Dowsing Across the Sound

The TDs on tour at Mount Edgcumbe

Head ranger, Nick Butcher, has been surprising visitors, contractors and archaeologists alike with his ability to detect water features and underground building remains – ancient and modern – for many years.  We were less surprised by his demonstrable skill as a dowser, but far more impressed with his vast knowledge of the history and the development of this site.

Mount Edgecumbe stands on an important promontory, overlooking Plymouth Sound and the enigmatic Drake’s Island.  Formerly called East Stonehouse (West Stonehouse being adjacent to Devonport on the ‘English’ side of the harbour), the earlier recorded uses of MtE were very much defensive and maritime.

The house itself was originally built under the ownership of Sir Richard Edgcumbe between 1547 and 1553.  It was all but destroyed during the WWII blitz of Plymouth and its naval dockyard in 1941, with the restoration process only beginning in 1958.  In 1971, in lieu of death duties, the estate was passed to Plymouth City and Cornwall County Councils, who now jointly manage access – and it has been open to the public since 1988. The interiors have been restored to the style of the18th century.

Fittingly, our visit started outside the main entrance tracing various rooms, walls and doorways belonging to those parts of the house that have not been rebuilt.  This was an interesting exercise, especially given the changes in ground levels since prior to the reconstruction.

The next feature for us to consider involved taking a gentle trek up the road to examine the remains of a tumulus.   Our dowsing indicated that this was indeed a bona fide Bronze Age burial mound with at least eight interments.  However, that was only part of the story.  The site seemed to have been in use prior to the Bronze Age, possibly for ritual and/or observational purposes.  The presence of energy spirals, water flows and leys confirmed that it was, at least geologically, a sacred site. 

Furthermore, in common with the aristocratic approach of the day to past glories, the mound dowses as having been considerably enhanced in the late Victorian period to make it more of a feature, and a viewpoint across the water to the burgeoning city beyond.  Rabbits have taken their toll of the integrity of the surface layers, but naturally the underlying energies remain intact.

At the western edge of the estate stands the church of Maker, dedicated to St Mary and St Julian. The present structure is typical of a 15th century Cornish church.  It was a time of much rebuilding in the county, with churches designed for preaching the word (the influence of the Lollards) rather than stressing the liturgy.  The aisles are the same length as the nave and there is a substantial western tower.  The Edgcumbe chapel was added later, in 1874.  Dowsing revealed many of the features usually found in such religious buildings, including a font relocated away from the main door. Some located the outlines of previous structures on the site.

Nearby, is the holy well of St Julian, patron saint of ferrymen (and presumably ferrywomen), which was previously dedicated to a now unknown Cornish saint dating back to the 5th Century.  Dowsing also dated the current well-housing and tiny chapel to the 17th Century, although historically there are records of it having existed there as early as the 14thcentury.  Despite the well itself being dry at the time of our visit, following a summer of unseasonably low rainfall, it is usually still fully serviceable. 

Our dowsing reinforced the religious appreciation of the site, and the presence of quite recent votive offerings and candles in the niches indicated that there is still a current awareness of its important nature.  Some in our group became aware of the proliferation of nature spirits at this place. There is also a second similar structure, a few metres away and linked by a culvert, at the side of the road leading down to the ferry at Cremyll, provided in times gone by for the convenience of thirsty humans and working horses alike. 

Our refreshment break at a rediscovered semi-circular stone bench overlooking the Channel and the Mew Stone was idyllic, especially in the warm, if wan, sunshine of a day that had been forecast to be predominantly wet.  This grand garden seat had itself been quite recently disinterred from the undergrowth by archaeological volunteers, including TD member Stuart Dow.

The tour continued with a visit to the folly, strangely built from the remnants of demolished churches in Stonehouse, and replacing a relocated obelisk that had once been used as a day-marker for shipping in times when the tree cover must have been much less extensive.  There was little natural energy here, although it did inspire a discussion about lines of consciousness.

We then had a look at a Victorian Arcadian temple feature which, unexpectedly, had various aspects of earth energy, and appeared on the map to be aligned with several natural features – perhaps to create a grander vista.  

Our last location, deep in the undergrowth and only really visible at all on an old sketch of the Mount, was a circular feature now almost completely reclaimed by nature.   Nick felt it might be have been a defensive structure.  My own dowsing placed it back in the 18th century and indicated that it had something to do with storage.  It is shown as complete and standing clear of trees on the 19th century drawing, but is now barely the remnants of an earthen ring-bank in dense woodland.

There would have been so much more to see and to experience but, as it was, the TDs exploration force only just made it back to the welcoming coffee shop before the shutters came down.  First things first and all that!

Many thanks indeed to Nick Butcher for spending the day with us at this fascinating place, and for sharing so much information.  Having lived on site for a couple of decades, it is clearly somewhere for which he has great affinity.  It can be all too easy to take such locations for granted – just the green lung of a post-industrial city.  Yet there are many layers of interest that we had yet to investigate and, thanks to the benevolence of the weather-gods, we didn’t even venture indoors.

Nigel Twinn   Tamar Dowsers, September 2019