In 1890 there was a huge landslip on the north coast of Cornwall. This cliff fall was so dramatic, so catastrophic that it literally changed the face of the coastline and became known locally as ‘The Earthquake’. A name that that section of the coast retains to this day.
Great fissures in the rock face and huge zig-zagging cracks, both old and new, are still visible to anyone walking on this stretch of the coast and this alone would be impressive enough, but in the months following the landslide it became clear that the falling earth had revealed something rather unexpected and mysterious . . . an ancient grave.
This area of cliffs on the north coast showcases some of the most incredible geology to be found in the whole of Cornwall. Dramatic folds of rock, concertinaed, twisted, bent, warped and folded millions of years ago by unimaginable forces, the cliff faces in the Bude area are an amazing demonstration of the power of mother nature.
However, the collapse of the cliff face close to Northcott Mouth that had occurred in 1890 is thought to have been caused in part by this geology. The sea had apparently undermined the cliff but the unusual formations also made the ground unstable, the vast fissures allowed huge sections of rock to just break away.
The exact size of the rockfall isn’t clear but reports at the time described it as “a landslip of some magnitude” and even today, more than 130 years later, the scale of the destruction is starkly obvious.
In the months that followed the landslide, which almost immediately became known as the Earthquake, local quarrymen, ever watchful for an opportunity, began harvesting the stone.
“A curious and interesting discovery has just been brought to light at a secluded spot along the coast, locally known as the Earthquake, originally a landslip of some magnitude . . . for some time men in the employ of Mr Ross Heard have been carrying on their quarrying operations for building purposes”Cornish & Devon Post, 23 Sept 1893
It was those men that reported something unusual amongst the tumble of rocks beneath the cliff face.
While digging the workmen came across an area of small, loose rubble that kept falling away on them, eventually a “rude grave” was revealed which they initially assumed must have belonged to a shipwrecked sailor. However, they soon realised that this wasn’t the usual make-shift, cliff-top grave given to a drowned seaman. This was something more.
The grave was reportedly positioned north/south and before the cliff collapse it would have been about 6ft below the ground level. The tomb would also have stood on one of the highest points along the coast and was covered by “two thick stones” and surrounded by “pebbles from the beach some 200ft below”. The little grave was 29″ wide by about 6ft in length and enclosed by upright slabs of stone that were of a material that was “not local”.
“Found by some quarry men at The Earthquake and from the position of the grave and the large stone which formed it, it would seem to have been the grave of an important person of the prehistoric age.”Cornish & Devon Post, 8 Sept 1894
So who did this mysterious grave belong to?
A Whole Bunch of Barrows
At first glance the cliff top around the Earthquake looks fairly ordinary, but if you can peel your eyes from the panoramic views and look a little closer you will start to spot huge mounds in the grass. Between Maer Cliff, west of Northcott Mouth, Menachurch Point to the east, there are numerous Bronze Age barrows dotted along the coast, some more distinct than others.
There are at least seven in the vicinity of the Earthquake.
One known as the Maer Cliff barrow above Vinegar Cove is a mound some 22m in diameter, another nearby measures 17.5m around, and standing close to the landslide you can make out the shape of Bucket Hill barrow, a pimple on the horizon just beyond Northcott beach.
These monuments may give us a clue as to what could have been disturbed that day in 1890 when the ground shifted and the rocks gave way and all tumbled to the sea below.
The description of what the quarrymen found seems to suggest a cist burial, a stone lined box into which cremated remains would have been placed. The measurements of the chamber seem a little large however and Charles Thomas, writing about the find in the Cornwall Archaeology Journal in 1964 notes that the discovery “perhaps points to an Early Bronze Age inhumation” or burial.
But of course the explanation is not quite that straightforward . . . there is a little more to this story.
The Grave of a Chieftain
The Rev. J. Lyde Hunt was the vicar of nearby Poughill (pronounced Pofill) at the time of the landslip and it seems he took an interest in the discovery of the grave. It appears that he was instrumental in the removal of the “burial” to the churchyard in his parish.
Not far from the gate of Poughill churchyard you will see a huge slab of granite amongst the headstones and this is what remains of the grave found at the Earthquake.
The published notes on the church’s history written in the 1970s describe the relocated monument in more detail and give some interesting, if somewhat confusing, insights into what they were then believed to be.
“About 1890 a landslide on the cliff near Northcott Mouth, still known as the Earthquake, broke open an ancient burial tumulus dated from the coins found there in back to the earliest days of the Christian era. The vicar had the cremated remains removed to our churchyard for burial and placed over them the great covering stone of the kistvean or rough stone coffin. The old British chieftain now buried here was probably the contemporary of the apostles, possibly of our Lord himself.”C. Shirley-Smith, Detailed Notes on the Church & Ecclesiastical Parish of Poughill, North Cornwall, 1973
This report is confusing for a number of reasons. The newspaper reports from 1893 claimed that “as yet no relics, such as bones, beads, tin, copper or coins have been found but further search will be made.” So were coins and cremated remains later found?
We are told that the vicar believed the grave to be that of a Christian, and not as old as the Bronze Age barrows nearby, because of the coins found at the site of the landslip but what were these coins and what happened to them?
There are those who think that something fishy went on at Poughill . . .
A Roman Hoard
In 1980, in the Cornwall Archaeology newsletter Richard Heard alleged that the account given in the newspapers in 1893 was false. He called it “a deliberate fiction” concocted to cover up the find of a valuable Roman coin hoard.
Heard never revealed his source for this accusation and one has to wonder whether he had been told a story passed down in local folklore. Whatever the case, the implication is that the discovery of the treasure was hushed up so that someone could profit from it and as a consequence vital information about this mysterious ancient burial has been lost, probably forever.
It is unlikely that we will ever get to the bottom of this, we will never know whether the coins referred to in the church notes were Roman or something else, whether they found within the grave or separate from it and therefore whether the remains were interned in 100AD or 3000BC . . .
Final Thoughts & Visiting the Earthquake
In the end a little uncertainty can be no bad thing, it adds to the mystery after all and a visit to the Earthquake definitely stimulates the imagination!
Just imagining the tremendous rumble as that great gulf appeared in the coastline for one thing!
The Earthquake is easy to reach from either Northcott Mouth or Bude.
From the Northcott direction just look for a sunken area just beyond Vinegar Cove and Pearce’s Cove, it’s hard to miss. There is a path from the cliff top down to the beach which will take you past one of the huge cracks in the rock. At low tide it is possible to walk along the foreshore to view the incredible geology from below.
Just a reminder – to state the obvious, the cliffs on this stretch of coast can be very unstable, avoid going too close to the edge and keep dogs and children near to you!
Also ALWAYS BE AWARE OF THE TIDES!