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Articles Blog

Fowey, England

Karyn Planett

Cornish Landscape and Lore 

"This Cornwall is very primeval: great, black, jutting cliffs and rocks, like the original darkness, and a pale sea breaking in, like dawn. It is like the beginning of the world, wonderful: and so free and strong."

--D. H. Lawrence, Letter to Lady Cynthia Asquith, 7 February 1916

The green and craggy land of Cornwall lies at the very toe of England, kicking its rugged coastline into the waters known as the English and the Bristol Channels. And Fowey is on the southern flank of this misshapen boot, punched into the sole like a tin stud. 

This dramatic landscape is dotted with the remains of prehistoric stone round houses that protected the early inhabitants from the relentless conditions (though in those days the climate was a few degrees warmer). These poor souls were descendants of the early nomads who roamed the countryside hunting game, such as elusive pig, lumbering ox, and a species of deer, and gathering what the moors and hedges had to offer. As their civilization advanced they developed farms from fields they had cleared of stubborn stones and stumps from trees they'd felled for their housing timbers. Archeologists have discovered the ancient burial mounds, sacred cemeteries, and the remains of houses numbering more than 500. These henges and menhirs, as they are known, are today protected and visible throughout the land. 

Modern Man Leaves His Mark 

As mankind advanced, the landscape became more and more altered by this advancement. The mining of tin and copper ore was responsible for much of this alteration especially by those men, known as "tinners" who were involved in the tin mining process. For some two hundred years they and their descendants toiled beneath the earth's surface, wax candles stuck to their helmets for light, and in the many quarries scattered about the land. The extracted tin was sent to blast furnaces for smelting, then heavily taxed by the government in a process known as "coining," and sent to the main market in London where the metal was further refined into pewter and bronze. The port city of Fowey was one of the main seaports that accommodated this trade. 

Mine records indicate some 30,000 men were employed in the pursuit of mining tin and copper in the first half of the 19th century. Then, large foreign deposits were discovered in Australia and Chile causing the bottom to fall out of Cornish mining. Almost half of Cornwall's miners sailed off to these established mines in Australia and Chile as well as to the newer mines springing up in what was then Malaya and the country of Bolivia. During the height of mining in Cornwall some 300 mines operated at a demanding pace to supply the world in tin and copper. Sadly, there are no more mines still in operation in the Cornish countryside. 

Giants, Piskies, Saints and Mermaids 

Long and lonely nights led to some rather fanciful imaginations for the Cornish people. Parents told their huddled children of great giants who roamed the land such as the Giant Cormoran and his wife Cormelian who, as the legend goes, were responsible for the construction of St. Michael's Mount. Jan Tregeagle, a mighty giant indeed, pilfered money and land from his great master and was sentenced to trudge the moors weighted down by immense bags of sand as well as to endure other nasty tasks. In fact, his legend takes us to Dozmary Pool where it is said he was forced to drain the pool with a broken seashell. Historians believe these "giants" were larger-than-life memories of the burly Celts who truly had towered over the local Cornish people who themselves became the fodder for the characters known as piskies, or dwarfs. 

The most famous Cornish legend of all centers around King Arthur who, it is written, received his famous Excalibur sword from the waters of Dozmary Pool. 

And one mustn't forget the many mermaids who played an important role in maritime lore here. Some mermaids were good … granting wishes to those who gave them assistance. Others wreaked havoc on the land and seas when scorned by local fishermen. 

In addition to these imaginary people there were real, live saints. In fact, there was a period in Cornwall known as the "Age of Saints." During this time, from 490 AD until 650 AD, a parade of wise people migrated to Cornwall from Ireland, Brittany, and Wales to establish a following of the local residents. Several of these "saints" became quite famous and are revered even to this day. Among them is the very important St. Piran, the Patron Saint of Cornish Miners, who was believed to have lived more than 200 years. Another important saint, known as St. Petroc, is said to have conquered the only remaining dragon that terrorized this region.

Now any Cornishman or Cornishwoman worthy of this title will fill you in on all the details of other saints who passed this way. They may even relate their colorful folklore from memory. These local people might even recite Cornwall's history including the glory days of mining, or they could quote passages from Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (known as "Q"), D. H. Lawrence, Dylan Thomas, Virginia Woolf, and Daphne du Maurier all of whom passed this way. Then again these folks may just introduce you to a traditional Cornish pie, rich with everything from giblets to pigeons, pilchards to bream. Or they might introduce you to the most marvelous saffron buns and Shenagrum. For such is the life in Cornwall and the citizens who reside there.