Saturday, 13 August 2016

Hateful Places? Rivalries of Neighbours

A whole genre of folklore (not unique to Cornwall) is devoted to rivalries between communities through the ages.  This suspicion between neighbouring communities is treated often as quaint or a symptom of the narrow rural mindset, but may mask deeper animosities.  Villages could sit alongside each other, trade with each other and occasionally (grudgingly?) assist each other in times of distress, but under the veneer of centuries old mutual distrust, disguised as a joke, was there real hatred?  Which places were particularly prone to hate even nearby outsiders?  Read on.
 One way in which community neighbours on the coast often acted for their mutual benefit was when an unfortunate ship got into trouble in their vicinity and the wrecking instinct kicked in.  This rhyming naval prayer commemorates this:
 God save us from rocks and shelving sands
And save us from Breage and Germoe’s men.
 It was said in the area that Germoe’s men once had very beautiful singing voices, but their overwhelming pride in this fact meant that God eventually took away this communal talent.  The village still boasted a very fine opinion of itself, as this rhyme on local characteristics demonstrates:
Camborne men are bulldogs,
Breage men are brags,
Three or four Germoe men
‘Ull scat ‘um all to rags.
 Further on, St Ives and its neighbour Zennor shared a mutual loathing of each other for many years.  Zennor people often reminded St Ives of an incident which may or may not have actually happened.  The fishermen of St Ives became enraged because hake would incessantly get into their standard catch of mackerel.  So they decided to teach the hake a lesson by catching one large example of the species, giving it a good whipping and throwing it back into the water, teaching a lesson and giving a warning to all the hake.  So, if a Zennor man felt vindictive towards his neighbour, he might comment, ‘Who whipped the hake?’  Few things are more satisfying than believing the village next door is hopelessly full of idiots.   St Ives could hit back by disparaging Zennor’s barren geography and poverty.  It was whispered that Zennor was the place where ‘the cow ate the bell-rope’ because the place was so rocky and desolate there was nothing else for it to eat. 
 Possibly, as a reaction, St Ives would also accuse the inhabitants of Zennor of not being intellectually well equipped.  The explanation of their taunt, ‘Why built the wall around the cuckoo?’ is as follows.  It was said that the folk of Zennor noticed how the coming of the cuckoo in spring always coincided with better weather, so they resolved to ensure fine weather by keeping the bird with them always.  They were in the act of building a wall to detain the cuckoo one particular year when the creature simply flew away, much to their dismay.  ‘Ef us ‘d got another coorse [course of bricks] an, us ‘d a kep’n in.’ They commented sadly as the bringer of spring flew us.  Unfortunately the people of St Ives seem to have stolen this story in an effort to blacken the reputation of Zennor, because this tale was already famously and originally told about the village idiots of Gotham in Nottinghamshire. 
 Camborne and Redruth, despite being cheek by jowl, were sometimes at odds.  Camborne once accused its neighbour with the taunt, ‘Who crowned the donkey?’  This remembers an incident  when the townsfolk paraded such a best through its streets, complete with crown, as a mocking response to the accession of the poorly regarded King George IV in 1820.  Another, stranger slander says that Redruth’s people all had three chocks (slits) in their heels – whatever that means.
 Even in modern times, Bodmin had sometimes been disparaged wrongly by others in Cornwall.  To say that a certain person ‘has gone a bit Bodmin’ was hinting that they were mad, deriving from the fact that the mental hospital was located in the town.  A kinder and older saying about the town was, ‘In to Bodmin and out of the world.’  This hinted at an era when the town was sleepy and isolated, not just from the rest of Cornwall, but the whole country.  When the outside world rudely intruded into Bodmin the results were not always happy.  It was said that an enterprising outside merchant once created a sensation in the borough by bringing in fancy clothes and hats from up country.  Although the fashions rapidly sold out and transformed the appearance of the town, there was an immediate outbreak of severe pestilence and many people died.  The rumour spread that these new, outlandish clothes were the cause of this plague.  So all the hasty garments were gathered up and ceremoniously burnt.  But the disease ravaged through the town afterwards and the dead were carted away to be buried in a far off field at Crantock, where the burial mounds of the victims were still to be seen long afterwards.  It was said in Crantock that if the mounds were disturbed in the least the Angel of Death would be instantly released and flap across their village with his great black wings.
 Nicknames of small settlements and other places are often derived from disparaging views of other nearby places, but the meanings or reasons behind a lot of these names are not now recoverable.  Take, for instance, this list of nicknames of places in the area of the Meneage (from Mullyon: its History, Scenery and Antiquities, E G Harvey, 1875):
Landewednack/Lizard – Onions
Grade – Geese
St Ruan – Ducks
St Keverne – Romans
St Anthony – Pigs
Manaccan – Sweets
St Mawgan – Owls
St Martyn – Kites
Cury – Crows
Gunwallow – Jackdaws
Mullion – Gulls

The list of local nicknames is quite possibly endless, but here are a few more:

