Ertach Kernow - St Dennis a Church in a Hillfort

Secluded park adjoining St Deny's churchyard

St Deny’s Church at St Dennis perhaps not one of the most viewed churches in Cornwall, but in my opinion one that should perhaps be better supported and visited. So, on a relatively warm sunny morning two days short of the vernal equinox, the astronomical beginning of spring, I was off for a short local tour. Firstly, to the ancient hillfort of Castle an Dinas which seemed a good place to start as it’s generally quiet and with some spectacular views over the surrounding countryside. As one looks towards St Dennis, St Deny’s church tower can be seen rising above the tangle of trees surrounding the church and at this time of year with no leaves on those trees the faint view of the main church building can be seen behind them. This church my main destination, is dedicated to St Deny’s and lies opposite Castle an Dinas with the A30 an ancient trackway between them.

As one travels towards St Dennis from Indian Queens the road name Domellick Hill provides a strong indication of the areas historic past. The settlement of Domellick is first recorded in the Domesday survey of 1086 when it is spelt ‘Dimelihoc’ within that is the misspelt name element Din meaning fort. Respected writer, archaeologist and Cornish language expert Craig Weatherhill includes Domellick in his place names book. He interprets this from a mention in 1284 as Dynmylich as Milioc’s fort or in Cornish Dyn Mylyek. Of course, we will never know who Milioc was, but he is remembered in a place name.

Although St Dennis is classed as a china clay village it’s relatively recent being formed through the merging of smaller earlier established hamlets during the china clay boom years. With a population of nearly 3,000 at the last census, of which nearly twenty percent are under the age of fourteen, it will no doubt continue to grow. Two hundred years ago the parish of St Dennis consisted of the main village of Hendra along with Whitebait, Treleaver and Ennis-Cavan with a total population of 828 in the 1841 census. The settlement that would later become St Dennis was recorded in 1334 as ‘Sancti Dionisii’. This is now believed to be a corruption of the Cornish word Dynas or Dinas for fort. The church known as St Deny’s it seems was perhaps incorrectly dedicated to a French saint through a misinterpretation of the original name of the settlement.

The historic church itself lies some 600 feet north of the village with a distance of some two and a half miles as the crow across the A30 flies to Castle an Dinas. Besides the name element interpretation there was the archaeological investigation carried out by the late Professor Charles Thomas in 1962 indicating that the church was built in the centre of an ancient hillfort.

St Dennis area map 1879
Porch with pre-Norman font to the left
Historic pre-Norman font looking sadly neglected

Professor Thomas deduced that although small it could be termed bivallate, An earthwork with two banks, each with a ditch. He states in his report dated 1965 ‘It may be assumed that St. Dennis was a roughly circular hill-fort, with an internal diameter of about 230 feet or an area of little under one acre. The inner rampart was derived from cleared stone, possibly a large dry-built affair, with the ground outside scarped away noticeably. A second, but not necessarily contemporary, rampart existed, generally concentric to the first, and some 50 to 60 feet away from it. Excavation suggested that this may have been stone-faced with an earth and rab core.’ The best material is the subsoil “rab” found in many parts of Cornwall, a mixture of clay/sand and soft shales. Packed down tightly it sets hard, clay binding the shales together.

There comes a point as with many interesting sites where fact and myth come together. There is no doubt that the site of St Deny’s Church is ancient, long before the present church was constructed. Enter Geoffrey of Monmouth who wrote in ‘The History of the Kings of Britain’ in the 12th century about the fortified camp Dimilioc. This is where Gorlois was apparently besieged by the army of Uther Pendragon whilst Uther himself was seducing Gorlais wife at Tintagel. The mention of Dimilioc  in various spelling forms has been shared many times including in ‘Journey to Avalon’ by Barber and Pykitt in their Arthurian investigations book.   

