Haunted Cornwall: Nunnery Woods

When we started to drive, with teenage abandon, around the lanes that connect Polgooth, Sticker and St. Ewe a story started to trickle down into our hot-boxed Peugeot 106.

In between St. Ewe, Polgooth and Pengrugla there is a little triangle of woods, a copse really, that the road dog-legs around, which we called Nunnery woods. The local legend we nurtured states that if and when you see a silent, solemn Nun standing by the side of the road here, late at night, your death is close at hand.

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I had always assumed the story was the result of skunk induced paranoia so as I happened to be driving past with my camera I thought on a whim I’d have a gander into this strange little wood. You can enter into the copse by jumping a hedge. I immediately set about looking for evidence of buildings, if there had been a Nunnery here there would be evidence of foundations at least.

Nothing. Just the usual refuse to be found in wooded sites less travelled. Plastic oil drums, strongbow bottles and tyres mainly. There are a few ditches – for drainage probably – but little else of interest. I left after half hour or so fairly disappointed and leaning to the conclusion that our story was groundless.

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Not even a particularly old woodland. Nobody can see a Nun in it can they?…

Nagged by feeling of incompletion I thought to dig a bit on the net and found that the investigation was not over.

I had no idea until I saw this map that the hill around this wood is actually, legitmately called ‘Nunnery Hill’. Perhaps our folklore had legs after all.

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Why would the road take such a detour? Usually to bypass something of significance.

The only references I can find are this, which claims there was indeed a Nunnery NE of this point and a small paragraph in Samuel Drew’s (Cornwall’s only well-known Philosopher) 1824 ‘History of Cornwall, Vol. II‘ who comes to the solidly academic conclusion that since it’s called ‘Nunnery Hill’ there was probably, once, a Nunnery in the vicinity.

Lanhadron Farm nearby is in the Domesday book but there is no mention of a Nunnery. So, if there was one it was likely in existence between this time, 1086, and the dissolution of the monasteries in 1541. I would say the evidence points to something of note here, the name is clearly not new, the road takes a strange detour around the area and there is a local legend attached.

So the folk-memory of a lost nunnery has persisted in a place name and a ghost story for over 400 years. Without our teenage re-telling of a story – presumably passed to us from previous generations – I wouldn’t have found a little lost piece of history. Lovely. Hope you don’t see any Nuns though, should you visit.

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Haunted Cornwall: St Denys Church

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A few days ago I was reading of Norilsk, an unimaginably oppressive, filthy, cold, dank industrial city high in the Arctic Circle. Once known for its Soviet Gulag labour camps (in which tens of thousands of prisoners died), it is now a hub of mineral mining. Nickel primarily but also palladium, cobalt, arsenic and coal. The average temperature in the winter months is -20 degrees C. The concentration of relentless and remorseless mining and smelting industries here mean that it is one of the most polluted places on earth, with an average life expectancy of roughly 60 years. The Norilsk people essentially dig out and process hazardous minerals from the arctic tundra and live out their spare time in an almost eternally dark, frozen, carcinogenic smog. It’s also closed to anyone but those who work here.

I read of this and all I could think of is how much I want to go there. I am thus starting to accept I am drawn to the dark places of the world.

I should probably state that I approach almost everything on the skeptical side of agnosticism and as I have no tangible first-hand evidence of anything ‘paranormal’ I am a non-believer. But, as I have said before, some places have different feelings to them, some raise your hairs, some have powerful and inescapable lore attached to them that stir the imagination, some are too old to comprehend fully and these are the areas I like to seek out.

Either way I give you the first in a mini-series – or as many as I can get in before I exit the Country in a few days, whatever.

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The trees that ring the church really do seem to reach inwards…

St. Denys Church. I’d heard a few stories about this place before I first explored it almost a decade ago. My own Mother – not known for her indulgence in such things – had to leave the graveyard due to an overwhelming fear. Others spoke of it quietly, that it was always colder than the surrounding area.

I remember feeling trepidation on my first approach. Even from a distance there is something about St. Denys church.

The first thing you will note is that it sits perched at the apex of a perfectly conical hill, looming above the surrounding area. The next is that crowning the top is a perfect ring of trees, surrounding Church building itself, leaving only the top of the buttressed tower visible from a distance. When you enter the churchyard through a rusted wrought iron gate indeed the light is diminished. The trees that crown the hill and surround the church all seem to reach inwards towards the granite tower and create a strange enclosed feeling. I’m not sure I’ve seen this before in any church. Usually trees are manipulated by prevailing winds. Lastly the radiating down from the churchyard is a lovely and ancient complex of fields enclosed by brittle granite dry-stone walls. The whole site is made all the more peculiar sitting as it does now amongst the white mountains of the Clay.

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I first came here to try and find something and found absolutely nothing other than a feeling that it is a special place.

Which it most certainly is, St. Denys church is actually built directly within the remnants of a Hill Fort. This is rather rare. Glastonbury Tor is probably the most famous example of this overt Christianisation of pagan sites but whereas Glastonbury is warm and inviting, St. Denys is cold and aloof.

It is of course the overwhelming age of the site that gives St. Denys church its power. Hillfort earthworks have their origins to the Iron Age (600bc – 60AD) but just as Christian sites were oft sited on pagan hallowed ground, hill forts were often a new type of fortification on a more primitive hill-top defence system used right back to the Neolithic, 3000bc.So when you walk around the cool air of St. Denys churchyard, amongst the Rowan and the Yew you may well be walking around a somewhere that has been site of spiritual significance for 5000 years – possibly seeing the ritual sacrifice associated with the Celtic period. I think that amount of sedimented human life and belief in such a small, concentrated area is probably going to leave something in the air.

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I definitely stole this from Wikipedia, but it really shows the church’s situation and the ancient field pattern emanating from it.