An old tale, re-imagined by Alex Langstone.
Thursday, 22 July 2021
Saturday, 10 July 2021
|"...fair as the sea...."|
St Morwenna and Reverend Hawker
|Holy well of St Morwenna|
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|
|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|
Wednesday, 7 July 2021
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.
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.
Wednesday, 23 June 2021
Friday, 14 May 2021
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!
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
The Maypole Battles and Other Customs
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|
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.
Tuesday, 16 March 2021
The Screaming Skull of Tresmarrow
The legends and paranormal activity of the screaming skull stories form a fascinating part of the vast canon of ghost-lore and folk-horror. Within Britain, they seem to be almost entirely restricted to a few counties in England and are generally linked to the guardianship of particular historic houses. There is just one recorded in Welsh folklore that recounts a screaming skull at Ffagnallt Hall on Halkyn Mountain close to the Dee estuary. The skull is believed to be that of Dafydd, a Welsh prince who lived during the reign of Henry I, and if removed a wild shriek will haunt the house until it is returned, and a small fragment of the skull still remains in the house today.
The only known Cornish example of a screaming skull was recorded by Sabine Baring Gould, from a diary entry in 1882. Where he states - “A more curious tenancy is that of Tresmarrow near Launceston, where the house goes with a skull. The farmer now there buried the skull, but the noises, voices, knocks and trampling’s heard at night were intolerable, so they dug the skull up again and restored it - then the sounds ceased.”
I first came across this obscure legend on a visit to Launceston’s Lawrence House museum, where amongst the jumble of military, agricultural and domestic displays is the somewhat out-of-place but intriguing ‘Screaming Skull of Tresmarrow’.
The folkloric history of the skull begins during Cromwell’s war against the crown. At this time Tresmarrow House was owned by Sir Hugh Piper, who was Governor of Launceston Castle under Charles I. Piper was a staunch Royalist, and the original Tresmarrow, built in 1578 was razed to the ground by Roundheads marching from Launceston to Bodmin in 1646. After the restoration of the monarchy, Piper rebuilt Tresmarrow House and local tradition suggests that he placed the skull of a Roundhead in a niche in one of the walls of the new building to remind his family of the gruesome fate of Charles I. It may be interesting to note that a skull is carved on Sir Hugh Piper’s memorial in Launceston parish Church.
The skull seems to have been left alone for a couple of hundred years, until the Dawe family purchased Tresmarrow House in the late nineteenth century. One of the family took offence to the skull, and had it buried in the garden. However, loud noises and mighty disturbances began as soon as it was buried, and it was quickly recovered and placed back in its niche on the outside of the house. The screaming skull appears to have been kept in its original niche at Tresmarrow House since 1649, (except for when it was occasionally buried) and was rumoured to have been taken to Canada, when the Dawe family emigrated there in 1908. Tresmarrow House was demolished in the same year. The skull was finally returned to Launceston in 2001, which was when it came to be displayed in the town’s museum. Image below.
So, in summary, what if anything, does the only known Cornish screaming skull folk-legend have in common with any other screaming skull tales from across Britain? Well actually not very much. Each tale tells a different backstory. However, the one thing that they all have in common is a kind of guardianship for the buildings to which they are attached, and foreboding paranormal activity occurring when a skull is removed. In the case of the skull at Ffagnallt Hall, if the remains of the skull are taken, a shrieking noise will be heard in perpetuity until it is returned. Similarly, in Somerset, 18th century farmer Theophilus Brome from Chilton Cantelo laid a curse saying that if his skull were ever removed from his farmhouse after his death, he would scream, disturb and moan for all eternity.
There is one other human skull curiosity from eastern Cornwall that needs further investigation. On Looe Island, there was a skull preserved in a cupboard in the sitting-room of the Island House. Maybe this once had similar folklore associated with it? Research is ongoing around this subject, and if anyone has anything to add, please get in touch.
Friday, 5 March 2021
As Ciarán was hurtling towards certain death the sun broke through the clouds, and instantly the winds abated and the raging stormy sea became calm. As the stone hit the sea it floated, hundreds in the crowd above, seeing Ciarán alive on the floating stone, were immediately converted to Christianity.
Wind and weather remained favourable for our reluctant spiritual hero, and after many days at sea, Ciarán landed safely on the beach that bears his name today - Perranporth, the cove or harbour of Piran, on the north coast of Cornwall within the modern parish of Perranzabuloe.
