home exhibitions | interviewsfeatures profileswebprojects archive

Goonhilly Village Green

Rosanna Lowe



It’s a beautiful day in the month of May. The sun is shining, the hawthorn is blooming and the swallows are swooping low. On Goonhilly Village Green, rainbow bunting ripples in the breeze, raspberry lemonade fizzes in paper cups and the Cosmic Welcome Mat is already unfurled. 

This is no ordinary fete and no ordinary village. There has never been a Goonhilly Village in the windswept wilds of Goonhilly Downs, although curious communities have taken up temporary residence here: outlaws, outcasts and gangs of highwaymen, The Women’s Auxiliary Air Force secretly operating RAF Dry Tree’s World War 2 radar station and the staff of Goonhilly Satellite Station, once the biggest in the world. Goonhilly Downs, a heathland plateau at the heart of The Lizard, has long been a site for communications from one world to another, a place of reaching up and beyond - from its Bronze Age standing stone needling the sky, to the 110m high transmitter masts that warned of approaching enemy aircraft in World War 2, to the vast satellite dishes that heralded both the communications age and the Space Age, broadcasting the first Transatlantic images and the first moon landing. 

In the same spirit of quest and investigation, artists Sara Bowler and Elizabeth Masterton have conceived of Goonhilly Village Green as an event that reaches across temporal, geographical and disciplinary boundaries, peeling back Goonhilly’s multiple layers of history, ecology and culture – what Sara Bowler refers to as ‘the palimpsest of place’. Over several months, a series of public lectures and workshops has created a community of shared interest and the project culminates today with The Gathering, a one day celebration bringing together an eclectic group of artists, scientists and other experts to find common ground on common land. 

For this one day, Goonhilly has a village magazine – The Goonhilly Chronicle, beautifully produced by Phyllida Bluemel, with news of the day and of the last ten million years from the Village Green and the cosmos. Signposting the Village Green is The Goonhilly Standard, Elizabeth Masterton’s brightly beribboned and carefully crafted village banner (above), decorated with the Goonhilly Galactica – encoded symbols for its flora and fauna surrounding a symbol for Arthur, Goonhilly’s most iconic satellite dish, with a fabled ruby at its centre. The Gathering even has its own radio station, hissing snake-like from the grasses, in four different locations, thanks to Bram Thomas Arnold’s Cardinal Points. And in the centre of the Village Green stands its belltower, heaved upright by ropes, in a Shaker-like display of village collaboration. Liminal’s Transient Parish II (below - bottom) explores the idea of an aural territory of magical protection created by church bells. A striking wooden spire-like structure eight metres tall, the belltower is modelled on the World War 2 radar masts, with tubular bells that sound every half hour and a wifi network which transmits continuously, creating a connected community both through a datasphere and a phonosphere. 

At solar noon, a sunbeam bursts auspiciously from behind a cloud, as if to herald the next village ritual. Dressed in deep sky blue, a choir walk in ceremonial procession to surround the giant circular ‘cosmic welcome mat’, decorated with bluebells and lily of the valley, the symbolic flower of neighbouring Helston, worn during its own spring welcoming ritual, the Flora Day Furry Dance. The choir raise the welcome mat and their voices to the villagers and to the skies, singing a prayer-like call to ‘transmit, transcend’, ‘requesting interference from other species’ with a sung declaration that ‘you are welcome here, both now and ever more’. 

This is Beth Emily Richards’ performance piece Welcome (Sent Forever), inspired partly by a now defunct website company. Sentforever.com offered an ‘eternal communications’ service transmitting messages to the cosmos through the Goonhilly Satellite Station, both to alert aliens to our earthly presence and to send declarations of love travelling through space for all time. Richards wanted to create a piece for our Brexit-riven age, reaching out across divides and borders, to welcome all, the earthly and the extra-terrestrial. An open-minded and all-embracing attitude feels part of the ethos of The Gathering. Goonhilly Village Green seems the least parochial of villages, mixing the folkloric with the scientific, celebrating the supremely local, while reaching out towards the cosmic, opening minds to possibilities, past and future. As The Goonhilly Standard’s motto, drawing on Thomas More’s Utopia, declares ‘I share my own things freely; gladly I accept things that are better.’ 

