brea, near Redruth. This Neolithic site later evolved into Cornwall’s largest Iron Age hillfort, and in the medieval period became home to a deer park and castle. Photo: Christopher Dart, CC BY 2.0

A fully excavated example at Trethurgy, on the edge of St Austell, was found to consist of five free-standing oval houses and a range of ancillary buildings, including a byre and a granary, all surrounded by a stone-built circular enclosure. The buildings were made from varying sizes of untrimmed granite, bonded by orange-brown clay (often referred to as ‘rab’) formed from the weathering and decay of natural granite bedrock. The longevity of these well-made dwellings was remarkable: the site was occupied from the mid-2nd to the 6th centuries AD, and the same plan was maintained throughout, with houses, stock pens, and storage areas being rebuilt on the same spot.

Hedges and headlands

Overlooking the remains of Chysauster ‘ancient village’; located north of Penzance, it was occupied between 100 BC and AD 100. Photo: Fossick OU, CC BY-SA 3.0

These prehistoric and Roman constructions represent a remarkable degree of stability and continuity, which is seen in other aspects of the Cornish landscape. There and over much of the south-west peninsula the ancient lanes are bounded by hedges, and it has often been asserted that some of these are of Neolithic origin. Perhaps luminescence dating – which measures how long ago certain mineral grains in soil were last exposed to sunlight – will settle the question, but they are very likely to have been an early agricultural development because they serve a vital purpose as a windbreak for protecting livestock and crops.

Built from boulders cleared from the fields, with an earth and rubble core, they are heightened further with a hedge of drought-proof and stock-proof gorse. From his experience as a sheep farmer, archaeologist Francis Pryor wrote lyrically about the sheltering value of Cornish hedges in his book, The Making of the British Landscape, saying that newly born livestock can die in a few minutes if exposed to a cold or strong wind. He goes on to say that ‘few things are more pleasant than sitting against a south-facing Cornish hedgebank overlooking the sea; even on a winter’s day the stones feel warm against one’s back while the ever-present wind hisses angrily through the furze overhead’.

The distinctive line of a ‘Cornish hedge’ – built from boulders cleared from fields, with an earth and rubble core, and crowned with a thick hedge of gorse, they are invaluable windbreaks for livestock, crops, and walkers alike. Photo: Colin Bristow

Francis Pryor’s comments echo those of the antiquary Richard Carew (1555-1620), who observed in his county history, Survey of Cornwall (1602), that the primary motive in ‘the ancient manner of Cornish building’ was not aesthetic but to achieve solid, warm, and weather-resistant structures. Once construction techniques for accomplishing this had been developed in later prehistoric times, they proved to be long-lived and enduring. This was especially necessary if life was to be made bearable for anyone living in those high peaks and coastal sites that also form a consistent theme in Cornish building history.

Above and Below: Tintagel is one of Cornwall’s most celebrated sites, dramatically located on a rocky headland and associated with Arthurian legends. Archaeological discoveries show trade links with the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa, while the well-built houses have rounded internal corners and massive blocks of stone decorating the lowest course of the inner walls.
Photos: Jacky Nowakowski
St Petroc’s Church in Egloshayle. Rebuilding of the Bodmin church began in 1469 and would see the site transformed in (as Pevsner described it) ‘truly noble’ style. Photo: Joanna Mattingly

None of these is more resonant than Tintagel. Our understanding of this headland site perched on a dry rock, flanked by vertical cliffs, has been transformed in the last 80 years (CA 227). In the 1930s, Ralegh Radford believed that Tintagel was the site of an Irish-style early Christian monastery, and it is not difficult to understand why: such a challenging, inaccessible, and exposed site, lacking creature comforts, speaks more of religiously motivated physical deprivation than elite gatherings and indulgence in luxurious foods and wine.

Lostwithiel’s Guildhall, of 1740, is
a fine example of sturdy Cornish granite
used to create a building inspired by the
Palladianism of Renaissance Italy.

