Friday 12 July 2024

The Holy Wells of Cornwall: Revisited


Reviewed by Alex Langstone

There have been many books about Cornish holy wells over the years, and it is great to see a new one. Although this volume is not comprehensive in its study of the vast amount of wells within Cornwall, it does give us a detailed historical analysis of some of the best preserved and most interesting wells in the region. The author has chosen sixty wells to focus on, and the volume gives us a thorough overview of each of them, including their folklore and historic dedications. There are some very popular wells included, such as St Clether, Madron and Sancreed. However, there are also some of the more obscure and little known wells here, which are fascinating and will encourage the reader to seek them out. These include St Piala's well at Phillack, St Indract's at St Dominic and St Pedyr's at Treloy.   
Some of my favourite wells are included in this collection. Scarlett's Well, Bodmin; St Nun's, Pelynt; St Samson's, Golant and Menacuddle, St Austell. There are also many here that I have yet to visit, and this book will greatly assist in seeking them out. It is great to see that the volume is thoroughly indexed, and the author has thoughtfully reproduced many historic maps and photographs, including a rare photo (left) of St Petroc's holy well (1) at Bodmin,  before it was flooded by the Environment Agency, to help with a flood alleviation scheme!

'The Holy Wells of Cornwall: Revisited' by Rupert White. Published by Antenna Publications in 2024. 332 pages, fully illustrated with index. £12 from Amazon. A must have for holy well enthusiasts, spiritual pilgrims, and explorers of the secret country. You can buy it here


(1)  Picture from The Holy Wells of Cornwall (1970 edition) by A Lane-Davies

Tuesday 9 April 2024

Legends of Cornish Ghost Dogs

by Alex Langstone

In the leafy lanes to the south of the river Lynher, there is an old folk narrative about three black hounds with blazing eyes that are linked to an old barrow called Blighberry round, which was once visible in Ringdon Field to the rear of Wolsdon House near Antony.  The legend introduces us to the miller of St John’s, who suddenly finds that his flour is being stolen at the time of the full moon. By the following month as the moon reaches her maximum, he sets out to catch the thief, by hiding under the tangled bramble by the mill. At moonrise, he witnesses three women gathering in the clearing by the mill and was astonished to see them transform into toads. The toads then crept under the gap beneath the door of the old mill and stole the flour. However, before the miller could intervene, the toads are chased away by three large and disturbing black dogs with huge fiery eyes. Intrigued, the miller follows the dogs and observes them disappearing into Blighberry round.  Fascinated, he then witnesses three men emerge from the same barrow.
On the next full moon, after he tells his wife and family to stay at home armed with a shotgun, he walks out to the old barrow and goes inside. There he finds a great treasure, and excitedly rushes home to tell his wife. However, as he approaches his home, calling out to his family to let him in, he is shot by his terrified wife. By entering the barrow, he was transformed into a black hound with blazing eyes, and when speaking to his wife, all she heard was the frenzied howls of a demon dog. To this day, when the moon is full, the eerie cries and fiery red eyes of the black hounds can still be heard and seen in the woods between Antony and St John. 

Another black dog haunts the Bronze Age barrow on the downs near Launceston. It was first reported by a group of wrestlers, who were competing in a wrestling competition by the tumulus on St Stephen’s Downs, Langore. The ghostly dog made its appearance towards the end of the day as they were finishing the competition.  The barrow’s folklore tells us that it holds the remains of long dead giants and their gold. The round barrow survives and can be visited. 

During the early 19th century there was a terrible explosion at Wheal Vor on the slopes of Tregonning Hill near Helston. Many miners were killed and soon after the engineman declared that troops of little black ghost dogs continually haunted the place. Few of the miners liked to talk about it; but over time the word spread that the mine was haunted, and it became difficult to obtain the necessary attendance to work the mine. 

There is a tale of a spectral black dog with flaming eyes the size of teacups, that haunted the lanes on the eastern flank of Bodmin Moor. It began its ghostly seven mile walk at Minions, beside the Marke Valley mine, before crossing the river Lynher  at Rillamill, and then up through Linkinhorne village, and onwards to its spooky destination at Stoke Climsland.  

A terrifying black dog experience from the summer of 1779 was witnessed by Samuel Drew from St Austell. Samuel was only a child when he experienced the ghostly beast, whilst out poaching with a group of older men.  The tale is told something like this: Approaching midnight, the poachers gathered on the edge of the hamlet. 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 looking for deer tracks. Having been left alone, Sam’s senses suddenly heightened. He was sure he had heard the clatter of a horse approaching, and having raised the alarm, his companions drew close to the shadows. Suddenly, a huge black dog emerged from the shadows. As the creature passed by the group, they all witnessed the wild beast with his demonic fiery eyes, which struck terror into their hearts, before it passed unnaturally straight through a closed wooden gate, without any obstruction. 