St Levan  -Witches
 St Just - Fuggans /Bugs
Egloskerry - Rough Heads
Poundstock-  Stragglers
Otterham  -Revellers
 Lesneweth and St Juliot -Whitpot Eaters
Week St Mary - Beggars
 Stratton - Mice
Whitstone - Owls
Morvah Chick- Chacks
Zennor - Goats (It was said that Zennor people would contrive, by their thrifty habits, to live like goats. Hence the nickname "Zennor Goats", or "as careful as Zennor people.)
Towednack -  Cuckoos
Nancledra - Rats
St Buryan - Boars
 Mousehole Cut-Throats
 Newlyn Buccas
Sancreed - Pigs
Penzance - Scads [a type of mackerel]
North Tamerton - Mingies [Minnows]
 Launcells Geese
Jacobstow - Gentlemen
 Bude - Mules
Poughill - Cuckoos
Kilkhampton - Rooks
Marhamchurch  -Bulldogs
Morwenstow and St Gennys –Wreckers
Marazion - Crows
Gulval Bulls
Ludgvan - Hurlers
Lelant and Hayle- Badgers
Camborne Merry-Geeks [after St Meriasek] also - Chaw Bacons
Penryn - Skiverdowns 
Falmouth Trollops
Stithians - Bugs
 St Agnes Cuckoos
Tregony - Mutton
 Probus - Winter Pigs
 Fowey Gallants
Polruan - Polly Roosters
 Padstow - Crows
St Pinnock - Bone Pickers

Polperro - Stinkers

Saturday, 18 June 2016

The Persistence of Witchcraft

While there were – allegedly and probably – ‘real’ witches in the early modern period and certainly ‘genuine’ cunning folk in the 19th century and most definitely modern Wiccans and practitioners of witchcraft, what is the relationship between all three?  Is there/was there a continuity of tradition and practice between historical periods, and if there was not, does it matter to practitioners of witchcraft, to ethnologists, folklorists, local historians and everyone else if there was not?  It depends on what you term genuine.
    The resurgence in witchcraft if of course not a purely Cornish phenomena, but it can be paralleled by one specific local cultural comeback.  Less than a century after the supposed extinction of the Cornish language there was an unprecedented revival led by Henry Jenner and others.  What would Jenner, Dolly Pentreath and a speaker of ‘pure’ Cornish from an earlier age make of each other?  Would they even be mutually intelligible at a meaningful level?
   In the 19th century, and indeed later, there were a number of people in rural Cornwall who made their living and were respected as traders in occult wisdom.  But it is hard to judge through the distorting mirror of hearsay if they were practitioners in an unbroken line of ancient tradition, con artists, herbalists, showmen, quacks, occultists or natural philosophers.  Reputations of outlandish characters in the community tend to warp quickly and significantly after they die.  Take Thomasine or Tamasin Blight (aka Tammy Blee), the 19th century ‘white witch of Helston’. She lived from 1798 to 1856 and was still remembered by some people in the 1920s, by which time her real life attributes had been transformed by passing time.  According to Clara Rogers in Echoes in Cornwall (1926), this famous cunning woman was ‘a horrible looking old woman...cheeks all fallen away and the lower lids of her eyes was turned right down over her cheeks...’  In other words, she was remembered as the very archetype of an ugly old witch. 
   A semi-fictionalised Tammie also stars in a Cornish folk tale first related by William Bottrell in 1870, wherein a young man hires Tamsin to summon up the spirit of his elderly dead relative who has been looking after his money but unfortunately died without revealing its whereabouts.  The witch takes the unfortunate to St Stithians’ churchyard and theatrically goes through the motions of summoning the shade of the departed woman.  This was too much for the terror stricken young labourer – he ran for his wife from the darkened graveyard.  Act two had the young man’s cousin, a brave sailor, going to the witch to demand results as she had pocketed the fees without result.  This time a ‘ghost’ appeared, touched the sailor, and was duly punched to the ground.  The rather drunken spirit turned out to be Tammy’s husband Thomas.  The couple begged the man not to tell the truth but to spread the rumour that the dead woman had indeed appeared and promised woe to anyone who owed the family money.  Shortly afterwards sums of money were left anonymously on the doorsteps of the cousins.  Such was the power of supernatural propaganda.  The dead woman’s missing will was found later hidden in the rafters when a storm blew the roof off her cottage.
   But who and what was Thomasine Blight in real life?
   Recent work by writers like Jason Semmens (in The Witch of the West (2004) and other works), have endeavoured to reveal the person behind the occult mask.  Known as the White Witch of Helston, Thomasine was a native of the Redruth area and became a pellar or conjurer, local terms for magic workers.  Blight could cure illness in man and beast, recover lost goods, take off curses imposed upon the hapless by ill wishers and much more besides.  Among the wares she peddled was ‘witch powder’, but also soil removed from graves, miscellaneous bones and teeth, plus written spells which could be worn around the neck and had a medical efficacious effect.  Her second husband was James Thomas, another occult practitioner, and someone who forged his own reputation as a supernatural practitioner until his public downfall (which is detailed below).  In the days before the proper advancement of medical science, much illness was mysterious and believed by some to be inspired by the malice of others.  A woman with a sick child mysteriously affected came to Tammy to discover the cause and demanded the name of the person who had ill-wished her daughter.  The witch refused to utter the name but provided so accurate a description that the mother was able to identify her at once.  When the suspected person passed the child’s house a few days later the mother rushed out and scratched the evil doer, for if you drew blood from an evil witch the spell would be broken.  Needless to say, the child recovered and thrived from that day.