Yet the evidence from the massive quantities of eastern Mediterranean and North African pottery that have since been found at the site – storage vessels for wine and oil, and fine tableware – indicate that something else altogether was going on there. Excavations since the 1990s have since uncovered the remains of a major settlement of perhaps 80 buildings across the six-hectare promontory, constructed partly on the natural bedrock and partly on a series of artificial terraces supported by massive stone walls. With neatly coursed inner and outer walls bonded by clay, slate hearths, and flagged or beaten-earth floors, staircases, and stone-lined drains, these were impressive buildings, constructed to last. They were different, though, from previous Cornish dwellings: rectangular, rather than round, and with rounded internal corners, they also made decorative use of slate uprights (orthostats) for the lowest courses of the inner walls.

On present evidence, writes Jacqueline Nowakowski, Tintagel’s early medieval buildings remain ‘in a class of their own’, but it is unlikely that such sophisticated structures arose there without precedent. The search, therefore, continues for further buildings constructed during the period AD 500-700 in the hope of understanding when rectangular buildings became the dominant type in Cornwall and where Tintagel fits into the overall picture of early medieval buildings in south-western Britain.

Peculiarities of parish churches

Leaping forward several centuries to the mid-15th century, Joanna Mattingly draws attention to a previously little-discussed but distinctive feature of Cornwall’s 209 medieval parish churches: the lack of chancel arches. Only 15 out of 209 (8 per cent) have them, and half of these are 18th- or 19th-century replacements. By comparison, 42 per cent of Devon churches have chancel arches, while in Somerset and Dorset the figures are 86 per cent and 79 per cent respectively. In southern England as a whole, the average is 70 per cent. Several Cornish churches have evidence in the form of residual shafts, capitals, and corbels where the distinction between nave and chancel was once marked by a stone arch, but most were removed during the major rebuilding of parish churches all over the county that occurred after Bodmin’s church of St Petroc was rebuilt, beginning in 1469.

At Bodmin, the Norman cross plan, with transepts and narrow aisles, was replaced by a ‘truly noble’ rebuild (quoting Pevsner’s Cornwall volume), with aisles running the length of the building of the same height and width as the undivided nave and chancel – thus creating three ‘immensely lofty and spacious’ parallel ranges with equal-sized gables and east windows. The distinction between nave and chancel was still marked, but by a difference in the height of the six bays of the nave arcade and the three lower arches of the chancel.

Many of the designs of Edmund H Sedding were carved in wood and stone by the Pinwell sisters, as exemplified by their richly embellished rood screen (Above) and priest’s chair (Below) at Crantock (1899-1904). Photos: Helen Wilson

This set a pattern that was copied all over the county for the next 100 years. In many of these rebuilt parish churches, the liturgical boundary between nave and chancel was marked by an ornately carved and painted rood screen supporting a jettied and fan-vaulted loft. Removed at the Reformation, their previous existence is now marked only by surviving rood stairs. Up above, sweeping undivided from the west to the east end of the church, there is invariably a continuous wagon roof – so named because all the ribs are curved, rather than straight, like the canvas and ribs of a covered wagon (or, as some have observed, an upturned boat).

Two more-recent architects are respected for their mark on the county, with work that is regarded as quintessentially ‘Cornish’. Edmund Sedding (1863-1921) is credited by Helen Wilson as being a sensitive restorer of medieval churches with a great sympathy for local materials. He worked closely with the Pinwill sisters, from whom he commissioned the fonts and font covers, chapel and chancel screens, choir stalls and lecterns, and (after the First World War) communal and private war memorials in styles that ranged from Gothic Revival to Arts and Crafts. Sedding’s legacy includes the 16th-century Gildhouse in Poundstock, an exceptional survival of a once-common Cornish building type, meticulously restored in 1919.

Poundstock’s 16th-century Gildhouse stands alongside the parish church of St Winwaloe. It is a well-preserved example of a late medieval church house – structures that were built to accommodate the more social side of church life, and to raise funds through the sale of food and ale, leaving the church building itself for worship. Photo: Anthony Lewis

If Sedding was primarily a conservation architect, Silvanus Trevail (1851-1903) was a prolific and versatile innovator. Samantha Barnes argues that he was also a great self-publicist, who wrote to every parish in Cornwall in the 1870s to inform them of his prowess in the design of school buildings, with the result that commissions came pouring in. By the age of 26, he was claiming to have built ‘more schools than anyone west of Bristol’ (some 57 in total), and he went on to design some 300 hotels, libraries, art galleries, and Passmore Edwards Institutes. While he always aimed to create a landmark building, he insisted on using the best available locally quarried stone (though he was fond, too, of mixing this with decorative blood red terracotta produced by the Ruabon brickworks in north-eastern Wales).

