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

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