Saturday, 20 November 2021

Grampound and District Folklore

 

Folk Custom and Culture in Creed Parish

Alex Langstone

 

Situated in the Fal Valley, in the heart of Mid-Cornwall, you will find the village of Grampound. The name is Norman-French, and means ‘great bridge’, and was recorded in Cornish as Ponsmur, as far back as 1308.[1] The village has several old traditions and some interesting, recorded folklore.

In early January each year, the Grampound Wassail once took place. Visiting the hostelries and homes of the settlement, this wassail was of the ‘visit’ persuasion, and was probably similar to the Bodmin wassail, which is still a living tradition. This kind of wassail visits homes and hostelries, and in Grampound, they would have carried their wooden wassail bowl, collecting money and beer, whilst entertaining the villagers with the Grampound wassail song. The custom died out in 1933, when the bowl fell to pieces. The traditional song was recorded by Dr Stevens of Perranporth in 1933,[2] and can be viewed online.[3]

The legend of the market cross features the 15th century octagonal standing cross, which is sited in the centre of Grampound, in front of the nineteenth century rebuild of St Naunter’s chapel.  The monolithic monument is believed to stand in its original position and its name and location indicate that it acted as a focus for market trading and other meetings. There was previously a 14th century chapel of ease on this site, built to help accommodate the growing settlement around the large parish. Therefore, it is more likely that this cross was originally an ecclesiastical monument linked to the old chapel. There is a local tradition that if you run around the cross nine times, in an anti-clockwise direction, you will summon the devil. The cross was described in the 1920s as “no more like a Christian cross than chalk from cheese. The discerning reader will recognise that it is a fertility symbol, phallic in origin, and in purport comparable with the hermae of the Greek markets”[4]

St Crida’s parish church lies to the south of Grampound, in the hamlet of Creed which is nestled in a green valley, close to the banks of the Fal. The legend of St Crida states that she was the daughter of King Mark, and she founded the religious settlement, where the church now stands, for herself and her followers during the 6th century. A spring that flows at nearby Manheir is thought to be the place where Crida’s holy well was once sited. There is still a spring marked on the OS map close to Manheirs Farm, which may allude to this statement; and a village tale tells of Crida’s nuns, who would stop at the stream that crosses the track close to the church, and there would confer blessings and invoke prayer.  You can still hear the running water from this sacred brook, which flows unseen, beneath the road, as it makes its way to merge into the River Fal in the valley below.

The name of the farm is probably a corruption of the old Cornish language word managhes, which translates as nun,[5] commemorating the sacred settlement that Crida founded in around 520 AD.

The church was largely rebuilt in the 15th century, and during this time a guild of St Mary Magdalene was established at the site, with an altar dedicated to her cult.  However, the church is thought to have its origins with the arrival of Crida in the 6th century. In the north door there is a small hatch known as the devil’s hatch, which was customarily opened during Christenings to allow evil spirits to escape the building to the north.[6]

The mile long lane between Grampound village and St Crida’s church, which undulates across the wooded hillside is undoubtedly an ancient route and has been used for centuries as a church path, bringing the dead to be buried in consecrated ground. There is an old stone coffin rest sited roughly midway along the side of the lane, which gave respite for the teams of coffin bearers on their journey.  

Whitsuntide was once a grand affair in the parish, where a Whit Tuesday processional march was enacted to St Crida’s church and back to the Dolphin public house, where beer and black milk was consumed.  There was also a teetotaller march in afternoon, with a tea treat in the field opposite the town hall. The main event was held in the evening, where the Grampound furry dance was held along the main street. Cecil Sharpe collected some details of the Grampound furry during his visit in 1913, where it was described as a similar dance to Helston’s more famous counterpart. However, one or two differences were explained, where couples held hands crossed in front of them as they danced forward, and how the procession would stop every so often so that the dancers could reform in a ring, going first clockwise then anticlockwise around in a circle. At the same time, other dancers would perform a six-hand reel inside the circle, and every so often the band would assemble to perform within the dancers.[7]
          
  

[1] Cornish Place-Names and Language by Craig Weatherhill, p 114

[2] Grampound and Creed: A Guide to the Churches by Mary Oliver (privately published church guide).

[4] Pagan Origins of Fairs by T. F. G. Dexter. New Knowledge Press, Perranporth, 1930

[5] Grampound and Creed: A Guide to the Churches by Mary Oliver (privately published church guide).

[6] Ibid

Thursday, 4 November 2021

The Liminal Shore

My latest book, The Liminal Shore: Witchcraft, Mystery and Folklore of the Essex Coast  is now available for pre order on the publishers website: www.troybooks.co.uk/the-liminal-shore

The Liminal Shore is a brand-new work, seeking the spookiness of the isolated salt marsh and the hidden lore of the urban shore.  Detailing and cataloguing some of the captivating cultural legends, myths, and folklore from the fascinating coastline of Essex and its eerie and brooding borderland. The author explores many remarkable old folk-narratives and traditional tales of marsh-wizardry, cunning magic, and sea-witchery, alongside some of the region’s most enigmatic spine-chilling ghost-lore. The peculiar calendar-customs and eccentric festivals are also investigated, bringing to life many of the old and often forgotten rituals of this interesting and enchanted coast. Discover such characters as Hoppin’ Tom, Mother Redcap, Cunning Murrell, Rollicking Bill and Jop Summers, who among many others form part of a rich and diverse folkloric history of this deliciously atmospheric, strange, and often unexpected coastline.