There are several accounts of the Penzance harbour black dog. This ghostly hound is recorded as a harbinger of death to any who encounter him, and the dog only ever appears to certain folk, whilst to others it is invisible. There are stories told by both sailors and fishermen who have docked at Penzance over the years; including one from the 1960s, where a fishing crew sought refreshment from the Dolphin Tavern. One of the men was dispatched mid-evening to check the boat and make ready for the morning. However, he found himself accompanied by a small and friendly black dog. The animal did not leave his side until the rest of the crew returned, when the dog vanished. The following day the boat was fishing out in the bay when an unexpected storm commenced, and the crewman who befriended the black dog fell overboard and was lost. So, if you ever see a black dog on the quayside at Penzance, it’s best to make sure others can also see it; or it may signify your sudden demise. 

Article first published in my regular folklore column for Meyn Mamvro No. 9,  Spring/Summer 2024 © Alex Langstone

Wednesday 21 February 2024

Spirit Chaser: The Quest for Bega. Troy Books Edition

Originally published in 2012, this new edition of Spirit Chaser features a foreword by Ogham Grove author and prolific Glastonbury artist, Yuri Leitch. Plus, a brand-new preface, some amendments and new information by the author.

Spirit Chaser is the true story of a spiritual quest that turned into an inspirational occult pilgrimage. In June 1989, the author began following a series of psychic messages and significant synchronicity that led him to discover the enigmatic mystery of St Bega, the sacredness of the British landscape and ultimately to experience the divine reality of the Celtic tradition of mysticism, miracles, and magic. Spirit Chaser takes us on a magnificent journey into the twilight past of seventh century Britain and Ireland, and on a contemporary expedition of re-enchantment. This ultimately led into the heart of a modern-day quest, which uncovered the mystery that is the Sancta Bega, the sacred ring at the mystical centre of the British Isles.

Spectacular Cover art: © Paul Atlas-Saunders

“A glimpse into the spiritual worlds that overlay our landscape.” The Whitehaven News

“Well researched. Engaging. Fascinating.”

The spectacular front cover art is by Paul Atlas-Saunders. Based upon a stained-glass window in St Bees Priory, it illuminates St Bega’s moment of arrival upon the beach below the adjacent headland. As her boat lands, she purposefully places her foot on the sacred spot at the very epicentre of the archipelago, which constitutes modern Britain and Ireland.

Thursday 21 December 2023

Lien Gwerin 8: now available

The brand new edition of Lien Gwerin: A Journal of Cornish Folklore is now available to order. This is issue number 8, and is the final edition of the series.  This issue is full of wondrous folkloric delights, and is beautifully illustrated throughout.

Please order here


Milva Kernow - A Cornish Bestiary by Merv Davey
Folklore of the Tinners way by Cheryl Straffon
Old Looe Stories & Legends Series: Dosmary Pool
Whitfeld’s ‘Scilly and its Legends’ by Rupert White
The Myth of Santa Warna by Ithell Colquhoun
A Rare Treasure of Cornish Folklore by Ronald M. James
Uter Bosence and the Piskey by William Bottrell
Interview: Sheridan James Lunt
Mystery of Tregudda Gorge by Alex Langstone
Book Review
Games of Giants: West Penwith Quoits by Karen F. Pierce
Found Folklore: Bodmin’s Berry Tower by Alex Langstone

Front Cover art: 'Mermaid' by Sheridan James Lunt
Back cover art: 'Pen Hood' by Paul Atlas-Saunders

Saturday 21 October 2023

Folklore of Bodmin’s holy wells


Folklore of Bodmin’s holy wells

Alex Langstone

The historic town of Bodmin, has a long and distinguished history. The place-name means abode of monks, from the Cornish language Bod-meneghy, and was once famous for its priory, friary, guild chapels, sacred relics and a 9th century illuminated manuscript. The town has several holy and healing wells, and they have some interesting folklore surrounding them. 

The town's priory park contains the holy well of St Petroc, which lies in a hollow between the football club and Pendower Meadow and was once within the scared enclosure of the former priory. Dedicated to St Mary and St Petroc, little remains of this once great institution, just a few visible foundations, bits of masonry and the fishpond. The well does have a wonderful tale attached to it. During some renovation work in the early part of the 20th century, a wooden statue of St Mary was found concealed in the well. It is believed that it was hidden from Cromwell’s troops during the Civil War. The statue was found to be in a remarkable state of preservation, maybe due to the miraculous qualities of the sacred well? The statue was given to the Catholic community in 1908 and was sent to Buckfast Abbey for preservation and minor repairs. It is now kept at St Mary’s Abbey in Bodmin. 

