The coastline around Newquay bristles with rocky headlines. Penhale Point, Kelsey Head, Pentire Point, Towan Head, Park Head, Griffin Point . . . Jutting out into the ocean like the jagged teeth of an ancient comb. Many of these promontories were the refuge places of early man. Geologically and physically advantageous sites where cliff castles were built during the Iron Age. Trevelgue Head, close to the tourist mecca of Newquay, is thought by many to have the finest example of a cliff castle in all of Cornwall. It is considered a site of national importance.
There are cliff castles at intervals around the entire coast of Cornwall. Roughly 30 in total, both confirmed and suspected examples – the sea eats away at them yearly making some hard to identify. You can find them at Rame Head, Black Head, Kenidjack, Gurnards Head and Tintagel to name just a handful.
Also known as promontory forts, cliff castles are coastal defensive sites that were carefully chosen for their defendable geology. The nature of our Cornish coast gave their builders ample viable locations. Once a suitable headland was selected a series of banks and ditches were constructed across the neck, effectively cutting it off from the mainland. At Trevelgue Head there are 7 main ramparts. The encampment on the ‘island’ would have been relatively safe and importantly more easily defendable.
Trevelgue Head however also had the added protection of a natural sea chasm or gully which dividing it further from the mainland. The headland is therefore sometimes called Porth Island because of this.
With the man-made defences in place the sea was the only other means of approach or attack. At Trevelgue the southern cliffs are quite low, accessible by foot at low tide, but the cliffs to the north of the headland are very different. Ragged and sharp sided, they reach around 100m at their highest point.
Early Archaeology & Legend
Exploring the Trevelgue Head today the ditch defences and the two Bronze Age barrows, one crowning the hilltop, are still the most obvious signs of human occupation. Various antiquarians and archaeologists have explored the site over the years, sometimes picking up Iron Age pottery and flints just lying about on the surface. In the 1820s a Mr Martyn found five worked flints and an axe head on the headland while out walking.
A few years later in 1849 S.R. Pattison submitted a report to the Royal Institute of Cornwall on ‘Some Earth Works near Newquay’. He described the site as “in the most perfect state than any other earthworks on the coast.” Pattison was rather overcome with enthusiasm. He took the various banks to be the foundations of large buildings (he wasn’t far wrong) which led him to conclude the settlement was not the work of natives but that it was ‘a Danish encampment’. This idea is perhaps the source of the legend that the largest barrow, towards the end of the headland, is the resting place of a Danish Chieftain.
“Tradition says that it is the grave of a Danish chieftain and that his people buried him close to the cliff edge so that when their vessels passed along the coast they could honour his memory by dipping their dreaded and sign, a black Raven on a blood-red ground.” A. G. Folliott Stokes, 1928.
In the 1870s William Borlase excavated the two barrows on Trevelgue Head. He found bones, charcoal and thousands of pieces of flint but it was the excavations of Charles Kenneth Croft Andrew that uncovered many of the amazing secrets of this headland.
The 1939 excavations
The summer of 1939 was long and dry. The local newspapers reported that excavations had begun at Trevelgue Head in the July and excitedly asked readers what treasures the dig might reveal.
Sadly however, the excavation was prematurely halted because of the outbreak of World War II. The work was never completed and the report never published until recently (see below). But the finds that Charles Kenneth Croft Andrew, the lead archaeologist, did manage uncover give us an incredible insight into this complicated site. The dig revealed the long history of human occupation on the headland, from the Neolithic period onwards through the Bronze Age and Iron Age, up until the 4th or 5th century. More than 4000 years of use.
This site has been described as the most impressive of it’s type in South West Briton but it is the small finds that really take us into the world of our ancestors, how they lived, what they valued. Croft Andrews’ excavations uncovered a midden filled with animal bones – cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, birds and shell fish. There were deer horn implements, a wide range of pottery and flints, beads made of glass, bone and amber and more than 20 spindle whorls – clear evidence of the spinning and weaving of wool.
During the early Bronze Age it appears that Trevelgue Head was mainly being used as a funerary site, confirmed by the two barrows, cremated bone and a cist burial. Later there was a move towards more agricultural/domestic use demonstrated by evidence of a field system which the team found.
But it is during the middle Iron Age that there seems to have been the most activity on the headland. The place was a hive of industry. In the early Iron Age, around 800BC, the first defensive earthworks had been built, securing the island. Then around 400 – 100BC there is strong evidence of iron smelting on the site.
The Iron Lode
The Croft Andrew excavations revealed compelling evidence for iron smelting on Trevelgue Head. Furnaces, ore roasting pits, quantities of slag (waste from smelting) and other features connected to the industry were dug up across the site.