The three hardback editions (two of which are very limited print runs) are shown below, and are available to pre order on Troy Books website now. The paperback edition (above) will be to follow.

The book features illustrations by Paul Atlas-Saunders, and a foreword by David Southwell.





“This book will be read in the decades to come, still delivering stabs of wonder and delight”

David Southwell
@HooklandGuide



Sunday, 19 September 2021

Porthtowan Folklore


 The Dark Mysteries and Folklore of Porthtowan

Alex Langstone

Lying on the dramatic north coast, midway between St Ives and Newquay, the coastal village of Porthtowan nestles amongst one of Cornwall’s most iconic and historic mining landscapes, now part of the UNESCO world heritage site. Perhaps less well known is the hidden history and folklore of the area, where ghosts, legends and dark mysteries abound. Robert Hunt, the eminent collector of Cornish folktales and narrative had this to say about Porthtowan Beach:

The Voice from the Sea

A fisherman or a pilot was walking one night on the sands at Porth-Towan, when all was still save the monotonous fall of the light waves upon the sand. He distinctly heard a voice from the sea exclaiming,— “The hour is come, but not the man.” This was repeated three times when a black figure, like that of a man, appeared on the top of the hill. It paused for a moment, then rushed impetuously down the steep incline, over the sands, and was lost in the sea. (1)  

This paragraph is fascinating, and from the description it is easy to stand on the beach today and visualise the order of ghostly events. Having lived in Porthtowan and stood by the tide line after dark many times, it is clear that the fisherman or pilot was walking along the beach heading towards the east cliff. For this dramatic cliff rises steeply from the cove and has a distinct and steep pathway which adjoins the sand at its base. It is amazingly easy to imagine this dark figure standing on the clifftop, briefly silhouetted against the night sky, then heading down the precarious path and onto the sandy beach, before running into the pounding waves. 

At some point in time, an extra piece of the tale has been added, possibly through a village droll teller, where the dark figure heads into the waves towards a ghost-ship, which mysteriously appears from a sea-mist on the ocean’s horizon. Many ships have been wrecked nearby and again, Robert Hunt recorded that where a ship was wrecked the souls of the drowned sailors will haunt the shore and call out to the dead. (2)  


As the tide recedes, other adjacent coves become accessible, and Lushington is a rocky cove immediately to the west of the main beach, guarded by the famous Tobban Horse rock. This beach always seems to have a cold feel about it, even on warm sunny days, and many folk wont hang around here for too long. 

It was on the clifftop above, at RAF Portreath where some of the deadliest chemical weaponry was developed during the 1950s in a secret government installation known as Nancekuke Base. The facility closed in 1980, and many of the buildings and some equipment were buried on the site.(3)  However, rumours quickly spread that the remaining chemicals were disposed of by pumping them into the sea through the vast network of old mine shafts on Nancekuke common. Today it is a military radar station, and during the mid-1980s many of the radar technicians witnessed a man dressed in a pilot’s uniform walk through a closed hangar door. It is believed that he is the restless spirit of a 2nd world war pilot who crashed nearby. (4)

Wheal Coates, on the coast between Porthtowan and St Agnes.
Ghost lights have been reported here. Watercolour by Paul Atlas-Saunders

 

Strange eerie balls of light can sometimes be seen on the clifftops amongst the ruins of the mines. Mainly seeming to manifest during the Autumn, these ghost-lights have been described as materialising around a metre from the ground,  and issue a strange ethereal glow, which lights up the clifftop for a few seconds, before suddenly vanishing. (5)

Another piece of folklore can be found at the other side of the village at Mile Hill. This tale concerns a fearsome fire-breathing dragon, who once made its lair up on the hilltop, between Chapel Hill and Nancekuke Common. The dragon regularly stalked the area seeking food of sheep and cattle, terrifying the community, and fiercely marking its territory. However, on one particular night on the eve of May and close to midnight, a ghostly black and white spotted dog who haunted the nearby lanes and coombes appeared. He was on the hunt for the dragon and soon found it eating one of the local farmer’s sheep. He squared up to the dragon and let out a long low growl. The dragon started to move in readiness to strike the dog, but the ghost dog sank its teeth into the dragons tail, ripping the tip clean off. The monster let out a fiery roar and the dog chased it towards the cliffs and the dragon was never seen again. The black and white ghost dog is still sometimes seen in the area. Appearing after dark, he stalks the narrow lanes around Porthtowan, and in particular on the old liminal festive nights of Halloween, Candlemas, May Eve, Midsummer, Midwinter and Lammas. (6)