The holy well in St Petroc’s churchyard (below) has a dedication to St Guron, the 6th century founder of the site. The holy well’s source rises under the church and flows through the well house and then out into a trough via two gargoyles. Rush crosses were thrown into the well on Good Friday, to confirm who would still be alive at Easter the following year. If the cross floated all was apparently fine.  There is also an early medieval tale told about St Petroc, who miraculously restored the eyesight of a dragon which lived in the valley by the well. 

Nearby, in the town centre lies the Bree Shute which was also known as the Eye Well. The water here was once famed for curing sore eyes, and a plaque above the well still reads ‘Eye Water’. 

On on the edge of the town lies the beautifully secluded Scarletts well. Sited adjacent the Carnewater river it was historically recorded as a mineral rich healing well. Sited by the town’s parish boundary, the well has frequently been visited over successive generations by townsfolk performing the ritual of Beating the Bounds, where an effigy of a dragon was once ceremoniously paraded.   The site is set back into an ivy clad bank, where a spring gushes forth from the hillside and flows into a granite trough which holds the water briefly before its current continues towards the woodland stream. The well was once part of the Priory of Bodiniel and has many stories of healing and miracles associated with it. During the 17th century Richard Carew documented that people flocked to the well for its healing virtues. 

There is some interesting modern folklore attached to Scarletts well, which may have some alluring indications to an older origin. The well is believed to have been used by many of Bodmin’s wise women and charmers, including Nell Parsons, who used the waters to assist in her trade, and her water pitcher (left) now resides in the collection of Boscastle’s Museum of Witchcraft and Magic. The contemporary mythology of Bodmin witch Joan Wytte, tells us that she also utilised the well for scrying, healing and magic.

A few years ago, whilst visiting this well, I struck up a conversation with a local man, who told me that when he was a child, he knew of a tale about a white lady who haunted the leafy lane around the site. I can find no references to back up this statement. However, a curious story is told about St. Whyte, and although this saint has her shrine in Dorset, she may have been venerated at the nearby church of the Holy Rood and has been linked locally to the towns holy wells.  Maybe the tales of Joan Wytte and St Whyte are a folkloric echo of some lost lore of the ghostly white lady of the well? 

Idyllically sited on a farm in Fairwash Coombe lies the Bodmin Holy Well, which was famed for divination.   This ancient holy well is also known as The Well of the Holy Rood. There is no public access to the well, but you can visit the site of the Holy Rood chapel, from whence the well takes its name, and the surrounding cemetery is reputed to be haunted. Berry Tower is the only part of the chapel that is still standing, and an apotropaic charm (below) can be seen scratched inside, no doubt put there to help ward off the restless ghosts around the old churchyard.

Words and photos copyright Alex Langstone. Article first published in Meyn Mamvro Vol. 2 No. 8 Autumn/Winter 2023

Wednesday 12 April 2023

A Peek at the Folklore of Mylor and District

A Peek at the Folklore of Mylor and District

Alex Langstone

The parish of Mylor has some interesting and little-known folklore, the oldest of which has its origins at the ancient and imposing church, which stands in a large oval churchyard overlooking the creek. As with so many of the early medieval Cornish saints, legend states that St Mylor sailed from Brittany in 411 AD and landed at a creekside location by an ancient freshwater spring and a tall standing stone. Here St Mylor founded his monastic cell in the woods. The holy well and cross can still be found in the churchyard, and the cross is interesting because at five and  a half metres including its foundations, it is the largest churchyard cross in Cornwall. It was probably a bronze age menhir before it was carved with its wheel headed cross design. Locally it is believed to mark St Mylor’s burial spot.

