Sunday 10 April 2022

Footprints in Stone

Bucca's hoofprints at Tolcarne, Newlyn

Footprints in Stone

Petrosomatoglyphs in Cornwall

by Alex Langstone

I have long been intrigued by ideas of topographical features relating to giants and other legendary figures. These petrosomatoglyphs, such as footprints and handprints, can be found all over the world, and seem to variously belong to kings, devils, saints, horses and giants. Cornwall has its own stony prints and our journey begins on Tintagel Island.

King Arthur’s footprint is located at the highest point on the island, and centuries of erosion make it difficult to judge whether this is a natural feature or not. It has been discussed as an important place of inauguration, where a king was required to stand as a symbolic gesture of territorial leadership.  However, there is nothing recorded in Cornish folklore on this custom, but there is evidence elsewhere in Britain. The ancient seat of the Kings of Dalriada at Dunadd in Scotland had a tradition where the newly crowned king would place his foot into a “stone footprint” on the land to symbolise his rule, similarly with St Columba’s footprint at the Mull of Kintyre, and the footprints of Fergus Mór mac Eirc at Crinan Moss. 

King Arthur's footprint, Tintagel Island. The church of St Materiana can be
seen on the opposite cliff

The Tintagel footprint story has been repeated often since 1889, when it was first suggested that King Arthur could step one stride across the sea from the island’s rocky footprint to the parish church on Glebe cliff, linking two very important sites. Another example of this amazing folkloric deed is found at the Carn Brea Neolithic hilltop settlement where we find giant Bolster standing with one foot on the summit and the other on the top of St Agnes Beacon. It is interesting to note that whilst Carn Brea is lacking a stony footprint, it does have a giant’s handprint on the top of one of the massive, weathered granite stacks. This is linked to the hill’s very own resident giant, known as John of Gaunt, and alongside his  hand, we have his petrified stony head protruding from an outcrop at the eastern end of the hill.  John and Bolster would throw rocks at each other, demonstrating their rivalry, and it seems that Bolster won this game, as Carn Brea is littered with rocks, whilst St Agnes Beacon is smooth and clear.

The footprint of St Agnes (or sometimes ascribed to Giant Bolster) Chapel Porth. Pic: Rupert White

The legendary holy woman, St Agnes has her own immortal footprint set into stone at Chapel Porth. Located in the valley, not far from the ruins of her old chapel and well, where in the early eighteenth century, local historian Thomas Tonkin recorded:

“She likewise left the mark of her foot on a rock, still called St. Agnes Foot, which they tell you will fit a foot of any size”  

The St Agnes footprint is also sometimes ascribed to the giant Bolster. Interestingly there is another giant’s footprint at the rocky outcrop known as Creeg Tol in West Penwith.

Goss Moor lies in the heart of mid-Cornwall, and was once the home of King Arthur's Stone, which was recorded as having several indented hoofmarks, which were described as the prints of King Arthur’s hunting horse, which was kept at Castle an Dinas. This old folk narrative is perpetuated in a ghostly encounter, which states that Goss Moor is haunted by the shimmering apparition of King Arthur and his knights. Cornish historian Samuel Drew recorded one of the most impressive ghost sightings linked to Arthur. Around the end of the eighteenth century, King Arthur’s ghostly army was witnessed in the sky above Castle an Dinas, in a wild hunt. Around a century later, Henry Jenner recorded a story from an old man at the hamlet of Quoit, who had seen the ghosts of King Arthur's soldiers training at Castle an Dinas hillfort, and recalled the moonlight glinting and reflecting from their broadswords. Nearby can be found the remains of a Neolithic chambered tomb called the Devil's Coyt and this site maybe connected to King Arthur’s stone, as it also has the imprint of a cloven hoof on its surface. 

Devil's Coyt

On the south shore of the Duchy, lies the fishing port of Polperro, and it is here where we encounter our next stony footprint. The village is home to the Devil’s Hoofprint, which is also known as the Devil’s Doorway, where the Dark Horned One rides up from his eerie domain in a glistening black coach drawn by his enormous midnight stallion with glowing red eyes. The spooky tale informs us that as the Devil and his coach materialised from the egress in the rocks, Satan’s Stallion left a gigantic fiery hoofmark in the slate. This can still be seen today as a hoof-shaped pool, which is filled twice each day by the flood-tide.   

In the far west of Cornwall, we have our final rocky footfalls. These can be found set into a large stone at Tolcarne, which rises to the rear of the fishing harbour at Newlyn. This rock, locally known as Bucca’s rock, is believed to show the Devil’s (or Bucca’s)  footprints on the top, and around the base is the solidified print of a fishing net. The story tells us that in the year 1592, the Devil decided he wanted to go fishing. He stole some nets from the Newlyn fleet and headed towards the harbour. However, he was discovered by some of the choir of St Peter’s church, and they chased him away from the harbour, whilst chanting the Apostles’ Creed in the hope of exorcising him. The Devil strode out across the valley, trying in vain to escape, and finding that he could not flee, increased his body size to that of a giant, flapping his dark outstretched wings, he flew to the top of Tolcarne, uttering the words Bucca, Bucca, Bucca! 

The summit of Tocarne, Newlyn

Article first published in Meyn Mamvro Vol, 2 No. 5. © Alex Langstone

With thanks to Jane Cox, Gemma Gary and Rupert White.