Notes

[1] Popular Romances of the West of England by Robert Hunt

[2] Ibid

[3] https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/2000/jan/18/nancekuke-base

[4] Haunted Places of Cornwall by Sheila Bird, p 59

[5] Myths and Legends of Cornwall by Craig Weatherhill and Paul Devereux, p 61

[6] Ghosts of Cornwall by Peter Underwood, pp 68, 69

This piece was first published as part of my regular Cornish Folklore column in Meyn Mamvro, Vol 2 No. 3
© Alex Langstone

Thursday, 2 September 2021

Some Cornish Harvest Traditions

Last sheaf is cut, Rillaton

 Cornish Harvest Traditions

Alex Langstone

The old Cornish harvest festival of Guldize was, and still is celebrated across Cornwall with “Crying the Neck” ceremonies and communal feasts, music and dance. Most are held by the many local branches of the Federation of Old Cornwall Societies, and were revived in 1928, though evidence shows that this tradition is far older, dating back to the eighteenth century and maybe to the distant past. Each year a different farm would be chosen and after the grain harvest was complete, the ceremony would be held in the last field that was harvested, where a small amount of corn would be left standing, as it was believed that the spirit of the crop would reside in these last stalks.  The last standing grain would then be cut with a scythe, tied together and was held aloft to the east, south and west with the cry “I have’n! I have’n! I have’n!”, to which the assembly responds “What ‘ave ee? What ‘ave ee? What ‘ave ee?” and the cutter replies “A Neck! A Neck! A Neck!” and then everybody shouts “Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!”  

The ceremony is concluded by prayers from the local clergy.  The neck was then paraded to the local church or chapel, often accompanied by the local silver band, where a harvest service was taken. Then all would attend a harvest supper, where food was shared and stories told, harvest songs were sung and much dancing took place.                                                                                                                                                           

Rillaton harvest roundel, dated to 1599. Illustration: Paul Atlas-Saunders

Around the edge of Bodmin Moor, this tradition appears to have a much older pedigree. On the ceiling of an old 16th century cottage at Rillaton is a plaster roundel depicting a sheaf of wheat all garlanded ready for the ceremony, along with farm tools and surrounded by a circle made from wheat ears. The motif was carved in situ in 1599, when the house was built and the building was originally the Dower House for the Manor of Rillaton, which was one of the original seventeen manors belonging to the Earldom of Cornwall. This unique piece of craftsmanship has been authenticated by English Heritage and is a real testament to the history and folklore of Crying the Neck in this area of Cornwall.   The annual Rillaton ‘Cry’ is still held each year in the traditional manner, pretty much unchanged for centuries, as the old plaster roundel will attest. 

The Rillaton Neck

The ‘Neck’ ceremony at nearby St Cleer once included placing a witch’s hat and broom on the fire as a charm to keep evil at bay.  The Neck was often called The Craw or The Crow in some parts of mid and east Cornwall and the following ‘Craw sheaf ceremony’ was recorded at St Wenn in the 1930s by Stanley Opie – 

The following ceremony is remembered at the putting in of the craw or crow sheaf, in the building of the rick. This would be well raised on poles (6 or 7 lengthways with cross poles) laid across the tops of the stone ‘keps and posses’ (caps and posts). The ‘Mow stead’, or rick, was built up sheaf by sheaf and when it came to the putting in of the top corner sheaf, the following verse would be proclaimed so that it could be heard almost all over the parish ‘The Crow sheaf is in, ‘tis time to begin, to drink strong beer, and we’ve got it ‘ere.’ while one of them would lift the beer jar.

On the eastern side of Bodmin Moor at North Hill during the 1930s, Goldhys was celebrated with a broom dance to the tune of ‘So Early in the Morning’. This was recorded in Old Cornwall magazine in 1931, where the writer, E. Thompson says: 

“…I must not forget to mention the dance over the Broomstick. This is most interesting especially if someone is present with a concertina. The Dance, I think it is to the tune of So Early in The Morning. It’s fine when you hear the heavy boots beating a tattoo on the stone floors, as the dancers first lift one leg then the other, to pass the broomstick from hand to hand, as if they were weaving. What a wonderful time too. As the dance proceeds, the musician plays faster and faster and the dancers have to dance faster. It is a marvel how these men, some big and well built, can jump so nimbly as they do in this dance.”

Harvest at Tredethy, North Cornwall


Originally published in my regular folklore column for Meyn Mamvro
© Alex Langstone

Tuesday, 24 August 2021

The Museum of Magic & Folklore, Falmouth

 

a review by Alex Langstone


I recently took time to visit a brand new pop up exhibition. Titled the Museum of Magic and Folklore, this latest project by folklorist and antiquarian Steve Patterson can be found deep within the old vaults of Falmouth's Cornish Bank in Church Street. 

As you enter this mysterious subterranean world, you are greeted with images and idols of Cornish folklore: Crying the Neck, Midsummer fires, Penglaz, Kasek Nos, Helston Furry and Padstow Obby Oss all vie for your attention, as they creep and sidle up to you. 



