A Capture and a Casualty

PUBLISHED: 17:40 20 August 2008 | UPDATED: 15:23 20 February 2013

Golitha Falls. Photo by Derek Stonley

Golitha Falls. Photo by Derek Stonley

In this September issue, we explore the origins and some of the history of the River Fowey and Golitha Falls.

A Capture and a Casualty

Derek Stonley explores the origins of the River Fowey and Golitha Falls

One of the hidden delights of inland Cornwall is the countryside around Golitha Falls on the River Fowey. The Fowey is one of Cornwall's more substantial waterways, rising on Bodmin Moor between the two highest summits, Brown Willy and Rough Tor. Leland, in his fascinating Itinerary of England and Wales, undertaken between 1535 and 1543, writes, 'The river of Fawey risith in Fawey More about two miles from Camilford by south in a very wagmore in the side of an hil.'

Escaping from the 'very wagmore', the Fowey gathers volume and runs south, south-east in a direct, albeit leisurely, manner for nine miles to Draynes Bridge. However, a little way downstream of the bridge, the river appears suddenly to change its mind. The flow of water accelerates, and there is an abrupt right-angled alteration of course to the west as the Fowey hurries down a gorge in a series of tumbles that collectively form Golitha Falls. Here we're in a National Nature Reserve, the valley sides cloaked with 1,000-year-old oak woods where the high humidity allows very rare, slow-growing mosses, liverworts and lichens, and where varied wildlife, including the otter, makes its home. A network of paths follows the river, and between the granite outcrops along the riverbed are tiny sandy beaches that slope gently into the clear waters - tempting territory for a paddle despite the chilly water temperature, even in summer.

As a geologist, I'm curious as to why the river suddenly changes its course below Draynes Bridge, and what determines the position of Golitha Falls. The answer is a process called river capture, in which one river cuts back more deeply into the landscape until, over time, it invades a neighbouring valley and diverts the resident stream to its own deeper channel. Great fun can be had replicating this process with a child's spade on any sandy beach.

Much of eastern Cornwall consists of high plateau land, tilted gently in such a way that rivers rise close to the northern coast but then make the long journey south to flow into the English Channel. As these rivers developed and evolved over time, some exploited softer bedrock and so cut down more rapidly than their neighbours. The River Fowey deepened its valley quite readily, working inland along the southern margin of the Bodmin Moor granite. As is easily seen on a decent scale map, the upper reaches of what we now call the Fowey once carried straight on to the present valley of the East Looe River. However, down-cutting on the hard granite bedrock was a tough business and, eventually, the original stream was captured by the more energetic Fowey and diverted westwards. The East Looe River was, in effect, beheaded, with a very modest stream now flowing in a valley too large for its size. The extra water stolen by the Fowey was able to scour out the fine natural harbour we see today between Fowey town and Polruan. The truncated East Looe River could only produce the smaller, shallow inlet around which the twin towns of East and West Looe have grown up.

Golitha Falls is another geological feature in Cornwall that has had a fatal attraction for mankind, in this case, a king. Some half a mile east of Golitha Falls stands King Doniert's Stone, which sits beside the road in a pleasant walled enclosure laid out by Liskeard Old Cornwall Society. The 'Stone' actually consists of two decorated granite cross bases, each with sockets that probably held wooden crosses. The shorter of the two has been inscribed with Doniert rogavit pro anima - Doniert ordered (this cross) for (the good of) his soul. This is thought to be Dumgarth, King of Cornwall, who is recorded in the Welsh Annals as having died in 875, reputedly by drowning at Golitha Falls.

Such a monument naturally attracted treasure seekers, and Hals' History of Cornwall informs us that, circa 1680, beneath the stones miners found a 'spacious Vault, wall'd about and arch'd over with Stones, having on the Sides there of two Stone Seats'. No treasure was found and the excavations of what was possibly a chapel collapsed, taking Doniert's Stone with them. There they remained until being recovered in the 1840s in the course of further investigations. Yet more excavations were conducted in 1932, which discounted the existence of the chapel but concluded that the 'vault' may have been dug in search of treasure but was extended, fruitlessly, in search of tin.

History is silent as to the details of Doniert's death. We can sit today beside the clear river and imagine. Was Doniert out hunting, or on some stately progress, and was swept away while attempting to ford the river in its autumn spate? Or was he tempted by those sandy pools to have a royal paddle, strayed out of his depth and was sucked down the Falls to a dimly illuminated immortality?

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