Mylor holy well

On the edge of the ancient woodland of Devichoys, where the parishes of Mylor and Ponsanooth meet, can be found a haunted lane known locally as ‘Irish Woman’s Hill’. It was here that sometime during the first decade of the 21st century, a shimmering ghostly manifestation was seen by a resident making her way home. The lady concerned had just turned onto the old coach road which runs alongside Goonreeve Farm, and ultimately terminates at the town of Penryn. These days the road is little more than an isolated narrow country lane. It was a late summers afternoon, and the driver was shocked to witness an old lady standing in the road as she turned into the lane. She was wearing a long, black skirt and had a black shawl over her head and shoulders. She appeared to be wandering slowly along the lane, stopping every few seconds to catch her breath. The local lady followed cautiously in her car, as she trudged along the old lane and around the bend ahead. But when the driver rounded the corner, the lane was empty and there was no sign of the hunched figure of the old lady. After searching the hedgerows on either side, thinking that she may have stopped for a rest, the perplexed driver carried on her journey, pondering no doubt, about where the black-clad figure had gone. Several years later, the same lady met a man who farmed the land on the corner of said lane, She took the opportunity to ask him about the strange incident. Without hesitation the farmer stated that it was the ghost of an old Irish woman who haunts this lane. It is told that she was on a stagecoach heading to Penryn when she suddenly died. It was frequent practise in those days to bury dead passengers on the roadside where they perished. The field here is known as 'the Irish woman's field' because she is buried there. No-one knew her name, nor where she had come from. Though stories of her ghostly form have often been reported, both during daylight and after dark.[1]

According to some of the older villagers, the lane where she met her demise, which runs from the junction near Devichoys Woods and going towards Penryn, was often referred to as ‘Irish Woman’s Hill’.[2]

The Mayor of Mylor, is an old custom, which traditionally links Mylor parish with Penryn. Traditionally held each Autumn, when the hazel-nuts are ripe, the festival of ‘nutting-day’ is kept. A crowd from the town go into the country to gather nuts. Meanwhile townsfolk would proceed to Mylor, and whilst there, elect one of their number as the sham mayor. Seated in a chair shaded with green boughs, and borne on the shoulders of four strong men, the Mock Mayor and his compatriots process from Mylor to the ancient borough of Penryn. The procession would consist of torch bearers, bodyguards wielding weapons, and two ‘sergeants’ clad in official gowns and raised hats, each wielding a monstrous cabbage on his shoulder in lieu of a mace. The rear was brought up by the throng of the ‘nutters’. As they approached the outskirts of Penryn, the town band would join them and march them joyously into Penryn, where they were received by the massed population of the town. At the town hall speeches were given, and the celebrations went on late into the night, with street fires, music and dancing.[3]

Another amazing tale from the village is The Black Bull of Mylor. I came across this incredible tale many years ago, and it involves the sighting of a ghostly, fire breathing black bull, who is reported to haunt Church Lane between the church wall and Well Ackett:

One night the two men were out on their rounds, and were intending to make their way towards Trefusis Point, so as to pass by the Big Zoon, when after they had passed the church stile they were suddenly brought to a stop―Away in the distance, coming towards them, they could hear a fearful roaring noise; then they could hear the gravel flying, and as the sound came nearer they could make out the form of a big black bull, tearing towards them with fire coming from his nostrils, and roaring something terrible! [4]

The tale seems to originate from the 1830s, when smuggling was still rife around the creeks of the Fal and was probably made up (or kept alive) to keep folk at bay during the illicit operations along the creek after dark.[5]

Church Lane, haunted by the Black Bull

First published in my regular folklore column in Meyn Mamvro Vol. 2 No. 7, Spring/Summer 2023. 


[3] Robert Hunt. Popular Romances of the West of England: Sham Mayors – The Mayor of Mylor

[4] Old Cornwall, volume 1, issue 7, published in April 1928, and written by W. D. Watson.

[5] For a full investigation of this folklore see LienGwerin 7, Feb. 2023, pp 48 - 52

Monday 23 January 2023

Lien Gwerin 7

Lien Gwerin: A Journal of Cornish Folklore, issue number 7 is now available on general release.

You can order direct from us on the link below.

Alternatively, the issue is now available worldwide. Why not order from your local bookshop? Or online via Amazon or our print-on-demand partner


The Folklore of the Hal an Tow by Andy Norfolk

The Old Man of Cury by Robert Hunt

Cornish River Lore by Alex Langstone

Folk Dance Collectors in Cornwall by Merv Davey

The Morgawr: Elusive in Sea and Folklore by Ronald M. James

Passing through the Devil’s Eye by Karen F. Pierce

Book Review: Fern Seed & Fairy Rings

Hazel Trees in Cornish Folklore by Rupert White

Black Prince Flower Boat by Kathy Wallis

Obituary: Dr Alan M. Kent

First and Last Folklore by Katie Giles

Plus original art by Paul Atlas-Saunders

Friday 9 December 2022

Wednesday 26 October 2022

Devils, Witches and Shucks of the Essex Saltmarsh

Devils, Witches and Shucks of the Essex Saltmarsh

Alex Langstone

The Blackwater estuary is a vast expanse of tidal power, and is a shoreline littered with the ghosts of my ancestors. Here is a strand where the clandestine places of land and sea merge; punctuated with mysterious, secretive, and isolated islands. Osea, Mersea, Ramsey and Northey; Cobmarsh, Pewet and the Ray all sit on the water here, some now more accessible than others; due to land drainage and tidal flux. Here the highest tides bring overspill and nervous excitement that the old alluvial marshes are once more, creeping landwards, reclaiming their mysterious past.

