News from Budock Vean

St Mawnan church & the legend of the Owlman

Cornwall is a place where legends linger. It is the land of piskies and giants, mermaids and witches, and innumerable saints, many of which arrived on our shores using unusual modes of transportation. The Cornish just love a tall tale and, in this isolated region where the elements and wild landscapes often play tricks on the senses, it seems that we have had more than our fair share of tales to tell over the centuries.

The little 15th century church of St Mawnan is beautifully situated close to the entrance of the Helford River. Standing on high ground not far from the coastal path its grey granite walls seem to ooze antiquity and mystery; and for the past few decades the strangest of legends has swirled around this historic building and the nearby woodland like sea-mist.

The first church was built here in the 13th century but hundreds of years before that this place was the site of an ancient earthwork, thought to be a Celtic lann, traces of which can still be seen today. This lann was a roughly oval-shaped rampart about 45m across that may have been the site of an early Christian monastery, a kind of sacred enclosure, although some propose that it may be even older, perhaps prehistoric. The banked monument remained fairly complete, with the church we see today simply filling its ancient footprint, until the 1920s when some of the rampart was removed to expand the churchyard.

Around the same time, in 1924, a Mr Haverfield and a Mr Taylor dug up a Roman coin hoard close to the church. The coins they found were dated to between roughly 260AD to 275AD and were donated to the Royal Cornwall Museum in Truro. The reason for their burial at this particular spot in Mawnan remains a mystery of course.

However, the superstitious among us may ponder whether there is any connection between these disturbances of the ancient earthworks and what came next, because it was around this time that the first sighting of the Owlman occurred.

This has to be one of the strangest myths to be found anywhere in Cornwall and also one of the most modern, as the first recorded sighting of this half-man, half-owl creature came in 1926.

The incident was reported by the Cornish Echo newspaper, an article described two young boys being chased by a large and ferocious bird in the woods near Mawnan Church. It was claimed that the boys had hidden from the creature with giant claws behind a steel grating. The next, and most infamous, sighting was by two sisters, Jane and Vicky Melling, who were visiting Cornwall with their parents on a camping holiday. Despite this report coming in April 1976, some 50 years after the first, there seem to be several telling similarities between the two incidents. The girls, who were from Lancashire, claimed that they were chased by a huge bird with red eyes and massive claws that they described as looking like blacksmith’s pinchers. The whole family were so terrified by the event that they cut their holiday short and went home immediately.

However, the girls’ father, Don Melling, later gave a local man, Tony ‘Doc’ Shiels, who had an interest in the supernatural, a sketch that June had drawn of what she had seen that day. It shows what can only be described as a half-man, half-bird creature. Shiels seems to have collected other drawings from that year too, supposedly from other witnesses. Someone called B. Perry who claimed to see the Owlman that July and then Sally Chapman in August, who wrote that she saw a red eyed bird as big as a man flying through the trees.

Over the next few years there were at least two further sightings, one in 1978 and another in 1989. The witness’ descriptions were all very similar, they report hearing a hissing sound and seeing glowing eyes and an enormous grey, feathered humanoid creature.

Then towards the end of the summer in 1995 came one of the most credible reports, the witness this time was an unnamed American tourist who wrote a letter to the editor of the Western Morning News, Simon Parker, it read:

“Dear Sir,

I am a student of marine biology at the Field Museum, Chicago on the last day of a summer vacation in England. Last Sunday evening I had a most unique and frightening experience in the wooded area near the Old Church at Mawnan, Cornwall. I experienced what I can only describe as a ‘vision from hell’.

The time was 15 minutes after 9, more or less. And I was walking along a narrow track through the trees. I was halted in my tracks when about 30m ahead I saw a monstrous ‘Birdman’ thing. It was the size of a man with a ghastly face, a wide mouth, glowing eyes and pointed ears. It had huge clawed wings and was covered in feathers of silver grey colour. The thing had long bird legs which terminated in large black claws. It saw me and rose, floating towards me. I just screamed then turn and ran for my life. The whole experience was totally irrational and dreamlike.

Friends tell me that there is a tradition of a Phantom Owlman in that District. Now I know why. I have seen the phantom myself. Please don’t publish my real name and address. This could adversely affect my career. Now I have to rethink my ‘worldview’ entirely.

Yours very sincerely scared Eyewitness.”

Reports of strange goings-on in and around Mawnan church, including unexplained floating lights and static energy, have continued, as have the sightings of the Owlman, the most recent by a 12 year old girl in 2009 and two ghost-hunters, Mark Davis and Chris Power, in 2021. Mark, who tried to video the incident, claimed that they heard a strange hissing sound and felt a demonic presence, before he captured a fuzzy shot of a silhouetted figure in the distance.

The Owlman of Mawnan has been the subject of local legend for decades now, attracting artists and writers as well as those interested in the supernatural and paranormal worlds to this quiet corner of Cornwall. There is of course a huge amount of scepticism surrounding this story and numerous theories and explanations have been suggested over the years, many of them favouring an escaped Great Grey Owl or something similar. But several ideas also refer to those ancient earthworks surrounding Mawnan Church as the possible cause of this “disturbance”. It seems that some believe that the whole site is the source of some unexplained and powerful earth energy. That it is this that is perhaps creating an unsettlingly atmosphere which the unsuspecting visitor somehow picks up on making them susceptible to flights of fancy.

A mysterious atmosphere will perhaps persist around Mawnan church for many years to come but should you fancy a little walk on the wild side this area remains a beautiful place to stretch your legs. The scenery here is stunning, just a short walk from the church itself you can discover spectacular vistas across Falmouth Bay and the entrance to the Helford, and if you have your camera at the ready who knows what you might be able to capture amongst the trees . . . !