A journey into the underworld
Beyond the walls of the old house and buried in a tangled mound of short tufted shrubs and undergrowth, is the mouth of a cave – or fogou as it is known in Cornish. The entrance, lipped with pillars of granite, nestles between two mossy banks, sucking life into its womb.
You feel drawn in.
It is a passage made by humankind, long, dark and narrow, slabbed with massive granite lintels, curving gently as it slides into the earth. Inside, its walls are wet with the earth's juices, and the air is heavy with soil musk. Silence hugs you, squeezing out the sounds of the world with a gentle contraction. You stand still, sensing the earth's pulse, waiting. Soil sweat drips from the massive lintels above your head. In the fast fading light you can see a bat flitting back and forth along the passageway.
Your heart pumps. Suppose it flies into your hair?
You retreat a couple of steps, then force yourself forwards just as the creature flies straight at you, lightly skimming your head. The bat retreats into a crevice and darkness closes in. The only sounds are your breathing and heartbeat.
And then the voices come.
You want to cling to reality and block the voices out. But they are insistent, and you listen because although you hear them with your mind, they speak with a voice that is not your own. And locked in here for centuries, they want to be heard.
The Celts came first.
Refugees from Brittany, they beached their leather-sailed boats at Lamorna Cove, made their way up the valley beside the stream, and settled on a small promontory a mile inland. There they built their homestead, ringed with a stone-walled bank. In time it became a place of knowledge, linked with a network of similar sites at the Land's End. They were a courteous and civilized people, bonded by kinship, and they stayed preserving their cultural tradition throughout the Roman occupation, leaving only when the Saxons came.
Two thousand years later, you can still see the remains of the fortified settlement and feel the presence of those people. Traces remain in the landscape of the mysterious network of stones and ancient sites, and people from the twentieth century are reawakening to their meaning and power.
The fogou is located at the head of the Lamorna Valley, near Land's End on the site of a three-acre Iron Age fortified settlement. An oval ring of defensive works and embankment would have protected it in times of danger. The occupants of the fort were protected by a chieftain. I shall call him "Clwydd".
Clwydd's people, and the local community, used the fogou as their spiritual centre for ceremony, initiation and teaching. Birth and death rituals were conducted in it, a transition zone between this world and the next. It may also have been used for initiations involving entombment, the initiate being sealed in for a time to face the underworld in order to overcome fear and so emerge "reborn". It was never used for burial. The whole site was considered a sacred space and its oval defences were perhaps raised not so much to keep invaders out as to keep certain forces in. The place still has the feel of a world apart.
Clwydd's descendants left the fort to return to Brittany some time after the Romans went. The Romans themselves had left them alone, seldom travelling this far west, their nearest centre being Exeter. With the Romans' departure, Saxon invaders in the east began driving refugees westwards, and Irish Celtic raiders also created trouble.
The Celts, or at least their keepers of wisdom, the Druids, may have held keys to knowledge which could benefit us today But as they never left anything in writing, we shall never know what they knew. Living in this land of theirs we can only learn again, our way.
In AD 937 the fields surrounding the site witnessed the slaughter of the last of the Cornish Celts led by Howel in their final battle against King Athelstan and his invading Saxon army The fogou is known as the "Boleigh fogou", and "Boleigh" means "place of slaughter". Legend has it that after the battle the stream by the fort ran red with blood.
1. The Curse
I bought the place from a widow.
A short while after she and her husband, a botanist, first arrived, she had a premonition about an expedition he was about to make, and tried to persuade him not to go. A few days later, in Norway seeking plants for his collection, his car was hit by a train and he was killed. She stayed on looking after the place as best she could, but the signs of neglect were beginning to show.
On our first inspection of the property, my wife, Angela, and I were captivated. I knew I had to live here, even before I had seen inside the house. In retrospect, it was as if something on the land tapped me on the shoulder and said, "You'll do." The place grabbed me.