However, as you become accustomed to the rich and thick atmospheres of this folkloric world of wonder, an even more unusual item draws you inwards. For here sits Tim Shaw's fascinating and unexpected sculpture of The Obby Oss in front of the Crucifixion. Inspired by the artist's  observation in 2011, which saw the Oss dancing before the high altar in St Petroc's parish church. This deeply inspired Shaw, and led to the creation of this strange and somewhat unusual bronze sculpture of the iconic Padstow Oss.

     

As you enter the main vault, the lighting changes and a deliciously eerie ambient soundtrack entices you to enter into a world of sea monsters, witches and magic. Here is a world of mystery and enchantment, illustrated with artefacts from practitioners of witchery old and new, including Cecil Williamson's Witch's Cradle, many items from the art of the sea witch, a tableau of the sorcerers lair and many other artefacts of Cornish and west-country traditional practice.



As you leave the museum, you may notice a cabinet of pisky lore and magic. Piskies are the Cornish branch of the faery tribe of the Isle of Britain. Containing charms and idols of the Cornish little folk, including a four leaved clover, a hag stone charm and brass images of Joan the Wad and Jack O Lantern.




It is difficult not to compare this small and intimate collection with the larger and established Museum of Witchcraft & Magic in Boscastle. But this would be unfair and unjust. This collection, under the streets of the bustling maritime port of Falmouth, is an intimate glimpse into the world of folklore and it feels like it may have grown from the sea and the soil that surrounds it's underground lair.

These vaults below the old Cornish Bank lie close to the waterfront, and contain a mysterious tunnel. What a perfect space to house these esoteric and folkloric items of magic and sorcery. This collection is an interesting glimpse into the world of enchantment, and one I would highly recommend.

The pop up exhibition runs until 8th September, please check Steve's website for all the details here:
www.stevepattersonantiquarian.com or click the images below





For more information about the curator of this museum, Steve Patterson, see the ArtCornwall interview here by Rupert White

© Alex Langstone

Thursday, 5 August 2021

The St Allen Piskies

Illustration taken from the 1922 Line to Legend Land series
 

Folklore of St Allen

Alex Langstone

The parish of St Allen lies within an area of green rolling hills north of Truro, with the River Allen rising at Ventoneage north of St Allen Churchtown, flowing south towards Truro, where it joins the River Kenwyn to form the Truro River. The river name in Cornish Dowr Alen means shining river and shares its name with another Cornish river in the Camel Valley. Nothing is known about the patron saint, but it is thought he may have arrived from Brittany in the 6th or 7th century. He has been linked to 6th century Breton Bishop Alain of Quimper, who was originally from Wales. Traditionally his feast was held on 22 February, but also at Rogation (25 April). The church was built around 1190 and was recorded as Eglossalen in 1235.

There are three early medieval wayside crosses in the churchyard, two of which were discovered buried close to the church, the third was brought from Trefronick Farm, during 1911, where it was discovered being used as a doorstep.

Trefronic Farm wayside cross

The hamlet of Trefronick is the site of some interesting and unusual piskie folklore, collected from a St Allen resident by Robert Hunt in 1835, and expanded upon by George Basil Barham, writing under the pen name of ‘Lyonesse’ in the GWR Legend Land series, which was published in 1922. It concerns the temporary loss of a child to the land of the piskies. The version below is my interpretation of the folktale.

One sunny afternoon, a small child was playing on the woodland edge, close to his family home by Trefronick Farm, St Allen. He was always interested in the natural world, and his father had taught him all about the wildflowers that grew in the vicinity, and the names of the songbirds that frequented the farm and woodland. The boy had found a particularly interesting patch of wild and herby flowers growing on the edge of the wood and was fully immersed in remembering their names. Soon after he heard a joyful tune emerging from the woodland, and at first wondered what bird could be producing such music. Though he quickly realised that this was no birdsong and began to wonder who was playing such sweet melodies from the woodland. He began to lose interest in the herbs and flowers he had been studying and began to move closer to the woodland edge. As he did so, the music became louder and more pronounced and he started to walk faster toward to source of the melodious sound. 

Before long he found himself in a beautiful green grove, full of mature and majestic trees. The music had stopped, but he felt so comfortable and welcome in this spot, he continued his journey into the heart of the wood. As he went deeper into the forest, the thickly laid briars and bracken seemed to be laid flat before him as to make a pathway to an unknown destination. Soon the boy came to a shimmering, sparkling lake, and he sat down and stared into the waters. As he did so, the sky darkened and the sky became filled with starry constellations, of which he did not recognise. He quickly became weary and found a soft mound of moss and ferns where he quietly drifted off to sleep.

When he awoke, he found himself in a beautiful building, with glorious arches that soared up to the sky and which were encrusted with shining crystals of every colour. Standing beside him was a lady, who proceeded to guide the boy through the rooms of the ethereal palace, along with a procession of piskies who sang strange fascinating songs whilst they marched along behind the lady.