Historically, Goonhilly Downs has been seen as far from welcoming, a no-man’s land, alien and alienating, a place of seeming marginality, despite being The Lizard’s wild heart. ‘The great waste of Goonhilly’, as described in Highways and Byways in Devon and Cornwall in 1900¹, is ‘a tract of country, which however interesting to the botanist or to him who gloats on legends, is sufficiently savage to have been a terror to travellers.’ Goonhilly was rumoured to be haunted by a hanged highwayman and a spectral ship, the 'Ghostly Lugger' of Croft Pascoe Pool. Goonhilly was a place that left you to the mercy of the elements and the bandits, to kestrels, owls and adders, to sudden mists and monstrous imaginings. An unwelcoming and barren terrain for humans, it is nonetheless a haven for flora and fauna. The Downs offer a sweet meeting point for Northern and Southern European species and for serpentine rock and granite, resulting in an unusually alkaline soil, and the growth of species rarely seen elsewhere or rarely seen together. Underfoot are rare orchids, the carnivorous sundew and a carpeting of Erica Vagans, the Cornish heath, only found on The Lizard in mainland Britain. The Downs are famous for Mediterranean temporary ponds, appearing in old trackways across the commons at certain times of the year, creating the unusual conditions necessary for species like the yellow centaury. The marsh fritillary, a threatened butterfly, thrives here, partly because this is ancient land, largely unfarmed and fundamentally little changed since the last Ice Age. 

Step back to January 2019 and the commissioned artists are exploring the Dry Tree site at Goonhilly for the first time in drizzling rain. It’s a place of elemental beauty, with water the element of the day. Wonderfully witchy, the peaty soil squelches underfoot and boggy pools wriggle with tadpoles. Ferns glow green with wetness and we pass through trickling curtains of raindrops to enter the concrete bunker nicknamed The Happidrome. This was once the nerve centre of the World War 2 Radar ‘Home Station’, where operations were named after flowers and radio waves were sent to sweep the skies for the echo of enemy aircraft as far as two hundred miles away. Now the only aerial manoeuvres in the space are the nesting swallows and the echolocation is conducted by the horseshoe bats. The Happidrome is the best preserved of the many buildings of the Dry Tree Radar Station, a site constructed to confound, with dummy buildings and camouflaged structures. Lines of earth mounds, built to deter German gliders from landing, mix with Bronze Age burial mounds and medieval peat stacks. It’s a furze maze and even without the sea-mists which sometimes drift in, it is still a place of sudden appearances, disappearances and surprises – hidden doorways appear through curtains of ivy, including one shaped like a sloping Aztec temple. In one roofless building, a glorious willow tree has sprung up amidst the ivied walls – it looks perfectly curated by nature’s own hand, but Natural England had to hack through a wall of bramble to reveal this sleeping beauty. 

On the other side of a forbidding fence and some elaborate security procedures is Goonhilly Satellite Earth Station. Here too there is a Ozymandian atmosphere that focuses awareness on the constant cycles of creation, collapse and re-creation, the vying of the human endeavour with the rest of the natural world. The satellite dishes, which now rarely move, have an air of abandonment, seemingly sleeping giants. Not long ago trees had sprung up amidst dishes and offices. The once hugely popular visitor’s centre is eerily empty, in desolate decay. A signpost warns: ‘Beware of adders’. But this place too confounds expectations. Although BT Telecoms ceased operations at the site in 2008 and had, at one point, plans to dismantle all of the dishes save Arthur (a listed monument), the station is now rebirthing itself, following its takeover by GES Ltd, a new commercial enterprise. Despite its sleepy or secretive appearance, Goonhilly Earth Station is gearing up in 2019 to celebrate not only the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, but also the first year of private moon missions, through a spacecraft called Lunar Pathfinder, tracked and operated at Goonhilly and set to release nano-satellites into moon orbit and onto the moon’s surface. There is the possibility of Cornwall as a future spaceport and thanks to an £8.4 million investment, Goonhilly is developing its capacity to become the first commercial deep space communications station. The future points upwards, to a skyful of possibilities. And as Ian Jones, founder of GES, has suggested: ‘If the apocalypse happens, space becomes a really important factor in assessing and managing the planet’. 

