From round houses and enclosures to hamlets and towns: where people lived in Cornwall's past.

 


Where People Lived In Cornwall's Past

Agriculture has always been the mainstay of the Cornish economy. Towns only begin to appear in any numbers after the twelfth century. Before then the landscape was dotted with farming settlements; some were isolated farmsteads but most were small villages or hamlets. We have mapped numerous ancient farms from aerial photos, the oldest of which were built almost four thousand years ago.

 

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The Map of cornwall links to the follwing pages:
Open Settlements
Hillforts and Cliff Castles
Enclosed Settlements
Courtyard Houses
Medieval Countryside

 

An enclosed settlement or ‘round’ at Roskymer, Mawgan-in-Meneage. Rounds date from the late Iron Age and Romano-British periods. They were farming hamlets or villages, typically containing several houses and ancillary buildings within the enclosure. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service An enclosed settlement or ‘round’ at Roskymer, Mawgan-in-Meneage.  Rounds date from the late Iron Age and Romano-British periods. They were farming hamlets or villages, typically containing several houses and ancillary buildings within the enclosure. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service

 

The first farming villages that we have mapped date from the Middle Bronze Age (starting about 1800 BC). They are known as open settlements: groups of round houses set amid fields. The early farmers who lived in these settlements grew crops and kept cattle, sheep and goats.

 

Round houses were made of stone or wood and had roofs of turf or thatch. They were the standard form of dwelling in the Bronze Age, throughout the Iron Age and into the Roman period; a time span of two thousand years or more. Open settlements were built throughout this time but around 400 BC they were joined in the landscape by a new type of settlement.

 

These new settlements are known as rounds and consist of a small number of round houses enclosed by a substantial bank and ditch. There is debate among archaeologists about why these settlements were enclosed; for protection? To signify status? Whatever the reason rounds were essentially farming settlements whose inhabitants grew crops, kept livestock and in some cases practised small scale metalworking.

 

Prehistoric farms and villages were often accompanied by extensive field systems. Other parts of the countryside were left as open downland or moorland for use as grazing land. Reorganisation of the fields was carried out on more than one occasion, and widespread organisation of farming land indicates the existence of a level of power or authority beyond that of each individual village.

 

The hillfort at Prideaux Rings, St Blazey. The outline of the bank defining the site is marked by a ring of trees. Two outer banks are partially picked out by trees. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service
The hillfort at Prideaux Rings, St Blazey. The outline of the bank defining the site is marked by a ring of trees. Two outer banks are partially picked out by trees. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service

 

During the Iron Age this authority would have been based in the hillforts and cliff castles which are distributed throughout the county. Hillforts are large areas high on hill slopes or hill tops which were enclosed by massive lines of bank and ditch; cliff castles were coastal headlands enclosed in a similar way. We are uncertain whether the authority symbolised by these impressive landmarks belonged to powerful families or to the community as a whole represented by a council of elders.

 

Hillforts had generally fallen out of use by the Romano-British period, but rounds continued to be built. In fact during the Roman period the settlement pattern changed little from that of the Iron Age. One development was the appearance of courtyard house settlements in West Penwith and the Isles of Scilly. These were usually open settlements containing large stone built oval houses with several rooms arranged around a central courtyard.

 

Between the fifth century and the Norman Conquest of 1066 rounds fell out of use. By 1066 the typical medieval hamlet, consisting of rectangular farmhouses arranged around a shared yard, known as a townplace, had developed. Few settlements from the period of transition have been excavated and we know little about how this development took place. Analysis of the medieval names of many Cornish farms implies that some medieval hamlets were built on the site of former rounds; in other cases a round would be abandoned and a new hamlet established close by.

 

A strip field system at Boscastle, known as Forrabury Stitches, which is still in operation today. The landscape of much of medieval Cornwall would have looked similar to this. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service
A strip field system at Boscastle, known as Forrabury Stitches, which is still in operation today. The landscape of much of medieval Cornwall would have looked similar to this. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service

 

Medieval farms were surrounded by extensive fields which were divided into long narrow strips. Over much of Cornwall many farms have remained in use and the farmhouses we see today are on the site of medieval hamlets. At a later date the characteristic strip fields were enclosed by hedges but their imprint can still be seen in today’s field pattern.

 

As the population grew and the economy became more diversified, with commerce and specialisation, so larger settlements developed. By the fourteenth century Cornwall was served by a network of small towns. Some grew up around early Christian centres, some developed as coastal or riverside trading ports, and others were established along major roads or at the crossing points of rivers.

 

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