In the vast, remote and lofty sand dunes, overlooking the Celtic Sea, Ciarán built a cell and a small church. His first converts to Christianity were a fox, a badger and a bear. The Cornish people flocked to him as news of his teaching spread. It is alleged that he lived to the age of 206, at which time he still had all his teeth, perfect eyesight and showed no sign of old age. He is reputed to have died in a state of drunkeness by falling down a well. Legend states that he is buried at his Oratory in Perranzabuloe, Cornwall.
Today St Piran’s Oratory lies within the shifting sand dunes. The Oratory has recently been uncovered by archaeologists, and it is hoped that the ancient building will be preserved and maybe future generations will be able to visit this incredibly important site of cultural and historic importance.
This once flourishing Celtic Christian community of Piran would have rivalled Iona and Lindisfarne in its size and stature. Nearby is the ancient wayside cross of St Piran.
Thursday, 11 February 2021
Saturday, 23 January 2021
Tuesday, 19 January 2021
Cornish Folklore of the Wild Hunt
The Wild Hunt folklore motif occurs across Europe and typically involves a ghostly or supernatural group of hunters, horses and dogs passing in a wild pursuit, sometimes seen flying across the sky or leaping across the land. One of the earliest recorded stories of the wild hunt in Britain comes from Peterborough, was recorded during the mid-twelfth century where the ghostly hunt was described as having “huge and hideous hunters, who rode on black horses and on black he-goats, and their hounds were jet black, with eyes like saucers”
|Cheney's Hounds of St Teath by Paul Atlas-Saunders|
In North Cornwall we have Squire Cheney and his hounds, who haunt the countryside around St Teath during wild and stormy weather (1) and nearby at Pencarrow, the folkloric memory of Lord John Arscott’s seventeenth century hunt, sees their ghostly forms ride out from Pencarrow House to the cliffs around Port Isaac, and is said to end with the spectral hounds, huntsmen and horses jumping to their demise from the clifftops (2). At Bodmin, Robert Hunt recorded a vague childhood memory of the wild tale of Hender the Huntsman of Lanhydrock(3), and there is a tale of the wild hunt which haunts the ancient bridge which spans the River Ottery at Yeolmbridge, a couple of miles to the north of Launceston.(4)
Up on the high ground of Bodmin Moor we have Cornwall’s most famous demonic ghost, Jan Tregeagle, and his anguished howls can be heard as he is chased by the Devil’s Dandy Dogs(5) which snap mercilessly at his heels around the shores of the desolate Dozmary Pool. By day his spirit lurks within the waters, tasked with emptying the lake with a holed limpet shell. But it is by night that his true demonic force is felt, as he is chased across the tors and through the coombes with the fangs of the hell-hounds snapping at his heels. Here he makes sport for the devil himself, who leads the wild hunt across the desolate bogs and over the rocky tors. On particularly stormy night you can hear his cries, as his Tregeagle howls are carried on the wind as it whips through the valleys.
|Tregeagle and the Demonic Wild Hunt |
(Old Looe Stories & Legends card)
On the banks of the Lynher river, near St Germans comes the old tale of Dando and his Dogs. This pack of ghostly hounds, led by the spirit of local priest Dando who rides a magnificent horse, black as night, with eyes that gleam like the brightest stars. (6)
Robert Hunt recorded the tale, and is reproduced below.
In the neighbourhood of the lovely village of St. Germans formerly lived a priest connected with the old priory church of this parish, whose life does not appear to have been quite consistent with his vows.
He lived the life of the traditional "jolly friar." He ate and drank of the best the land could give him, or money buy; and it is said that his indulgences extended far beyond the ordinary limits of good living. The priest Dando was, notwithstanding all his vices, a man liked by the people. He was good-natured, and therefore blind to many of their sins. Indeed, he threw a cloak over his own iniquities, which was inscribed "charity," and he freely forgave all those who came to his confessional.
As a man increases in years he becomes more deeply dyed with the polluted waters through which he may have waded. It rarely happens that an old sinner is ever a repentant one, until the decay of nature has reduced him to a state of second childhood. As long as health allows him to enjoy the sensualities of life, he continues to gratify his passions, regardless of the cost. He becomes more selfish, and his own gratification is the rule of his existence. So it has ever been, and so was it with Dando.
The sinful priest was a capital huntsman, and scoured the country far and near in pursuit of game, which was in those days abundant and varied over this well-wooded district. Dando, in the eagerness of the chase, paid no regard to any kind of property. Many a corn-field has been trampled down, and many a cottage garden destroyed by the horses and dogs which this impetuous hunter would lead unthinkingly over them. Curses deep, though not loud, would follow the old man, as even those who suffered by his excesses were still in fear of his priestly power.