The red ochre sails of traditional barges once plied their trade upon this waterway, which links land, river, and sea to generations of cultural traditions and interesting lore. This magnificent estuary where the river Blackwater meets the North Sea, is recognised as a Ramsar Wetland site of international importance.

It was here, on this eastern coast that in pre-Roman times the Celtic tribe of the Trinovantes held sway. Collaborators of Boudica and the Iceni, there isn’t much now to show they were here, but the ghosts of this lost British tribe survive deep within the land and on the tides. 

Thames barges at Hythe Quay, Maldon. 

These low lying and desolate salt marshes of the Essex shore are eerily beautiful in their bleakness. The marshy lip of the coastline between Brightlingsea and Maldon is particularly stunning and  most definitely enchanted. This estuarial district of mid-Essex was once the hub of eighteenth-century smugglers, as barges could be sailed right to the head of the many creeks of the district, and Salcott Creek was at the centre of the illicit operations, where cargoes were unloaded and thrown into a marshy pool. The  pool was actually a pond, which had been built with a false wooden bottom, which could be drained to retrieve the goods once it was safe to do so. Many of the old houses facing Salcott creek were lookouts for the illicit traders and hurricane lamps were put into top windows to warn that it was not safe to land.   

Just to the west of Salcott lays the moated site of Devil’s Wood. This site is linked to the folklore of the Devil and Barn Hall. This traditional old Essex folk horror narrative is a classic example of diabolical devil lore, with layers of interesting themes to explore. The basic folk legend goes something like this - 

One day, a local squire decided to build Barn Hall in what was known as Devil’s Wood. Soon after the builders had begun to dig the foundations on the small island in the centre of the wood, strange occurrences had begun. It was hoped that by building the new hall at this spot would forever thwart the Devil’s sabbaticals from gathering in their traditional meeting place. Each morning, when the builders returned, they found the trenches they had dug had been filled in. This went on for a few days, so in desperation, the squire ordered that a guard be put on duty during the night, to find out what was happening. On the first night the guard heard someone approaching.

"Who goes there!" he shouted. "I, Satan and my hounds," was the reply.

The guard replied, "This place is protected by God and me."  The Devil and his hell hounds turned and fled. On the second night the Devil once more appeared. Again, the guardsman inquired as to who was there, and again Old Nick revealed himself and his pack of demon dogs. Only this time the guard made the mistake of declaring that only he was protecting the site, and not God. On hearing this, the Devil picked up a piece of building timber and declared “Wherever this timber falls, you shall build Barn Hall". The Dark Lord threw the timber high into night sky, and it twisted and turned over and over until it landed a mile or so to the west. The demon hounds then surrounded the guardsman, preventing any escape.

 The Devil turned upon him, and with the hounds baying, ripped out his heart. The Devil then vowed that he would have the man’s soul whether he was buried inside the church or out. It was eventually decided that he should be buried within the church wall. There are those who say, that if you look closely, you can make out the Evil One's claw marks on the walls of All Saints parish church, where he tried in vain to search out his soul.

In the north wall of the church at Tolleshunt Knights you can still see an effigy of a knight holding his heart. The Devil’s hounds, incidentally, are said to haunt the nearby marshes on stormy nights, and the folklore of the Tolleshunt Knights Devil may indicate that we have recovered some lost wild hunt lore of the Essex coast, where the Devil and his demon hounds chase across the sky and into the grainy swamps of Salcott Creek. Here, under the light of the full moon and glistening stars, they continue to haunt the marshes and collect the lost souls of long dead bargees and fishermen of the past.

The beam, which the Devil threw up the hill was incorporated into the cellar of Barn Hall, which can apparently still be seen today. However, it would be an unwise to attempt to view it, as the Devil placed a curse on the beam, so that anyone who dared to enter the cellar would receive his deadly spell. Barn Hall was built at the beginning of the sixteenth century, so the tale can probably be traced back to this time, if not earlier.

The haunted Devil's Wood at Salcott, which hides an ancient moat and island, the secretive home of the Devil and his ghostly hounds.