"Soaring arches and shining crystals of every colour" captured in the parish church 

The piskies were very kind to the boy and treated him to a feast of the most wonderful tasting food, and when he became tired, they made him a bed from the softest moss and foliage they could muster. 

Meanwhile the boy’s parents had been searching for their son, and three days had passed where he just could not be found. Then on the morning of the third day, he just reappeared sleeping on a bed of ferns at the edge of the wood by the flowers he had been studying. 

As Robert Hunt states in his recollection – 

There was no reason given by the narrator why the boy was "spirited away" in the first instance, or why he was returned. Her impression was, that some sprites, pleased with the child's innocence and beauty, had entranced him. That when asleep he had been carried through the waters to the fairy abodes beneath them; and she felt assured that a child so treated would be kept under the especial guardianship of the sprites for ever afterwards. Of this, however, tradition leaves us in ignorance.

George Basil Barham’s account of the tale ends with this:

And so it was; the boy lived to a ripe old age and prospered amazingly. He never knew illness or misfortune and died at last in his sleep; and those that were near him say that as he breathed his last a strange music filled the room. 


© Alex Langstone

Thursday, 22 July 2021

The Black Dog of Tregrehan

 An old tale, re-imagined by Alex Langstone.


Tregrehan Mills, 1779.

It was a clear moonlit night in the narrow lanes at Tregrehan Mills, and a clandestine group of men were out poaching. Close to midnight they had gathered at an isolated trackway on the edge of the hamlet, not far from the boundary of the large estate owned by Lord Carlyon. Most of the men had cut across the fields from St Blazey, Boscoppa and Par and now gathered in the shadows of the ancient hedge. The old lane was brightly lit by the moon, and all was quiet.               

One of the lads, a mere boy, was told to keep guard by the granite hedge, whilst the older men quickly dispersed in the neighbouring fields, looking for deer tracks under the soft silver light of the full moon. Sam was on the lookout for any intruders, and he had been instructed to raise the alarm if any strangers appeared in the vicinity. Though nervous, he was a seasoned lookout, and had been on many night-time errands before, be they poaching at Tregrehan or smuggling at Par. If it wasn’t for these activities, Sam knew they would probably be starving, so it was all part of his regular routine.

Artwork copyright Paul Atlas-Saunders
Shortly after, Sam thought he heard a horse approaching, and he drew himself closer to the dark shadows cast by the tall hedge. He listened again, but the clattering sound had ceased. An owl hooted from the tree tops and another responded, their eerie avian conversation seemed to hang on the night air, in this ancient Cornish lane.

Sam’s senses suddenly heightened, as again he heard the clatter of a horse approaching. This time he raised the alarm, as they could ill afford to be caught trespassing, let alone poaching. As his companions drew close to the shadows of the hedge, the sound grew louder., and the noisy clatter of hooves became much more distinct. They were all intrigued to see who was riding out so noisily on this fine moonlit night. However, a dire feeling of dread came over them all, as a very strange apparition manifested before them. Instead of a horse, there appeared a huge furry black beast, which looked like a large dog or small bear. 

As the creature passed by the group, they all witnessed the wild monster with his demonic fiery eyes and large teeth, which struck terror into their hearts. What was this uncanny beast? Furthermore, the strange creature walked straight through a wooden gate, without any obstruction, as if it were a ghostly apparition or maybe a demon straight from hell.

Beyond the sturdy wooden gate, the strange black dog trotted off into the fields beyond. The men watched its monstrous spectral illuminated form for several minutes, and they continued to hear the strange nightmarish clattering of the ghost dog’s hoof-like paws, which gradually seemed to fade into the disturbing shadows of the trees on the far side of the pasture. 

The poachers decided to call it a night, and as they dispersed into smaller groups to head for their homes, the conversation was of confusion and fear, as they tried to understand what they had all witnessed in the lush fields and ancient woodlands of Tregrehan Mills on that fateful and haunted moonlit night.

Artwork copyright Paul Atlas-Saunders

Please see here for source material

This piece was first published in Lien Gwerin no. 2

© Alex Langstone

Saturday, 10 July 2021

St Morwenna and Reverend Hawker

"...fair as the sea...."
 

St Morwenna and Reverend Hawker

Alex Langstone


July 8th is the feast of Morwenna, patron saint of the most northerly parish in Cornwall. Morwenstow  lies six miles north of Bude and close to the source of the River Tamar. The story of Morwenna is, like so many of the Celtic saints, one of pilgrimage and the sacredness of place. Morwenna was born during the early part of the 6th century in South Wales. She is listed as one of the many children of Brychan, which would mean that she came from Brecon.   