   A Breage woman who had been paralysed was brought to see Thomasine by the local vicar, despite his mutterings about superstition.  The woman was informed that she had been enchanted and that the guilty party would soon come to her door and enquire about the whereabouts of her little black cat.  This came to pass, and immediately the affected woman rose and went to the well to fetch water, being cured forever.  Like many of her kind, Thomasine was said to have had a short temper and often fell out with people.  One  Camborne shoemaker who offended her suffered the loss of his business, which dwindled and failed soon after he argued with the woman. 
   Thomasine married mine engineer James Thomas of Gwenap in 1835, several years after being widowed.  Although ostensibly a mine worker, James was also a ‘cunning man’ who built up a sizeable reputation, perhaps bolstered by his more talented wife, with whom he formed a sort of double act for 15 years, firstly in Redruth and latterly in Helston.  His wife was to distance herself from his after his disgrace and claim that she was the one in the partnership who was really blessed with arcane talent.  Thomas was bisexual and his attempted manipulation of men through magical means came to a crisis point in early 1851.  When one Eleanor Paynter of St Ives came to him, Thomas diagnosed that she was bewitched and said that the only cure was for him to have sex with Eleanor’s husband.  The latter objected to this; it was known that the male witch had used these tactics before.  But this time the man went to the magistrates and James Thomas ran away and was forced to stay abroad for two years.  The writer Robert Hunt included an unsavoury description of Thomas given to a newspaper by an anonymous correspondent, showing he was still active after his exile: ‘He said himself this week at Truro that he had cured a. young man of St Erth... He has caused...great disturbance amongst the neighbours, by charging some with having bewitched others. He is a drunken, disgraceful, beastly fellow, and ought to be sent to the treadmill.’
   Tammy herself may have been descended from the famous Lutey family of Cury, who were renowned pellars. The first known witch of this name was a fisherman who gained his powers from a mermaid at Poldhu Cove after he had save her from being stranded by the tide.  He was granted three wishes:  the power to break evil spells, to charm away illness and to find and restore stolen goods.  He also gained the creature’s comb; by stoking the water with it he could recall the mermaid magically to his presence.  The artefact was a treasure held by the family for many generations.
 But the real connection with the Luteys may never now be known.  Her contemporary and fellow resident of Helston,  Anne or ‘Granny’ Boswell, was certainly of famous (or infamous) supernaturally gifted stock.  She lived from around 1817 until 1909 and came from Romany Gypsy stock, being born in Ireland.  She was married, secondly, to another Romany, Ephraim Boswell, a self-styled ‘king of the gypsies’ (there were several of those in the 19th century).  Boswell was regarded as unwelcome by the authorities and she is said to have ill-wished some people in Helston.  Her profession as a wise woman may in part have been inspired by economic necessity, because she struggled hard as a farm worker in the area and had to raise a brood of six children.  Granny’s most infamous act occurred during the election campaign of 1906.  She had staggered out of a pub, well drunk, to encounter a new fangled motor car which had been brought in as a gimmick by one of the candidates.  (Poor Anne had a habit of inebriation.  She was fined and sent to Bodmin Gaol for seven days for being worse for wear in Lady Street, Helston, in 1902.)  She stood there and gawped at the motor car, even when the driver asked her to move.  Following a foul mouthed tirade she cursed the gleaming example of modern technology and predicted that it would not reach the far end of the street.  The car of course broke down within a few feet once she stood aside:  ancient wisdom winning out over the internal combustion engine.  Granny’s career followed a peculiarly downward trajectory (common perhaps with many historical magicians and witches) and she ended up, abandoned by her family, in the parish workhouse.
   Anne Boswell recently returned to prominence in an unexpected fashion recently in Mevagissey.  A refurbished launderette in the village, which was unaccountably given a witchcraft theme, reopened under the glorious name of ‘Granny Boswell Wash House’, apparently because Granny had some links with Meva.  Talk about asking for trouble.  The business was soon beset with machines breaking down, doors opening and closing without human agency and other unaccountable eeriness.  Some locals also objected to the establishment’s spurious connection with an agent of Satan.  It transpired (allegedly) that there were three ghosts causing problems on the premises, one of whom was the redoubtable Granny Boswell (Wicked Launderette of the West Causes a Spin’, Cornish Guardian, 14 September 2012).
Granny Boswell

   Less celebrated (but locally famous) pellars included Uncle Jack Hooper from Redruth, who used a soot encrusted mirror as a scrying device to magically view hidden information.  At the end of the 19th century, Robert Hunt in Popular Romance of the West of England (1865) cited several newspaper reports to show that belief in witchcraft and enchantment was alive and well in Cornwall, though the journalism heavily dismisses the fact that such beliefs still existed.  In one story an unnamed wise man from Illogan was visited by several clients, all of whom he declared to be spell bound.  Using the power of fear and suggestion, he told one visitor that he would have been in the asylum within a fortnight if he had not come soon, while another person was informed they would have broken a leg if they had not engaged his services.  In an echo of the habits of John Thomas, the newspaper reported that the male witch sometimes slept with those who consulted him in order to affect a cure, though there was nothing sexual implied.  This did not prevent the report calling on the police to halt his activities.
   Another case actually came before the magistrates at Liskeard (sourced from the Western Morning News):
At the Liskerd police court, on Monday, Hariet King appeared...charged with an assault on Elizabeth Wellington.  The complainant had called the mother of the defendant a witch, and said she had ill-wished a person, and the ill wish fell upon the cat, and the cat died.  This annoyed the daughter, who retaliated by bad words and blows.  The magistrates expressed surprise at the cause of the assault...[and] they fined defendant 1s. And the costs, £1 in all.
  Even as late as 1913 a newly arrived medical man in St Ives could report that wounds among his patients had been effectively cured or at least staunched by local healers.  The fact that they resorted to the pellar before the doctor speaks volumes of the abiding trust in traditional ways.


