Mythical Cornwall - Myths and Legends that Shaped Cornwall's Landscape
The British Isles are steeped in myth. Every county can boast its own legendary character, but none more so than Cornwall. Susannah Hart takes a journey around mythical Cornwall, uncovering just a few of the stories that have shaped its folklore and landscape.
Along the Atlantic coast between St Ives and St Just is the small village of Zennor. Nestled between the rugged cliffs and the brooding moor the village plays host to one of the most enchanting Cornish legends.
Many years ago an exquisitely dressed lady occasionally attended services at the medieval St Senara’s Church, huddled in the heart of Zennor. The stranger was remarked upon for her beauty and the sweetness of her voice. Over the years that she joined the parishioners she never appeared to age and no one ever knew from where this mysterious woman came. One day Matthew Trewella, the son of the churchwarden, followed her home. Neither was ever seen again.
Sometime later a ship anchored near Pendour Cove, a mile northwest of Zennor. Soon a mermaid appeared, requesting that the anchor be weighed, as one of the flukes was resting on her door. Believing mermaids to be a bad omen the sailors obliged.
The story spread to the village and it was concluded that the mermaid was the
curious lady who had visited the church and that she had bewitched Matthew Trewella and enticed him to go with her.The parishioners commemorated the story and you can still see the mermaid they carved into the end of one of the pews – the very one that the Mermaid of Zennor used when she attended the church.
We will never know if this tale is true, but it has inspired many works of art and literature since Cornish folklorist William Bottrell documented it in 1873. More recently, the late author, Helen Dunmore, used the legend’s names and location to great effect in her children’s ‘Ingo’ series, taking the reader on a journey into the heart of the magical underwater world of the ‘Mer’.
Less enchanting is what might be found further inland to the East! Bodmin Moor has a frightening resident if stories are to be believed. Since 1978 there have been more than 60 sightings of the Beast of Bodmin Moor, a black panther-like cat, some three to five feet long with white-yellow eyes. What could this phantom wild cat roaming the moor and slaying livestock be? Theories abound.
The most probable explanation is that a big cat was imported as part of a private collection and was later set free or escaped. In 1995 the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food conducted an official investigation. The findings concluded that there was ‘no verifiable evidence’ of exotic felines loose in Britain. Either way, you will never find me venturing out alone after dark on Bodmin Moor!
Six miles from the bustling tourist town of Perranporth, you will find the wild but cosy beach of Chapel Porth. Set in an old mining valley between two very high cliffs, Chapel Porth has not one, but two mythical residents. One very large, and one very small.
Bolster was a giant who fell in love with St Agnes, a missionary. As he was already married, St Agnes rejected him and to rid herself of him she told him that to prove his devotion he would have to fill a hole in the ground at Chapel Porth with his blood.
Lovesick, and as he was so large that he could stand with one foot on St Agnes Beacon and the other on Carn Brea,Bolster agreed. However, he didn’t know the hole led to the sea. When he opened a vein and allowed his blood to flow into the hole, it flowed and flowed without filling the hole. Bolster eventually collapsed and died but the hole is still there and a red stain on the rocks is said to be where Bolster's blood flowed down.
Last, but not least, the legendary Chapel Porth hedgehog must be included. Although, possibly not as mythical as they are evident on any sunny summer’s afternoon. Ask at the National Trust kiosk for a hedgehog and you will not be disappointed. You will receive a delectable waffle cone filled with luscious Cornish clotted cream ice cream, slathered with Cornish clotted cream and rolled in honeyed hazelnuts! A heart attack waiting to happen perhaps, but a living legend nonetheless and definitely worth a visit to Cornwall!