Visiting The Giant’s House: Cornish Folklore and an Ancient Monument

Trethevy Quoit

During our usual short British Summer earlier this year – that very briefly sunny bit – I took a holiday down to Cornwall with my family. I had the pleasure of visiting some locations that feature in The Jack Hansard Series, and in this post I’d like to shine a spotlight on one in particular: Trethevy Quoit.

First, for those who might not know much about Cornwall: this county occupies the most southwestern tip of England and is known particularly for its old tin mining industry, its port towns and beautiful beaches, and the vast number of prehistoric monuments that litter its moorland landscape. And, of course, the traditional Cornish Pasty.

Cornwall is also the home of knockers, a type of mining spirit which will be very familiar to Jack Hansard readers. It’s during an adventure with the knockers in Season Two that Jack and Ang are sent to the myserious portal tomb known as Trethevy Quoit.

Trethevy Quoit can be found in the hamlet of Tremar Coombe on the edge of Bodmin Moor. Situated in a field just behind some houses, it’s a striking mark on the landscape. This type of structure is known as a ‘dolmen’ or portal tomb, where a horizontal capstone is supported by two or more vertical stones. Trethevy Quoit is at least 4500 years old, and may have been built as a grave and/or a place of worship. (The truth is, we don’t actually know for certain what it was built for, but human remains have been found in similar dolmens.)

I’m standing in what might be a shallow ante-chamber. I’d need to crawl to get into the main chamber through that waist-high hole to the side.

‘Trethevy’ is apparently Cornish for ‘place of the graves’, while the ‘Quoit’ in the name refers to a traditional throwing game – because local legend says that Trethevy Quoit was made by competing giants who hurled the stones together. This is why some people also call it ‘The Giant’s House’.

I owe a great deal of thanks to a local chap called Clifford who happened to be passing while I was examining the tomb. He turned out to be a wealth of information and theories about the dolmen and how it was built.

In the photo above, we’re looking at the entrance. The small hole to my right leads to what is probably a burial chamber – you’d have to crawl inside. The space where I’m standing may have been an antechamber. Clifford was able to show me the grooves in the rock that suggested a massive stone may have once acted as a ‘door’ to this section: regularly pushed aside to allow access for special occasions, perhaps. It’s likely that dolmens could have served a ritual purpose, maybe a focal point bringing the community together over the changing seasons.

A close-up of what appear to be parallel ‘scrapes’ in the rock. Clifford might be onto something.

And that hole in the capstone, to the top right? Total mystery. No one knows what it was for. You’d assume some kind of astronomical purpose, but Clifford tells me there are no significant constellations visible through it, at any time of the year. But who are we to say what was ‘significant’ to people living thousands of years ago?

It also crossed my mind that the hole may have been placed to frame something which simply isn’t in the sky any more. Stars die. Land shifts. Or perhaps a comet was passing by in their time, and hasn’t returned to the earth since.

At the back, it appears that the rear stone has fallen into the tomb, and this may be why the roof is now so steeply slanted. Clifford’s theory is that the tomb was actually built this way, with the rear sloped stone acting as a second entrance. While I appreciated the logic in his explanation, I’m more inclined to side with the English Heritage interpretation that the stone was originally standing to form a back wall. Vandalism or simple collapse are likely reasons for its current position.

Finally, Clifford drew my attention to the capstone itself. It so happens that a mineral called mica naturally occurs in different concentrations in the granite of the local area. Mica is a reflective material that can give the stone a sparkly appearance. And, to my great fortune, it was a sunny day.

My goodness, how that stone sparkled.

I tried my best to capture it here, but the photo doesn’t do it justice.

It’s easy to imagine why the builders of Trethevy Quoit chose this specific stone to cap their dolmen. This structure would have dominated its local landscape, provided a shining beacon to those traversing the nearby hills. If you’ve ever been up a hill and caught a sudden sharp glint from a building in the distance – that’s how I imagine Trethevy Quoit would first appear to the ancient traveller.

One detail that throws a question mark over this is whether Trethevy Quoit was completely buried inside a mount or not. A low mound of earth is still evident around the bottom of the structure, and certainly other types of dolmen tombs are thought to have been covered by a mound – the soil has simply eroded away over time, leaving behind the stone bones of the inner structure. But perhaps its feasible that a capstone like this one would have been left visible? As far as I’m aware, we have no real way of knowing for sure how large Trethevy Quoit’s mound would have been.