Holy well of St Morwenna

Her name is thought to be cognate with Welsh morwyn, meaning “maiden”, and poetically as “fair as the sea”. Her legend states that she trained in Ireland before coming to North Cornwall where she built her cell on the cliff top. The story goes that Morwenna carried all the building stones needed to build her hermitage from the beach far below. One day she dropped one large stone on her way back up the cliff path. Where the stone fell a miraculous spring gushed forth. The holy well of Morwenna can still be seen half way up the cliff, perched precariously overlooking the wild and stormy ocean. Morwenna is said to have died here, and her body was buried close to where the Norman church now stands. No story of Morwenstow is complete, however, without the mention of folklorist, antiquarian, poet and eccentric, the Reverend Robert Stephen Hawker, composer of the Cornish anthem, “Song of the Western Men” and remembered for re-introducing the harvest festival into the church calendar in October 1843, where bread was made from the last wheat harvest for the communion, and food was given to the poor.

Hawker has become part of the folklore of Morwenstow, and indeed he completely championed St Morwenna as patron of his parish. Sabine Baring Gould once called to question the reality of the story of Morwenna, and Hawker replied:

“What! Morwenna not lie in the holy place at Morwenstow! Of that you will never persuade me, -- no, never. I know that she lies there. I have seen her, and she has told me as much; and at her feet ere long I hope to lay my old bones.” 

St Morwenna's church, Morwenstow

Hawker arrived in Morwenstow in 1834 and spent the rest of his life in the parish. He earned a compassionate but eccentric reputation and he regularly attended ship wrecks at the nearby coast, where he helped the unfortunate sailors and buried the dead in the churchyard. The figurehead of the ship Caledonia, which foundered in September 1842, marks the grave in Morwenstow churchyard of five of the nine-man crew. There are two landmarks that are particularly associated with Hawker. He built a small hut on the cliff top from driftwood and wood from the wrecks of the Phoenix in January 1843 and the Alonzo in October of the same year. Here, in his look-out retreat, he would smoke opium, write poetry and entertain guests. He also built the beautiful and unusual vicarage behind the church with chimneys modelled on the towers of the churches in his life: Tamerton, where he had been curate; Morwenstow and Welcombe; plus, that of Magdalen College, Oxford. The old kitchen chimney is a replica of Hawker’s mother’s tomb. He often conducted his church services in an unorthodox way, walking among the parishioners, muttering the liturgy and allowing his many pet cats entry to the church to attend services, though he excommunicated one of them for catching a mouse on a Sunday. He had a strong sense of the supernatural, and frequently referred to his belief in demons, many of whom reputedly haunted Hawker. One famous account records a demon, who leapt out of the sea at Marsland Mouth, at twilight during a wild storm. Hawker put his horse to a wild gallop to escape from his demonic pursuer.  Interestingly the stream that drains across this remote beach, called Marsland Water marks the far northern Cornish border and a small wooden sign stands proudly by the stream marking the Duchy’s most northerly point. Another occasion at Marsland Mill, Hawker’s path was crossed by a small brown demon who appeared from under the gorse. Hawker pursued the demon, but it quickly slipped out of sight and into the river. And he described the event as “a nameless and indescribable sensation”. 

Rev. Hawker's vicarage

He also used to communicate with St Morwenna, and regularly saw her inside the church, around the graveyard and on the cliff-top at Morwenstow. Hawker also had a vision of an angel in the church, by the rood screen door, whilst conducting a baptism. After some delay, Hawker announced that the angel had communicated that he was now the guardian angel of the child he had just baptised. 

 

Hawker's hut on the cliffs at Morwenstow
                                           

In his younger days, Hawker is said to have dressed as a mermaid and sat on the rocks at Bude, he continued this practice until a local man threatened to go out and shoot the mermaid dead.

With all these tales in mind, it is easy to walk the ancient pathways around Morwenstow church and still feel the mighty presence of the Reverend Robert Stephen Hawker, and I for one am glad, as he was an eccentric visionary and a man of the people he served, who was always willing to help the poor and needy of the parish and beyond.


 Reverend Robert Stephen Hawker


Article first published in Meyn Mamvro no. 96, Summer/Autumn 2018, as part of my regular Cornish Folklore column
© Alex Langstone

Wednesday, 7 July 2021

Water Lore from Bodmin Moor



 Water Lore from Bodmin Moor

Alex Langstone

The wild and remote sheet of water that lies at the centre of the rugged granite heights of Bodmin Moor is an enchantingly eerie place. The only natural lake on the moor, its origins can be traced to glacial activity. However, as with many watery places in spectacular landscapes, Dozmary Pool has gathered some odd tales and fanciful folklore to its lonely shores.

The ghostly wild hunt is said to sometimes gather on the reedy shores of the lake, and Dozmary’s version of this iconic and often repeated piece of folklore goes like this.

The epic lore of the wild hunt is linked to one of the most notorious characters of Cornish folklore – Jan Tregeagle. In this tale, Tregeagle had witnessed a loan of a huge sum of money from one man to another, shortly before his death. When the lender came to collect payment, the debtor denied all knowledge of the agreement, and the case was taken to court in Bodmin. Tregeagle had died by this time, and as he was the only witness, the moneylender cried out 

“If Tregeagle ever saw it, I wish to God he would come and declare it!” 