I had rejected a potentially fruitful career as a university psychologist in favour of moving to the country with Angela and our two young children, to be self-sufficient and to establish a centre where I could work with people. I had nagging premonitions about the impending collapse of society and wanted to establish an ark. I had also been heavily involved in the "growth movement", trying to "sort myself out", and now wanted to give something back.
The place wrought its magic on me and I became obsessed with learning new skills so I could minister to it. The grounds were a shambles and the house needed serious attention. I rewired, rebuilt, insulated, plumbed, plastered, chain-sawed, hacked and rotovated. By our second year I was growing all our vegetables, milking goats, getting stung by bees, raising chickens, cursing the fox, and even had my photo taken by passing Americans as I was scything hay.
It was as if the place was pushing me, pushing my usual pattern of driving myself obsessively I would sometimes catch myself running from one job to another, my feet barely touching the ground, head thrust forward like Basil Fawlty, driven by the thought of what I had to do next. I was blind to Angela's struggling to cope with our two young children, but the land was responsive, almost as if it liked the attention that it was getting, and that I could have been giving her.
"You wouldn't catch me living in that house."
The old builder perched on the roof next door stopped spreading cement to gesture at Rosemerryn. A dying breed of craftsman, he was also the undertaker and wheelwright. "I wouldn't live there, boy, not if you paid me."
"Something to do with the fogou?" I asked, hoping to tap a rich vein of local wisdom.
"No good, boy". And that was all I got.
I was fascinated by the fogou and began digging into the library to find out what I could about the history of the fort site. More recent writings referred to the house's spooky reputation.
Odd tales had gradually clustered about the house, thick as the wisteria that trailed around its windows. Built about fifty years ago, it had since been inhabited by several different families; it had come to be considered an unlucky house. ... Unexplained incidents were said to happen there; the five-barred gate that separated its drive from that of the next house was always found open in the morning, however securely it had been fastened the night before. A revolving bookcase in one of the living rooms would be seen to turn without the touch of human hand; and in one of the bedrooms a lady looking into her mirror one day was horrified to see, not the expected reflection of herself and her furniture, but a mist forming within the "many dimensions" of the looking-glass and becoming denser every second. She did not wait for further materialization, but hurried away. A boy sitting for his portrait to a young painter who had borrowed the studio was overcome by a sudden chill gust, though doors and windows were closed.
I was reminded of our first night at Rosemerryn. As we lay in bed we heard a woman's sad, slightly demented laughter coming, as if from a long way away from one of the empty bedrooms. I put it down to a radio. Now I began to wonder. "Sudden chill gusts" in the studio did not surprise me, having just replaced a leaking skylight. But if the house had a reputation for "the unexplained" and was "no good", what had we really taken on?
The next-door neighbours provided more information. Their house had been built before Rosemerryn. They had seen the heathland cleared, the walls of the old fort knocked down to be incorporated into a garden, the granite carted from the quarry in Lamorna Cove and the comings and goings of several families. Dropping by one evening, they commented on the changed atmosphere of the place, saying that they always used to feel uncomfortable when visiting, but that something had now disappeared. Seeing my interest, they told me more.
They said there was a ghost that would float down the stream by the house which usually foretold an untimely death. Two children had drowned there when their father was away at the Crusades. Others had seen the ghost of a monk picking his way through the woods towards the old fort.
They went on to say how, many years previously, they had been minding the house while the owners were away, and for a bit of a lark, had decided to hold a ouija-board session one night in the kitchen. Their seance, and regard for the unknown, underwent a radical shift when the candles blew out and the glass shot across the table and shattered.
"They say there's a curse on the place and that the male heads of the house will die unnaturally But we don't think you need to worry now Whatever it was has gone. You must have been accepted."
I checked the deeds and made some inquiries. Of the four previous owners, three were men: Benjamin Leader – an artist, Crosbie Garstin – an author, and my predecessor.