I’m glad I was able to visit this megalith in person – especially as it gave me a lot of new details to work into the Jack Hansard episode in which it appears. If you’ve read the beta episode over on Wattpad, you’ll know this location acts as the portal to a fairy glen where an ancient entity has been slumbering.

We also managed to fit in a trip to see The Hurlers and the Cheesewring during our trip – for a few more photos and snippets of Cornish folklore, check out the newsletter I wrote about it back in June. I also visited Cornwall’s famous Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, which I imagine will be the subject of a future blog post!

Have you visited any of Cornwall’s ancient monuments? Share your stories about them below!

Folklore Snippets: Knockers, Knackers, and Welsh Insults

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The third instalment of the Jack Hansard short story series, Episode 3: Iron Bridge, is now up. This week Hansard finds himself in the idyllic Ironbridge Gorge famed for, you guessed it, its iron bridge. But the real curiosity is the strange species Hansard runs into on the other side of the bridge: Knockers, the subject of today’s folklore snippet.

I doubt Knockers are a particularly well-known creature of folklore. They are born of miners’ tales about the knocking and tapping sounds heard while working in the deep dark. As with most folklore, there are many versions of these creatures: some say they are the spirits of departed miners, while elsewhere they may be considered a separate species, like a goblin or a brownie. From what I’ve read, they seem to be particularly associated with the mines in Wales and Cornwall – easy to see how they could be found in Ironbridge, an area close to the Welsh border and rich in industrial heritage.

These creatures are just a couple of feet tall and wear the same clothing donned by miners. The knocking sounds in the mine were said to either be the sounds of the Knockers at work, or a warning to the miners that a collapse was imminent. Many a miner would claim to have escaped within an inch of his life due to the forewarning of the Knockers; in thanks, miners would leave some kind of food offering lying around (at the very least, the crust of their pasties was considered a tasty Knocker treat). However, the Knockers were also to be blamed for missing tools and other mischief, especially if you were careless enough to insult them.

‘Knacker’ is another word for Knocker, and probably comes from an association of the creatures with the ‘knacking’ (abandonment) of a mine. A story I find incredibly sweet is the 1956 case of a sealed mine in California where a group of Cornish-descended miners petitioned the mining company to have the knockers ‘released’ so they could move on to other mines – the company agreed. Californian Knockers are known as Tommyknockers, and travelled over with the migrating Cornish miners, themselves known as ‘Cousin Jacks’.

As Hansard discovers, a Coblyn (plural: Coblynau) is a Welsh version of the Cornish Knocker. Sounds a lot like ‘goblin’, don’t it? Again known for the knocking sounds they make, they are considered good friends of the miner and generally harmless unless provoked. An intriguing quirk to the personality of this strain of Knocker is that they may be often found hard at work, but it is work they never seem to complete. This rather amused me when considering the current state of the Ironbridge Gorge: the area suffers from landslides and a shifting of the riverbanks. In particular, the famous Iron Bridge is buckling under the strain – I rather like the idea that the Knockers are behind all of this.

Now, with the Coblynau that we meet in Episode 3, we get some choice picks of the Welsh language, so consider this a bonus section! I am not in any way fluent in Welsh, but I wanted to put some time and effort into giving my version of the Coblynau an authentic identity. (Their accent isn’t like modern Welsh by the way, before you start nitpicking my portrayal of their speech :P) So for those who may be wondering, here’s the glossary of Welsh terms seen in Episode 3:

igam ogam = zigzag, used colloquially like ‘the way you walk when drunk’

mwnci = monkey (pronounced ‘mun-ki’)

pen pigyn = dickhead

pentwp = stupid head (pronounced ‘pen-tup’)

twpsyn = idiot (pronounced ‘tup-sin’)

And finally, ‘go and scratch’ is a literal translation of the Welsh insult meaning ‘piss off’. (Oh, and an ‘oggie’ is a traditional welsh pasty.)

I hope you enjoyed that, and if you have any other lovely Welsh words you’d like to offer, then please do! (popty ping!) Furthermore, if you have any feedback you’d like to share on the Hansard series, it is more than welcome. Constructive criticism especially. Take care now~

If you wish to indulge in further reading:



The results of the Knockers’ work in Ironbridge