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The Folklore of Padstow

Cornish Legends and Myths





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21 May 2009

Cornish Legends


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Padstow is the centre of a web of folklore which spreads out to the surrounding district and across Mid and North Cornwall.

The fearsome Obby Oss appears on May Day and dances through the leaf bedecked streets, led by its Teazer or Dancer, and followed by a team of musicians and followers in white: a great spectacle which has its roots in pre- history. Two thousand years ago this was a fertility rite enacted at Beltane, the Celtic First Day of Summer; before that, in the Bronze Ages, it invoked the legendary virility of the Horse-God Epona to encourage the growth of crops and also the birth of children.

Even today the dancer carrying the Oss will at times capture a young woman under the monster's skirts; it is said that she will become pregnant and give birth before the next May Day.

A favourite Padstow legend is that in the 14th century, when most of the men of Padstow were away manning ships at the siege of Calais, a French warship appeared off Stepper Point, at the head of the Camel estuary. To ward off invasion and the sacking of their port, the women of Padstow donned their best red Sunday cloaks, took the drums used on May Day, and, with one of their number in the Obby Oss, marched out to the Stepper, making as great a din as possible. The French sailors, deciding that this was a red-coat army led by the Devil dancing at their head, up-anchored and sailed away. Another version of this story can be heard at Minehead in Somerset, where there is also a May Hobby Horse; Padstow men used to accuse Minehead sailors of stealing their Oss, and vice versa.

The Padstow Oss has connection with the great St. Petroc, who came to the settlement in the 6th century AD, worked several miracles, and set up his first monastery there. Another legend recounts that he faced the last terrible Cornish dragon which was terrorising the countryside, and binding with his stole, led it from its lair at Treator Pool (a mile outside the town ) to the sea, where it swam away, never to be seen again. Even today the Oss is taken to "Obby Oss" slipway by the bandstand, where it used to be dipped in the harbour waters. As late as 1920 the Oss party, with their monster, used to march out to Treator Pool at mid-day on May 1st. St. Petroc converted the warlike Prince Constantine of north Cornwall; at his cell at Little Petherick he gave shelter to a young fawn which was being pursued by the Prince and his huntsmen, and when threatened by Constantine cast a spell on him so that he could not move. He allowed the spell to be broken when the Prince agreed to become a Christian and submit to his rule. Petroc sent him four miles west to what is now Constantine Bay, to become a hermit; the ruins of St. Constantine's little church and his holy well can be visited ( with permission ) on the golf course at Trevose, a little inland from the bay.

After building his monastery at Padstow ( where traces of the defensive ditches he caused to be dug can still be seen in the grounds of Prideaux Place ),Petroc moved to the fertile valley at Bodmin, where he built his second monastery. (Bodmin derives from the Cornish bos, a dwelling, and menegh, monks: the dwelling of monks ).On arrival there the Abbot found another Cornish hermit, Guron, in residence; but after Petroc invited the anchorite to partake of a heavenly feast, which they found miraculously provided in his cave, Guron agreed to depart. He established another cell at Gorran, near Mevagissey, but the holy well in the churchyard at Bodmin is still recognised as St. Guron's Well.

In 981 the first monastery at Padstow, along with the town around it, was pillaged and burnt by marauding Vikings. At some time before that, no doubt in expectation of such an event, the monastic treasures and relics of St. Petroc himself had been removed to Bodmin. The famous Bodmin Gospel, a medieval manuscript book, contains notes made by bishops and priors as to the freeing of slaves before the Norman conquest: for St. Petroc had decreed that wherever his holy bell could be heard, no man should be a slave.

About 1110 a party of French canons visited Cornwall, and caused a violent fracas at Bodmin church when one of them scoffed at the notion, dear to the Cornish, that King Arthur was not dead and would one day return to govern his people again. The Arthurian tradition was evidently very strong in Cornwall, even before Geoffrey of Monouth wrote his book, The History of the Kings of Britain, which produced the great literary tradition of Arthur and his exploits, resounding down the centuries to us today.






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