Sunday, 15 May 2016

A First Look at Giants

Casual observers, especially those who imbibe their culture from place-names, might assume that ancient Cornwall was peopled mainly by giants and King Arthur and his various associates.  Stand in a random spot in the Cornish countryside and throw a stone and you stand a good chance of hitting an outcrop or boulder associated with one of these ancient inhabitants.  What is it about giants that they fit in so well with this landscape (especially in west Cornwall)?  In general, the giants of England are a generally un-frightening breed, at home in fairy tales.  Those enormous creatures from the periphery are different.  The giants of the Northern Isles, the Highlands of Scotland and the peninsula of Cornwall inhabit contradictory countries:  confined in size, but often strew with massive rocks, cliffs and large scale landscapes.
   But to the meat of the matter.  The primary giant of the peninsula was of course Cormelian (aka Cormoran), who made his home in a cave on St Michael’s Mount, where the Giant’s Well is still to be seen.  It was said that this giant removed the top of the hill of Trencrom to form the Mount.  He was one of a breed of overly large creatures who terrified the Cornish humans, but was outwitted by a hero with the dull and generic name of Jack the Giant Killer.  Jack dug a large pit at Marazion and covered it was a cross-marked stone.  The poor giant of course trod on this trap and tumbled down into the voice, where one version says he was drowned outright.
Jack the valiant Cornishman
Did slay the giant Cormoran.
  Another tradition says that St Michael’s Mount was home to two giants, at least until one slaughtered the other one.  And yet  another tradition here states that Comoran and his wife lived on the Mount.  The wife stepped over to Marazion to collect a large stone to build a castle on the Mount, which she collected from the hill of Ludgvan-Lees  placed in her apron, but the string broke and the mass of now broken stone tumbled into the sea near the mount. Alternatively, her husband was so angry with her choice of masonry material that he gave her a mighty kick which actually killed her.  According the antiquarian William Bottrell, writing in the Victorian era, the giant who lived on Trencrom Hill (otherwise Trecrobben) was good friends with his cousin, the giant of St Michael’s Mount.  When they needed to do some large scale DIY on their respective hills they would fling a massive cobble hammer over the respective space.  But one day there was a tragedy when the Trecrom giant threw the hammer and it smashed the St Michael’s giant’s wife square between her eyes and killed her outright.  The two giants were distraught.  The giant of the Mount buried his treasures there, then pined away and died of grief.  Over the years a fair few people have explored the cairns in the hope of unearthing the giant’s fabulous wealth.   One treasure hunter found the actual container of the treasure, but as soon as his hammer struck it, up flew a protective band of spriggans, little supernatural beasties, who flew in his face and drove him away.  The writer gave a version of this which insisted the spriggans grew in size and fearsomeness until the assumed the form of giants’ ghosts.

  Jack the Giant Killer also slew, among others, another giant named Thunderbore.  The original race of giants came here before the landing of Brutus and the Britons.  Despite their ardent lack of intelligence and rank ugliness they were generally harmless.  When they took to fighting among themselves they did so via the clumsy mechanism of hurling huge boulders at each other.

