THE HISTORY OF PENVITH BARNS
The farms hereabouts are ancient and have royal connections. The three major estates of Bucklawren, Boddiga and Treveria (which between them probably incorporated Penvith) were owned by King Harold, the ill-fated runner up in the Battle of Hastings. The new King, William, noted them in the Domesday Book, and presented the lands to the Monastery of St Stephen in Launceston.
Not long after this, in the 13th or 14th Century, there was a manor house at Penvith, probably where the front garden of the old farmhouse is now. Various agricultural buildings were part of the estate, and a mill was built on a solid rock foundation on the site of the present Barns. The Mill provided a milling service to the local tenants. The mill was water powered, from a spring up the road near Penshoey Farm, using wooden chutes to fill an artificial pond behind the mill. Remnants of a man made mill pool are still to be seen in the picnic meadow at Penvith Barns. A wheel pit was built to harness the water power, and a tunnel hewn through the bedrock to take the water away to the fields below.
In 1337, the Dutchy of Cornwall was created as an income stream for the eldest son of the reigning monarch. The first beneficiary of this was the Black Prince. Henry VIII, on his Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1540, seized the Bucklawren, Boddiga and Trevaria farms and passed them on to the Dutchy. The Wynslade family held large areas of land including Penvith, but, following the Cornish Rebellion of 1549, John Wynslade was found guilty of being one of the ringleaders, and was hung drawn and quartered at Tyburn. After a period of redistribution of his assets, Penvith came to the Trelawney family in 1593.
The centuries passed, the Manor House disappeared along with its mill. The Mill pool collapsed, spilling it's silt into the mill wheel pit. The tunnel was forgotten until, in the seventeenth century, it was discovered by smugglers. It is likely that bits of the farmyard started falling into a hole about where the car park is now. Penvith is only a secluded mile walk from the cove at Millendreath, and the smugglers saw the tunnel’s potential as a large storage area and walled up the Western end, near the fields, forming a superb pit, accessible only from the farmyard and easily hidden from prying eyes. What daredevils came in the dead of night, horses silenced, wagon wheels deadened by straw? What loads were hidden before transportation across country to evade the Excise Men? We will never know.
Again, years passed, smuggling lost it’s role as a major industry for the area, and once more the tunnel disappeared. Over two centuries later, in the summer of 1945, the Penhaligan family owned the farm. One of the young sons, Wilfred, getting the yard ready for a new concrete surface, fell into the long forgotten tunnel. Eminent Archaeologist C.K.Croft-Andrews was called to Penvith Farm to investigate.
On climbing down he found a rock hewn passage, forty feet long, sloping from East to West and about twelve feet below ground level. At the Eastern end, the tunnel was blocked by debris including stalagmites, and at the lower Western end, it was blocked by an ancient dry stone wall. The tunnel at Penvith is rather unusual as it is six feet high – these early water tunnels were usually three to four feet high. It was built by the “Dry Mining” method and the marks of the small hand held pick are still to be seen in the roof. CKCA embarked on a quest to discover the history of this secret tunnel. He published his findings in “Devon and Cornwall Notes and Queries” a copy of which we have traced and the tunnel disappeared from view yet again under a concrete farmyard.
In 1993, my predecessors stumbled across the Eastern entrance when excavating the foundations for the kitchen and laundry room. Whilst digging through the hillside they uncovered first a granite millstone, now forming the hearth of our fireplace. Then the walls of the long buried wheel pit containing the entrance of the tunnel appeared for the first time in centuries. Along with Janet Wright of Caradon Council, who had read CKCA’s account of his discovery, they actually walked down this ancient passage and found it exactly as described, fifty years before.
Then they backfilled with soil and covered it with an airing cupboard!! Ten years later, we took up the floor of the airing cupboard to make way for other things and found it! We have part excavated the area, and covered it over with a glass floor. At the moment you can see the walls of the wheel pit. The tunnel is still well below ground level and will probably have to be excavated from outside to prevent collapse. Over the years we intend to dig it all out again and see what we can do with it – rest assured, it will not be disappearing again.
If you would like to visit and experience the feeling of history in Penvith, phone me on 01503 240772 or contact us via the Enquiry Form.