Secret Shrines: Strange Happenings a Stone’s Throw from Tintagel
by Paul Broadhurst
Trethevy is a small hamlet on the edge of King Arthur country. A mile or so along the coast road, the remains of a once pretty Cornish village called Tintagel stand, jostling for their rightful position with the bow-fronted windows of cafes and tourist traps that all seem to offer the same tawdry merchandise. Luckily, this disturbing sight is rescued from its depravity by the existence of ‘King Arthur’s’ castle, or rather the rocky headland where a castle and Celtic monastery once stood, a place of wild romance and invigorating atmosphere. On this old Holy Island are three wells, sunk in the solid rock, one of which has a delicious air of intimacy as the waters form a pool amongst fern and weed, not far from a prehistoric fogou or underground passage. This weird serpentine tunnel, deliberately cut snake-like in the rock, collects a pool of its own at the lower end as if by design, and one is reminded of William Stukeley’s visions of the Druidic cult of the serpent power, impressed upon the landscape at such places as Avebury. Whatever the true history of this mysterious island, there can be no doubt that at one time it was an important religious centre, for recent fires on the island have revealed the foundations of a large and previously unknown settlement capable of housing 1,000 people. Other than these few factual scraps, the enigmas of Tintagel are at the moment completely hidden from us. We are at the mercy of our imaginations.
King Arthur, historically speaking, never had anything to do with Tintagel. This does not matter in the least, though, for countless thousands of visitors come every year to immerse themselves in the chivalric charisma of the legendary icing, and an eccentric millionaire even built a vast hall of Chivalry to perpetuate the myth, a superb edifice, all white marble and stained glass, complete with a huge round table. Most of the visitors have little idea that the Round Table is but a glyph of the celestial zodiac, that Merlin the magician can be equated with the Egyptian God Thoth, or that King Arthur is the central, solar figure of a tradition that has all the attributes of a mystic cult around the central theme of what J.G. Frazer called ‘the sacrificed Gods’, such as Jesus, Horus and Baldur. Not that Arthur was ever actually killed, for although he sacrificed himself for his country he did not quite die, being carried off to Avalon until such time as he is needed again. But he gathered around himself a circle of men who imposed a new and exalted ethic upon the nation, symbolised by the quest for the Holy Grail. He was the product of a miraculous conception and mysterious upbringing, and will return when the time is ripe in his own version of the second coming, the priest-king returned to save the world.
It is into this rarefied atmosphere of mystery and legend, and other such phraseology beloved of guidebooks, that the visitor steps tentatively, restraining any disbelief about the magical properties of the place. It can be felt quite tangibly by anyone who escapes from the visible excesses of Tintagel’s main street. Trethevy has more than its fair share of magic, sometimes of a distinctly disturbing kind. St Piran’s Well stands at the side of an ancient lane that runs beside the Rocky Valley Hotel, its old slate stones looking like an early, somewhat unsuccessful attempt at pyramid construction. A rusty iron cross embedded in a piece of round granite watches from the summit, the whole building giving an impression of peculiarly pleasing proportions, lightly upholstered with yellow lichen. An iron gate bars the entrance to the interior, where a modern water pipe leads the waters of the sacred spring off for more sacrilegious purposes than quenching the thirst of weary pilgrims.
The area around the well, the lane leading up to the superb spectacle of St Nectan’s Kieve, and the whole valley that leads down to the sea must be one of the most haunted as well as one of the most strangely beautiful in Cornwall. The breezes that whisper through the hedgerows and around the tree tops are laden with a mysterious quality that defies description. But first the legend.
The story of St Nectan associated with this place must serve as a background for this old well, for there can be little doubt that there was an intimate connection between the anciently-revered spring and the other magical spots in this mysterious valley. In medieval times, pilgrims on their way to visit the hermitage at the head of the glen would have invariably stopped at the well to drink its pure water, and to worship at the long, low chapel that stood opposite, and which much later was to serve as a pigsty, surely a most blasphemous contrast.
