Halliggye Fogou

Writer: Rebecca Pearce
Stefan Pyne


Unearthly cave
in the place of willow trees,
where long ago people
took refuge, worshipped
or stored their wares.

The land’s long-held secret
lost in brambles and ferns
along a dog-walkers’ path
with an old family’s fortune.

Home now to
sleeping horseshoe bats,
sheltering till winter
gives way to spring.

Made by man but
owned by nature,
dormant mystery
alive with dream.

Deep in the heart of the historic Trelowarren Estate, Halliggye Fogou is almost a secret, shrouded in trees and mystery. Although a number of these curious fogous lurk concealed within the landscape of west Cornwall, with over 30 metres of labyrinthine passages Halliggye Fogou is perhaps the biggest enigma of all. 

Halliggye Fogou roughly translates from Kernewek as “passage or cave in the place of willow trees”. A translation that beautifully evokes this inscrutable place but one that leaves open the question that has long baffled many: what was the fogou’s purpose?

To reach the fogou you must first locate a small, windswept clearing on top of a hill that borders a cottage and a field. A rather unassuming spot at first, though one that gives spectacular views of the surrounding fields and woodland. The entrance to the fogou also seems humble, concealed like a large badger sett decorated with verdant ferns and brambles. As you make your way down the scabrous stair towards the mouth of the fogou, a vast iron gate gives way to a near impenetrable darkness. 

To enter the fogou is to enter another world, another time. 

The air feels simultaneously cool and stuffy, forcing my lungs to inhale tension and exhale claustrophobia. The aged stone has a slight lustre, due to moisture and minerals. A beam of torchlight cuts through the tenebrosity like a blade, revealing the unique qualities of this peculiar hollow. The short passage shrinks as it penetrates further into the earth, culminating in a tiny gap that opens even deeper into the mysterious past. 

For the fogou does not stop here. A narrow tunnel forks off and twists into a wider space. Some of the rocks that line this passage bear the unmistakable scars of Iron Age tools. Others seem to have been shaped by bitter water droplets that plummet through the cavern with an echoing splash as they make contact with uneven stone and skin. Goose pimples rise as the body reacts to the cold and a powerful feeling of being watched.

On the rough roof, a small, lonely bat hangs, seemingly suspended in the tense air. Something about seeing a living being sleeping so strangely peaceful softens this alien environment into something more welcoming and familiar. As the warm summer evenings make way for cool winter nights, more of these horseshoe bats will find a home in the fogou. Clusters will rest under its eaves, sheltered by the great iron gate from meddlesome human intruders.

We may not ever know the intended purpose of the fogou, but that matters little for we know its purpose now. Man has given way to nature and she has reclaimed this subterranean space for her own. The cave in the place of willow trees is now the cave that is home of the bats.

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