Telling Stories in Cornwall

by Elyn Aviva

My husband, Gary, and I recently went to Cornwall to walk meandering paths with a small group. At least, thatwas the story. One morning over breakfast at Rosemerryn House in Lamorna Valley, one of our group revealed she is a professional storyteller. She described learning to take storytelling seriously. “After all,” she mused, “We don’t usually think stories are important. At least, not in the real world.”

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I realized that often the word “story” is used as a code word for “false.” As in: “Oh, that’s a likely story! You don’t really expect me to believe you, do you?” Or it’s trivialized to mean something soothing, as in, “Tell me a bedtime story.” Of course, a story is much more than that: it is how we make meaning out of our experiences—as in, “telling the story of my life.” Sometimes I identify so much with my story that instead of me telling “it,” it starts telling “me.”

That morning the group set off on a journey to Boscawen-un stone circle. Usually, my story would have been to go along. But I decided to tell a different story: a story of following where I lead myself instead of where I am led by others. 

I set off on a different journey—a journey to 2500-year-old Boleigh Fogou, an underground, stone-lined passageway (in Cornish, fogo means “cave”) hidden in nearby Rosemerryn woods. There is much debate about the original purpose of fogous (storage? A hiding place?), but it seems clear that they were primarily used for community ritual and ceremony. As a guest at Rosemerryn B&B, I had permission to visit the fogou.

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Eager but trepidatious about venturing into this mysterious place alone, I picked up my walking sticks and my flashlight, and started off into the woods. The path led across dew-covered grass, then crunchy gravel. Soon I turned to the left onto a short dirt trail nearly hidden by exuberant ferns and bright pink foxgloves. A large beech tree loomed like a guardian in the overgrowth. Faded ribbons (cloutie offerings) dangled from its lower branches. A sharp-leafed holly bush shaded a low, overgrown mound that opened into a dark, downward-slanting hole in the ground. The fogou. A gaping-mouth stone toad (or was it a gremlin?) perched like a sentinel above the entrance. 

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Nearly hidden in the vegetation, Boleigh Fogou warned me about entering without an invitation. At least that was the story it seemed to tell. Pausing on the steeply sloping, leaf-strewn path, I asked permission. I waited and heard no reply. I asked again. Still no response. The third time (I’d been told once that asking three times proves you are serious) I thought I heard a faint acknowledgement, a guarded “maybe” that gave me courage to continue.

To the left just inside the entrance is a large upright stone with an enigmatic carving—a Rorschach test of the imagination, a story waiting to be told.  For Jo May, the previous owner of Rosemerryn, the severely worn sculpture shows a Celtic healing god holding a twining snake in his left hand, a spear in his right. I saw a woman with upraised arms and a pronounced pubic “V.” 

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Carefully planting my hiking sticks on the slippery surface, I bent down and entered darkness. I didn’t want to use my flashlight yet, hoping my eyes would adjust, so I descended blindly, sensing without seeing the ground beneath my feet. I could feel it turn into mud, cold and damp, sliding into my sandals and between my toes. I thought: I should have entered this place barefoot.

Faint forms seemed to flicker and swoop in the central passageway—insects disturbed by my presence—or something else? Cautiously I stepped forward into deeper, thicker mud. No sound, no sound at all except the mud sucking at my feet.

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My eyes adapted to the dark, aided by the faint daylight entering from a ragged hole at the end of the curving, 36-foot-long passage. The light entered from the northeast. Now I could make out the rough granite stones stacked one upon the other to form the walls of the passage, and the large horizontal slabs that formed the 6-foot-high ceiling. Encrustations of some kind of white mineral brightened some of the stones. An empty tea-candle casing on top of a protruding stone told a story of previous visitors and untold ceremony.

An L-shaped side passage leads off from the main chamber to the left and is nearly 13 feet long. Its curvaceous entrance beckoned. I turned on my flashlight for a moment to see what lay within, then bent down and squeezed through the low, narrow doorway. It was a tight fit. I felt like I was entering a birth canal. To the right on the leaf-strewn earthen floor was a small offering altar, a spiraling shape of shells, the remains of a candle perched on a stone. At the elbow of the “L” was a large, semi-recumbent stone, shaped like a chaise lounge. I lay back against its hard, cold surface. A perfect fit. 

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Resting in darkness, darkness that was oddly tinged with something almost like light—or like a memory of light—I asked the Spirit of the Place, the Consciousness of Boleigh Fogou, to tell me its story. I asked three times and waited for a reply.

The response came slowly, as if from a great distance. I “heard” a deep resonant voice that spoke in images, not words. I “saw” butterfly wings fluttering in the darkness. I understood that the human stories of this place were as ephemeral as the fluttering wings of butterflies compared to the lengthy slow breath of stone. Flickering and flittering, they lasted a moment and were gone.

I "saw" a wrapped body being laid to rest in the Underworld at the beginning of its journey to the Otherworld. It wasn’t buried in the fogou but was placed here temporarily while the community members honored their companion’s returning to the Womb of the Mother. There was no weeping. Instead there was acceptance of the inevitable cycle of life and death. 

Perhaps, now, I am telling a story—or maybe the story of the fogou is telling me. And whether it is Truth or “just a story” I no longer know. 

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

See Elyn’s article on Pendeen Fogou at /home/fogous-and-creeps-in-cornwall.html

Fogou – A Journey into the Underworld, by Jo May; http://www.gothicimage.co.uk/books/fogou1.html

Permission for access to the fogou must be requested in advance from Rosemerryn House: http://www.rosemerrynwood.co.uk/Rosemerrynwood/Fogou.html

Elyn Aviva is a transformational traveler, writer, and fiber artist who lives in Girona, Spain. Her blog is www.powerfulplaces.com/blog. Her most recent book is Where Heaven and Earth Unite – Powerful Places, Sacred Sites, and You,” co-authored with Ferran Blasco. She is co-author with her husband, Gary White, of “Powerful Places Guidebooks.” To learn more about her publications, go to www.powerfulplaces.com and www.pilgrimsprocess.com. To learn about Elyn’s fiber art, go to www.fiberalchemy.com.

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