The narrow lane to Boleigh fogou takes you by surprise. Tucked away on a bend, just after the turning to Lamorna Cove, the entrance is narrow and one side lined with large granite boulders. Up until yesterday I had never been here before. The fact that you must pre-arrange a time to come and see it had always hindered me. I’ve never been organised enough!
However this fogou is considered by many to be one of the most important Iron Age sites in the whole of Cornwall. Something not to be missed, because this fogou has one feature that is completely unique.
The west jamb of the entrance boasts a relief carving of a human figure – possibly representing a Celtic deity. This carving, many believe, adds weigh to the theory that these mysterious structures were in fact sacred spaces. (I describe the various other theories for the functions of fogous in my earlier post Halliggye Fogou).
It is also extremely important to the history of Cornwall and its people as this is the only known Iron Age carving in the county. In her book, Pagan Cornwall, Cheryl Straffon, describes the figure as a Mother Goddess carrying a stave or spear in one hand, with a lozenge shaped object in the other. She goes on to explain these lozenges, which have been found on other similar carvings elsewhere, could have been used to represent the souls of the dead. If fogous were considered by Iron Age man as an entrance to the underworld this motif seems very appropriate.
These days the carving is almost impossible to make out but there is no doubt about it, this place has a very special feel. An otherworldly atmosphere.
The fogou is 11m in length and I was actually quite surprised by the height of the structure. I could stand up easily, although it was a little tighter inside the creep passage. This side tunnel curves around in an L shape and gradually rises towards the surface, forcing you to remain crouched. There is also a large stone on the floor making shuffling around the corner a challenge!
The images above were taken inside the creep passage using a torch as it is nearly pitch black inside.
The name Boleigh actually means ‘place of slaughter’. It is likely that this haunting name refers to an ancient battle that took place in fields close to here. In AD 937 it is said that Hywel (Howell), King of Cornwall, and the last of the Cornish Celts fought King Athelstan and his invading Saxons. The little steam that runs below Rosemerryn and down to Lamorna Cove, which was so loved by artists in the 19th century, is said to have run red with blood.
Like so many of the other fogous, Boleigh lies in the middle of an ancient settlement of huts that once covered 3 acres and was surrounded by a defensive ring. But only fragments of these structures remain today. Much of this settlement was destroyed when Rosemerryn house was built on the site in 1912 by Benjamin Leader, an artist of the Newlyn School. When Leader was killed in WW1 the house was bought by the writer Crosbie Garstin, brother of painter Norman Garstin, who used it as the inspiration for his book ‘Owls House’. This is a place that has certainly captivated many.
There have been a few attempts to investigate the archaeology of the site. When it was excavated in 1957 by Dr EB Ford several interesting pieces of patterned pottery were uncovered and he was also the first to note the importance of the carved figure. Since then the area around the fogou, which is now a scheduled monument, has also been excavated by the experts on the TV series Time Team. It makes interesting, if slightly comical, viewing.
In more recent times Boleigh Fogou has been cared for by the May family who used Rosemerryn as a kind of retreat. I recommend reading Jo May’s fascinating book ‘Fogou – A journey to the underworld’. In it Jo explores the tangled narrative of the place that he once called home, both the mystical and the historical.
At the end of the book he adds an intriguing caution for the reader.
Ancient spots, and sacred sites like fogous, are gateways.
The real openings lie in our own hearts, minds and lives.
I for one can’t wait to explore more of these fascinating monuments, so watch this space for the next fogou adventure.
As I said at the beginning of the post the fogou can be viewed only by prior arrangement with Laura and Rob, the present owners. Please respect this as it lies literally in their back garden right beside the house! Having said that, Laura was very helpful and welcoming on my visit and she told me that they always try their best to make sure people can get access to this wonderful site.