In a flash of lightning Tregeagle’s ghost appeared and said 

“It will not be such an easy task to get rid of me as it has been to call me!” 

The debtor soon realised that his life was being haunted by Tregeagle’s evil spirit, so he called in a ghost-laying priest to banish him, and eventually the priest managed to bind Tregeagle to the task of emptying Dozmary Pool with a leaky limpet shell. In legend, Dozmary Pool was regarded as bottomless, and has been haunted by Tregeagle ever since, as he tries to empty the pool with a leaky limpet shell, with a pack of demon hounds watching over him. When storms are brewing over the moor, it is said that Tregeagle and his pack of hounds fly across Bodmin Moor, imitating the ancient spectacle of the wild hunt.        

                             

Aside from the Tregeagle legend, the pool has other mysterious tales to tell. In the murky depths of the pool a powerful vortex is rumoured to exist, like an underground waterfall. This strange watery realm is reputed to be presided over by the Old Storm Woman, a ghostly moor-land mermaid figure who dwells in the cool peaty waters below the still surface of the lake. It is she who creates the winds which rip across the moor from the centre of the lake, as she gathers the power of the aqueous vortex; she blows the winds across eastern Cornwall from the dramatic cliffs of the north coast, across the granite tors to the lush river valleys in the south. Maybe the strange and seemingly out-of-place ancient carving of a mermaid, which resides in the parish church at nearby Linkinhorne, is an old half-forgotten reminder of her story? 

The most famous legend associated with Dozmary Pool is that of Sir Bedevere casting Excalibur into the lake, where the Lady of the Lake receives Arthur’s sword for safe keeping. Maybe the Storm Woman Mermaid and the Lady of the Lake are one and the same? The pool is also the legendary source of the Fowey River, though the actual source is at Fenton Fowi on the slopes of Brown Willy a few miles to the north, and a moorland folk-tale suggests that if anything is sucked into the vortex of Dozmary, it will resurface in Fowey Harbour.

The River Fowey, from its folkloric source at Dozmary Pool, wends its way southwards, across boggy mires and through deep moorland ravines until reaching the southern coast at the ancient sea port of old Fowey Town. The most famous ravine associated with the river is at Golitha Falls, where the river tumbles noisily and sometimes ferociously, away from the moorland heights to the lower levels, where the quiet water meadows gradually give way to the salty creeks and the broad deep estuary, once the scene for nefarious pirate activities of the Fowey Gallants.

The gorge at Golitha offers fantastic walks by the river. The woodland here is mainly of Beech, and gives us a clue to the rivers name and meaning. Fowey, from the Cornish Fowi meaning the ‘beech tree river’.  The waterfall and surrounding woods are reputedly haunted by King Doniert (Donyarth) who died in 875 AD and was the last Cornish king. He is said to have drowned in the lower falls. His stone memorial can be viewed nearby at St Cleer. 

The ghostly figure of a white lady has been seen on the road running through the Draynes Valley, close to Golitha. Most often seen by motorists travelling after dark, she looms up out of a mist in the middle of the road, and it is rumoured that she appears to warn drivers of the dangers of driving on this road at night.  ‘White ladies’ are renowned folktale manifestations at waterfalls, and it is possible that this particular ‘white lady’ may be connected to the nearby falls. The woods and waterfall are also haunted by the ghostly tapping of copper miners, who are often heard working the lodes of the historic Wheal Victoria Copper Mine, and strange whispers, cries and moans have been heard close to the falls after dark, maybe it’s the secretive chatter of the Pobel Vean, the little people or piskies, who are said to dwell within the hidden parts of the landscape; in the rock crevices, holy wells, caves, remote valleys, rugged hilltops and the old mines of the moor and coast.

Originally published in Meyn Mamvro no 94, Autumn/Winter 2017, as part of my regular folklore column.
© Alex Langstone

Wednesday, 23 June 2021

The Enquiring Eye #5 and a Cornish Halloween

You can now read all about my investigation All Hallows and Allantide: A glimpse into the customs and folklore of a Cornish Halloween n in The Enquiring Eye no. 5.


Available from the Museum of Witchcraft & Magic's online shop 

Friday, 14 May 2021

Cornish folklore and myth - exploring some folkloric landscapes


I am very much looking forward to presenting a Zoom talk at the beginning of July, featuring some of the locations featured in my Cornish folklore book 'From Granite to Sea'

Please see relevant links below and see you there!

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/events/331203091539753/?ref=newsfeed

Tickets here

The event is organised by The Viktor Wynd Museum & The Last Tuesday Society. The Last Tuesday Society is a 'pataphysical organisation founded by William James at Harvard in the 1870s, currently headquartered at The Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities, Fine Art & UnNatural History in London. For the last twenty years they have put on Lectures, Balls, Workshops, Masterclasses, Seances, Expeditions to Papua New Guinea & West Africa, all from their East London Museum and it's infamous cocktail bar.