All had died prematurely
7. The Haunt of Owls
The passage filled with rotting leaves from season after season of death and rebirth. A rich humus now covered the stone floor moistened by the rains which filtered through the cracks in the granite roof. Outwardly there was peace. But in another reality the energies were startled and scattered.
For years the fogou and the Grambler Grove remained a secret, dreaded place where people feared to go. For some, like the witches, this was used to advantage.
One night in March 1646, near the end of the Civil War, a party of Royalists, fleeing the advancing Parliamentary troops led by Fairfax, became separated from the Prince of Wales, who was escaping to the Isles of Scilly. Exhausted, hungry and lost, they stumbled through the woods near the Grambler Grove towards the lights of the mansion where they had been told there might be safety.
The last of the Levellis, a staunch Royalist, led them back through the undergrowth to the fogou where he concealed and fed them for several days. Two air vents – now plugged – which may have been made by those presumably terrified men can still be seen in the fogou's roof.
During the next century the fogou became a refuge for smugglers, and the spoils of the "wreckers" in the nearby Lamorna Cove.
Trading ships laden with wines and spirits were lured onto the rocks by lights simulating warning beacons. The "wreckers" would plunge into the boiling surf braving impalement by flying spars to grab what casks remained intact before the "Preventive", or coastguard, arrived. Crosbie Garstin, author of The Owls' House, who lived and wrote here in the 1920s, describes what must have been a typical scene:
The pack train was spread out for a quarter of a mile up the valley. ... In case of a raid by mounted men who could pursue, it would be folly to go on to St Just. They were to hide their goods at some pre-ordained spot, hasten home, and lie doggo.
The pre-ordained spot was the "Fogou", an ancient British dwelling hidden in a tangle of bracken a mile to the north-west, a subterranean passage roofed with massive slabs of granite, lined with moss and dripping with damp, the haunt of badgers, foxes and bats. By midnight, Eli had his cargo stowed away in that dark receptacle thoughtfully provided by the rude architects of the Stone Age, and by one o'clock he was at home in bed, prepared to prove he had never left it.
It was during this time that a lintel closing the far end of the fogou was levered up and rolled away. Barrels could now be dumped inside speedily and the hole concealed, and two exits made for a quick getaway. The dank chamber witnessed drunken nights, bodies propped against walls lined with oaken casks.
Its natural inhabitants, spirits of a more ethereal kind, retreated into the crevices.
Later in the eighteenth century, the site attracted attention from visiting parties of antiquarians who came from nation wide to ponder on the enigmatic nature of the place:
At a few hundred yards distance from the Pipers, we came on what was considered of greater interest than anything else visited in the day. This was the Fogou (Cornish, "a cave"), a subterranean gallery with two smaller chambers. The principal passage is about thirty-six feet in length and six feet high. Near the entrance is an opening which leads to another chamber about thirteen feet in length and four feet high. An opening has been made in the extremity of the main chamber. Through this nearly all the company passed. Learned archaeologists descended to the proper entrance, were then lost to view for a few moments, and finally reappeared at the opposite end, with different opinions as to the object of this peculiar structure. ... At the evening meeting Lord Dunraven said he had seen a great number of caves of this kind, and that it was very singular that forts nearly always possessed them. He had that day seen the remains of a fort around the cave the moment he looked for them.
In 1910 the fort was finally obliterated. The quarry at Lamorna Cove, from which granite was used to build part of the Thames Embankment, provided the stone for a large house where the Iron Age huts had once stood. The granite blocks were cut by hand and then carted by horse a mile up Lamorna Lane to the site. The fort's palisades were knocked down and the stones incorporated into a garden wall, the whole area landscaped and beautified.
The house, called Rosemerryn – which means "brambly heath" was built by an artist, Benjamin Leader. Many artists had moved to the area which had become fashionable with the success of the "Newlyn School". On adjoining land a house and studio had a short time previously been built by an associate of Stanhope Forbes, the founder of the school.
