The headlands of Cornwall often have that ‘edge of the world’ feeling about them, and sometimes they can give the impression of being a bridge between worlds, between land and sea or earth and sky. Trewavas means ‘farm at a winter dwelling‘ and for me this translation really captures that feeling of being on the fringes that standing on Trewavas Head, with the wind in your face, creates.
Trewavas Head lies between Cudden Point and Porthleven on a stretch of Cornish coast that masterfully manages to incorporate golden sandy beaches, towering cliffs, historic mining relics, smugglers haunts and ancient monuments, all in just a few short miles.
“Between here and Porthleven is a picturesque stretch with Prah Sands and Trewavas Head its chief landmarks. The former is a very popular spot with bathers, but the latter, with its burial chamber and upland solitude has more to offer.”S. H. Burton, 1955
Just a few paces from the well-worn coastal path, but easily missed when your eye is so drawn to the sea and the horizon beyond, is the rather special Trewavas chambered cairn. This Bronze Age burial chamber has somehow been overlooked by most modern antiquarians making it something of a hidden gem. Like Bosilliack it is of a style found mostly on the Isles of Scilly, so much so that it has been proposed that this particular group of monuments, known as the Scilly Group, were all designed by the same person. Wishful thinking perhaps but a fascinating thought no the less.
Trewavas cairn is roughly 25ft (8m) in diameter surrounded by a ring of curb stones, of which roughly thirteen remain, towards one edge of the barrow is the stone chamber. The side stones of this sunken box are about 3ft (1m) in length and 2ft (0.6m) high and the structure is capped with a chunky megalith 4.5ft by 4ft (1.3m by 2m) which is about 2ft thick.
But perhaps what makes this monument so attractive is its position so close to the headland, to the ‘edge of the world’ and the dramatic views all around, along the coast of the Lizard and Penwith. The feeling that this location was carefully chosen, as with all ancient monuments, is inescapable.
A Crock of Gold
Imagining the identity of the person or persons that cairns such as this one were built for is pretty diverting. And Trewavas cairn is no different from so many other similar monuments in that an assumption is made that this must have been the burial place of someone very important. Unfortunately those erroneous expectations of wealth and status have led to the damage and destruction of many sites over the centuries as treasure hunters set their sights and their spades on uncovering some imagined lost fortune.
“On Trewavas Head, in the parish of St Breage, are the remains of a barrow which appears to have been built with much care and was probably raised to some man of eminence in his day.”Archaeologia Cambrensis, 1867
Sadly for Trewavas Cairn this meant that any remains of a burial and indeed the true integrity of the monument has been lost to us because of the ‘investigations’ of a hard-up local miner.
“We have here again the old story, so often told in connection with the destruction and plundering of ancient monumental structures. A miner in the neighbourhood had long set a covetous eye on the barrow as the storehouse of great riches; and one night he had so impressive a dream, bringing vividly before him a great crock of gold, that at dawn he proceeded to the mound, and dug the pit . . . exposing the kistvaen, into which he got full access; but what he found there, my informant, whom I accidentally met near the spot, and who knew the miner, could not tell; and as the explorer himself has since left Cornwall, there seems now to be but little chance of ascertaining what the cell contained, a state of things much to be regretted, as from its structure and peculiar position the barrow is of more than ordinary interest.”J. T Blight, 1867
We will never know what the miner actually uncovered (if anything) but despite the disturbance he caused some unusual, or perhaps one might argue ‘out of place’ items, have been found at Trewavas. They were recorded by John Blight and reported in the 1964 Cornwall Archaeology Journal. Apparently Blight found a number of “water worn pebbles” inside the cairn and similar stones have also been found at other burial sites in Cornwall. Why the stones were there and what they meant to the people who presumably placed them with their dead is, of course, a mystery.
Other Interpretations . . .
In October 1880 the Cornishman newspaper reported that the Cornish clergyman Richard Polwhele, writing sometime in the early 19th century, had a very different interpretation of the stones on Trewavas Head:
“After the conquest of Cornwall our ancient beacons, occupied by the Saxons, much assisted them in keeping the country in subjection . . . A pile of wood or a barrel of pitch was elevated on a pole and fired at night when ever an occasion required it. At Cadgwith, near the Rill at Kynance and on Trewavas Head there are remains of stone circles, supposed by some to have been signal stations.”
There are of course many questions that Polwhele’s suggestion gives rise to but the idea that the headland may have had other uses over the centuries was confirmed by another letter writer to the Cornish Telegraph. They suggested that the site would be prefect to use as a battery ‘during times of war’.
On the other hand Dyer Tregarrick, in an article in the Cornish Guardian, came to the same conclusion as so many folklorists before him, he referred to ‘the unique rocky pile’ at Trewavas as ‘the grave of a giant’!
Trewavas Head is a stunning location, with or without a mysterious pile of stones to fuel your imagination, but what a joy to sit on the pillowy grass and day-dream of how this ancient structure would have once looked and who the person was that was laid to rest there. Perhaps, squinting your eyes against the glare of the sun on the sea, you might just catch a glimpse of those who constructed it in this timeless landscape 3000 years ago . . .