You can find Mulfra Quoit in ‘the land of granite and gorse’, high up on a hill overlooking the wide sweep of Mounts Bay. On a clear, bright day a finer location would be hard to imagine. Of the quoits found in Penwith this is one of the smallest but what it lacks in size (personally I still think its pretty impressive) it makes up for in setting. It doesn’t seem to matter either that Mulfra is imperfect, its capstone has slid off into the dirt at a jaunty angle, this too just adds to its character.
The ‘Imposing Sepulchre’
“There are hoary monuments of ages past – many of them well preserved from the destroying hands of Time, yet surrounded by a deep halo of mystery, which the speculations of the antiquary can scarcely penetrate . . . Where, again, in our native land, shall we find a tract of equal extent offering so many attractions in the marvellous variety and grandeur of its scenery, the deep interest of its historical associations and the vast abundance of its ancient monuments?”J. T. Blight, A Week at the Lands End, 1861
Mulfra Quoit is not quite on the summit of Mulfra hill, it is in fact situated about 300m below but its position still offers the visitor wonderfully views in all directions. It is of a very similar size to the neighbouring Chun Quoit although Mulfra’s capstone is much thinner. Like Chun this relic of the Bronze Age once stood inside a circular barrow now practically vanished and only three of the original four support stones remain, the forth too has mysteriously disappearing meaning that the 9.5ft (2.9m) square capstone has slipped and now rests against the remaining stones.
It isn’t clear when the capstone fell although it is interesting to note that in the earliest descriptions of this monument, around 300 years ago, the quoit looked as it does today.
In 1749 William Borlase spent some time investigating Mulfra Quoit and even excavated within the chamber. He uncovered several pieces of granite which he thought had broken off the corner of the capstone as it fell but was unable to locate the missing support stone. Of his excavation inside the quoit he wrote:
“As this quoit is off from its ancient situation with one edge resting on the ground I thought it might permit us safely to search the inclosed [sic] area. In digging, one foot was very black, beneath the natural upper soil, we then came to a whitish cinereous coloured stiff clay two inches thick, then a thin stratum of yellow clay mixed with gravel four inches deep, then a flat black, greasy loam . . . The pit was twenty inches deep under the natural hill.”
Borlase came to the conclusion that the pit had once contained something, a burial or internment perhaps, that had since decomposed into the black soil. However, it is important to note that he found no trace of bone or pottery. Borlase also proposed the idea that the stone used to build this monument had been brought to the site from a cairn or ledge of rocks he identified roughly one mile to the north-west of the site.
Robyn Payne writes in his wonderful book The Romance of the Stones that there are no folktales or legends attached to this particular site, that is not entirely true but it is fair to say is that the stories attached to Mulfra Quoit are not unique.
It has been known locally as the giant’s quoit or the giant’s grave, just as Lanyon, Carwynnen Quoit and many others have, and it has also been identified by some as “the last resting place of a warrior chieftain”. This idea, that these chambered tombs must be the graves of someone important, is a pretty universal one too. A natural reaction I suppose when we see the effort that has been exerted to create these monuments and that they have stood the test of time, thousands of years, so well.
“Mulfra hill and Cromlech – the latter a sepulchre probably of some prehistoric hero who won himself fame and a tomb by the very same qualities of valour and virtue that in later times have peopled our Westminster Abbey.”Mr Preston, 28 November 1878, Cornishman
And the location of these sites, well, they of course must have had their own significance. As I discussed in my article on Chun Quoit these monuments may have served many purposes, not just as a place to lay the dead.
The View from Mulfra Hill
This hill is rough and windswept, heather and bracken still cover these ‘sullen ridges of moorland’. A place where just over one hundred years ago hare still ran wild. In December 1896 Thomas Semmens and Charles Lawry were fined and had their net confiscated for trying to poach them.
The name Mulfra refers irrefutably to the landscape, rather than the quoit. Until the 14th century it was known as ‘Moelvre‘ which was then corrupted into Mulfra. In Cornish moel means ‘bare’ and vre ‘hill’ and more recently it has been said to translated as ’round, bald hill’.
“The roundness is sufficiently apparent, the baldness we suspect applies to the smoothness of the surface which unlike the rocky moors to the westward, is almost free from stone. This absence of stone and the bleached look of the grass makes the appearance of the cromlech all the more striking.”John Lloyd Warden Page, 1897
Mulfra Hill is one of those rare places in Cornwall, indeed in the whole of the mainland Britain, where you are able to see both the north and south coast at the same time. When the writer John Blight visited here in 1860 he commented on the area’s almost otherworldliness. While walking here he turned to see that one side, Mounts Bay, was bathed in bright, warm sunshine and the other, towards Morvah, was completely obscured by the thick wall of fog. He wrote: ‘It almost appeared like the boundary to another world.’
“The face of nature, both land and sky and sea being, in all probability the same as lay before the primitive architects of those massive but rude structures.”Mr Preston, 28 November 1878, Cornishman
Mulfra Toad Whimsy
There are a couple of wonderful old Cornish sayings relating to Mulfra, one which I think illustrates perfectly how it can feel standing on a hill in Cornwall on a wild, winter day. I have included them here because they bring me joy, and they also mean that we can assume that toads were once a much more common sight on this hill in days gone by.
(Please note: no toads were harmed during the making of this blog.)
- “Being blown about like a Mulfra toad in a gale of wind.”
- “All of a motion, like a Mulfra toad on a hot shovel.”
The second proverb obviously relates to a state of extreme restlessness, so can we assume from that that Mulfra’s toads were particularly bouncy? And the first, well, the power of the wind up on this hilltop has lead to at least one antiquarian offering an interesting perspective as to what actually happened to this fallen quoit.
“The capstone has been capsized by a gale of wind and is canted over on one side, so it serves the purpose of protecting the grazing sheep from the tremendous blasts which occasionally sweep over the common.”Wayside Wanderings, 20th February 1879, Cornishman
I have realised once again while researching this post that despite how isolated and lonely a place like Mulfra Quoit can feel it is part of something much larger. So many ancient sites, such as Men an Tol, Bosiliack Chambered Cairn, Lanyon Quoit or Boskednan Stone Circle and a number of standing stones are within just a short walking distance of Mulfra. Mulfra hill itself has a number of hut circles on its slopes, the homes of the people that ‘used’ this site and once marvelled at the views, chased the toads and were battered by the winds.
Far from these relics of our past being lone, cold, hard monuments they are all part of one story, our story. As I always say, each is a piece of the puzzle.
And talking of puzzle pieces, I have one more. In the middle of the capstone there are some initials, HP. Can anyone tell me whether they are just 19th century graffiti or if they have some other meaning?