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Cornish Legends and Myths

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10 May 2009

Cornish Legends

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Cornwall

The name "Cornwall" comes from Cornovii,

meaning hill dwellers, and Waelas, meaning strangers.

 

The Tinners

 

For more than 2,000 years tin mining was a major industry in Cornwall. Even before the birth of Christ Cornish traders were exporting to Europe and the Roman Empire. The brass work in King Solomon's Temple is said to have been wrought from Cornish tin, and as old legend tells us that Christ himself visited Cornwall, landing at St. Just in Roseland with his uncle Joseph of Arimathaea, a merchant who had come to buy Cornish tin. There is a stone there which is supposed to mark the place where he landed.


The tinners were granted special privileges in Cornwall by reason of their important contribution to the economy, and like most closed societies were very superstitious. Their history is packed with odd traditions and tales. In particular they were very wary about offering the spirits who lived in the mines - the knockers, buccas (imps) and spriggans, and a host of others. Stories of disembodied hands carrying candles, spirit voices warning of impending rock falls and ghostly black dogs and white hares prophesying certain disaster abound throughout Cornwall.


Flickering candlelight was the tinners only illumination until Cornishman Sir Humphrey Davy invented his Miner's Lamp, and it could play tricks on the eyes.


Sadly, the once great Cornish Tin Industry is now reduced to one single working mine, South Crofty near Helston, though preserved workings can still be seen, mostly notably at nearby Poldark Mine. The many legends and tales, however, live on in Cornish folklore.

 

Cornish Pilchards

 

The ancient Huer's Hut which overlooks Towan Beach at Newquay recalls the heyday of the Cornish pilchard fishing industry which once provided both income and staple diet for fisher folk. "Pilchards are food, money and light, all in one night" went the rhyme.


The job of the Huer (French, huer - shout) was to stand lookout for approaching shoals of pilchards and raise the "hue and cry" by blowing his horn and crying "hevva, hevva!"( Cornish, hesva - shoal) alerting the townsfolk to their arrival. Using hand signals and waving bunches of sticks called "bushes" the huer then directed the fishermen to position their boats and encircle the shoals with their nets. The nets could be a quarter of a mile in length and weigh up to three tons, but as many as 3,000,000 fish could be caught in them.


The arrival of the pilchard shoals was a joyous occasion for the town and there would be crowds of people on the beaches and much singing. The womenfolk would help the celebrations by baking the traditional Cornish Heavy (Hevva) Cake, Cornish pilchards were in much demand both in London and overseas, but by the 1870's the shoals were no longer coming to inshore waters and the industry began to decline.


The Newquay Huer's Hut is thought to date from the 14th century and was probably originally a hermitage, the hermit being entrusted with lighting beacon fires to guide ships in the days before lighthouses.

 

Holy Wells

 

Many of Cornish saints are commemorated by Holy Wells which can still be seen and visited. Though many were possibly wishing wells that had been venerated since pagan times, they were doubtless taken over by Christianity.


The Holy Well of St. Cleer was a place of pilgrimage for the lame and blind on Ascension Day, hoping for a miracle to cure their ailments, and it still occupies pride of place in the East Cornwall village.


The well of St. Clether had fallen into disuse and decay, but the great writer on Cornish life and the author of the hymn " Onward Christian Soldiers " , the Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould arranged for it to be fully restored in the last century and it can be seen just a short walk from the church which lies to the northern edge of Bodmin Moor.


It is said that the waters of St. Guron's Well in Bodmin could foretell the future.


Cornwall's most famous well stands at St. Keyne near Looe, and legend relates that the waters of St. Keyne Well could provide the upper hand in marriage! If the groom drank from it first he would rule the household, but if the wife got there before him she would be in charge! 19th century poet Robert Southey immortalized it in a ballad which tells of how he lost the contest with his bride.

" I hastened as soon as the wedding was o'er And left my good wife in the porch, But i' faith she had been wiser than I For she took a bottle to church!"

