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

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