Years ago, long before the arrival of radio or TV, Cornish folk often entertained each other by telling a tale. On dark, cold winter nights while they sat round the fire, tales about ghosts and other strange happenings were often a favourite entertainment. In the telling fact got mixed up with fiction but nobody minded that! The following are a small selection which have been passed down through the years. Every area has its own tales….
Walking alone on Bodmin Moor on a dark, cold winter’s night must be an eerie experience for anyone. Years ago, when tales of the devil and his dandy dogs were told around the fireside it is little wonder people were afraid to roam the moors at night!
One tale told was about a herdsman making his way home over the moors one winter evening. Suddenly he heard the dismal baying of hounds behind him and recognised the “Hulloa” of the huntsman. The devil and his dandy dogs were chasing him!
The man was still a long way from home and could not hurry over the treacherous ground in the darkness. The huntsman and hounds were coming closer and closer, so he felt his end had come. Then he had an idea. Falling to his knees he began to pray. The hounds came onwards. each snorting fire and howling horribly. He saw the devil huntsman clearly and his saucer eyes. horns and tail. A terrible sight. However, when the hounds and huntsman reached the kneeling herdsman, they could not get close to him. Some power held them back. The devil recognised the words of prayer and knew he had lost his prey. Calling to his dandy dogs, he set off in search of other victims. Soon they had all disappeared leaving the herdsman shaken but unhurt so that he could hurry away home and tell of his dreadful experience and miraculous escape.
Another tale told was that a white, long haired, ghostly rabbit with pink eyes, (and some versions said, followed by a headless ghost), haunts the churchyard at Egloshayle on moonlit nights. Many unsuccessful attempts had been made to catch or kill it.
One night a local man was discussing this ghostly rabbit in the village pub when a stranger came in. Hearing the tale, the stranger laughed unbelievingly and said that as it was a moonlit night, he would go and see for himself if the tale was true. He took with him his flintlock pistol. When a long time later the stranger had not returned, the local men went to the churchyard. As they approached, they heard a pistol report. Looking over the wall they saw the stranger lying on the ground. He had been shot by his own pistol. No one else was in sight.
Did the ghostly white rabbit shoot him? That’s what the tale implies. Some say the stranger also now haunts the churchyard!
The strange tale about John Wesley and the ghosts was another tale often repeated on a winter’s night. It was said that when John Wesley visited St. Agnes to preach there, nobody would offer him hospitality and shelter for the night. He, therefore, had to stay in an ancient manor house that had been long empty because it was said to be haunted by ghosts.
Wesley sat up late reading by candlelight. Around midnight he heard a noise in the great hall and went to investigate. He found that a banquet had been laid out on a long table. Richly dressed ladies and gentlemen were sitting at the table. Then a cavalier with dark piercing eyes and a pointed black beard, wearing a red feather in his cap, said to Wesley: “We invite you to eat and drink with us,” and he pointed to an empty chair.
John Wesley at once sat down, but before eating or drinking he said: “It is my custom to ask a blessing. Please stand all.” The people all rose, and Wesley began his grace: “The name of God, high over all…” Suddenly the room darkened, and all the apparitions vanished leaving Wesley alone in an empty house! Parson Woods of Ladock, so the tales said, used to be a skilled exorcist. It was said that his walking stick had a silver knob on which was engraved mystical figures and planetary signs. Many tales were told around the fire of how he would turn ghosts into animals and then whip them to get rid of them. Sounds a cruel way of dealing with ghosts, doesn’t it?
Eerie tales about horses and coaches were popular and no doubt caused a few shivers up people’s spines, making them glad to be indoors sitting warm and safe around the fire! During the Civil War on January 19th, 1643, the Cornish Army defeated Cromwell’s Parliamentary Army in a great battle at Braddock Down. Ever since, according to some tales, on the anniversary of the battle, the thunder of horses’ hooves is heard echoing round the battle area. However, not a horse is seen!
At St. Just along the Turnpike Road, people have claimed to hear in the stillness of the night, the sound of clattering horses’ hooves and the rumble of a carriage – but horses and carriage remain invisible!
At Pelyn, a manor house near Lostwithiel, the tale has it that when the owner of the house is to die a phantom carriage, drawn by a pair of horses, goes up the drive. This was said to have happened in 1917 and the owner of the house died soon after. Also, at Pelyn, the sound of a galloping horse on the driveway is said to be heard but nothing is seen. It was believed to be the ghost of a former squire out riding!
Another tale claims that in the 18th century, an old-fashioned coach drawn by headless horses used to drive through the streets of Penzance around Christmas time. It was claimed that anyone unfortunate enough to meet up with this ghastly vehicle was doomed to die soon after. Also around Christmas time, a coach drawn by headless horses – and driven by a headless coachman – was said to have the power to spirit away anyone who stared at him. People who found themselves in view of this spectre were advised to turn quickly away and to protect themselves by using mysterious signs!