The fields surrounding Devil’s Wood are believed to be haunted by strange beings. An account from the 1980s gives us a clue as to how the area can cause panic through its eerie reputation and unusual atmosphere.   

The harvest had been completed, and the farmer was keen to get the field ploughed before the weather broke. He asked his son to plough the field into the evening, and the young farmer ended up using the powerful floodlights on the tractor to get the job finished. As the darkness of night fell across the land, the tractor driver began to glimpse movement along the edge of the field. At first, he thought that he was seeing a fox on her twilight hunt, but as he continued to plough his furrows, he began to feel very uneasy. He was convinced that he was being watched and he kept seeing and hearing movement close to his tractor. A large dark shape then cut across his path, and in a panic, he stalled the tractor. As he tried to restart the engine, he became aware that something unseen and malevolent was trying to open the tractor door; he turned the key again, now frantic to escape. The engine spluttered into life, and he headed off at full speed across the ploughed field. The tractor was bouncing around dangerously, but the young farmer wanted to get away from the terrifying dark field as soon as he could. He eventually reached the road and he headed home. The field was sold soon after this incident, and folk are still wary of driving past it at night.

The plough and sail village of Tollesbury lies on the northern bank of the Blackwater estuary and is almost completely surrounded by salt marsh, reed beds, creeks, fleets and saltings. This area is a truly wild part of the Essex shore, with little development, and is home to a huge variety of wildlife. Although once extinct, this part of the coast is now, once again, the domain of Marsh Harriers and Short-Eared Owls. At the end of the nineteenth century there were close on one hundred fishing smacks operating from Tollesbury Fleet, and oyster fishing was the main industry. The village has always been reliant on both the sea and the lands fringing the salt marsh for agriculture.

The old wind-blasted woods on the edge of the saltmarsh around Tollesbury are said to be ‘devil ridden’ and have been rumoured to have attracted the ghosts of many local witches and others practising the old folkways and magical arts. Related to this is the local ghost-lore of a phantom druid, who manifests once a month under the light of the full moon. During this time, he appears in all his ceremonial regalia in the woods on the edge of the mire. 

These ancient saltings on the north shore of the Blackwater estuary are also home to the ghostly Black Shuck or Phantom Seadog. One tale tells us that William Fell, marshman and gamekeeper, was travelling home one dark night from Peldon. His horse and trap was trundling along the Wigborough Road towards Tolleshunt D’Arcy when a huge black dog as big as a calf, and with eyes like bike lamps mysteriously appeared and followed the trap right up to Guisnes Court.   Another tale tells us that on a frosty and moonlit January night at the stroke of midnight, a local girl was cycling from Salcott to Tollesbury to fetch the midwife. There was one spot along the road that she always hated, by the lane to Gorwell Hall, known locally as Jordan’s Green. This isolated spot had always been feared and disliked, as it is where a man was once buried with a stake through his heart, giving rise to all sorts of gossip, including that of a vampire.   It was at this spooky spot, where the cyclist saw a large black dog, its head level with her handlebars, and whose body was as at least as big as her bicycle.  The dog was reported to have a black coat which looked unkempt, and a huge tongue which looked like velvet. It kept pace with the girl until she reached Seabrooks Lane when it disappeared. The girl eventually reached the midwife, and on her way back, the dog again appeared at the junction with Gorwell Hall Lane, where it appeared so large that she could barely cycle around it.   Gorwell Hall Lane is also the spot where a mysterious ghostly white lady can sometimes be seen, and nearby during the 1960s a cyclist reported being attacked by a large black dog at dusk, whilst travelling down the coast road, towards Goldhanger. He apparently leapt off his bike to scare the animal, and it promptly vanished before his eyes.

Belief in witches and magic was still rife up to the beginning of the first world war, and the following accounts are from the early part of the twentieth century. 

A local counter witchcraft charm was practised in and around Tollesbury, called branding the witch. This involved cutting a piece of your own toenail and placing it with a lock of hair from the person who had cursed you. These were both thrown into a fire. Immediately afterwards, you should place a poker into the fire, and allow it to get red hot. It was then slowly withdrawn from the flames, and as you did so, this would brand the witch and break the spell. The cursing culprit could then be identified, as he or she would show burn marks on their bodies.

Tollesbury waterside, where the old sea witches once plied their trade

Another counter witchcraft charm was used when someone had been ‘overlooked’ by a witch. You should light the copper and get the water almost to the boil. Set the ‘overlooked’ or ‘cursed’ person down by the water, and place one of their legs into it. You should get the person to keep the leg in as long as they could bear it. Then put them to bed. The following day the person was healed. However, the witch would be suffering with a scalded leg, so was identified.