   The giants vanished so long ago that their individual names are not often remembered.    No one knows what poor giant was buried in the mound near St Ives which was excavated around the year 1690.  Inside was found a ‘tooth an inch wide’.  Its finding was faithfully recorded by a certain Mr Hicks, ‘an intelligent townsman of that period’.    These unknown titans have left the name of their race on the landscape and the examples are too many to fully list.  Near Madron, in the west, you can find a cavern named the Giant’s Cave.  Not far away is the antiquity known as Lanyon Quoit or Cromlech, once also known by locals as the Giant’s Quoit or Giant’s Table.  Another Giant’s Cave exists near the famous monument called the Nine Maidens, and here there is a rare instance of tradition remembering his name, which was Holiburn.  Also near the Nine Maidens and the hamlet of High Ninnis is a cromlech called the Mulfra Quoit, more familiarly termed the Giant’s Quoit.  A lost cave near the Land’s End was called the Giant’s Holt, which was described by Borlase in the middle of the 18th century as having ‘no other use than to frighten and appease forward children’.  the habit of prehistoric monuments having multiple names is marked in the district and another example in the area is Bosworlas Lehau  (’the flat stones of Bosworlas’), whose informal name was the Giant’s Quoit.  Also here were the Giant’s Chair and the Giant’s Table.  Not far from Zennor is a partially hollowed stone known as the Giant’s Cradle.  Those who require more outsized memorials in this district can pick either the Giant’s Chair or the Giant’s  Bed.  In Towednack, a neighbouring parish to Zennor, there was a moorstone called the Giant’s Rock, under which was discovered in the year 1702 some 80 silver Roman coins.  The Giant’s Well on Carn Brea was said to be bottomless.  Much further east, in the parish of Talland near Looe, was a decayed old mound which was called the Giant’s Hedge.
      Bellerus, another of the early, named Cornish giants, haunted the area around Land’s End.  It is said that one of the old names of the promontory came from this giant.  Not far from the church at Sennen is a boulder 18 feet long which has three other stones on top.  One of these stones is named the Giant’s Chair; another of the stones was marked with his footprint and the third was used as his basin.  Other associated stones in the neighbourhood are the Giant’s Bed, Giant’s Ladle and Giant’s Rock.  Treryn Dinas cliff castle, Porthcurno, was home to two male giants and a giantess.  The two males fought possibly over the lady, and one of them stabbed the other in the belly.  The name of the surviving giant was Miendu, or Black Face.  Another domestic incident among the big people is recalled by the stone on the roadside near Breage.  This boulder  was thrown by the Giant of Godolphin Hill at his wife after she became a little too keen on going to visit the Giant of Pengersick.  Anyone who has tried to tamper with the stone over the years has always had something bad happen to them. 
   On the north coast near  Portreath was a cavern called Ralph's Cupboard,home to a giant called Wrath who loved to snatch fishing boats, attach them to his belt and drag them into his den. The fishermen on board would be eaten if they were sufficiently plump, but he discarded the measly ones.  If the boats were too far from shore he would throw rocks to make them sink and there is now a reef of these rocks near Godrevy Head. The roof of the cupboard collapsed after Wrath's death leaving an open gorge.  Bedruthan Steps, further east along the coast were hewn and used by another giant.  
Possibly the most famous giant in Cornwall was Bolster, who inhabited the region around St Agnes.  He was so huge that he could place one foot on St Agnes Beacon and another on the distant hill of Carn Brea.  Robert Hunt tells his story in Popular Romance of the West of England:

 Bolster must have been of enormous size: since it is stated that he could stand with one foot on St Agnes' Beacon and the other on Carn Brea; these hills being distant, as the bird flies, six miles, [b] his immensity will be clear to all. In proof of this, there still exists, in the valley running upwards from Chapel Porth, a stone in which may yet be seen the impression of the giant's fingers. On one occasion, Bolster, when enjoying his usual stride from the Beacon to Carn Brea, felt thirsty, and stooped to drink out of the well at Chapel Porth, resting, while he did so, on the above-mentioned stone. We hear but little of the wives of our giants; but Bolster had a wife, who was made to labour hard by her tyrannical husband. On the top of St Agnes' Beacon there yet exist the evidences of the useless labours to which this unfortunate giantess was doomed, in grouped masses of small stones. These, it is said, have all been gathered from an estate at the foot of the hill, immediately adjoining the village of St Agnes. This farm is to the present day remarkable for its freedom from stones, though situated amidst several others, which, like most lands reclaimed from the moors of this district, have stones in abundance mixed with the soil. Whenever Bolster was angry with his wife, he compelled her to pick stones, and to carry them in her apron to the top of the hill. There is some confusion in the history of this giant, and of the blessed St Agnes to whom the church is dedicated. They are supposed to have lived at the same time, which, according to our views, is scarcely probable, believing, as we do, that no giants existed long after their defeat at Plymouth by Brutus and Corineus. There may have been an earlier saint of the same name; or may not Saint Enns or Anns, the popular name of this parish, indicate some other lady?
Be this as it may, the giant Bolster became deeply in love with St Agnes, who is reputed to have been singularly beautiful, and a pattern woman of virtue. The giant allowed the lady no repose. He followed her incessantly, proclaiming his love, and filling the air with the tempests of his sighs and groans. St Agnes lectured Bolster in vain on the impropriety of his conduct, he being already a married man. This availed not; her prayers to him to relieve her from his importunities were also in vain. The persecuted lady, finding there was no release for her, while this monster existed, resolved to be rid of him at any cost, and eventually succeeded by the following stratagem:-- Agnes appeared at length to be persuaded of the intensity of the giant's love, but she told him she required yet one small proof more. There exists at Chapel Porth a hole in the cliff at the termination of the valley. If Bolster would fill this hole with his blood the lady would no longer look coldly on him. This huge bestrider-of-the-hills thought that it was an easy thing which was required of him, and felt that he could fill many such holes and be none the weaker for the loss of blood. Consequently, stretching his great arm across the hole, he plunged a knife into a vein, and a torrent of gore issued forth. Roaring and seething the blood fell to the bottom, and the giant expected in a few minutes to see the test of his devotion made evident, in the filling of the hole. It required much more blood than Bolster had supposed; still it must in a short time be filled, so he bled on. Hour after hour the blood flowed from the vein, yet the hole was not filled. Eventually the giant fainted from exhaustion. The strength of life within his mighty frame enabled him to rally, yet he had no power to lift himself from the ground, and he was unable to stanch the wound which he had made. Thus it was, that after many throes, the giant Bolster died !
The cunning saint, in proposing this task to Bolster, was well aware that the hole opened at the bottom into the sea, and that as rapidly as the blood flowed into the hole it ran from it...
Bolster striding the six miles between St Agnes' Beacon and Carn Brea, as illustrated in Robert Hunt's Book.

  Poor Bolster was buried at the placed named Giant’s Round.  Bolster day is now held at nearby Chapel Porth cove every May 1st, re-enacting the story, using  giant puppets and local performers. 

