"The place is pre-eminently the region of dream and mystery" wrote the great Victorian novelist and poet Thomas Hardy in 1870, describing his first experience of Cornwall. Even today this mystical land continues to exert a strange influence over those who come to visit its secret and sacred places, to marvel at the breathtakingly beautiful coastline or simply to bask on its sun-drenched beaches. You are never more than 20 miles from the sea in Cornwall - and never more than a short walk from antiquity.
Giants loom large in the folklore of Cornwall, and legend tells us that once upon a time the Penwith area was plagued with them. Of the two most famous, Cormoran, the wicked Giant of St. Michael's Mount was eventually dispatched by Jack the Giant Killer, but Giant Bolster is said to have succumbed to the wiles of a saintly woman!
Bolster must have been a truly enormous figure, since he could plant one foot on Carn Brea (the high hill just outside Camborne) and the other on the cliffs outside St. Agnes - some six miles away as the crow flies - he must have been about 12 miles high.
Bolster was a bad tempered and violent brute who terrorised the countryside and struck fear into the hearts of ordinary folk, but he met his match in the pious and chaste St. Agnes. He fell in love with her and pursued her relentlessly, but St. Agnes wanted none of it.
Sick of his constant attentions, St. Agnes told him to prove his love for her by filling up a hole in the cliff at Chapel Porth with his own blood. To Bolster that was an easy task. After all, he'd never miss a few gallons - but St. Agnes knew that the hole was bottomless and led into the sea below!
He stretched out his arm, plunged a knife into it and lay down to wait for the hole to fill up. It never did of course and eventually Bolster lost so much blood he died. Thus, St. Agnes was rid of his unwanted attentions but he left his mark behind. The cliffs at Chapel Porth to this day still bear a red stain, said to be from where his blood ran down into the sea.
According to Cornish legend, Jack was a farmer's son who lived near Land's End in the days of King Arthur. The folk of the area were being terrorised by Cormoran, the Giant of St. Michael's Mount, who stole cattle and carried them away either on his back or dangling from his belt. A reward was offered to anyone who would slay the fearsome giant, and Jack took up the challenge. He dug a huge pit near Morvah and covered it with sticks and straw. Then he lured the Giant away from the Mount by blowing his horn. The angry Giant rushed down the Mount and fell into the pit. Jack then struck him a mortal blow with his pick-axe and filled the pit with earth. For his brave deed he was given a magnificent sword and belt, embroidered "Who slew the Giant Cormoran".
Famed for his bravery Jack The Giant Killer became something of a super hero, killing wolves and breaking the skulls of pirates in addition to being on hand to deal with other troublesome giants. Later he travelled on to Wales to slay more of them and further embroidered his legend, and, to mark his slaying of Cormoran there stands to this day near Morvah Church a huge stone which is said to mark the Giant's Grave. It is also said that sometimes voices can be heard coming from beneath it!
There are many legends of towns and countries submerged beneath the waves, but the legend of the lost land of Lyonesse is possibly the most famous. Lyonesse, we are told, was once a country beyond Land's End that boasted fine cities and 140 churches; then, on November 11th 1099 a great storm blew up and the marauding sea swept over it, drowning the luckless inhabitants and submerging the kingdom beneath the waves, until all that remained to view were the mountain peaks to the west, known to us now as the Isles of Scilly. Only one man survived. His name was Trevilian and he rode a white horse up to high ground at Perranuthnoe before the waves could overwhelm him.
A 16th century writer tells us that Land's End once stretched far to the west with a watchtower at the farthest point to guide sailors. The rocks known as the Seven Stones were believed to be the remains of a great city, called "The Town" by sailors, who told of dragging up window, doors and other domestic items in their nets. They also related how they had heard the church bells of Lyonesse ringing beneath the waves.
As late as the 1930's a journalist from the News Chronicle, Stanley Baron, was awoken in the night by the muffled ringing of bells and was told by his hosts that he had heard the bells of Lyonesse. A former mayor of Wilton, Edith Oliver, claimed she had twice seen towers, domes, spires and battlements beneath the waves whilst standing on the cliffs at Land's End. It is a rough and rocky sea and many a mariner has met his doom there, so it is not hard to believe that, like most legends, there is an element of truth in it.
Dozmary Pool is a natural moorland lake situated to the south of Bolventor on Bodmin Moor. Once it was home of ancient man, who has left remnants of his presence in the shape of hut circles and other prehistoric remains. Local folk long believed that the strange, mysterious Pool was bottomless and had a whirlpool in the centre. It is hardly surprising, then, that it has become an integral part of two major Cornish legends.
John Tregagle, the evil disciple of the Devil was doomed to bail out the endless waters of Dozmary Pool with a leaking limpet shell for eternity, in penance for his crimes. It was into the depths of Dozmary pool, too, so legend tells us, that King Arthur's sword Excalibur was cast by his loyal lieutenant Sir Bedivere on the orders of the dying King. A hand and arm rose up from the surface of the lake, clad in the white samite, caught the sword and drew it underneath.
Legends of fierce giants abound in Cornwall, but surely one of the fiercest and most wicked was the giant known as Wrath of Portreath. Wrath lived in a huge cavern, known as his "cupboard" where he would lie in wait for passing ships, wade out into the sea and attack them, killing the sailors with a single blow from his huge fingers. Then he would carefully select the better specimens for supper and, tying the ships up to his belt he would tow his booty back to his cave. Even those who warily sailed by at what they thought was a safe distance were in danger. Wrath would fling huge rocks onto them from high up on the cliff and these are still visible today when the tide is low, forming a deadly reef that stretches from Godrevy Head. St. Ives sailors avoided the "cupboard" at all costs, swearing that nothing that went into it ever came out again. Some years ago it lost its roof and became an open gorge with the sea flowing into it at high tide, but Ralph's Cupboard, as it is now known, is still one of the more spectacular - if no longer terrifying - sights along the cliffs at Portreath.