Mên-an-Tol and Montol: Cornish Solstice Celebrations and Ancient Monument Photography
Pt1: Large Format Photography on the High Moors
The weather in Cornwall for the month of December is generally pretty uninspiring with dull, damp drizzly weather day after day. but if I just sat at home and moaned about it, there would never be any Images to show in this Blog. What is inspirational are the number of events that happen at this time of year all around the county. One in particular that I have attended now on many occasions is Montol, the Midwinter Solstice festival held every December 21st since 2007 in Penzance. The The 2020 event was cancelled, so I resolved this year to make up the time and also combine the trip with film photography of at least one ancient monument the day before; December 20th. What could possibly go wrong? Lots of course as our winter season is marked by gales, rain and general gloom rather than crisp frosty mornings. Snow is unlikely here in Cornwall and the last major fall was during the 'Beast from the East' in 2018. However, the weather forecast was relatively promising with no rain forecast. That being said, the actual weather out on the wild Penwith Moorland could still be almost anything. So, I booked my favourite Penzance B&B, Torwood House and started researching ancient monuments in the area. My next step was to decide on an itinerary.
The landscape is littered with ancient sites in the Madron area to the North of Penzance.That may seem to be an ambitious claim, but if you click on the map to the right you will see a cluster of monuments within walking distance of each other.
As my intention was to use the Intrepid Large Format Camera, this of necessity puts a limit on the amount of hiking to locations that is feasible. Nonetheless, I was able to plot a route that allowed the possibility of seeing The Mên-an-Tol, Lanyon Qoit and the nine Maidens Stone Circle without having to trek long distances. So, I set off complete with not only the Intrepid, but also my Fuji XT-2, two tripods, DJI Gimbal, Bronica ETRS as backup and even an old Zeiss Ikon Nettar folding camera. Hmm, think I will have to consider carefully the benefits of packing so much gear. Weather was fortunately dry with occasional gleams of sun and little wind. However when I arrived at the small car park close to my main subject, The Mên-an-Tol, the wind started to pick up. The Car park, despite it being the depths of winter soon filled up, so I waited for people to disembark and head off in various directions before I started my trek.
This fortunately was along a well marked track between high stone walls, but when I passed field gates, I could feel that the wind was getting stronger. Not to a point where photography would be difficult, but enough to cause problems recording audio. So as ever with these shoots, nothing ever goes strictly according to plan and in this case I soon got distracted by other subjects presenting themselves to me. The first of these was just about 150yards up the lane. The lane itself, ancient but mysteriously named Coronation Lane (more on that later) was wide and lead towards the brooding Greenbarrow Mine, distant on the far horizon. To one side of the was an impressive Stile made of substantial Granite stones. Covered in Lichen, it seemed reminiscent of tales like Lord of the Rings. To me it told a story of journeys long past on that desolate section of the Penwith Moorland known as Burnt Downs. So I set the Intrepid 4x5 up, loaded with Ortho 80 film and made an exposure compensating slightly for the angle between camera and subject with some front swing. The exposure was 1/15s @f8.0 on my Fujinon 125mm f5.6 lens.
Carrying on further up the lane I passed some ruined farm buildings. The OS102 Lands End Map stated these were Little Higher BosullowFarm and Coronation House respectively. Both were derelict and looked as though they had been there 100's of years, but my walking guide stated they 'only' dated from about 1908; Edward the VIIth's Coronation being the link. These immediately piqued my interest as potential subjects in their own right, so I used my phone to create images for reference.
These places, so much more recent than my targets of Bronze Age and Neolithic. monuments also have a more human connection for me. After all they belong to a time when my grandparents were alive.Why were they abandoned after what seems like a confident start and when? What was life like living in such a bleak location? They had obviously intended to stay for the buildings are substantial and despite the fallen-in roofs look capable of enduring for many years to come.
The Mên an Tol
As I walked further up Coronation Lane, I reformulated my objectives. Trying to make images of multiple monuments was expecting too much and as there were other potential images in the immediate vicinity, I could come back and tackle those another day. This would also reduce the amount of walking considerably. The wind was also continuing to pick up and this was causing problems with recording Audio too.
Fortunately The Mên-an-Tol itself was now not much further on, just a hundred yards or so off the lane. I won't go into detail here on the origins of the monument and it's builders purposes and whether it was for Astronomical or for Fertility reasons. I will leave some links though, so you can look at the information and come to your own conclusions. However, its local nickname of The Crick Stone and stories of people believing in its ability to heal or improve chances of conception place it firmly within the Landscape and local culture as a revered place.
