Secret Shrines: A Curse and a Queer Feeling at St Nun’s….
by Paul Broadhurst
An old granite basin, which fills mysteriously in its dim grotto, is practically obscured by a covering of rich moss, dripping with beads of quicksilver water which fall to the dank ground below. The ancient bowl of St Nun’s Well at Pelynt in Cornwall has been guarded for ages, so we are told, by a legendary tale that seems to have protected it from the destructive hand of man to this day, although the structure of the damp cavern grown about with the writhing roots of a gnarled oak is now in danger of collapsing completely. Looking out across a steep, wooded valley, the old well may still be haunted by a spirit which can show anger to those who would threaten it, as well as adopting the mood of a beneficent elf, so leading local people a century ago to call it ‘Piskey’s Well’.
An old farmer, so the story goes, decided that the stone basin would look much better in his pigsty, and no doubt encourage his unholy hogs to grow at a rate to be expected from those who would feed from such a sacred trough. Two oxen with chains were his chosen method of removal, and he arranged the chains and bade his oxen pull with all their might in the traditional manner, no doubt licking his lips and sniffing bacon in the air. After considerable effort, they dragged it up to the top of the steep valley, where the old stone antiquity showed its dislike for pigs and oxen by breaking free of the chains, rolling back down the hill, making a sharp right turn and settling neatly back into place in the well. One of the beasts immediately fell down dead, the farmer was struck lame and speechless, and the previously prosperous landowner found that his fortunes had turned like the twist in a pig’s tail. It seems at first glance that no-one has ever been prepared to test the efficacy of the old legend, for peering into the gloom reveals that the revered receptacle still rests in the dripping twilight of its subterranean shrine, always full. But closer examination leads you to believe that this may well be a replacement, for it is damaged and shows no sign of the carvings seen in old sketches. Is it possible that some foolhardy soul eventually scorned the old legend and dragged the bowl off despite the curse? Perhaps the ancient basin resides at this very moment in some corner of a Cornish farmyard, smouldering with resentment, while the owners, unaware of its power, wonder why their crops wither and their animals are always sickly?
When Thomas Quiller-Couch, who did so much to preserve the old traditions of the Cornish wells, came across St Nun’s in the last century, time and the storms of winter had almost ruined it, and the roots of a large oak tree had dislodged stones from the arch. The swaying of the tree in the wind had shaken down a large mass of masonry and the place was clothed with ivy and dense undergrowth of willow and bramble. The owners, the romantically named Trelawneys of Trelawne, suggested that he superintend the restoration, which involved felling the old oak and rebuilding the well with Cornish slate. A hundred years later, the condition of this dank and dripping place again needs some sympathetic soul to rescue it from the ravages of wind and weather, and, I suspect, much damage caused by cattle. Another oak, or perhaps a remnant of the original, grows from the corner of the building, its twisted roots pulling apart the slates that sprout clumps of pennywort. The single flat stone lintel is now leaning at a drunken angle away from the curiously shaped tree root and the old slates are working themselves loose, giving the impression that at any moment, Nature might achieve what the human hand, perhaps thanks to the old legend, has not.
A small chapel once existed above the well, dedicated to St Nun, the daughter of a Cornish chieftain; and an oratory, of which not a trace remains, was mentioned as being licensed in 1400. This ancient sacred site is found in an area famous for its eye-catching beauty, the part of Cornwall between Liskeard and Looe swathed in the lush foliage of established woodland and verdant valleys. It lies on the western side of a river that flows on to the Looe estuary, and although it is completely hidden from view as you take the dead-end track over a cattle grid, it is clearly marked on the map. Despite the peace and natural sensuality of the spot, there is a strange air of brooding that surrounds it which is difficult to communicate. An indefinable suspicion of resentment is one of the moods I have caught on more than one occasion.
Once, sitting on the old thorn that has been torn from its roots and almost obscures the entrance, my eyes wandered skywards to a pair of buzzards circling overhead, and the lazy flapping of a heron winging its way upstream. As if some malignant spell had been cast, the sky darkened in a few fleeting seconds, and I watched a whirling grey squall of bad weather move rapidly up the valley, which made me dripping wet before I could react. The speed and unexpected force of these few moments, whilst being an entirely natural phenomenon on a late winter’s day, somehow fermented the peculiar atmosphere of the place into a wary respect that caused me to look over my shoulder more than once as I made my way back towards the gate. Like the respectful people of old, who used to drop innumerable offerings into the antique granite font for cure and prophecy, and like the warning legend that hovers about the well, it left me with a feeling of having approached something distinctly other-worldly, a power almost primeval.
It would appear that the well has affected many others with its malefic mood, for the Rev. Lane-Davis, in his book on Holy Wells, relates how an old lady was horrified when her children brought home eightpence they had found in the well. She was greatly agitated and sent them back instantly saying she would not have the Piskeys in her house for untold gold. And a Pelynt girl told the story that anyone who visited the well without leaving an offering would be followed all the way home by clouds of Piskeys, a name given to small night-flying moths believed to embody the spirits of the dead. I suggest leaving a small offering would be the safest bet in this particular case.
A recent visit reveals that the well is now in a better state of preservation, and has been cleared from fallen trees, as if someone has appointed themselves guardian of the place. Coincidentally, there is a far more peaceful atmosphere around the old shrine.
Text © Paul Broadhurst (1988)
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