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South West England


Today south west England is defined by the sea. The sea is never far away, with river estuaries and drowned valleys bringing a coastal feel far inland. But the earliest settlers in the south west came over land from continental Europe. In Kents Cavern near Torquay, there are remains that reveal intermittent human habitation in warm periods between ice ages. A jawbone found at Kents Cavern could be that of a Neandertal Man, who lived between 35,000 and 40,000 years ago. If the Kents Cavern jawbone really is human, then it would constitute the oldest human remains in Europe. Sediments found at Tornewton Cave, a few miles inland from Kents Cavern tell the story of later episodes of the Ice Age. A layer of stalagmites indicates a cool temperate climate. Then comes a layer of frost shattered stalactites indicating very cold conditions. With the return of slightly warmer temperatures the cave was taken over by hyenas, before bitterly cold conditions returned once again. This was the final Devensian glaciation, 18000 - 15000 years ago. Human activity then returned to the cave at the end of this cold period. Reindeer remains indicate that the cave's occupants were nomadic reindeer hunters.


The ice melted rapidly. People lived on large river estuaries, environments which combined sea and land food supplies. By 8000BC the ice sheets had disappeared, and by 5800BC Britain was being separated from the continent. At this time the moors of the south west, Dartmoor, Bodmin Moor and Exmoor were open grassland, and good places to live. The moors and heaths of south west England contain some of the best preserved prehistoric landscapes in north west Europe. There are burial barrows, stone circles, mysterious lines of standing stones, outlines of ancient fields, individual standing stones, and the remains of houses and small villages. As is often the case in history it was the decline of these moorland areas which has helped their preservation. Methods of farming, burning of forest cover and heavy grazing, encouraged peat bog formation. Then from the late Bronze Age, around 1000BC, the climate cooled, and farming became difficult. Ancient settlements were progressively abandoned, and today the moors are empty, bleakly beautiful places, showing remains of a civilisation lost to climate change.

The next period in the history of England's south west is often portrayed as a time when Britain met the wider world. Ironically the opening up of the English Channel helped this process. Historian Norman Davies says: "even with the primitive boats then available, one could paddle or sail from one side of the sleeve to the other more rapidly than one could previously have tramped across the isthmus or, in the intermediary phase, waded through the marshes" (The Isles P9). It was trade in Cornish tin with adventurous Greek and Phoenician traders that brought Britain into recorded history. This did not happen in a eureka moment when a Greek trader spotted Cornwall ahead and wrote about it. Instead there was a slow emergence of the British Isles from myth, deception and half truth. The idea that Phoenician or Carthaginian traders, from the Mediterranean, reached the south west has to contend with the smokescreen that Phoenician captains threw up around their lucrative operations. Herodotus (484 - 425BC) mentions the Cassiterides, or Tin Islands, but knew nothing of their location. Five hundred years later Strabo wrote that Phoenicians based at Cadiz in Spain traded with the Cassiterides, but he has no specific details about where they were. He noted that the Phoenicians carefully concealed their whereabouts from rivals. The Tin Islands might have been Britain, or a mythic place somewhere out in the Atlantic opposite Spain, created to keep people from finding the real British Isles. As Malcolm Todd says in his history of the south west: "as Roman knowledge of the coast lands of north-western Europe increased the Cassiterides melted away in the Atlantic mists whence they had been conjured" (South West to AD1000 P186).



Geevor Tin Mine

Later on in history, south west England continued to be shaped by the sea. It was as though Cornwall looked more across the ocean than it did back towards England. In Roman times, the most westerly major Roman town was Exeter. West of Exeter Roman influence was weaker. Following the early fifth century Roman withdrawal from Britain, south west England was the last area to hold out against Saxon invaders. The Tamar Valley between Devon and Cornwall marks an ancient "front line". Then when England began to approach some semblance of unity as a country under ninth century king Athelstan, this nervy king picked on Cornish people as aliens who had to be repatriated back across the Tamar! Cornwall wasn't really integrated into England until after the Norman conquest in 1066.


Even as a much firmer part of England, a tendency to look outwards continued to express itself in the south west. For a graphic demonstration of this, visit Plymouth. Francis Drake, Hawkins, Raleigh, Nelson and Cook all sailed out of Plymouth Sound. The English fleet left here in 1588 to face the Spanish Armada, and in 1620 the Mayflower sailed for America. 1831 saw Charles Darwin sailing out through Plymouth Sound aboard HMS Beagle. This was the beginning of a five year voyage which would eventually result in The Origin of Species, and a revolution in the way we look at the world. Cornwall became an important centre during the Industrial Revolution. Nineteenth century mines produced a large proportion of the world's tin. Many Cornish miners then left Britain to found communities in many different parts of the world where their skills were in demand. A more up to date demonstration of Cornwall's tendency to look out is the Marconi Centre at Poldhu on the Lizard Peninsula, where the first transatlantic radio communication took place. Not far away on the Lizard stands Satellite Earth Station Goonhilly transmitting and receiving vast amounts of data to and from satellites orbiting Earth.



Eden Project

The influence of the wider world can also be seen in Devon and Cornwall's famous gardens. In the nineteenth century British plant hunters, exploiting new opportunities for travel, brought back examples of exotic plants to Britain. Many of these, such as azalea, and hydrangea, were first grown in Devon and Cornwall gardens. Killerton in Devon, for example, was used as a test bed for foreign plants. There are now a number of famous gardens growing a wide variety of plants which nineteenth century plant hunters introduced to Britain - see Lost Gardens of Heligan, Trelissik Garden, Trengwainton Garden, Trevarno Estate And Garden - And National Museum Of Gardening, as beautiful examples. Fittingly Cornwall is now the location for the definitive international modern garden, the Eden Project. This remarkable garden built in an old clay pit near St Austall really stands as a modern version of the botanic garden. Botanic gardens were set up to explore the possibilities of foreign plants and to share the benefits of research with colonies: the Eden Project sees its role in a world wide context, undertaking research and education on global conservation problems.





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