Secret Shrines: A Ghostly Sort of Place….
by Paul Broadhurst
Deep in the North Cornish countryside lies the peaceful inland haven of Poundstock, close by the town of Bude that is beloved of latter-day Sun worshippers and Limerick writers alike. At least the church and medieval Gildhouse, both situated in a romantic dell that cries out for the description ‘picturesque’, is peaceful. Less than a mile away, cliffs up to four hundred feet tower above the rumbling ocean, and all around wind-sculpted trees are bent like ancient figures, frozen by the howling wind. And yet, deep, sheltered valleys bordered by hilly pastureland provide a sudden contrast in sympathetic echo with the weather, which can change notoriously from day to day. Tennyson captured the mood of the moment in his Guinevere;
‘But after tempest, when the long wave broke,
All down the thundering shores of Bude and Bos,
There came a day as still as heaven……..‘
There in a hollow, protected by rookery-laden trees, the leaning gravestones stare blankly at the cob and stone walls of the old Gildhouse, which itself stares back through blackened oak- mullioned windows and medieval doorways. Since the fourteenth century, this long, low building with an exquisite air of age about it has been used for many things. Built to house the masons working on the church, it later became a day-school, a library, a clubroom and a poor-house, where rooms were to let to paupers at ‘four to six shillings a year. Three males, five females.’
But the old walls have witnessed much revelry over the years when the parish guilds met there for their festivities. Nowadays the functions that are held here are a little more sedate, and the traditional fair day is still kept as it must have been for many centuries, perhaps stretching back unbroken into early Celtic times, a memory of the power of the annual rhythms over generations of country folk.
The place has a magic about it that is reminiscent of other spots associated with Celtic monks, merely the earliest tenants within our recall of a site that by its atmosphere is far, far older. The trickling waters of a stream flow under a tiny bridge, and the stone seat and cobbled floor of the lych gate are worn smooth by time. Across the lane, an old well stands, its wooden door shut tight against this haunting scene. A few years ago, it possessed a rare charm, a mood of poignant decay that was totally in keeping with its surroundings. Sadly, now it has been rebuilt in a peculiar rustic style by a mason suffering from the delusion that if you throw a load of old stones and some cement into a concrete mixer, you, too, can restore an old well. A neat, slate roof aggravates the situation, with a lintel from some old granite arch, purloined from its original purpose, scowling at the indignity of it all.
There appears to be no legend attached to the well, but it is interesting to the well-hunter because of its superb setting, the aura of antiquity that surrounds the place, and its connection, along with Poundstock’s more renowned holy well standing half-a-mile away, with the Celtic Saint Neot. Famous for his holy well on the other side of Bodmin Moor, the dwarf-like figure of St Neot could often be found deep in meditation at his favourite well, immersed up to the neck in its miraculous waters, sometime around the fifth or sixth century. Recently, however, it has been discovered that there was an ancient dedication of the church to St Winwaloe, one or the most eminent Celtic saints of Brittany, who was accustomed to reciting the scriptures daily with his arms in the form of a cross, dressing in clothes made from goat hair, sleeping on bare boards with a stone pillow, and drinking only water or cider made from crab-apples.
It seems such a peaceful spot, yet in the Middle Ages the area was wild with pirates, wreckers, robbers and thieves, mostly drawn from the families of the surrounding nobility, who made a profession out of lawlessness. And in opening the creaking church door to examine the holy water stoup near the font, you may just catch a glimpse of a wispy figure walking down the aisle. This would be Poundstock’s resident ghost, the ethereal remains of William Penfound, clerk of the parish, who was hacked to death before the altar by the swords and cudgels of ‘certain accomplices of Satan’ in December 1357, and still continues, unwittingly, to perform its earthly tasks.
But up the hill from the church, beyond the ghostly outline of the tall treetops with their cackling rookery, a rough track leads away towards Widemouth Bay, indicated by a signpost pointing to the sea. The ancient trackway undulates away from the pinnacles of Poundstock church along a gentle ridge, locking out over a land that rolls and swells, until cliffs and sea appear to hang on the horizon. The hedgerows are a wild profusion of glistening greenery, the Sun scuds across the countryside, and a brooding calmness descends as the weather rests between Spring rains.
Walking through the second gate on the right, and down the side of the valley takes you to the edge of a rough wood that borders a stream. Here, in cloistered seclusion, is St Neot’s Well, looking down into the trees, and walled around to protect it from cattle. Unfortunately, there is no gate, and this is good news for the cows who like to take a good look at the well from time to time. An interesting building stands in the noisy silence, filled with the sound of the wind in the trees, the chatter of birds and the cool trickling of the water into the old well. Latin mottoes are carved into the granite roof arch, surmounted by a stone cross. One of the carvings on the front is a fish, that pervading symbol of the Age of Pisces, inaugurated two thousand years ago by the Nazarene who called himself ‘the fisher of Men’. Or so the legend goes. But in this case the fish may owe its presence more than a little to the legend of St Neot, who, the tale relates, was told by an angel that as long as he took only one fish at a time from the well, there would always be one there for the next time. This lesson in archaic ecology was, however, flouted by Neot’s servant, who was fortunately allowed to restore the balance by miraculous means. A timeless, archetypal story that must wait for another time and another well in a very different situation at a village named after the saint on Bodmin Moor.
But unlike the more famous well on the moor, this one has been restored with a certain style. An old cross-hatched oak door leads to the water, a round, clear, gurgling pool built loosely behind with rounded stones that must have been brought up from a nearby beach. The restoration, near the turn of the century, is just far enough away in time for the Cornish elements to have weathered and worn the masonry into a mood of natural empathy. The stone seats on either side of the well exhibit a cushion of greenery, growing from the earth that has washed down from the bank above. A young thorn tree grows stubbornly out from between two stones in the wall, and, under it, a stone bench has been sympathetically placed to look down into the woodland, dark with thin shafts of sunlight penetrating the twilight of the trees. In a recess in the well, an old metal cup hangs on the end of a rusty chain, having been used by many who would sip the cool and crisp waters. The pellucid tang of the draught I had supped from my cupped hands was still there as I wandered back along the old lane towards the pinnacles of the haunted church.
Text © Paul Broadhurst (1986)
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