Monday, 2 May 2016

Wells, Holy and Otherwise

There has probably never been a uniformity which covers all the wells which were once resorted to by people in Cornwall, for the very good reason that they were not simply used as sources of water. Some wells were seen as being curative for specific ailments, others were seen as been generally lucky, health-giving, or able under specific and now forgotten circumstances to grant wishes or requests made by desperate people who beseeched them in the correct manner.  So classifying these sometimes neglected places in not a simple matter in Cornwall or elsewhere in Britain.

Sancreed Holy Well.

      What tradition lies behind the well which the antiquary Richard Carew noted near Saltash which would 'never boil peas to any seasonable softness'?  Was this the complaint of a soft minded housewife?  There were other British wells notes for their constant freezing temperature or for the fact that the water drawn from them was impervious to all attempts at boiling. What lies behind such beliefs is not known.

   St Non's Well at Five Lanes, near Altarnun, was believed to contain water which could cure madness.  Carew again noticed its odd reputation.  Carew commented:

In our forefathers' day when devotion as much exceeded knowledge as knowledge now cometh short of devotion, there were many bowsening places for curing madmen; and amongst the rest one at Alternunne, called St Nunne's Pool, which saint's altar it may be, pars pro toto, gave name to the church.  And because the maner of this bowsening is not so unpleasing to heare as it was uneasie to feele, I wil deliver you the practice as I receyved it from the beholder.   The water running from St Nunne's Well fell into a square and close-walled plot, which mighte be filld at what depth they listed.  Upon this wall was the frantick person set to a stand, his backe towards the poole; and from thence, with a sudden blow in the brest, tumbled headlong into the pond, where a strong fellowe provided for the nonce, tooke him and tossed him up and downe, alongst and athwart the water, until the patient, by forgoing his strength, had somewhat forgotten his fury.  Then was hee conveyed to the church, and certaine masses sung over him; upon which handling, if his right was returned, St Nunne had the thanks; but if there appeared small amendment he was bowsened againe and againe while there remayned in any hope of life or recovery.

   Why Non, the mother of St David of Wales, should have this reputation for curing sanity specifically in this one specific place is another unknown.  The well had dried up by the end of the 19th century, but even though most people neglected formerly holy wells by that time it was a common superstition in Cornwall that evil would befall anyone who purposefully destroyed a well.  Wells with superstitions or a reputation or aura of luck attached to them were probably in a minority far behind healing or simply generally holy wells.. One instance is Lady Nant's or Nance's Well at Mountjoy near Newquay.  Pilgrims once threw crosses into the water; if they floated they were in for good luck, but not so if the cross sank.

                                                                                                              St Keyne Well.

   There was a well near Colurrian, Gulval parish, in the far west of the duchy, which was famous for being able to help those who had weak or defective eyesight in particular.  The site was in an orchard below the village and fell to ruin in time, though the water was latterly still reckoned to be very pure.  In the same region, Madron had its famous well about three-quarter of a mile from the village.  Bishop Hall wrote of a poor cripple who came here in response to a dream that he would be cured by the holy water.  The best time for taking the waters here was deemed to be on the eve of the festival of Corpus Christi.  William Borlase, in his Natural History of Cornwall (1758). describes the location:

The soile around it is black, boggy, and light, but the stratum through which the spring rises is a grey moor-stone gravel. Here people who labour under pains, aches, and stiffness of limbs, come and wash; and many cures are said to have been performed, although the water can only act by its cold and limpid nature, forasmuch as it has no perceivable mineral impregnation.  Hither also, upon much less justifiable  errands, come the uneasy, impatient, and superstitious, and by dropping pins or pebbles into the water, and by shaking the ground round the spring, so as to raise bubbles from the bottom, at a certain time of the year, moon, and day, endeavour to settle such doubts and inquiries as will not let the idle and anxious rest.  Here, therefore, they come, and, instead of allaying, deservedly feed their uneasiness:  the supposed responses serving equally to increase the gloom of the melancholy, the suspicions of the jealous, and the passion of the enamoured.  As great a piece of folly as this is, 'tis a very antient one.

   Also in the far west of Cornwall, people came to the celebrated well of St Euny on the first Wednesday in May, bringing sick or maimed children.  The sick child was stripped and made to drop a pin as an offering into the well, then bathed in the pool in front of it, being immersed three times.  The well was otherwise known the Giant's Well.  


   Moving further east, there are many interesting wells in the Liskeard area.  The Pipe Well in the town itself was long the principal supply of water there, and there are records from the 14th century onwards which mention the 'Well of Lyskiret' and the 'Well of St Martin,' though whether they are referring to the same water source is unclear.  Also in the town were the Lady (or Lady's) Well at the bottom of Church Streetn (first mentioned in 1574 or 1575) and the Dean Well.  Richard Carew took a tongue-in-cheek look at St Cleer's Well, to the north of Liskeard:

St Cleere parish brooketh by his name by a more piercing than profitable ayre, which, in those open wastes, scowreth away thrift as well as sickness.  

   The remains of a small religious building at the well were much admired.  It may have suffered from the 'ruthless work of Puritans' in casting it down, at least that is the traditional explanation for its ruin.  The Dupath Well, near Callington, is supposedly a better preserved representation of what the sullied building at St Cleer once looked like.