Benjamin Leader was the eldest son of Benjamin Leader Williams, who was a close friend of Constable and one of the most successful landscape painters of his day. The younger Benjamin had an eye for architecture and he built the house in the style of a Cornish manor with low-beamed ceilings and pitch-pine timbers. The grounds were a blaze of rhododendrons, azaleas and camellias tended by two full-time gardeners. An area was levelled for a grass tennis court, which provided amusement for the local gentry on hot summer afternoons. But he did not live long to enjoy it. In 1916, in the Great War, he was killed in action.
In 1928 Rosemerryn was bought by a writer – Crosbie Garstin – who had just found success with the publication of The Owls' House, High Noon and The West Wind, (all recently republished). Forty years old, he had lived a life of adventure, working in lumber camps in Canada, as a miner on the Pacific coast, a ranger in Africa, and as an army horse – master and intelligence officer. A private man, he may well have found Rosemerryn provided the sanctuary he needed from a frivolous age.
His three novels recount the adventures of the "Penhales", whose home "Bosula", the Owls' House, is more than likely located where Rosemerryn now stands.
Garstin knew of Rosemerryn before he owned it. He lived and wrote next door for a while. In his novels he changed some of the names in the landscape and told only one person, his wife Lillian, where "Bosula" actually was. In any event, his description of the the Owls' House precisely fits Rosemerryn:
Bosula – "The Owls' House" – lay in the Keigwin Valley about six miles south-west of Penzance. The valley drained the peninsula's bare backbone of tors, ran almost due south until within a mile and a half of the sea, formed a sharp angle, ran straight again, and met the English Channel at Monks Cove. A stream threaded its entire length, its source a holy well on Bartinny Downs.
Bosula stood at the apex of the angle, guarded on all sides ... In winter, looking down from the hills, you could barely see Bosula for trees; in summer not at all. They filled the valley from side to side and for half a mile above and below the house. Oak, ash, elm and sycamore, with an undergrowth of hazel and thorn. Near the house the stream narrowed to a few feet, ran between banks of boulders ... great uneven blocks of granite, now covered with an emerald velvet of moss or furred with grey and yellow lichen.... But it was the owls that were the feature of the spot. Winter or summer they sat on their boughs and hooted to each other across the valley, waking the woods with startling and eerie screams.
In 1930 Crosbie Garstin vanished. No one knows for certain what happened to him. Some say he escaped to one of the exotic eastern lands he wrote about. It appears he drowned while rowing back to a friend's yacht after a party. The boat capsized and, although the woman he was with survived, Garstin's body was never found. Many considered this mysterious since he was an excellent sailor and swimmer.
Possibly the "Owls' House" had worked its magic on him. On the last page of his last book – China Seas, written at Rosemerryn in a room which overlooks a garden of rhododendrons – there is a curious premonition of his death.
Heavily he sank beside her ... felt her arms go round him clinging desperately as to the last refuge in a yawning sea ... A bank of rhododendrons with crimson flowers ... fading fast, fading away.
It was not until 1957, when the fogou was excavated by Dr E. B. Ford, that it began to show its secrets. Ten pieces of pottery, some patterned, some with a dark glaze, were found dating from the Iron Age, La Tène B period. Removal of earth and debris from the far end of the main passage revealed that the rock had been cut away to form a shelf, possibly to serve as a shrine.
Then, while working near the entrance, Dr Ford noticed some strange markings on a boulder. He felt sure they were not accidental, and after he had studied them carefully for a while, they seemed to take the form of a figure.
He arranged for the boulder to be photographed with infrared film and the resulting photograph revealed a male figure, apparently full-faced, with long hair around the head, the left side of the face being flecked away. The right arm, raised from the elbow, supports a spear; the left is held horizontally to the elbow, the forearm being lifted vertically, the hand grasping a lozenge – shaped object possibly the head of a ser pent, one of the coils of which being dimly suggested round the wrist.
Although related to similar figures in Brittany, the carving was unique in Britain.