Tollesbury folk had yet another way of identifying a witch. It was believed that if you saw a mouse and a cat eating from the same dish, the owner was a witch. Mice were favoured creatures of the Essex marsh wizards and witches, who kept them as familiars to help make magic. One Tollesbury sea witch was suspected of bewitching her son’s oyster smack.  Each time he dredged for oysters, he would overshoot the spot. Unfortunately, there are no records of any names in this piece of sea-witch-lore. There was also a gypsy witch who travelled around the village, and at least two others who lived in the village, who had reputations as cunning folk, and were consulted about things strange and uncanny and children were warned not to look at the cottage where one of them lived. 

The parish church of St Mary the Virgin sits upon the highest point in the village and parts of the building date from the eleventh century. The ancient churchyard is haunted by the ghost of a white rabbit which is reported to appear and run around the graves on some of the darkest nights of the year. 

To the north-east, towards Brightlingsea, the Devil haunts the marshy promontory between Pyfleet Channel and South Geedon Creek. There was once an old weather-boarded shepherd’s cottage called ‘Found Out’ on the edge of the marsh. It sat by an old pond at the end of the old cart track from Langenhoe Hall Farm. The old cottage arrived at its unusual name through a strange old folk tale. 

When the Lord God made the world, this was the last place He found out – and the owd Davvil was a-living here then. 

This little shard of marshy land to the north of Mersea Island is the Devil’s country, and another story concerning the ‘Owd Davvil’ has him joining the twelve strong mowing gang as the thirteenth stranger called Hoppin’ Tom. This was originally recounted by marshman, adder-catcher, bull-tamer and poacher, Ted Allen, and was told something like this -

Once, long ago, a gang of twelve men was sent to mow Langenhoe Marsh, and very soon after they began work, a mysterious stranger surreptitiously joined them. The men were soon feeling irritated, as he mowed faster than any of them, and as a result, he earned much more money. Then one chap spied that he had cloven hooves and knew at once that he must be the Devil. Subsequently, the mowing gang formed a plan, and they had thrown down a load of iron bars in the long grass overnight.  The following morning, ’the Owd Davvil’ mowed through the iron with ease, it was like they were made of butter. But later when he came to draw his pay, the farmer spied his hooves, and exclaimed “You’re the Davvil called Hoppin’ Tom, and I won’t pay you” and the Devil let out ‘a shrik like an owl and flew off in a sheet o’ flame’. As Tom flew off, he threw his drinking bowl into the field, and that’s why we still call the small pond the ‘Davvil’s Drink Bowl’ to this day. We never saw Hoppin Tom again after that; well not us, anyway.  

Hidden within this old folk tale, we may have a folkloric echo that leads us into the secretive world of traditional marsh-magic, where twelve members met with the leader of their clan, to make the witchy number of thirteen. Perhaps it was on the very cusp of Langenhoe Marsh, that the leader of this mysterious group was once known as “The Owd Davvil  Hoppin’ Tom”.

The above excerpts are taken from my recent book - The Liminal Shore: Witchcraft, Mystery & Folklore of the Essex Coast, published by Troy Books.

For more tales of witchcraft, mystery and magic of the Essex coast, please click the book cover, which will take you to my publishers website, where you can purchase a copy of The Liminal Shore

"Thoroughly steeped in a sense of place..all in all it's a cracking book, and a must be for would-be marsh wizards, psych geographers and folklorists alike"  The Enquiring Eye

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

"Highly recommended - a very good and informative read"  Nigel G Pearson

Photographs copyright Alex Langstone. Illustrations copyright Paul Atlas-Saunders.

Tuesday 18 October 2022

Modern Cornish Piskey Encounters

 Modern Cornish Piskey Encounters

Alex Langstone

There are numerous stories of the little folk within the scope of Cornish folklore, where Piskies, Knockers and Spiggans appear to the unwary, often leading them astray, both from place and through time. The 19th century folklore collections of Bottrell, Hunt and Courtney are full of Piskey lore, and during the following century, the likes of Enys Tregarthen and Cecil Williamson continued to collect the lore of the Pobel Vean from across Cornwall. These tales, from the beginning of the 20th century to the present, seem to illustrate that sightings of these fascinating elemental creatures are still with us, as they continue to map themes from popular culture through modern times, from laundry duties in a stream at dawn, to peculiar characters waving from a ‘flying saucer’ over the skies of St Merryn. Furthermore, during his tenure in Boscastle’s witchcraft museum, Cecil Williamson was regularly asked why there were so many stories of piskies on the Cornish moors. He would answer - because there are so many piskies on the moors. [1]

A curious tale of a Piskey sighting from 1936 at Marsland was collected and recorded by author Marjorie Johnson. [2]

“A few years ago, on the Cornish-Devonian border, I was surprised to see on the cliff above me the figure of a tiny man, dressed in black, strutting round in a rather vain-looking way. So incredulous was I of the existence of the 'pisky' people that I said to myself, 'In a minute I shall see what he really is - a bird, or a shadow'. But no, he went on being a tiny man.”

