I have a thing for visiting churches when exploring. I would like to think this is not due to any religiosity still dwelling somewhere, staining my windows, as it were.
More that they are the epicentre of a community; architecturally, socially, historically and spiritually and for those reasons combined I am drawn to them like a moth. With a new camera.
Cornwall has a real abundance. There’s a saying; “there are more saints in Cornwall than in heaven.” (Fuck knows who and when) Nearly every hamlet, village and town has a granite hewn church that contains layers of epochs; you can see strata of social history in the building style, often going back to the Normans. Sometimes before.
Also, they are nearly always empty, tranquil and loved. They also usually have little informative leaflets that are gold mines for those with an interest in local and architectural histories. That’s why I like to think I go to them, so I’m either fooling myself and on an inexorable march towards metamorphosing into a born-again zealot at 30 or I’m telling the truth. Time will tell I suppose.
Blisland Church has links to John Betjeman who fawned over it, declaring its transcendent beauty and so forth – he was a little prone to histrionics and hyperbole. I dig churches but I wouldn’t claim this one to be particularly special, although the interior is unusually ornate. It is dedicated to Hyacinth and Protus though, early martyrs in the Roman Empire. That is also unusual for Cornwall.
By a quirk we ended up later that day at the village Betjeman was buried in but didn’t get to the church; St. Enodocs.
I really fancy parking up in Blisland in the Winter months and drinking in the Blisland Inn, it’s a time warp when you enter, all brass, beer plaques, log fires and the like. I am pretty sure things get messy up here. Try it, let me know.
Head out of Blisland and you are quickly in the heartland of Bodmin moor. Hardy Herdwick Sheep and highland cattle roam nonchalantly on the roads that are seemingly just tarmacked onto grass.
The goal today was Delphi Bridge and the sluggish stretch of the De Lank river that it fords. This ancient clapper bridge is a testament to the ingenuity of the past and also an excellent place to camp and/picnic.
Trout swim in the bottle-brown moorland-fresh water and are easily caught. So you can add a free meal to your picnic if you were so inclined. Wild swimming is also advisable if not mandatory.
We then went to the North Coast, Polzeath indeed, I dislike Polzeath so declined to take any photographs. I must have been in a grump.
Back home on the softer south coast though, the moon was most impressive.
She’s pretty hideous. I’ve never understood the stories of Mermaids being buxom, husky seductresses, they would clearly look a hell of a lot more like a human-shaped seal. Mammals require blubber and a fine layer of hair if they live in the sea… not that I was an irritating child to tell stories to or anything.
I do love folklore, the more freakish the better, all of us have our monsters and beasts that skulk in the recesses of our memories. Creatures and stories that struck some terrifying chord in our childhoods and continue to do so in our adulthood at inopportune times.
Zennor always brings me right back to this, the moorland around here in particular; the small ancient field patterns demarcated by crumbled granite, stirs my childhood fears to a pleasing degree.
I remember staying down here, at the Eagle’s Nest (just once, it was an artist/hippy co-op holiday I think), when I was a boy and my Father told me horrifying stories the whole way down. It was the first time I had set foot on this landscape and it seared itself into my mind.
I was actually most afraid of the then aged, hermit-like figure who lived in the house adjacent, whom I was assured hated children. This was, I understood later, the mildly famous St. Ives set artist Patrick Heron.
I later learned, in my teens, that Aleister Crowley occupied some accursed granite farmhouse down here for a time and terrifyed the local populace with his occult ways. That only added to the mystique.
Although Zennor is linked to Art, the occult, neolithic and Bronze/Iron Age landmarks I would say it’s most pervasive claim to fame is that of the legend of the mermaid. Think of your standard ‘local-boy-seduced-by-beautiful mermaid-then-both-die’ story with various embellishments and you’ll be near the mark. Mermaid folklore is one of the few types that does not interest me.
There have been numerous adaptations, from mind meltingly awful BBC radio plays to Charles Causley’s efforts.
Zennor is one of the most lovely villages (with one of the best names) in Cornwall to my mind. It has some excellent, jagged coastal walks to the Gurnard’s Head and beyond and, along with St. Just, a really remote feel. It is also on the best roads in Cornwall – St. ives to St. Just. I do wonder how many people who flock to St. Ives know that the wildest of moors lie just 2 miles to the west.
We didn’t stay too long, I just wanted to snap the Mermaid. There are many more walks here to be done. I hope I will get to them over the next few months.
One of my fellow Cornish bloggers has written of a walk around this area in much finer weather however. Take a look.
An impromptu camping trip this weekend. It is May after all. The best month.
The urge to go West has been getting incrementally stronger since starting this little project. I cherish Penwith and do not make the surprisingly considerable effort enough. It is a blogger’s paradise, littered with beauty, intrigue and history.
So with the van laden with hopeful items like guitars, cameras, firewood and cold beers, we hit the arterial A30 and trundled to the wilds of the West. As far as you can go on the English mainland. The excitement was tangible.
For those of you who are passingly familiar with Cornwall it will not surprise you to learn that on our drive down the weather worsened mile by mile. Of course. And our now pitiful excitement fizzled into grim resignation in the thick Cornish mizzle.
The default setting of the far South West, the gulf stream at her finest. Murk.
Porthcurno and Porthgwarra, our primary targets, being as they were completely obscured, the only choice was to carry on to St. Just and revel in its wind battered, rain soaked finery.