Sunday, 4 April 2021

Some East Cornwall May Day Traditions

The Maypole Battles and Other Customs

Alex Langstone

 

Many villages, hamlets and farms around Bodmin Moor and eastern Cornwall had a peculiar May Day tradition of the Maypole Battles.   At the end of April, each village would choose a stripped fir tree between thirty and fifty-foot-high and would fasten it to the highest chimney stack in their home parish at midnight on May eve. Alternatively, it would be attached to the highest tree in the vicinity. In the early hours of May Day, it was trimmed with streamers made of coloured scraps of material and with flowers and vegetables taken from neighbour’s gardens. The moment the pole was up and decorated, each village became a fortress, with other rival villages setting off on raids to try to steal the Maypole of the next village. At some villages, such as Merrymeet, the pole was cemented in and tarred, so it could not be climbed, but the men of St Cleer simply sawed the pole at the base and carried it away.  At Trekernal a pole was fastened to the highest tree and decorated in the traditional manner. However, it was quickly taken, before dawn, by a man from North Hill, who climbed the tree with a rope and lowered the pole to the ground. 

The maypoles were generally left in position throughout the month of May, and were guarded each night by the men of the village throughout the entire month. At the months end they were then taken down and stored safely until the following year.  

Around 150 years ago the biggest Maypole battle to have been recorded, took place between Altarnun and Trewen.  The folk of Altarnun managed to steal the Trewen pole and this resulted in a fight where it is reported that the villagers “fought like Dragons”.The descriptions of these East Cornwall maypoles sound remarkably like the Maypole seen every year at Padstow, (above) which are very different to the maypoles decked with ribbon for dancing around. 

The East Cornwall maypoles were instead bedecked with garlands and hoops of flowers. Other villages recorded as having these poles include, Berriow, Middlewood, Menheniot and North Hill. St Neot had its own version of the Maypole tradition, recorded by W. Arthur Pascoe in Old Cornwall 12, winter 1930. This was considered the most favoured of all the festivals once observed in the village. One of the last observances of this once popular custom saw one of the large farms cut a pole and raised it in the village, having much faith in their ability to defend it. However, they did not foresee such a mass attack, which they would have to repel. Amid scenes of great confusion, dire threats, the firing of shotguns into the air and discharges of hot water and pepper the St Neot pole was lost and the victors marched off with the pole on their triumphant shoulders, singing a long-lost song of maypole victory. The custom died out around 1890, but until then was firmly entrenched into the St Neot village calendar.  

Bringing in the maypole. Lanreath, 1940s

The greatest maypole battle celebration was centred on the village of Lanreath, and the tradition is thought to stretch back at least six hundred years, and was still going in the early 1980s, when it started to decline, due to complaints and police intervention. It was all about the virility of the young men of the village, who would steal the biggest tree from the local woods, which would be taken at the dead of night. The poles were huge, and in 1973 the maypole was recorded at 105 feet before it was stolen by the lads of Pelynt. Upon its return it was a bit shorter, and was found hidden within rows of the potato crop. 

Games of skittles locally called ‘keels’were played, with the stumps (skittles), having been made from the previous year’s maypole. (See below). The battle of the maypole was often between Lanreath, Pelynt and Lerryn, and local rivalry was intense. Each village would never know who would raid who, and Doublebois and Duloe also often raided Lanreath. The maypole guard would hide in and keep watch from the churchyard, armed with sticks and one night the army arrived from Bodmin’s barracks and tried to take the pole back to Bodmin, however they were unsuccessful.  

Playing 'keels' in Lanreath, 1940s

Aside from the May Pole Battles, other more sedate form of observance are also recorded from the region.  A may-pole used to be erected on West Looe Quay on the 1st May with dancing and street processions with garlands of flowers that were an art form in themselves, which processed through both East and West Looe. The May Frolics followed during the evening, where bands of young people would gather together and walk to a nearby farm.  Accompanied by a fiddler, they would dance until midnight. If the weather was foul a barn would be emptied for them, if the weather was fine a field would be used and the dances performed under a starry sky. They would dance four-handed, six-handed and eight-handed reels, riotous quick-steps followed by the more sedate Triumph and Cushion Dances, which were slow and graceful. Metheglin, Sloe and Elderberry wine would be supplied for the occasion along with junkets of cream and rich milk and ‘Whipped Syllabubs’ straight from the cow. Similar festivities were common at Fowey and Polperro.  

The following poetic description of the late-night return home from the ‘May frolicks’ at Looe, can be found in the Old Cornwall Journal, Summer 1930 – 

One can picture the happy party returning from Hay Farm, each with a lantern, keeping very close together as they turned the corner of Hay Lane, and the trill that shook them as they glanced apprehensively toward Plaidy, fearing they might catch a glimpse of the Phantom Horsemen careering across the beach on his ghostly headless steed. To keep up their courage they would lustily troll a catch, and the “dug-dug” of the maidens’ red-eared festal clogs would be a gentle accompaniment.

First published in Meyn Mamvro, No. 95, Spring/Summer 2018
© Alex Langstone