Any man may sell his soul to the devil without going through the stereotyped process of signing a deed with his blood. Give up your soul to Satan's darling sins, and he will help you for a season, until he has his claims carefully wound around you, when the links are suddenly closed, and he seizes his victim, who has no power to resist.
|Miserichord in St Germans church, |
featuring Dando and his Dogs.
Dando worshipped the sensual gods which he had created, and his external worship of the God of truth became every year more and more a hypocritical lie. The devil looked carefully after his prize. Of course to catch a dignitary of the church was a thing to cause rejoicings amongst the lost; and Dando was carefully lured to the undoing of his soul Health and wealth were secured to him, and by-and-by the measure of his sins was full, and he was left the victim to self-indulgences--a doomed man. With increasing years, and the immunities he enjoyed, Dando became more reckless. Wine and wassail, a board groaning with dishes which stimulated the sated appetite and the company of both sexes of dissolute habit exhausted his nights His days were devoted to the pursuits of the field, and to maintain the required excitement ardent drinks were supplied him by his wicked companions. It mattered not to Dando--provided the day was an auspicious one, if the scent would lie on the ground--even on the Sabbath, horses and hounds were ordered out, and the priest would be seen in full cry.One Sabbath morning Dando and his riotous rout were hunting over the Earth estate; game was plenty, and sport first-rate. Exhausted with a long and eager run, Dando called for drink. He had already exhausted the flasks of the attendant hunters.
"Drink, I say; give me drink," he cried.
"Whence can we get it?" asked one of the gang.
"Go to hell for it, if you can't get it on Earth," said the priest, with a bitter laugh at his own joke on the Earth estate.
At the moment, a dashing hunter, who had mingled with the throng unobserved, came forward, and presented a richly-mounted flask to Dando, saying:
"Here is some choice liquor distilled in the establishment you speak of. It will warm and revive you, I'll warrant. Drink deep; friend, drink."
Dando drank deep; the flask appeared to cling to his lips. The stranger hunter looked on with a rejoicing yet malignant expression;--a wicked smile playing over an otherwise tranquil face.
By-and-by Dando fetched a deep sigh, and removed the flask, exclaiming: "That was a drink indeed. Do the gods drink such nectar?"
"Devils do," said the hunter.
"An they do, I wish I were one," said Dando, who now rocked to and fro in a state of thorough intoxication, "methinks the drink is very like--" The impious expression died upon his lips.
Looking round with a half-idiotic stare, Dando saw that his new friend had appropriated several head of game. Notwithstanding his stupid intoxication, his selfishness asserted its power, and he seized the game, exclaiming, in a guttural, half-smothered voice: "None of these are thine."
"What I catch I keep," said the hunter.
"They're mine," stammered Dando.
The hunter quietly bowed.
Dando's wrath burst at once into a burning flame, uncontrolled by reason. He rolled himself off his horse, and rushed, staggering as he went, at the steed of his unknown friend, uttering most frightful oaths and curses. The strange hunter's horse was a splendid creature, black as night, and its eyes gleamed like the brightest stars, with unnatural lustre. The horse was turned adroitly aside, and Dando fell to the earth with much force. The fall appeared to add to his fury, and he roared with rage. Aided by his attendants, he was speedily on his legs, and again at the side of the hunter, who shook with laughter, shaking the game in derision, and quietly uttering: "They're mine."
"I'll go to hell after them, but I'll get them from thee," shouted Dando.
The name Dando, seems to have mutated to Dondo within the Rame peninsula and along the south coast. Between Rame and the cliffs around Looe the wild hunt of The Dondo still haunt the lonely lanes, wild cliffs and dark woodlands. Between Halloween and Candlemas, they can be witnessed on dark stormy nights, and are traditionally seen as an eerie portent to a shipwreck. The Dondo also hunts the souls of the recently deceased and is sometimes seen disappearing into the cliffs between the Brawn and the Long Stone, to the east of Downderry. The Dondo’s ghostly wagon can also be heard rattling along the nearby lanes carrying the dead and collecting the odd lost traveller for good measure. (7)
1. Popular Romances of the West of England by Robert Hunt
2. The Pencarrow Hunt by Merv Davey. Lien Gwerin No. 3
3. Mentioned in the introduction to Popular Romances of the West of England by Robert Hunt
4. Haunted Britain by Antony D. Hippisley Coxe, p 16
5. Popular Romances of the West of England by Robert Hunt
6. A medieval misericord carving of Dando and his dogs can be viewed in St Germans church
7. Memory, Place and Identity, The Cultural Landscapes of Cornwall edited by Garry Tregidga, pp 104, 105