St Nectan’s Glen – a mysterious history

The north coast of Cornwall. Dramatic. Isolated. Remarkable in every sense. Along this coast you can find Cornwall’s highest cliffs, strange tales of ancient kings and shipwrecks, and some of the county’s most beautiful and dramatically situated coastal towns and villages.

Not far from Boscastle is Rocky Valley and the hamlet of Trethevy. From here a quiet lane leads to one of the most spectacular natural wonders in the whole of Cornwall.

St Nectan’s Glen. Unchanged for centuries this is still a place of pilgrimage and wonder for many.

St Nectan's Glen

Here the River Trevillet tumbles amongst ancient woodland. The water expertly cuts its way through the layers of Devonian slate to form a series of waterfalls. The largest fall drops roughly 60ft into a rock basin. Then the water pours out through a perfect window or arch of stone before falling again and continuing its journey towards the sea. This pool is known as Saint Nectan’s (in the past Neighton’s) Kieve. (Kieve is basin in Cornish).

St Nectan's Glen

But this is not just a place of outstanding natural beauty. This is a place of legend. Ghosts stories and myths surround it.

Saint Nectan

The glen is named after the 6th century Saint Nectan. He is believed to have had his hermitage here, just above the waterfall. According to the legend the Saint would ring a silver bell in times of stormy weather. The bell was meant to warn ships of the perils of coming to close to the coast. In particular the rocks near the mouth of the Rocky Valley just below the falls.

St Nectan was supposedly the brother of St Morwenna. And it is said that after his death he was buried here beneath the falls.

Paul Broadhurst discusses his legacy in his book Secret Shrines.

After a lifetime of contemplation he approached his end when the country was bitterly divided by the differences between the old Celtic faith and the new Roman doctrines. 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.

The remains of the saint’s hermitage have now become a place of pilgrimage. While there I saw parties of pagans and christians from places as far flung as Portugal and the USA making their way up the valley.

St Nectan's Glen

A Haunted Valley

Besides the eerie tolling of the bell the valley also has its fair share of ghosts. King Arthur and his knights are said to haunt this place. Ghostly hooded figures are encountered by walkers in the woods and then there is the strange story of the two grey women.

Broadhurst says that they were thought to be the sisters of the Saint, come to follow the wishes of their brother and bury him and “his sacramental vessels and treasures in an oak chest under the waterfall”. However Cyrus Redding writing in 1842 says that their identity was a mystery.

“The inhabitants of the neighbourhood have another tale about this place”, he writes.

Redding describes two ancient ladies who appeared suddenly in the valley and moved into the hermitage. No one knew them and from their accents they were strangers to Cornwall. However their dress showed that they were persons of good quality. Nevertheless they kept themselves apart from the community, eating only food they foraged from the woods. Redding says they seemed anxious to attract as little notice as possible. They continued living in the Glen for many years. Eventually one of the sisters died. The vilkagers watched as the other sister wasted away in grief. But who the women were remained a mystery that they took to their graves. Mystified the community buried the two sisters together under a large flat stone in the glen. And it is said that their spirits, known as the grey ladies, haunt the lane that leads down to the well.

St Nectan’s Glen is a very special place, not only because of it’s mysterious past and the legends that surround it but also because it is incredibly beautiful.

I highly recommend a visit. And don’t forget your camera. It is a very photogenic place here too!

Some Other Notes

A visit to this valley makes a wonderful day out. There is no charge for the woodland walk but there is an entrance fee to the Kieve and hermitage. All the money goes back into looking after this stunning beauty spot. There is also a little café where you can get a cream tea as well as hot drinks and snacks.

Make sure you wear good footwear, even in the height of summer surfaces can be damp and slippery. Expect mud and uneven ground. There is a large parking area on the main Tintagel to Boscastle road and then is about 1 mile walk from there.

The site is opening all year round but keeps shorter hours in the winter. You can check their website for more details HERE.

Further Reading

Things to do in Beautiful Bude

Things to do in Boscastle

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