There are many tales associated with Cornwall; witches, magic smugglers and wreckers. Some of these we take with a pinch of salt, others we ignore at our peril. Be that as it may, the Gwennap Head cliffs can be an eerie place, as mist creeps in from the sea and it is, perhaps, not wise to venture onto this lonely place. When there was also the low moaning of the nearby Runnel Stone buoy it added a ghostly prescence to the area. Indeed, the area abounds with tales of ghosts and evil doing, of smugglers and wreckers.
What is known is that even today when a ship goes aground the people of Cornwall are not slow to take the opportunity to avail themselves of the windfall. In February 2002 the ship Kodima foundered of the Cornish coast and its cargo of wooden planks was released to help with the refloating procedure. The Cornish were waiting and over the next few weeks the valuable wood was secreted away in the garages, sheds and houses of Cornwall - there were brand new buildings springing up all over the southwest in 2003!
However, be that as it may, the following tales serve to give a glimpse into the old Cornwall of legend and mystery .
The Lost Land of Lyonesse
On a clear day, from Gwennap Head, the Isles of Scilly can be seen, some 28 miles away. It is said that the Scillies are the high peaks of the land of Lyonesse, described in legend as the site of Arthur’s final battle with his rival, Mordred. Those same legends say that the kingdom of Lyonesse sank beneath the waves, off the Cornish shore and, in the past, vegetation washed ashore in Mounts Bay has been suggested as supporting this idea. Indeed, there is much written and photographic evidence of sightings of tree stumps in the waters between Mounts Bay and Land's End, and the storms of 2014 revealed trunks of pine and oak, as well as the remains of hazel thickets, with well-preserved cob nuts and acorns washed out by streams running across the beach. Intriguingly, the Cornish name for St Michael’s Mount which rises up from the bay is “Carrack Looz en Cooz” which translates as “the grey rock in the wood”!
Fantasies of the past surge all around our Cornish coast, and the Lost Land of Lyonesse is one of the most intriguing stories of all.
Lyonesse - they say - was a fertile and prosperous land, comprising rich and lush plains, and beautiful cities: a land peopled by a noble race, whom 140 church towers summoned to worship. However, the stories also say that Lyonesse was gradually stolen by the sea. Here a bit and there a bit would be submerged after some winter storm, until, on a grim November night in 1099, a mighty gale of unparalleled severity raged in the West. The storm was so destructive that it caused the sea to make a clean sweep of the country, rushing, with stupendous speed, across the flat wooded lands until it was brought to a halt by the massive cliffs of what is now the Land's End peninsula.
All was lost…..except for Trevilian (or Trevelyan), an ancestor of the old Cornish family of that name, who only just escaped with his life from this deluge. He had foreseen what was coming, had wisely removed his farm stock and his family from his Lyonesse estate, and was making one further journey to his threatened home when the sea broke in upon it. Trevilian, mounted on his fleetest horse, just beat the waves, and there is a cave near Perranuthnoe which, they say, was the place of refuge to which the sturdy white horse galloped to safety, bringing his master through the angry waters.
There used to be another memorial of this great inundation at Sennen Cove, near the Land's End, where for centuries, stood an ancient chapel which, it was said, a Lord of Goonhilly erected as a thanksgiving for his escape from the flood that drowned Lyonesse.
The interesting link with reality is that the Vyvyans, for centuries, one of the most famous Cornish families and landowners in Penwith, still have as their family crest a white horse saddled minus rider; perhaps, an artistic reminder of that famous white horse from Lyonesse. It's also said the Vyvyans keep a white horse in their stables at Trelowarren, saddled and waiting for any such crisis.
Despite the long tradition of this Lost Land, infuriatingly history records no such disaster!
Did Lyonesse once link Cornwall and the Isles? Some of the old folk still declare that the Scillies are the high peaks of Lyonesse and nobody can deny that the rock formations around Land's End and on Scilly are uncannily alike.
Sceptics will, of course, refer to articles such as the one by Ronald Duncan who said
"The Scilly Isles, once called the Fortunate Isles, were settled in about 1700BC by immigrants from Brittany. At that time, they were probably 40 or more feet higher than they are today. The considerable subsistence that occurred on these islands may account for the legend of Lyonnesse, the country from which Tristan derived, or perhaps it may account for the legend of Avalon, the mysterious island to which Arthur's body was conveyed by Queens when he was mortally wounded in his last battle.”
However, it is a fact that the cluster of rocks between the Scillies and Land's End, known as the Seven Stones, are, even today, called by some, Lethowsow….which was what the old Cornish called Lyonesse! And some local fishermen still refer to the Seven Stones as "The City," for tradition tells that there was situated the principal town of the drowned land, and stories are told of how on calm days ruined buildings may be discerned beneath the waters near Lethowsow, and that in times past fishing-nets have brought up old weathered domestic utensils from the sea bottom!