The same author recorded other relatively modern Piskey stories from Cornwall, including one curious entry which mentions Padstow’s own 20th century folktale collector, Enys Tregarthen. In a letter to Marjorie Johnson, a Mrs Agnes Taylor states that the last time she visited Nellie Sloggett (Enys Tregarthen), she witnessed a Piskey sitting on her shoulder. [3]

In conclusion, and from the same source, we have reports of sea fairies at Looe, where in 1943 a Mrs Clara Reed described the creatures as wearing a skirt of seashells and a bodice of seaweed, and she had a row of shells round her neck and a large shell on her head. The sea sprite was reported to have told Mrs Reed that her husband would recover, despite being taken seriously ill whilst serving in the Army. [4]

In St Merryn, sometime during 1910, two girls saw a red object resembling a boat or ship among the clouds; the object contained a large number of little dwarf-like creatures that were chattering, laughing, and pointing down at the witnesses. [5] Was this interesting and somewhat absurd account, somebody’s first ever sighting of an airship or, maybe even UFO? There is little else written about this, but around thirty years later further north at Kilkhampton, three girls saw a little man riding around their garden in a tiny red car. It was a dark night, and the girls were awoken from their slumber by a noise. One girl heard a buzzing noise, whilst the other two heard bells and music. When they looked out of the window, they all saw a little man in a tiny red car driving around in circles, he wore a red droopy pointed hat and had a white beard, and he looked very happy. [6] One of the girls, Marina Fry later had correspondence with Fortean writer and investigator, Janet Bord, and stated that she was four years old when she had this experience. [7]

During 1964, a Goblin (Piskey?) was witnessed among the reeds of a stream at Treago Mill, near Crantock. Whilst holidaying in the area, Wiccan Priestess Lois Bourne had a chance meeting with fellow witch Raymond Howard whilst out walking on the local coast path. Mrs Bourne and her husband were subsequently invited to Treago Mill for dinner, and consequently found themselves accompanying Raymond Howard on a pre-dawn ‘goblin’ hunt to a nearby stream, and at daybreak, they witnessed a ‘goblin’ washing his socks in the cool clear waters of the brook. Lois Bourne described her supernatural experience thus: 

Sitting on a stone calmly washing his socks was an elfin creature with red hat, green coat and trews, one yellow sock on and one in his tiny hands in the process of being washed. [8]

Treago Mill

Finally, to bring us into the 21st century, within the collection of the Museum of Witchcraft & Magic there is a recent account of a Piskey (or possibly more correctly a Spriggan)[9]. In 2016 an elemental ‘fairy’ type of creature was glimpsed at Boscawen-Un stone circle. The elemental was seen close to the centre of the circle, and a painting produced by the witness gives it a very romantic human appearance, remarkably reminiscent of the Pre-Raphaelite ideal of how a fairy might have looked. [10] 

Fairy as seen at Boscawen Un by Ivan Clark

The museum also has another interesting piece of 1960s art depicting piskies dressed in red, playing cards under a large toadstool, using a human skull as their table. Illustrated below[11]                                                                                 

First published in Meyn Mamvro Autumn 2022 Vol 2 No 6 

[1] From the Pisky Painting write up, exhibit 1642. Museum of Witchcraft & Magic

[2] Seeing Fairies: From the lost archives of the Fairy Investigation Society, by Marjorie T. Johnson, pp 236, 237

[3] Ibid, pp 73, 74

[4] Ibid, pp125, 126

[5] The Folklore of Cornwall by Tony Deane and Tony Shaw, p 65

[6] Ibid, p 65

[7] Modern Mysteries of Britain by Janet and Colin Bord, p 157

[8] Witch Amongst Us by Lois Bourne, p 34 (1979) and Dancing with Witches by Lois Bourne p29 (1998)

[9] Popular Romances by Robert Hunt: The Elfin Creed of Cornwall

[10] Exhibit 3796, Museum of Witchcraft & Magic, Boscastle

[11] Exhibit 1642, Museum of Witchcraft & Magic Boscastle (illustrated below)