Driving the Cornish coast along what is romantically known as the Atlantic Highway takes you down a road that rolls through a stunning landscape. The high tors of the moorland rise up on one side and the fields drop away to the wide sweep of the sea on the other. There beautiful coves and safe harbours nestle in deep rocky valleys beneath the wave battered cliffs. Even the church towers seem lower here as if trying to escape the rough Atlantic winds. This is Cornwall’s wild north coast and myths and legends abound.
There have been many kings of Cornwall. All of them have vanished into a cloudy mist of Cornish mizzle, their names just vague myth-like mentions in the written history of a much greater kingdom. There was Donault, Erbin, Geraint, Salomon, Dungarth, Ricatus, Huwal. The most famous, King Arthur and King Mark, have strangely regular names in comparison to their ancestors.
Recently however I learnt of another Cornish king, perhaps not quite so grand. His is a story of bravery and valour but most of all I thought it might amuse. The source of the tale is a spinster diarist living in the small coastal village of Boscastle. Miss Ellen Brown kept a record of the comings and goings, the tea parties and funeral services, the births, drownings and disasters and enjoyed a good shipwreck or fractious lawsuit. Hers is a small glimpse into life in the area around her home in the late 19th century.
One entry in June 1883 recounts a local legend about Long Island. This large steep-sided rocky island is about a mile south down the coast from Boscastle near to the isolated hamlet of Trevalga.
“A few sheep graze [on Long Island] during the summer, on one occasion an old farmer had taken his sheep there and on attempting to return [to the mainland] found the tide too high and was obliged to remain all night clinging on with his hands, there being small foot-hold. A neighbour hearing his perilous condition took his fiddle and standing on the nearest cliff played to him the whole night through to keep him awake, lest sleeping he should lose his hold and falling into the sea be drowned.”
Ever after, according to Miss Brown, the old man was known as ‘King of the Island’ but I think it should have been his loyal fiddle-playing friend who was called a king. After all you have to wonder at the old farmer’s choice of location for his flock. Long Island is a palace for birds, it is a seagull skyscraper, it seems an unlikely spot for grazing! And what coastal man fails to keep an eye on the rising tide?
A walk along the coast here is very beautiful though and well worth it if only to watch the birds swoop and dive from the precipitous heights of Long Island and while you are there you can wonder at how the king came by his name.