The whole fogou site, including the fort, was attributed to the dwelling of a chieftain of the Romano-British or pre Roman Celtic period:
Careful consideration of the plan of the fogou and its unusual features, the two – chambered creep, the curved north end, the carved figure, suggests its use for a purpose so far unascribed to any Cornish structure of a similar type and period, namely, that of some religious usage. If, as is possible, the figure symbolizes a Celtic or Romano-British deity (it) might represent its presiding genius, thus establishing a unique function for the building as a temple for the religious use of the occupants of the fort.
After being hidden, and sometimes abused, for two thousand years, Clwydd's place had at last been found.
Time Team arrived at the end of March 1995. The site was invaded, with military precision, by over sixty people including TV crew archaeologists, researchers, computer operators and presenters, along with cameras, lights, walkie-talkies, computers, a sixty-foot crane and a helicopter. Hidden chambers, I thought, wouldn't stand a chance.
Within an hour of arriving, a geophysics team had laid out an electronic grid on the lawn and produced a computer printout of what lay underneath it. The printout showed something resembling a long tunnel curving under the lawn. With excitement the archaeologists dug two trenches and found ... a water pipe. Another trench across a probable rampart nearer the fogou revealed a pile of rubble. At the end the day, it seemed as if the site was remarkable for its archaeological sterility.
That night I had a dream in which the fogou said: "If you want to find more then dig closer to me." Next morning it turned out that that was what the team had decided to do. As they extended their original trench near the fogou, their finds later led them to describe the programme as "fantastic".
Time Team's excavations revealed a section of an Iron Age house enclosed by a single oval defensive wall. Within one of the "rooms" they found over sixty pieces of pottery, virtually all from the early Iron Age, some with patterning, and a quern stone – an implement for grinding corn. They also found Mesolithic flint and some pieces of medieval pottery. It seems that this has been a desirable spot since the first millennium BC. The Iron Age site is special in that it has room for only one or two houses together with the fogou, which dominates most of one end of the enclosure. This makes the settlement resemble a vicarage and its church, or the local healer or priestess's residence, set apart from, yet serving the local community. Time Team concluded that the purpose of the fogou was for the spiritual life of the occupants of the settlement, and that "there was a lot more to these structures than could be explained by conventional archaeology".
Not shown on the TV programme were the findings of a dowser. He said the fogou had originally been built by at least forty women who had cleared the site to ground level and then built up the walls, packing soil back as they built. The lintels, he said, were lifted using skins. He felt that the fogou had been used for healing and as a place to dry out alcoholics, presumably because alcohol, in those days, had been more commonplace than tea.
When the shaman told me that there was a hidden chamber waiting to be discovered, and that opening it would release energy, I thought he meant that there was a hidden passage. I was wrong.
The excavations revealed no further extension to the fogou. If there is one, it is short because of the ground disturbance when the house was built. Any further passage extends from the creep, where Time Team was unable to excavate, because the fogou is a scheduled site.
The hidden chamber which the shaman told me about may refer to the room of the Iron Age house. Opening this did indeed release energy, although how that manifested is less obviously tangible than stones and pots.
On the evening of Time Team's departure after everyone had gone, I sat with the open trench. The next day it would be filled in again to preserve it, but now for a short while I was alone in spirit with its former occupants.
I closed my eyes and imagined myself back in those times. Voices and images came. I had sense of myself as a custodian, tending and nursing the place until the time was right for its true purpose to evolve. I was also aware of the protective function of the site, its original occupants having hidden, perhaps, in the long passage of the fogou when they were raided by hostile neighbours. After all, a church makes a good sanctuary if your attackers hold it sacred too.
My mind wandered a bit, and I found myself asking if there might be a gift for me. So much pottery had been found by the archaeologists and it had all been sent off to Exeter University to be recorded. Part of me wanted to find something myself. I opened my eyes and noticed a rectangular stone in the bottom of the trench. It was a piece of tin ore – the source of the Celts' wealth. I took this as a good omen.