 

Probably the most renowned Holy Well in Cornwall is at Madron. In 1640 Bishop Hall of Exeter bore testament to the cure of a man named John Trelille who had been crippled for 16 years. Trelille had been paralysed by a game of football at the age of 12, yet suddenly he could walk again and seemed strong in limb once more. After dipping himself three times in the well he slept on marshy ground near the well which is known as St. Madern's Bed. When he awoke, he was cured.

 

Sinkininny Church

 

A pleasant walk from Rock village across the greens and dunes of St. Enodoc Golf Course will lead you to one of Cornwall's most delightful small churches. There are no roads, only the private drives of the club and St. Enodocs's church is set amongst the sand dunes that once almost overwhelmed it.


It is thought the church was built on the site of the cave of St. Enodoc the hermit who baptised his converts at the Jesus Well a half mile away. In the 18th and 19th century the church fell into disrepair and became almost buried in the sand, so much so that the locals christened it " Sinkininny church " for they believed it was sinking. The vicar, in order to keep the church open had to perform his ecclesiastical duties inside it at least once a year and so was obliged to enter through the north transept roof.


The poet laureate and adopted son of Cornwall, Sir John Betjeman, wrote of this delightful building in his poem " Sunday Afternoon Service At St. Enodoc " and now a simple slate headstone marks his last resting place in the quiet churchyard overlooking the sandy reaches of Daymer Bay.

 

The Cornish Language

 

There was a tribe called the Dumnonii, who inhabited most of south west Britain. Cornish started to evolve as a separate language around 2000 BC. The Celtic languages are split into two groups - Cornish, Welsh and Breton form one group with common roots - Irish, Manx and Scots Gaelic form a second group. I can vouch for this myself as my mother is a native Welsh speaker who has tried to converse in Welsh with more success in Brittany than in Ireland!

 

Cornish continued to develop as a separate language until the 17th century, then started to decline as English became the language that was necessary to succeeds. Cornish became looked on a the language of the poorer people. The church acted as a further stimulus for English as the Prayer Book was only published in English. In fact there was a major uprising in Cornwall in 1547 against the imposition of the English Prayer Book.

 

Eventually the last native Cornish speaker, died according to one source around 1891 near St Just in Penwith. But according to others occurred much earlier in 1777 with the death of Dorothy Pentreath near Mousehole. In recent years Henry Jenner has spearheaded a move to revive Cornish, and grammars, dictionaries and magazines in the language have been published.

 

There are many books available now in Cornish, and there is a movement by some to have Cornish road signs. Many main roads into the county have the name Kernow as well as Cornwall.

 

Thomas Hardy came to Cornwall

 

On the edge of the beautiful Valency Valley which winds down to the village of Boscastle stands the ancient church of St. Juliot, a place that deeply influenced the life and work of one of England's greatest writers and poets. Thomas Hardy came to Cornwall from his native Dorset in March 1870 as a young architect ( and struggling writer ), commissioned to oversee the restoration of this delightful church. Invited to stay at the rectory during his visit he met and fell in love with the Rector's sister-in-law, Emma Gifford. He returned to Dorset, he later wrote " with magic in my eyes". Hardy's first published novel, " A Pair of Blue Eyes " tells of a romance conducted in this setting, based on his own courting of Emma. Two years later, as Hardy completed his most famous novel " Far From The Madding Crowd ", he and Emma were married in London. They never returned to St. Juliot together but when Emma died unexpectedly in 1912 after a stormy marriage of some 40 years he came back alone, an old man in his seventies, wracked with regrets.


The visit inspired his "Poems of 1912-13", some of the most beautiful poetry ever written in the English language, and Hardy acknowledged his debt to St. Juliot Church in " A Dream Or No ":

 

" Why go to St. Juliot?
What's Juliot to me?
Some strange necromancy
But charmed me to fancy,
That much of my life claims the spot as it's key"

 

 

 

 

 

       

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