   The Well of St Keyne south of Liskeard, was so renowned that the Bristolian poet Robert Southey (1774-1843) wrote a slightly sardonic poet about it.  This spring, named after the daughter of the eponymous founder of Brecknock in Wales, has a legend attached to it.  A local tradition said that couples newly married in the village church would race each other down to the well; the first one who drank the water would retain the upper hand in the relationship.  As St Keyne died a virgin, why she chose to bestow this particular property to her spring is a mystery.  Southey's satire alludes to man gaining control of his wife via the magical waters:   

    A well there is in the west country,
      And a clearer one never was seen;
    There is not a wife in the west-country
      But has heard of the Well of St. Keyne.
    An oak and an elm tree stand beside,
      And behind does an ash tree grow,
    And a willow from the bank above
      Droops to the water below.
    A traveller came to the Well of St. Keyne:
      Pleasant it was to his eye,
    For from cock-crow he had been travelling
      And there was not a cloud in the sky.
    He drank of the water so cool and clear,
      For thirsty and hot was he,
    And he sat down upon the bank,
      Under the willow tree.
    There came a man from the neighbouring town
      At the well to fill his pail;
    On the well-side he rested it,
      And bade the stranger hail.
   "Now, art thou a bachelor, stranger?" quoth he,
     "For an if thou hast a wife,
    The happiest draught thou hast drunk this day
      That ever thou didst in thy life.
   "Or has your good woman, if one you have,
      In Cornwall ever been?
    For an if she have, I'll venture my life
      She has drunk of the Well of St. Keyne."
   "I have left a good woman who never was here,"
      The stranger he made reply;
   "But that my draught should be better for that,
      I pray you answer me why,"
   "St. Keyne," quoth the countryman, "many a time
      Drank of this crystal well,
    And before the angel summoned her
      She laid on the water a spell.
   "If the husband of this gifted well
      Shall drink before his wife,
    A happy man thenceforth is he,
      For he shall be master for life.
   "But if the wife should drink of it first,
      God help the husband then!"
    The stranger stoop'd to the Well of St. Keyne,
      And drank of the waters again.
   "You drank of the well, I warrant, betimes?"
      He to the countryman said;
    But the countryman smiled as the stranger spake,
      And sheepishly shook his head.
   "I hastened as soon as the wedding was done,
      And left my wife in the porch,
    But i' faith she had been wiser than me,
      For she took a bottle to church,a."

   Sancreed Well, otherwise known as Chapel Downs, is in the far west of Cornwall and is one of those sites where the aura of holiness - Christian or otherwise - remains almost tangible.  It is in a hollow contained within a presumably once holy grove and people left offering of rags here to the spirit of the place in return for their problems being solved (and latterly for their wishes being granted).  The well theoretically belongs to St Credan, though it doubtless adopted by the incoming Christians.  In an act of open minded spiritual wisdom the local vicar re-discovered the well in the 1870s and helped to restore the surroundings.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Some Traditions About Churches

Talland Church near Looe is dedicated to the very shadowy St Tallanus, a reputed hermit who settled in this place in the 5th century and gave his name to his place, although the place-name may actually derive from the Cornish tal lan, meaning 'holy place on the brow of a hill.  One unusual feature of the building is that the bell tower is- or was - detached from the main church.  Tower and chapel were joined together after a fashion in the 15th century when a roof was built between the doors or both structures.  In this parish there is a place called Pulpit and it was said that the church was originally supposed to be built here.  Foundations were begun, but on the following night a supernatural voice was heard to intone:

                        If you will my wish fulfil,
                                 build the church on Talland Hill.

   When dawn came it was discovered that all the building stones had been removed to the location which the unseen speaker favoured.  The builders took the hint and constructed the church here, quite far from the centre of the parish - which may have given rise to this tradition.

Talland church, on its hill overlooking the sea.

   Perceived peculiarities of church building often give rise to stories which attempt to explain them. The Devil was busy the length and breadth of the British Isles trying to prevent or disrupt churches being constructed.  Sometimes he was successful and at other times he was rather less effective. Towednack Church, near St Ives, attracted the satanic ire and every time the masons built up the building, the Unholy One endeavoured to knock down the walls.  But he must have run out of energy in the end, because the church did go up and remained there, though its dimensions were rather small.  Perhaps there was a compromise reached between the forces of light and darkness.  Or perhaps Satan was actually bribed to desist:  in 1931 a hoard of ancient gold was found buried in this parish.  (A similar Cornish legend is attached to Lelant Church.)
   St Neot is named after another hermit, the brother of King Alfred of Wessex.  Although there was a Christian settlement here before the Anglo-Saxon holy man came here, it is said that he built the church himself at night and also that he carted all the stones to the site using some reindeer.  It is also said that Neot was a rather small chap and found that he could not  reach the keyhole of the church which he had constructed.  In order to gain access he had to place a stone opposite the door, stand on it and throw the key into the keyhole, and he was surprisingly successful every time.  If Neot isn't the patron saint of darts players, then he should be.

St Neot's Statue.

