Most folklore tales date from hundreds even thousands of years ago.
They seem entirely distant from our modern lives. But one such story, from the village of Mawnan Smith near Falmouth, is much more recent than we are used to. It is also one of the oddest folklore tales that I have heard in Cornwall.
It is time to meet the Owlman of Mawnan Wood.
In 1926 the Cornish Echo newspaper reported that two boys had been chased by what was described as a very large and ferocious bird.
The terrified boys managed escape and took cover behind a large steel grating.
If this had been the only sighting of this strange creature it could have been put it down to overactive imaginations. But it was only the first of several appearances of the half man and half bird which became known as the Owlman.
Avian humanoid hybrids are common in folklore all across the world. They can be found in Egyptian, Hindu, Greek and Japanese cultures amongst many others.
This first sighting in the 1920s attracted the attention of surrealist painters Max Ernst and leonora Carrington. The couple visited Mawnan in the 1937. There they are said to have performed rituals to try and summon up the half man half bird they called a therianthorpes. The Owlman featured heavily in both their artworks for the remainder of their lives.
The next reported sighting came some 50 years later in April 1976. The two witnesses described an abnormally large bird resembling a giant owl flying over the tower of the 13th century parish church in Mawnan Smith. The two young girls who had been camping in the woods nearby were attracted by strange hissing sounds. They described the huge bird as having red eyes and strange claws shaped like two blacksmiths pinchers.
The two girls were June (12) and Vicky (9) Melling. They and their family were spending the Easter holiday in Cornwall from Preston in Lancashire. But they were so frightened by the incident that they cut the family holiday short by 3 days.
Their father Don Melling gave a sketch that June had done after seeing the monster to Tony ‘Doc’ Shiels.
There was another sighting two years later. At first the witnesses thought that someone was playing a trick on them. That it was a person dressed up in a costume. Again they described an abnormally large bird, silver grey in colour. They only realised that it wasn’t a trick when they saw the creature fly up into the air and disappear. After it flew away they said that there was a strange static noise coming from the trees for sometime afterwards.
Letter to Local Paper
There was a further sighting in 1989 and then again 6 years later. The witness this time was an American tourist. She described the owl man as being at least 5 ft tall with huge claws emanating from its vast wings.
She sent a letter about her experience to the then night editor of the Western Morning News, Simon Parker, at the end of the summer in 1995. It read:
I am a student of marine biology at the Field Museum, Chicago on the last day of a summer vacation in England. Last Sunday evening I had a most unique and frightening experience in the wooded area near the Old Church at Mawnan, Cornwall. I experienced what I can only describe as a ‘vision from hell’.
The time was 15 minutes after 9, more or less. And I was walking along a narrow track through the trees. I was halted in my tracks when about 30m ahead I saw a monstrous ‘Birdman’ thing. It was the size of a man with a ghastly face, a wide mouth, glowing eyes and pointed ears. It had huge clawed wings and was covered in feathers of silver grey colour. The thing had long bird legs which terminated in large black claws. It saw me and rose, floating towards me. I just screamed then turn and ran for my life. The whole experience was totally irrational and dreamlike.
Friends tell me that there is a tradition of a Phantom Owlman in that District. Now I know why. I have seen the phantom myself. Please don’t publish my real name and address. This could adversely affect my career. Now I have to rethink my ‘worldview’ entirely.
Yours very sincerely scared Eyewitness.
The Owl was then quiet for several years but there were other strange occurrences. In 1996 a woman reported ball of light floating above the church. Then in 2003 two teenage girls were listening to music in the church car park late at night.
They too saw a glowing, pulsating globe of light hovering over the church. The girls said that they watched it for a while until it just vanished.
The most recent sighting (that I know of ) was in September of 2009. It was reported that a 12 year old girl named Jessica Wilkins (or Wilkinson) saw the Owlman of Mawnan for the first time this century.
Why all these strange happenings have occurred in the vicinity of Mawnan church is a mystery. There is some suggestion that the sightings are due to an escaped Great Grey Owl which can have a wing span of nearly 2m, has huge talons and can stand around 4.5ft tall. The only problem with this theory is the length of time over which the Owlman has been seen. Another theory is that the stories have something to do with the church standing in the centre of an ancient earthworks. Or perhaps because some researchers have detected a ley line (earth energy line) passing through the site? Other writers have said that sensitive and perceptive visitors have also described Mawnan Woods as being ‘alive’ with energy. Could that natural Earth energy be connected to the reports of the Owlman?
Perhaps it is time for you to visit and see what you can discover. Don’t forget your camera though, as yet there are no photographs of the Owlman!
Whatever the real story Mawnan church is a lovely starting point for walks along the coast to Falmouth or towards the Helford Passage. So perhaps after the excitement of trying to spot the Owlman lurking in the trees why not walk or drive around to the 300 years old pub, The Ferry Boat Inn. Relax and recharge (watch out for the ghosts of course) before taking the little ferry across the river and hunting down legends of smugglers!