It seems St Nekton settled beside the Trevillet river, building his sanctuary above a mystic waterfall and kieve (Cornish for ‘basin’) in this most secluded spot, in about the sixth century. The waters tumble in a spray of silver mist through an arch of stone into the kieve, shaped like an immense sugar bowl twenty feet deep, before flowing away down through the densely wooded valley, past a ruined mill and mysterious, ancient rock carvings of mazes, to find a meandering way to the sea. Tradition has it that Nekton’s chapel ever the waterfall had a tower in which hung a silver bell, which would ring out to summon help from the castle in Tintagel in times of storm and shipwreck, for, from the tower, Nekton could see both castle and coast.
After a lifetime of contemplation, he approached his end when the country was bitterly divided by the differences between the older Celtic faith and the newer Roman doctrines, (a Roman milestone – very rare in Cornwall – stands near St Piran’s Well). He prophesied that the older, simpler faith would eventually return, and vowing that his silver bell should never ring for unbelievers, he dropped it into the kieve. It is said that at certain times, the muffled sound of his submerged bell may still be heard, a sure sign of ill omen.
After Nekton’s death, two strange ladies (probably his sisters) took possession of the chapel, and following the wishes of the hermit, buried him and his sacramental vessels and treasures in an oak chest under the waterfall. There are curious Druidic overtones to this old story which seem to bear the mark of genuine Celtic fable stamped on a hotch-potch of ancient memories. However, diverting the plummeting stream, they dug a grave below the kieve, buried the saint, and once again the river resumed its normal course, tumbling over the earthly remains of the saint, towards the Atlantic. The sisters took up residence at the site of the hermitage, living a remote and frugal existence on a diet of wild berries, fruit, roots and fish, exciting the curiosity and vindictiveness of the local people. Suspicion and fear grew amongst the superstitious folk of the district, and in the time-honoured tradition, they accused them of being devils and responsible for every calamity that afflicted cattle, sheep or crops. One of the sisters died, and the curious peeped through the window to see the other old lady mourning, herself close to meeting the dark spectre of death. Common humanity overcame fear, however, and the sisters were buried under a large flat stone in the glen, their spirits haunting the lane that leads down to the well.
For many years I used to visit friends who lived on the way to the waterfall, and who had once lived in the hermitage on St Nekton’s original site. Many were the stories of hooded figures gliding effortlessly through tangles of undergrowth and trees, and of their Siamese cats hissing and lashing out at invisible foes. One night, my friend’s wife was sauntering up the lane in late summer. In the gathering dusk, she saw two figures approaching, and thinking them to be a couple of the numerous visitors to the waterfall, bade them good evening. A bit miffed at their lack of acknowledgement, her mild annoyance turned to a cold, spine-tingling chill as the two figures walked right through her and disappeared into the evening air! It is only by listening to the baffled bewilderment of someone relating such an experience that one can touch on the strange incomprehension that accompanies such phenomena. Unless you experience them yourself, that is…
Fortunately, perhaps, I never came across such ghosts or ghouls in my nocturnal ramblings up and down the lane, although the mind was often magnetised by the wealth or tales about the ‘grey ladies’, monks in the glen, and the stories of unearthly sounds wafted about by the wind. Of invisible sobbing, the chanting of monks, inexplicable laughter and even beautiful organ music coming from an empty building. But one warm summer’s evening, I was just about to open the garden gate when my friend’s dog appeared with enthusiastic canine ebullience, only to change suddenly into a seemingly vicious beast, howling and alarmingly fierce. It was not to me that he had taken such a dislike, though. He seemed terrified of something that was coming along behind me, which passed in front as I stopped in amazement, and carried on further down the lane. You could see his eyes following it as he growled and slavered until it apparently disappeared from his view, and he slowly returned to normal. For the rest of the evening he would suddenly bark fitfully, remembering the alarming presence of the unseen wanderer. I have to admit to a distinct feeling of unease as I walked back along the lane in the moonlight.
St Piran’s Well is now in danger of complete collapse due to total neglect. It is hoped some sympathetic person may spend a few hours or so preserving this unique holy well, a picture of which appears in Alfred Watkins’ The Old Straight Track.
Text © Paul Broadhurst (1987)
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