The historic stone monument, Lanyon Quoit, had stood tall and majestic in Cornwall’s countryside for more than 5,000 years – until the astounding power of a lightning strike dislodged the top boulder, which weighed more than 12 tonnes!
The unbelievable force of nature in 1815 was too much for the ancient dolmen – a megalithic tomb constructed on the remote landscape near the village of Morvah during the Neolithic period, dating back to 3,500BC. On the fateful day, 19th October 1815, the structure collapsed during a severe thunderstorm.
History of Lanyon Quoit
The Cornish dolmen pre-dates both the invention of metal tools and the construction of the Egyptian pyramids. Its original purpose has been the subject of much debate among historians. Some remain convinced it was the burial chamber of a larger mound, while others argue it was always uncovered and served as a mausoleum, creating a dramatic backdrop for funeral ceremonies.
It is thought the flat covering stone, known as the quoit, was originally aligned with the cardinal points of the compass. Nearby, there are several stone burial chambers called cists. There is a longstone (a standing menhir) located around 100 yards north-west of the quoit. With signs of several neighbouring barrows (heaps of earth placed over prehistoric tombs), this suggests it was once a burial ground.
Another rather unsavoury theory is that in ancient times, the quoit was the site of rituals, when bodies were left on the capstone and devoured by carrion birds.
Storm of 1815
Whatever its original purpose, the quoit was a landmark on Cornwall’s skyline for thousands of years and had been a source of fascination for local people. It first appeared in literature in 1769, when Cornish geologist William Borlase (the rector of Ludgvan) wrote about it in the second edition of his publication, Antiquities of Cornwall.
He wrote a full description of the megalithic site, accompanied by illustrations in the form of hand-drawn etchings. They revealed Lanyon Quoit’s floor-plan and design were quite different from how they appear today. It is believed the fateful storm of 1815 changed the monument’s appearance forever.
Weather reports from 1814 and 1815 describe exceptionally cold conditions. According to former UK Meteorological Office employee Martin Rowley, who has compiled a history of British weather from 1700 to 1849, the summer weather in 1815 was unsettled and marked by high rainfall across Europe.
It was even suggested heavy storms prior to the Battle of Waterloo, on 18th June 1815, had contributed to the downfall of Napoleon Bonaparte’s armies, as the troops had become exhausted travelling across Belgium on heavy, rain-sodden ground.
The unsettled weather continued into the autumn of 1815 and a severe winter was on the cards. The massive thunderstorm struck Cornwall on 19th October, when a “vivid, electric streak of forked lightning” lit up the sky, followed by a loud clap of thunder, which drowned out every other sound.
Repairing the monument
Prior to the lightning strike, the massive capstone (measuring 9ft by 17ft) had been supported by four upright stones. After it was dislodged by the storm, one of the supporting stones was also broken by the impact. It was said that before the damage occurred, the structure had been tall enough for a horse-rider to pass underneath.
Through public donations and subscriptions, the local residents had to raise enough money for the repair work to be carried out – a task which took them nine years. Unfortunately, the support stone was too badly damaged to be re-erected, so the capstone had to be replaced on three stones instead of the original four.
Repair work was finally completed in 1824, under the authority of Captain Giddy of the Royal Navy. The equipment used to put the Lanyon Quoit capstone back in place had previously been used to replace the Logan Rock at nearby Treen.
The famous coastal rocking boulder Logan Rock had been removed from its cliff-top perch in April 1824 by Lieutenant Hugh Goldsmith and crew members of HMS Nimble, in a misguided attempt to prove everything is possible when force and leverage are applied in the correct way.
However, their endeavours didn’t go down well with the locals, as the rock had been a major tourist attraction, so Lieutenant Goldsmith was advised to replace the rock. This feat of engineering was completed using apparatus loaned from the Royal Navy with the permission of the Admiralty.
A total of 13 capstans, complete with blocks and chains, were dispatched from Plymouth dockyard. The Admiralty also provided £25 (around £2,000 in today’s money) towards the cost of the restoration. Repair work was completed by around 60 men, who restored the Logan Rock to its former glory.
The same equipment was used to restore Lanyon Quoit. However, it would never look quite the same again, due to the missing support stone – it was repositioned on three support stones and was shorter than before.
Lanyon Quoit today
The monument has remained unchanged since its restoration in 1824. In 1952, the plot of land containing the monument was donated to the National Trust by its then owner, Edward Bolitho, a resident of Tregwainton.
Despite the alterations almost two centuries ago, the monument remains an imposing structure on Cornwall’s skyline. It has a nickname, Giant’s Table, as legend has it that a giant’s bones were once found in the tomb, although this is largely folklore.
It remains a popular site of historic interest and attracts many tourists every year. Close by, another historic monument, Men-an-Tol, consists of two upright stones with a round stone between them. The round stone has a hole through the middle and may have been part of a chambered tomb in years gone by.
Lanyon Quoit today is more likely to have cattle grazing around it than horsemen riding underneath, but it is still a valuable part of England’s heritage. It also serves as a permanent reminder of the amazing power of nature and the damage that a lightning strike can cause, even to a 12-tonne solid boulder.
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