In the days that followed, I resisted entering the fogou. In my personal life, illusions were crumbling. It was as if my association with the fogou was standing in the way of the woman I loved. I felt frustrated and angry. I even dreamed of slicing up the fogou with a sword. Maybe the time had come for me to leave. My psyche was at work.
A short while later I received an e-mail from the Wisdom School in the USA inviting me to participate in a Cyber Ritual to celebrate Earth Day:
Thu,20 Apr 95 13:13:49 GMT
Subject:Cyber Ritual – let's start with Earth Day
I propose that we begin world-wide on-line Cyber Rituals. These rituals should facilitate creation of a cyber-community based on shared experiences of soul-awakening.
Let's begin on Earth Day – this Sunday, April 23rd, 1995. At 12 noon your time, take time to meditate, to empty yourself of all thoughts, give positive feelings and love to the Earth, to Gaia, and to open yourself to any messages back from her. Add whatever other personal touches to this basic ritual that you are comfortable with.
The basic idea is to tune into the living entity of Earth, to give to Mother Earth your love, and to open yourself to what She may be trying to tell you. Maybe the message will be in words, maybe in colors, symbols, sounds, feelings, visions. Just be quiet – (stop the inner dialogue) – and be open long enough so that you can hear this higher entity, rather than just yourself.
Then to complete the ritual, come back and share with us what happens
This was the prompt I needed. At the pre-arranged time, I entered the main passage of the fogou with a candle, a microcassette recorder and my replica Iron Age sword – which sort of wanted to come too. I lit the candle, placed it on the floor of the main passage in a small bowl alongside the sword, sat in a "mindfulness posture", spine erect, attending to my breath, shoulders relaxed, and gazed with soft focus on the candle. The fogou was peaceful, warm and welcoming.
After a few moments, as my mind slowed down, I had the sense of being asked to close my eyes, by several female "presences". As I did so, I felt myself to be travelling through some other kind of passage and I was invited to "speak".
I recounted what was happening for me in my personal life to the "presences", and I also said that I had the possibility of putting out a message to the world at large. (It seemed inappropriate to go into the mechanics of the how!)
I then received a message from the presences in the fogou:
I would speak to those who would listen. We are in times of much danger for the people. There will be those who can make it through the changes and those who cannot. Those that will make it through the changes will be those that can listen to me. That is to say, to listen to your hearts, to listen to your bodies, to trust the wisdom of your bellies and your soul.
For those that are separate from the ways of the Great Mother will harm themselves in harming me. There will need to be much adaptation, letting go of what no longer is appropriate, and embracing the direction that will lead to enlightenment. There is no other way, for it is already in motion. These are things that many know already. These are words that are not new. There are no new messages. The same message can only be repeated until people know it in their hearts, and act. Being still and listening is good. Letting go of the interference of the mind.
Then came a personal message.
This message is for you, Jo. We love you and understand what is happening for you. All things will be well. You do right to stay with your process, as you call it. From what happens now will emerge much that will be good. ... We honour you. We pray for you. But you need not fear as to the outcome. When you stood by the house and all was quiet again, you saw how perhaps you are here only as a custodian, holding the energy until others come. But whoever those are, they must step into the power. You have taken as much as you can of your connection to this land. You have operated here to your capacity It may be that you will leave. ... If you wish, I can release you. . . . Yes, think about that.
I felt really cold. Something had gone. The candle was burning dimly.
Before reporting on my ceremony via the Internet, I went down to the fogou again, curious to see if the candle had gone out. It was still burning, which was reassuring. But also something rather extraordinary was happening.
The sun, which does not usually enter the far end of the fogou, had penetrated its darkest recesses, and a bright chink of light was flickering there – just like the flame of a candle.
Ancient power spots, and sacred sites like fogous, are gateways.
The real openings lie in our own hearts, minds, and lives.