Appropriately, the Maytime Gathering also explores the future of Goonhilly, as well as its past, and the way in which the two circle round to meet each other. Standing on the roof of the Happidrome, which serves as a viewing platform, it is not difficult to imagine the vast and bleakly beautiful expanse of Goonhilly Downs as Neolithic heathland or as an apocalyptic landscape of the future. Paul Chaney’s ongoing investigation The Lizard Exit Plan (below) conceives of an imaginary post-collapse future where inhabitants empty from urban areas into the countryside. His ironically chirpy advert in The Goonhilly Chronicle promotes ‘a new life up the Downs’, offering ‘freedom to live’ and ‘plenty of peat’. But as someone who lived for seven years off grid in his own End of The World Garden just over six miles away, Chaney is well qualified to gauge how difficult subsistence farming would be and has been in this area. Having researched the inhabitants of the two local smallholdings Dry Tree Croft and Croft Noweth (where, according to legend, piskies aided the farmers, causing a battle with the local spriggans, who hated human habitation) Chaney comments on how ‘hellish’ it must have been for the few crofters who once eked a living here, particularly for the family of women who lost their male family member to a hanging in a case of mistaken identity for a highwayman. Next to Natural England’s information panels, Chaney has installed his own darkly humorous interpretation boards for the Goonhilly Sector of the Lizard Exit Plan. Using FieldMachine, his own analytic software for calculating self sufficiency, he proposes cranberry cultivation, rhododendrons as biofuel, rush stalk candlewicks greased in oily seabird stomach oil and possibly eating the Exmoor ponies currently grazing the Downs, should their ‘frivolous nature’ render them otherwise useless. 

Beneath Goonhilly Downs the serpentine rock, ancient ocean crust risen up from the seabed, is partly what makes the terrain so insecure for even the smallest of crofts, but so secure for giant revolving satellite antennas. A craze for ornaments carved from the reptilian mottled surface of serpentine stone reached its peak in Victorian times, but fascination with the Lizard’s unusual geology, one of the most complex combinations of rock in the country, endures. So it seems natural that Goonhilly Village Green also has a library, but instead of books, it houses rocks. Rosanna Martin’s Lost Rock Library encouraged locals to donate a stone and to share a story about its personal significance, before sending the stones out to a new home on permanent ‘loan’. This geological gathering brings together everything from an Aboriginal stone hand tool (‘for reference only’, since it needs to be returned to its origins), to a soothing stone picked to remind the collector of the bigger perspective of rock, sea and geological time, to a rock with a hole at its heart that reminds the collector of his or her own sense of wounding. With these rocks embodying both deep time and tiny personal moments, The Lost Rock Library reminds us of our animistic tendencies – far from unfeeling, stones have stories and speak to people. 

Elsewhere at The Gathering, a huge standing stone is singing. A strangely soothing humming sound emanates from the monolith known as the Dry Tree menhir. A Bronze Age standing stone, it would have been a significant marker and meeting point in this ancient ceremonial landscape, stippled with Bronze Age barrows. Cruc Draenoc, the best known of these burial mounds, sits close to the menhir and marks the highest point on the Downs, somewhat unceremoniously marked by a trig point. The menhir was also robbed of its sacred significance, toppled in search of buried treasure and in the early twentieth century even subjected to a metre of stone being hacked from its apex for road-building material. Fortunately, it was restored to its former verticality by the intervention of local landlord Sir Courtney Vyvyan in 1928. And today the ancient wonder of the stone seems powerfully revived as it hums with 432 Herz, the frequency of the universe, and throbs with a beating heart. 

Sara Bowler’s surround sound installation Thresholds takes part of its inspiration from the stone’s location as the meeting place of five medieval parishes, drawing musically on the perfect fifth and the circle of fifths. The stone stands in the shadow of the satellite dishes, close to the perimeter fence which separates the private Goonhilly Earth Station from the public Downs. Hewn from gabbro stone which must have been brought from at least two miles away, the menhir serves as a reminder that ancient culture was equally determined to pioneer technology and reach for the heavens. As well as the more elemental sound of wind in wires, the soundscape also incorporates the chimes of the gate to the Halliggye Fogou, the Iron Age tunnel complex in the neighbouring Trelowarren estate, the beeping telemetry signals of Telstar and a recording of Neil Armstrong’s moon landing speech. It is as if the menhir itself were an antenna enabling the ‘buzz’ of this place, the innovation in the air and its invisible waves of information, past, present and future, all to become suddenly audible. 