So, despite visions of the western sun slinking over Scilly and campfires with music under celtic stars we did what any self respecting Cornish folk would do, put our heads down, muttered ‘shoulda gone bleddy Devon’ and got utterly stewed in St. Just. Waddling hunched into horizontal rain gone midnight. This is the main reason why this is a short post.
Despite almost ending the night early in an affray (a not uncommon experience in ‘The Commercial’ – or just the ‘Mersh’ if you’m local – by all accounts, that’s Cornwall for’ee) we emerged unscathed you’ll be happy to hear and did a thorough tour of the drinking houses the town has to offer. Which is, it must be said, a fair bleddy few considering the size of the place. I would recommend them all for a full taste. 97% of all people are ansum remember.
I would live in St. Just given half the chance. In this house (not my picture):
It’s only ten miles or so from Penzance or St. Ives but it’s got a real isolation and because of that a community. It is, in my eyes, a perfect little town; butchers, greengrocers, artists co-ops, expansive village greens, sports, architecture, history, galleries, pubs and seems to divide its time between the brash business of Summer and the hunkered-down solitude of Winter rather well.
The whole Atlantic-bruised wildness of this exposed lump of Cornwall I just lap up. I can spend days down here. Unless I have a hangover and I can’t see anything beyond 30 yards, in which case I’ll go home.
Here’s some extra photos taken in the briefly coincidental windows of visibility and sobriety.
Whisperings of dark rituals and black magic run through Luxulyan valley. People talk of unexplained pangs of fear and the feeling of eyes on them at night. This folklore ruminates in imaginations around the area and I distinctly remember hearing tales of nightly processions and carnal rituals deep in the woods when I was a boy.
If you ever feel those pangs then you are tapping into an undercurrent of Cornwall, you are treading on ancient land – pagan land – after all and we are biologically programmed towards feeling and sharing untoward inklings in dark, quiet places. We also watch too much TV.
It might be justified here though, there is still a definite presence of paganism and witchcraft in Cornwall, perhaps more so than other places, perhaps not. It’s not often overt so its hard to tell where it still thrives.
Roughly then, magic and witchcraft is a folk-religion (of sorts) passed down through families and secretive covens, hence its individualisation. It often mirrors and interacts with the landscape in which it finds itself, another reason why Cornish paganism and witchraft is distinctive. Whilst Christian persecution of paganism ran deep and powerfully in the home counties, the traditional folk beliefs intertwined with both the landscape and Christianity here and people retained a respect – and often fear – of the ‘old ways’. Christianity and witchcraft could even be said, by some, to worship the same ‘God’.
Cornish witches were called Pellars, and in reality were wise and respected members of the community who engaged in particular physical rituals at the behest of villagers and their various rural concerns.
If it sounds like a plot to a 70’s horror then that’s because it probably is somewhere. In something slightly beyond a coincidence, the pretty awful 70’s demon child biopic ‘The Omen’ was filmed partly in Luxulyan Valley.
As for practicing witches/druids/neo-pagans/wiccans/whatever today in Cornwall. Yes. They certainly exist, a resurgence exists in our age of tolerance in fact. The most high profile practising Witch would be one Gemma Gary who has a coven down in West Penwith – by far one of the most haunting and vibey landscapes in our fair county.
She speaks pretty openly about modern Witchcraft, her particular form and what she does as a witch. She pretty much looks exactly like I would envisage a ‘good witch’ to look like, which I suppose works to her favour. Her website and another on Cornish Witchcraft in general. If you are interested in such things then I wholeheartedly recommend a visit to the Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle.
However you might note that witchcraft and traditionalised occult practices in general don’t lend themselves to the internet age. It is a traditional ‘religion’ that focuses on traditional ways, nature and practices and t’internet is not a part of that. It is nigh on impossible to find any information on any different practicing sects other than those that choose to self publicise.
You can be certain that it is around though and it gets dark too. People, in a unintended and out of place allegory to Star Wars, are tempted by the Dark side.
Modern ‘magic’ which is practised in various forms by most Paganisms has divided into Left and Right Hand Paths. The Left is traditionally associated with ‘black magic’ which involves mainly breaking established, particularly religious, taboos; hence the focus is on sexual rituals, animal sacrifice (an ancient tradition which people would not have batted an eyelid at in the Celtic past – not that I condone it) and perhaps most importantly communicating (or rather pretending to) with demons and evil entities to further ones own ends or curse others. It is selfish vs selfless basically. Which is not far off other more widely accepted creeds.
When people start to push boundaries and break taboos then they can go too far. This is as true for Anarchists and Hackers as it is for self professed magic pracitioners. However it is also true that people with hidden inclinations will use and manipulate an ideology – any really, Islamic or Far-Right radicalisation is a similar process I believe – to legitimise and give creedence to them. Often making a mockery of the ideology they profess to follow.
You can be sure the huge majority of practicising ‘magicians’ or pagans in the county are benign, pushing the boundaries of conventional society perhaps, but not the law.
I have a respect for Paganism (there really are a ridiculous number of offshoots to that label) that I don’t tend to extend to more hysterical, dogmatic and established religions. A small part of it is it’s persistence, often in the face of adversity, but mostly it is to do with it’s insistence on the power of local nature, history and landscape to draw nourishment and power from.
Whatever form that nourishment and power takes, whether you channel it into traditional ritual magic or Instagram, if you feel emotionally stirred somehow when walking or interacting with the landscape then you’re probably sharing the same ancient thing.