There was a church or chapelry recorded as early as 1087 with a later Norman church and a tower dating from the 14th century. Of the peal of eight bells in the tower the earliest is dated to 1430, the tower being the only remaining part of the original church when it was rebuilt in 1847. That church, which had become dilapidated, had consisted of two aisles and a north transept. It was recorded in 1867 that just two windows had survived in the rebuilt church from the original building. There are no signs of the 1847 alterations and rebuild suggesting that it must have been virtually a complete reconstruction. In 1985 the church was vandalised by fire with the roof and whole interior gutted, only the tower and external walls remained. This reconstruction has left the church interior bright and attractive with the beams and woodwork in Columbian pine. The stained-glass windows were rebuilt from photographs as they were in the 1920’s.

Domesday Domellick
St Dennis - The Nave
Secluded park adjoining St Deny's churchyard

Entering the area surrounding the church was for us through a small park with seating, with a further gate or for the young or adventurous steps over the hedge to enter the churchyard itself. This is a walled haven for small wildlife and has a number of interesting monuments and is surrounded by trees. On the righthand side of the path is the early medieval cross possibly dating to the 7th century or earlier. To the left of the church porch is a font dating to before the Norman Conquest, which was until 1985 housed within the church. As with many old churchyards there are a good number of interesting personal memorials, a number are Grade II listed, with strange rhymes and messages. Besides those buried in the churchyard the archaeological excavations inside the church in 1986 following the fire found a number of burials going back to the 17th century. This archaeological study found no evidence prior to Norman times.

Standing in the churchyard one can look out over the countryside and see farm fields and hedges that were built some two hundred years ago, some even earlier. A writer to the West Briton newspaper wrote of the church site in 1828; ‘The hill on which it stands is very elevated, and until very lately, was pretty nearly covered with smallish blocks of granite. But even here the hand of improvement has lately been applied, and with most surprising success.’ He continued ‘The spirit of enterprise and improvement still goes on and bids fair to change, to a few years, the whole surface of the hill. The numberless stones will he collected and reared up into hedges.’ Obviously he was very taken by this ongoing work ‘Carting all these stones and forming them into hedges must be very expensive ; but the hedges once made there will be no farther expense; tor, being thick and entirely of stone, they will stand for ages, and will need no repairs.’ In that he was right and these hedges are now some two hundred years old and a solid important part of the Cornish landscape. Today we would be unlikely to agree with much of the verbose remainder of his letter as it was all about production and enrichment with no thought, as we do now, for the natural world. It does however provide us with useful information about the landscape during the early 19th century.

St Dennis Churchyard Cross
Towards the gate with ancient cross on left

Larger rivers often rise on moorland gathering increased flow as additional water seeps into it or it is joined by other smaller tributaries. It is on the Goss Moor about one thousand metres to the northeast of St Dennis that the origins of the River Fal can be found. Heavily used for tin steaming and tinners up until the 19th century the Goss Moor is a Site of Special Scientific Interest and as such one of the most important wildlife habitats in Cornwall. Some of the hedges seen here are amongst the most historic in Cornwall dating to the Bronze and Iron Ages. This is an important landscape both visually and from an environmental and ecological aspect supporting many plants and animals besides those raised by farmers. Rare insects including butterflies make their home here, such as the Marsh Fritillary which breeds on wet marshlands. Also benefitting from this damp wetland area is the spectacular Southern Marsh Orchid. The Round-leaved Sundrew loves wet peaty soil and is a carnivorous plant that traps and digests small insects. Off Domellick Hill road is a small carpark that is the start of the Goss Moor Nature Reserve This has a multi-use circular trail about 7 miles long that is fairly flat, and subject to occasional gates, available for mobility scooters, cyclist and even child buggies. Wellies are recommended in my humble opinion.

Besides a visit to Castle an Dinas the church as St Deny’s is also well worth a trip overlooking the countryside as it does and wandering through the interesting churchyard, described by the church authorities

St Dennis, Church in a Hillfort
St Dennis, Church in a Hillfort
Ertach Kernow Heritage Column - 29 March 2023 - Celtic Media Festival