Launceston’s sweeping ‘wagon roof’ has characteristically curved ribs, like those of a covered wagon (hence the name) or an upturned boat. Photo: Joanna Mattingly

Non-Conformist Cornwall

No account of Cornish architecture would be complete without a mention of its non-Conformist heritage. One distinctively Cornish feature is the preaching pit, of which just five examples survive (at Gwennap, Indian Queens, Newlyn East, Whitemoor, and Tregonning Hill). In each case, a naturally occurring hollow, or a depression created by mining activity, became the location for one of the 32 outdoor sermons preached by John Wesley between 1762 and 1789. The Gwennap preaching pit is often cited as the best and largest example, but its current appearance, as a neatly terraced amphitheatre with tiers of turf-covered seats, owes much to remodelling as a memorial to Wesley in 1806.

Camborne’s Wesleyan Chapel is a striking example of the architectural impact that non-Conformist communities have had on the Cornish landscape. Photo: Eric Berry

Preaching pits owe something to an earlier phenomenon, the rare and distinctively Cornish monument type called the plain-an-gwarry (‘playing place’). The best surviving example lies to the west of the parish church at St Just, where the circular bank and ditch, with entrances cut into the north and south-eastern sides, has been mistaken in the past for a henge, an Iron Age fortification, or a Roman amphitheatre. When first recorded by William Borlase in the mid-18th century, the 2m-high bank had six tiers of seats around the edge. Documentary evidence shows that they were used for cock-fighting, Cornish wrestling, markets, and meetings, and the performance of local miracle plays in the Cornish language.

Bridging the past and present: Tintagel’s footbridge is an example of new design championed by the Cornish Buildings Group. 

Preaching pits were a response to the ways in which the Cornish landscape had developed in the 18th century, with a dispersed population of rural hamlets, mining settlements, and fishing villages. Outdoor preaching provided flexible spaces for bringing diverse populations together, but as Methodism began to grow in popularity, chapels were built that were intended to symbolise the permanence of religion in the community. As Methodism split into different ‘societies’, it was not uncommon to find several meeting houses in each settlement. This has left a distinctive mark on the Cornish landscape, along with a major conservation challenge, as chapel membership has declined since its peak in the 1850s, and many of these buildings are now facing closure.

Trenethick Barton is a 15th-century fortified manor house. Its distinctive gatehouse, shown here and dating to the 16th century, is Grade II-listed. Photo: Paul Holden

This is where the effort to understand Cornish distinctiveness in architecture meets the practical considerations that the Cornish Buildings Group was set up to tackle 50 years ago. Understanding what is special about Cornwall is the first step towards informing policies for conservation that take local distinctiveness into account as well as national archaeological, historical, and architectural value.

Port Isaac: a typical Cornish harbour scene, with Silvanus Trevail’s neo-Gothic board school of 1877 dominant on the clifftop. Photo: Samantha F Barnes

In championing the county’s most distinctive heritage, the Cornish Buildings Group is just as committed to encouraging new designs and to finding new and creative ways of adapting valued buildings. Hence, in 1980, the Group launched its annual awards scheme. The first winner was the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre in Falmouth – thoroughly modern in design but inspired by another once-common feature of the Cornish landscape: the clifftop huers’ hut, used by those whose job was to watch for pilchards and alert the fishing fleet, before guiding the boats to the shoals using semaphore signals. Hand in hand with protecting the county’s existing heritage, the Cornish Buildings Group aims to raise the quality of new developments that fetch their inspiration from the local context and to battle against ‘anywhere architecture’, particularly in coastal settings.

Further reading 
- Paul Holden (ed.), The Distinctiveness of Cornish Buildings (Shaun Tyas, ISBN 978-1915774057, £35). 
- Paul Holden and John Stengelhofen, The Cornish Buildings Group: first 50 years (Cornish Buildings Group, ISBN 978-1-3999 38594, £15).