The Courtyard House

The Courtyard House

Over the past 100 years we have seen various architectural styles come and go, from modernism to post-modernism to brutalism, but some 2,000 years ago, here in the far west, a new breakaway style was in vogue: the courtyard house.

Courtyard houses are a unique type of dwelling found only in the far west of Cornwall and on the Isles of Scilly. About 45 settlements with this form of house are known. One of the largest and best preserved is Chysauster, just outside Penzance with ten individual courtyard houses in a single settlement. Other sites have fewer houses, Carn Euny has four plus a mysterious ‘fogu’, and some have just the one as at Goldherring. 

Courtyard houses are widely believed to date to the Romano-British period (about AD 43–350) but are often on the site of earlier Iron or even Bronze Age settlements or round houses, often incorporating these earlier structures within their walls. Around the houses are garden plots or enclosures, probably used to grow vegetables and keep domesticated animals. Cattle would be grazed on the higher moors in summer, being brought down to more lowland fields around the settlement for the winter. Often these settlements sit between the two types of land, not in the valley bottoms and not on the windswept moorland heights but accessible to both.  It can be imagined that cereal crops would have been grown in rotation with grass in these field systems [‘ley’ cultivation]. The boundaries of some fields having survived for 2,000 years or more are still visible as low walls and earthworks or are fossilised within the Cornish hedges still maintained today. 

It is likely that the inhabitants of these settlements would be aware of and possibly involved in tin-streaming, using stream water to separate tin ore from lighter gravel, and that tin production and selling was a well organised trade. Courtyard house settlements are mostly near one of the defensive hillforts dotted across the peninsular. For example Chysauster is less than a mile west of the impressive hillfort of Castle-an-Dinas; Carn Euny settlement near to Caer Bran and Bosullow Trehyllys is just below the splendid Chun Castle.

Courtyard houses were generally abandoned by the 3rd century although occasional evidence for more recent re-use of the structures is found.  There are no signs of any violence or conflict causing this general abandonment of the courtyard house but by this time ’rounds’ – small defensive settlements – enclosing several round houses seem to be the new aspirational life style. Up to 100 rounds are known in West Penwith alone. These were in turn replaced by individual farmsteads lower down the slopes than the earlier settlements and many modern farms still occupy these sites as the ley-type agricultural system changed little over the next 1,000 years.    

After being abandoned for hundreds of years, courtyard houses began to attract antiquarian interest in the mid-19th century by men like William Copeland Borlase, who excavated many prehistoric sites in Cornwall.

Chysauster and Carn Euny are in the care of English Heritage and easy accessible but many of the other courtyard settlements have become almost lost, overgrown by bracken, brambles and gorse. The Penwith Landscape Partnership [PLP] is trying to reverse this trend by clearing some of these fascinating sites so they can be re-surveyed using modern techniques including the use of ‘drones.’ The hard work of revealing what remains under the tangle of vegetation is down to a small team of enthusiastic [some might say ‘mad’] volunteers who meet once or twice a week to help clear these most interesting historical sites. 

If you would like to join this team, or volunteer for one of the other projects run by PLP details can be found on their website www.penwithlandscape.com

PLP is a Gold Sponsor for the 2020 Pz LitFest.