“Metal working was carried on early in the Iron Age and throughout some eight centuries and may well be the reason for the siting and prolonged occupation of the place. An iron mine was located under the cliffs on the north side of the headland, rock-cut furnaces were recorded and evidence was found of Bronze smelting” G. C. Dunning, 1949
A good deal of the activity seems to have been focused near the largest rampart closest to the natural gully at the entrance to the island enclosure.
Importantly in this cleft in the rock, which separates much of the site from the mainland, there is an iron lode running north-south. This is likely to have been the source of the inhabitants ore. It is also likely that the gully was formed by natural erosion, but at the base of the small island just to the east, known as Norwegian Rock, there is a distinct man-made trench. The trench, which is about 1m wide, is cut into the rock on the line of the lode.
“Although no definite age can be ascribed to this feature,[the trench] it seems probable that the lode would have been too small to have attracted attention during the main period of mining in the 18th and 19th centuries.” Jacqueline Nowakowski & Henrietta Quinnell, Trevelgue Head, Cornwall Council, 2011.
Iron objects discovered during the excavations in 1939 included knives, chisels and a large ring, possibly from a harness. It is strange to stand on on the now grassy headland and imagine such industry, and interesting to imagine who the inhabitants were trading with.
House No 1
Perhaps the most impressive remains on Trevelgue Head can not actually be seen today, they are buried beneath the top soil for their own preservation. But they give us further impressions of the status of the site.
The structure was discovered on the 17th July 1939. A small trench revealed a part of a well preserved curved wall which required further investigation. Croft Andrew ended up extending this trench a further fourteen times in order to reveal the magnificent building he named House 1.
With an extraordinary curving wall of upright slabs, the building was roughly circular and had a diameter of 14m (46ft). House 1 revealed a huge amount about the occupation, the daily life and longevity, of Trevelgue Head. The building contained four hearths and numerous post holes, which would have held the wooden pillars that supported the roof. The finds inside the house included stores of pebbles, gravel and quartz. There were flints, iron slag, wrought iron and copper and bronze fragments, even part of a finger ring was uncovered, as well as beads and spindle whorls. Amazingly it has been estimated that this grand building was in use for a very long time, between around 400BC and 30AD when it fell into disrepair.
When Croft Andrew was forced to down tools by the onset of war the discoveries he had made were buried again, the finds stored away and his notes left unpublished. Little more was done to the site until a survey by English Heritage in the 1980s.
Aside from these awesome man-made remains however nature has certainly worked her magic here too.
Towards the far end of the headland in a narrow gully is one of the most impressive sights at Trevelgue – a blowhole. I actually heard it booming before I saw it.
The largest of the barrows overlooks this cleave in the cliffs. And from this narrow rocky inlet a cave runs right through the promontory. When the waves rush in from both sides air and water are forced out under pressure resulting in a plume of spray and a low booming sound. John Lloyd Warden Page writes in the 19th century:
“One the highest point is a large barrow overlooking a narrow inlet which cleaves the promontory into two points. As we gaze into the depths below, marvelling at the wonderful transparency of the water which takes a clearer tinge of green from the shelving slate, a dull explosion is heard from the cliff to the right, following by a loud hissing sound and a cloud of spray darts across the chasm.”
According to Page the best time to see the blowhole in action is around two hours before high water when “columns of spray almost as fine as steam are driven through the fissure.”
There are a number of caves in and around Trevelgue Head. The Mermaids Cave, the Infernal Regions Cave, Boulder Cave and Fern Cave. The most well known of them are the Banqueting Hall Cave and Cathedral Cavern, which was partially destroyed by a rock fall.
The Banqueting Hall Cave has been often mentioned by 19th century writers and it was for several years used for concerts and tea parties. Measuring 60m (200ft) long by 18m (60ft) wide the cave was capable of holding an estimated 1500 people. What date the cavern was first used for these entertainments isn’t clear but I have found a number of mentions of concerts held there in local newspapers from 1907 onwards.
Said to have been lit by 150 candles, musicians and singers would entertain the ticketed audience with the money raised going towards worthy causes, often the local churches. One concert in August 1909 featuring a pianist, six singers and the Newquay Male Quartette raised funds for the Newquay Institute.
Fern Cavern is the smallest of the caves but according to Page the most beautiful. I have not seen it but it is apparently full of sea spleenwort or asplenium marinum, a kind of coastal fern.
There is so much to discover about the 1939 excavations and the later survey undertaken in 1983, far more than I can possibly represent here. Much of the details about the excavations, and some of the images, I have put together come from a hefty report published by Cornwall Council in 2011. Including the original Croft Andrew findings and a modern interpretation of them the book is entitled Trevelgue Head, Cornwall: the importance of CK Croft Andrew’s 1939 excavations for prehistoric and Roman Cornwall by Jacqueline A Nowakowski and Henrietta Quinnell. You can buy it HERE.