I love a good ghost story, but I confess to preferring to err on the “entertained” side of scared. I’d like to say I’m tougher but I’m just not. In fact, as I’m writing this, I’m in the unusual position of being home alone and I’m actually finding it quite unnerving. What is it about ghost stories that pulls us towards them in such a love/hate way? I’m not sure what the answer is, but I do know that Cornwall has a treasure trove of fabulous tales that range from the sublime to the actually-very-scary and everything in between. With legends of “the wild hunt” and flying dogs among others, there’s a rich catalogue to explore. And there’s no better time to indulge in a few spooky stories than October, when the nights begin to draw in and the veils between the worlds become thin.
I have had two ghostly experiences in Cornwall. First, while researching family history in West Cornwall many years ago, I was standing in the doorway of an old pub when the external door opened, then closed in front of me. Then the heavy, wooden internal door going into the pub then opened, and closed. There was no one else around; I have no explanation for it. I recently met the new owners of the pub recently and they said when they took it on, they decided to have it blessed, as even the local dogs wouldn’t go inside. I’m pleased to report that it’s now a warm and cosy spot to spend a couple of pleasant hours with no spectral interruptions. My most recent experience happened earlier this year when I was staying at a stately home, also in West Cornwall. Apart from seeing an old man appear in a pitch black room of the house – he became visible only when the headlights of my car shone into the room – I then spent the rest of the night with the television and lights on after the constant sound of footsteps upstairs (in what I had been assured was an empty part of the house) had kept me awake and rattled me into the early hours. It should be said that I am neither an hysterical woman nor a fantasist; these are very real experiences that have happened exactly as I’ve written them.
I decided to seek the opinion of an expert. Alex Langstone is an author, folklorist and founder of the Cornish Folklore – Lien gwerinek a Gernow website. His Facebook group of the same name has over 1,800 members and is a wonderful resource for anyone seeking information about Cornish stories – true or imagined.
I asked Alex if, as a folklorist, if it’s a challenge to approach the telling of stories without turning them into a confection of hype and exaggeration. “Absolutely. There’s too much “VisitorLore” as AK Hamilton-Jenkin called it. Folklore is the stories of the people and place – all of the people. It can be difficult to differentiate between what is genuinely old, what has been dropped into Cornish folklore from elsewhere, especially in, say, the Victorian gothic revival period, and then what has been layered across the top, in terms of primary evidence”. I add that the diversity of Cornwall, its landscape and cultural difference between geographic areas must create a challenge, especially if you have to bundle “Cornish folklore” together as a whole. “Yes, it is so diverse, and you also have the problem that what one person calls East Cornwall, another person calls North Cornwall, and so on”. Alex’s forthcoming book, “From Granite to Sea: The Folklore of Bodmin Moor and East Cornwall” addresses the gap in reported folklore from this part of Cornwall, and brings in some exciting tales that Alex has collected.
One of the stories Alex mentions in his book is the tale of “Patten Peg”, and this tale also features in the “Mazed Tales” project. Produced by Denzil Monk, recently of the Man Engine fame, Mazed Tales is a multi-media community project designed to reinvigorate traditional droll (story) telling in South East Cornwall and re-imagine it for the digital age. There are numerous tales on the website, some of them animated in English and Kernewek and voiced by Will Coleman, also of the Man Engine Project. The project has now finished but the website is well worth a look; my children particularly like the stories but be warned, they are quite dark. Old Patten Peg was from the village of Antony, and she gained her name from her habit of wearing wooden overshoes called pattens to keep her feet dry. Peg was very poor, the story goes that she cursed a man who refused to give a drop of milk. He died as a result, so she dug him up, chopped off his leg, mixed it with spiders, drank the potion and died, then haunted the village with the sound of her pattened footsteps on the cobblestones of the streets forever more. That’s enough to give even me the heebeegeebees.
Alex and I also talked about the story of the lost bells of Forrabury Church in North Cornwall. It’s particularly appealing as one of the Cornish – originally Norman – families that I’m descended from was the de Bottreaux family of Boscastle. The residents of Boscastle could no longer tolerate the joyful peals of bells from the neighbouring village of Tintagel and decided they should have some of their own for their church at Forrabury. There had also been the suggestion made that the bells would keep away the threat of the Plague, so their case was even more urgent. They petitioned the Church council, which then went to Lord Bottreaux, who decided three bells should be commissioned from London. When the bells were ready, they traveled to Boscastle by boat. The proud Boscastle villagers boasted to their neighbours that their bells were coming from the best manufacturer in London, and before too long the sound of Tintagel’s bells would pale into insignificance. But the boat and its crew came undone – as they neared Boscastle harbour, the pilot heard the bells of Tintagel church and devoutly crossed himself. The Captain mocked the pilot’s superstition, then, as it sailed closer to the harbour, the boat was swamped by a freak wave, and all the crew, and the bells, were lost. It’s said when the storms draw in from the Atlantic, the bells can still be heard, tolling from their watery grave. It’s also said that this was the beginning of the downfall of the de Bottreaux family, and all that is left of them now is the mound on which their castle stood. The church tower is still called “The Silent Tower of Bottreaux”. Now that’s a cracking tale for my children.
At a glance:
Cornish Folklore – Lien gwerinek a Gernow
You can meet Alex Langstone at the cultural expo at the Lowender Peran International Celtic Festival cultural expo on Sunday 6 November, 2016, 11am – 4pm, Atlantic Hotel, Newquay. Entry is free.
© Sally Bell 2016
Originally published in Cornwall Today