   St Anthony-in-Meneage is a coastal parish on the Lizard (its Cornish name is Lannentenin).  It has a third name: St Anthony-in-Kerrier, because it is situated in the deanery and Hundred of Kerrier. There is a story that, soon after the Norman Conquest, some noblemen were crossing to England when they got caught up in a dreadful storm.  Fearing death, they called out for the help of StAnthony, vowing that if he would save them from death they would build a church in his honour on the spot where they came safely to land.  They came to land safely near the Dunna Creek, and here the pious foreigners duly built their church.  A similar tale is told about Gunwalloe Church (and indeed further afield in Britain, including at Dundee, where the Earl of Huntingdon built a church in thanks for being saved from shipwreck.)
   The priests of St Germans thought they were on to a good thing when they persuaded the immensely wealthy Sir John de Daunay to build a magnificent new church at Sheviock.  But Sir John changed his mind about the scale (and the cost) of the project.  His wife was enraged by this and she resolved, somewhat illogically, to build a massive barn which would be even more magnificent than the proposed church.  She may have been inspired by this bizarre decision by the sudden appearance of Satan in the flesh.  Both buildings went up at the same time, though the barn was more swiftly built because the Devil lent a hand.  At the end of it, the cost of both buildings were compared and it was found that the barn's overall cost was only a penny and a half more than the humbler church.

The church-yard at Launceston.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

How Do You Like Your Haunted Dogs?

There's a question for you in the title.  Cornwall can be justly proud of the Beast of Bodmin without even getting into the argument about whether it has ever actually existed.  But, as cryptozoological creatures go, it is fairly tame.  By that I mean that it has a reputation of hanging around, being elusive, waiting to be sighted, running away, worrying the occasional sheep... pretty average stuff.

   I like my choice of monsters to be a bit more scary, or at least intriguing.  Tales of Big Dogs are more common in traditional folklore than tales of Big Cats.  But most of the ghostly or supernatural canine-type creatures in the British Isles undoubtedly spring from culturally Anglo-Saxon areas and not the Celtic 'fringes'.  Black hounds still haunt the lonely lanes of lowland England, where various names are given to this demonic animal:  'Trash'. 'Shuck', 'Skriker', 'Shock'.  The fairy dogs associated with the Scottish Highlands, on the other hand, are almost as shy as the Bodmin Beast.  But you can still find great stones and other places associated with the ferocious hounds of the hero Fionn mac Cumhail and his band.


   What does Cornwall have to offer in the phantom dog department?  The best example is found in the following story.  Some time in the early 19th century there was a fatal accident at an unspecified mine; sadly not an unusual occurrence, but the aftermath was unusual.  There was a rescue attempt, when a party of men descended down the shaft and tried to see if anyone was alive.  But all they brought to the surface was the dreadfully mangled remains of the poor miners, and not whole corpses either, but a conglomeration of torn flesh falling off broken bones, plus a few scraps of torn clothing. A crowd had gathered to see what was recovered.  But one of the men who brought up the remains did a morally courageous thing, which nevertheless may have sparked the subsequent haunting.  He threw the tangled, pitiful mass of human remains into the furnace fire of the engine as quickly as he could so the bystanders would be spared witnessing the horrible sight. The people went home, but something remained.
   Ever since that event, the engine-men said that packs of black dogs haunted the locality.  What they wanted, how they were laid to rest, and when they perhaps faded from  existence is unknown.


Saturday, 9 April 2016

Strange Tales of Church Bells

Church bells once had the power and reputation of driving away evil and sometimes were almost thought of as living beings.  The following legend comes from Robert Hunt's Popular Romances of the West of England (1865).  One the north coast of Cornwall, Forrabury Church was sometimes known as the 'Silent Tower of Bottreaux'.  Many years ago the people of Forrabury parish thought they should have a peal of bells to rival their neighbours in Tintagel.  So they raised some money and had the bells cast.  They were then blessed and put on a ship bound for Cornwall.  When the ship came near land the pilot heard the vesper bells of Tintagel and thanked God for the safe, speedy journey they had made.  But the captain laughed at him and said their safe journey was all due to him. Even as he impiously swore this a great storm roared up and sank the vessel at once, bells and all. As the ship went down, the sound of muffled bells were heard tolling dolefully, and they are still heard sometimes chiming beneath the waves.

   Bells had their own voices, as distinctive as human individuals, and the bell of Mevagissey sung this song, commemorating the fact that the sole bell is hung above the lower part of the tower, the only part remaining:

                                                                            Ye men of Porthilly.
                                                                            why were ye so silly?
                                                                            In having so little power;
                                                                           ye sold every bell,
                                                                           as Govan men tell,
                                                                           for money to pull down your tower.

   The church of  St Cadoc in Trefethin had a wonderful bell.  When a small boy climbed the belfry to look at it he was struck dead.  An evil spirit had put a spell on the bell and the death allowed the devils to steal away the bell and take it to a dark realm beneath the earth.  Ever since then, when a local child dies, the bell is heard mournfully tolling beneath the ground. [Tale contained in British Goblins, by Wirt Sikes (1881).]

    Another story of churches comes from Robert Hunt.  There was once a town named Langarrow in north Cornwall, which had seven churches, all large and beautiful.  Criminals were sent to this town to help with local mining, but they corrupted the locals, who gave in to idleness and evil pleasures. God was not pleased and sent a huge tempest against the town which lasted for three days and three nights.  When it was over the whole town was gone, buried forever beneath the coastal sand dunes.

St Peter's Church, Mevagissey