Close to another section of the perimeter fence, another art installation pays tribute to the interaction of ancient and modern technologies. Squatting amidst the heather is a strange black dome, a secretive looking space somewhere between bird-hide or survivalist shelter. Inside the structure, the feel shifts to sweat lodge, the dark and the heat of the space contrasting with the crisp, cool image on a hanging screen – Antenna 3, which appears upside down through a camera obscura. It is a meditative experience to watch the skies shift and tiny upside down birds flit across with this level of focus. In this context, the satellite dish looks oddly ancient, solemn and unmoving, like the sacred monument of some bygone age. 

This piece, Oliver Raymond Barker’s Conduit, pays tribute to Goonhilly as a connector of worlds – ‘I kept returning to the idea of the site as conduit: the geology as a conduit for deep time, the barrows as conduits to other realms, RAF Drytree as a conduit for communications, the antennae as conduits for information.’ Raymond Barker cites as a particular influence the work of artist Mark Gatton, who researches light in dark spaces as ritual practice and the ancient origins of the camera obscura, suggesting that prehistoric humans might have witnessed ghostly bison moving inside their animal-hide tents, through the accidental creation of camera obscura. There has been talk of reintroducing the European bison, the continent’s largest herbivore, to Goonhilly Downs. The surreal image of huge bison grazing beneath the giant satellite dishes would be typical of Goonhilly’s strange convergences. 

Back in The Happidrome, the air is twittering with a series of films and lectures and with a swallow that swoops across proceedings to its nest beside the screen. Nestling in another tiny alcove is a peculiar pigeon, who seems remarkably unphased to be revolving on what looks like an open-air microwave turntable. This film, Some Pigeons Are Warmer Than Others, was shot following James Hankey’s interaction with the Goonhilly Heritage Society, former BT employees at the satellite station, who continue to meet weekly for tea and tales. Having observed pigeons nesting at the base of one of the satellites, Hankey learned that they were drawn to the spot because of the warming effect of the microwaves travelling through the antenna. 

Elsewhere in the Happidrome is Hankey’s tribute to Antenna 1, once the biggest satellite dish in the world, nicknamed Arthur after the legendary Cornish King. As an ‘absurdist gesture of respect for the engineering involved’, Hankey set himself the challenge of a circumambulation around Antenna 1, at a distance of 555m, while shooting a hyperlapse film. We Are A Satellite takes the viewer on an orbit around the iconic satellite dish, through sudden raindrops, under rapidly clouding and clearing skies and past thickets of seemingly impenetrable gorse and bramble that suddenly obscure Arthur, as if the antenna were disappearing into its own secret operations. Hankey’s has been a visceral engagement with the landscape, through a journey which took two days, up to his waist in reeds and gorse, hacking his way through bramble hedges. In return, he says, he was gifted the sound of more cuckoos than he had ever heard before in once place, the sight of two huge adders, each a metre long, and the beginnings of an understanding of the lay of the land and how to move across it – certain grasses signalling solidity underfoot, thick gorse signifying deep dips. He discovered a newfound appreciation of the ease of walking sections of path already trodden and also a wild enthusiasm for treading a circular path no-one had ever walked before.  

Goonhilly’s expanse seems to engender a ground-breaking, pioneering spirit. And whether its future is in grazing bison or new moon exploration or dystopian hunger scenarios, it looks set to constantly reinvent itself in weird and wonderful ways, a place both of enduring timelessness and supreme transience. At the end of The Gathering, as quickly as it sprang into being, Goonhilly Village is gone, its bunting and beribboned banner, its singing stone and its Lost Rock Library, its revolving pigeon and its cosmic welcome mat. It has been an experiment, an experience, an investigation and we, its temporary villagers, have been the antennas for all the information and imaginings, ideas and impressions abuzz in the crackling atmosphere of Goonhilly Village Green. 

¹Arthur H Norway 


This essay was commissioned in 2019 by the GVG Team following an open call for writers to respond to the Goonhilly Village Green project. 

Rosanna Lowe is a writer (most of the time). Sometimes a theatre director and performer... Find out more about her and her work at http://rosannalowe.com 

'The Gathering' took place on the 18th May, 2019. See 'exhibitions'.