As it stands today, it consists of The 'Holed' or Crick Stone plus several standing stones and a fallen stone. As with many of these sites it is likely that the stones have been repositioned at various times. There are also I believe other, buried stones that may have formed a circle with the Holed stone at one end. Today however, the Stones stand on a small grassed area surrounded by open, windswept moorland. Here I had to make decisions on composition as I had just three sheets of film left and I was now resolved to also make an image of the deserted farm I had passed earlier. That left two, one of which would feature the Crick Stone itself prominently. In the end, I rejected the above arrangement as there was a large bare area just behind the Holed Stone, so I opted for a view from the other side. Of course, that was my decision on the day and if I go back, I may make another, completely different assessment of the scene. One advantage of the openness is that there are fewer distracting elements. The Greenbarrow mine was on the horizon, but few other signs of human activity intruded upon the scene. So I set up my camera a little to one side, trying to make a pleasing composition, measured the light and made an exposure. I have been shooting Ilford Ortho 80 film for it's distinctive way of rendering images. This is due to it's reduced sensitivity to red light. Such films were commonly used by our Victorian forefathers. One consequence is that portraits shot with such films portray European people with darker faces than modern ways of recording images. However, for landscapes, this creates images with greater drama and mood than other methods. I hoped that this combined with the low, scurrying clouds would convey the sense of brooding inherent to this bleak scene.
My second image involved placing the Crick stone firmly at the centre with a second stone behind pointing the way into the Landscape beyond. This created a technical problem of trying to get both stones properly sharp. I attempted to solve this by utilising a technique to manipulate where in the image the place of focus lies. This is done by twisting the lens to one side, but it is tricky to do and in this, I feel I was only partially successful. Apart from that, I was pleased with my composition and the balance between the stones, the distant moorland and the grey clouds overhead.
The phone shot above fails to successfully convey moodiness or grandeur however, the lighting appears flat and objects are difficult to separate from each other. By this time the wind was howling , so partly to reduce softness caused by camera shake and partly to emphasise the stones impact, the final scene was shot from a lower angle which I think does work. That was my second shot of the Stones completed, so it was time to pack the Intrepid away away and retrace my steps down the hill.
So I walked back down the lane to the junction where the abandoned farm buildings were situated. There were as previously mentioned, two of these. According to OS102, the further was Coronation House which the lane was named after and the nearer, Little Higher Bosullow Farm. This rather long name seems to be a factor of there being several Bosullow farms in the vicinity. I initially climbed over a wall and into the field so I could get a closer look. The building although roofless seemed well-constructed of large granite blocks with no observable structural deficits. However the side facing me was largely blank with just one small window low down, so I climbed over a wall and walked round to the other side. This, facing West towards the setting Sun was a far better proposition with a set of wide steps leading up to the upper level and a broad platform in front of a narrow doorway. In front was an area of rough grass and leaning on the wall, a piece of reddish iron railing. Overall, it made for a pleasing composition with several areas of interest and a clear path for the eye to follow. The distant Greenbarrow mine buildings added a further element.
Composition was however difficult as I had to somehow maintain a sturdy base with my tripod despite it being perched on top of a wall only just wide enough. Time also was now of the essence as the sun was getting close to setting and I did need to get to my accommodation for the night. So, I hurriedly metered and framed my composition more or less as above, but without the farm building to the right. The light was now changing rapidly and there were brief glimpses of sun, but I was getting cold and waiting for ideal conditions may have meant losing the shot altogether. So I made the exposure and....
Seconds later this happened...
Oh dear! However, nil desperandum as actually this image as seen in the gallery below is the one of this set I am most happy with. The combination of film and large format negative has rendered a scene with pleasing contrast, detail and above all has captured the mood of the scene. Is it, or indeed any of my images perfect? No far from it, but they are images I am content with.
This was probably the most challenging shoot I have yet attempted with this (albeit lightweight) Large Format Camera involving walking, some climbing and hostile weather elements. That I feel I achieved my aim is reflective of a growing confidence with this medium. There is so much more to learn however, but I am eager to tackle those challenges. My process of self-developing rather than lab developing gives me personal satisfaction as well as more control and artistic integrity. The subjects chosen also fit in with my photographic vision and I hope present a balanced view of Cornwall as opposed to the many chocolate-box romanticised ones presented in the popular media.
Thanks for reading this rather extended Blog, of which there will be another part shortly covering both the Solstice celebrations and my frantic attempts to make portrait images of participants with the large format camera. Plus, as a bonus there will be some images shot with a new acquisition, my Zeiss Ikon Nettar square format folding camera. This 70 year old beast pleasantly surprised me, but you'll have to wait for the next Blog. In due course I'll probably review it on my Retromania channel for all things old and look at its photographic potential in more detail on my Chromagraph PhotoArt channel. Also, by then you will be able to watch the video of this shoot on YouTube. Due to the wind noise, I'm afraid, I'm going to have to narrate some or all of it, but at least you will be able to hear me. Fortunately, the Montol Video (my longest ever) is already uploaded, so Part 2 should be here soon. While I'm banging the drum, I'm going to start posting more stuff on Facebook, Instagram and maybe even Twitter soon, plus there will be more episodes of the big Darkroom series now that Christmas is behind us and hopefully the weather will be improving somewhat too. Of course good weather isn't essential for photography, but it's been so miserable here recently that motivation been lacking. Nonetheless, I've got loads of shoots in the pipeline, but as ever with me it may take some time.