The Giant of St. Michael's Mount
Legend says that St Michael's Mount was built as a home by the giant Cormoran and his wife, Cormelian, who were said to have lived in a mighty forest, now submerged beneath Mounts Bay. They quarried the finest white granite from which the island was formed and Cormelian was forced by her husband to carry the stones in her apron. One day, when he fell asleep, she decided to carry the lighter greenstone instead, but he awoke and caught her. Enraged, he kicked her, her apron strings broke and she dropped the greenstone which buried itself deep in the sand. However, a piece of it is still to be seen on the causeway leading to the Mount and is now known as Chapel Rock
Cormoran was eventually killed by Jack the Giant Killer who dug a deep pit on the Mount one night and disguised it with a cover of sticks and straw. He blew his horn to waken the giant and Cormoran rushed out and fell into the pit, whereupon Jack beheaded his with an axe.
Madgy Figgy's Chair
A little way beyond Porthcurno lies another fishing hamlet, named Porthgwarra, which one may well suspect of owning a history of more incident than arises naturally out of nets and trawls. A short climb above this cluster of dwellings brings us out on the summit of Tol-Pedn-Pennwydh (or Gwennap Head, in modern vernacular). There is no grander sight in Western Cornwall than the sheer dropping of this mighty headland to the sea. Its dark jutting shoulders and the huge buttresses still impress the mind today as they surely did of old, when every peak along these coasts had its tale of witches gathering to watch and help the growing storms, or sailing through the air on stalks of ragwort.
On the top of Tol-Pedn is a rude recess among the cubes of granite, which keeps the name of Madgy Figgy's Chair. Madgy Figgy was accounted one of the blackest of all the Penwith witches and from Madgy Figgy's Chair she could look out over the ships navigating the treacherous waters around the Runnel Stone….and not just observe!
It is said that, often, when the winter storms were rising and the seamanship skills of the great ships was being put to the test, Madgy Figgy would be seen swinging to and fro with exultation in her chair, screaming out her incantations until the storm rose into ungovernable fury, and drew the vessels near and nearer to the reefs. Then when the crash was imminent, Madgy Figgy would sail off from her chair on a stalk of ragwort, and float shrieking, up and down in the air, while far below her, the wreckers stripped the bodies cast ashore and gathered up the wrecks’ cargo
The Ghost Ship of Porthcurno
Porthcurno Cove is situated a little to the west of the Logan Stone. There, as in nearly all the coves around the coast, once existed a small chapel or oratory, dedicated to St Leven. However, a small square enclosure is all that remains of this little holy place. The valley is, in every respect, a melancholy spot, and at night, or during a period of storms, is exactly the sort of place which might well be haunted by demon revellers. Indeed, few locals cared to cross that valley after nightfall in case they encountered the Ghost Ship of Porthcurno. This strange apparition is said to have been observed frequently, coming in from sea at nightfall, when the mists were rising from the marshy ground, in the Bottoms. A ghostly, black, square-rigged four-masted sailing ship, hatches all battened down, would sail in to the bay. But the dark spectral form would not stop at the sand…. instead, it would continue up the beach, and inland as far as St Levan, where it would disappear within sight of the church, vanishing like smoke. No crew would ever be witnessed, not even rowing the small boat which sometimes followed!
For those who saw the ghost ship, misfortune was always said to follow….
This ghostly vessel was believed to be somehow connected with a sinister man who returned from sea, and lived in the village many, many years ago. He was always followed by his equally sinister and strange servant, of foreign and forbidding aspect, who continued to be his only attendant. This servant was never known to speak to any one save his master, and nobody in the village knew who they were, or ever talked to the pair. They kept a boat at Porthcurno Cove and, at daylight, would start for sea, never returning until night (and, not unfrequently, remaining out the whole night, especially if the weather was tempestuous). Their only other pastime was hunting. It mattered not to them whether it was day or night; when the storm was loudest, there was this strange man, accompanied by his servant (the devil?), and the midnight cry of his dogs would disturb the country.
This mysterious being died and then the servant sought the aid of a few of the peasantry, to bear his coffin to the churchyard. The corpse was laid in the grave, around which the dogs were gathered, with the foreigner in their midst. As soon as the earth was thrown on the coffin, man and dogs disappeared, and - strange to say – at the same moment, the boat disappeared from the cove.
It has never since been seen and, from that day to this, no one has been able to keep a boat in Porthcurno Cove…..
Sweet William and Fair Nancy
Nancy was the daughter of a rich farmer who did not consider William, her suitor, was good enough for his daughter. He tried to stop them seeing each other. However the pair continued to meet in secret & promised each other that one day they would marry. In due course William was called back to sea. The months passed by with no word from William. Nancy stayed true to him and spent hours gazing out to sea at Hella Point (the headland to the west of Porthgwarra's cove) which became known as 'Nancy's Garden'. As time passed, having no word from him, Nancy began to slowly go mad. One evening she thought she heard her loved one tapping at her window, beckoning her to join him at sea. She rushed to Porthgwarra's cove, later called Sweethearts Cove, and was never seen again.
William appeared to his father that same night, telling him he had come back for his bride and bidding his father farewell. The next day news came of William's death ....... by drowning, thousands of miles away.