Loe Pool is Cornwall’s largest natural lake but the curious uncertainty over its formation and the myths and legends associated with it make this mysterious body of water so much more than a picturesque nature reserve. It may be a haven for wild birds, trout and otters but this lake gathers stories too . . . and holds them close in it’s silent depths.
“The scenery round this lake is picturesque and beautiful, and the shores are well wooded . . . The ocean stretches far away beyond the bar, uniting with the aerial tint of the sky . . . as sun beams play and dance along the serene deep, or clouds, flitting between, cast gauzy shades, like islands upon the blue plain of waters. Thus we saw both lake and sea, a more perfect combination of landscape scenery is hardly to be found.”Cyrus Redding, 1842
The name Loe (pronounced low) comes from the Cornish ‘logh’ meaning a deep water inlet. The lake was once a tidal arm of the sea from which the River Cober flowed. But the story of how this estuary became blocked and formed the deep pool we see today is the first and most complex of our mysteries. Loe bar is supposedly a ‘textbook example’ of a shingle bar which cuts off a lake from the open ocean, but this is a relatively rare occurrence in the British Isles and a process that has never been adequately explained. How and when Loe Pool formed is a bit of a puzzle.
A story, often repeated by the locals but also in numerous historical sources, is that Helston was once a port and that Loe bar sealed the entrance to the harbour. Supposedly the boating lake, at the lower side of the town, marks the upper reaches of the tidal creek which ships could once sail up and unload goods for the town.
The writer, Daniel Defoe, visiting in the early 18th century, remarks on this forgotten trading port.
“Quitting Falmouth Haven from Penryn west we came to Helston, about seven miles and stands upon the little River Cober, which however admits the seas so into its bosom as to make a tolerable good harbour for ships a little below the town. It is the fifth town allowed for the coining tin and several of the ships called tin ships are laden here.”Daniel Defoe, From London to Lands End, 1722
However, despite Defoe’s observations, legend has it that around the beginning of the 13th century the mouth of the Cober estuary was cut off from the sea by a furious storm. The wild seas threw up so much stone and sand that the bar was formed. But there is very little solid, supporting evidence for this event or indeed the idea that Helston was a harbour at all. In fact geomorphological evidence contradicts the story completely. So where does the legend of Helston as a harbour come from?
Loe Bar, a Geological Mystery
Understanding how and when Loe Bar formed is vital to deciphering the legends of the port of Helston. There seems to be plenty of anecdotal evidence, for example, I know that I have read somewhere, though unfortunately I forget where, about the existence of mooring stones or rings still visible near the boating lake until quite recently . . .
Loe bar is made up of mostly chalk flint, about 90% of it, and this in itself presents a problem. There are no flint sources in the area, and very few in Cornwall as a whole. Geologists therefore believe that the bar was formed by flint shingle that was washed up from the seabed around 3000-4000 BC when the sea rose to its present level.
“The most likely origin of the aforementioned flint is the drowned terraces of a former river flowing down the English Channel [before sea levels rose]. This suggests a formation of the bar taking place thousands rather than hundreds of years ago.”Peter Nicholls, Could Helston have historically been a port settlement?, 2013
This timeline of course seems to make the idea of Helston as a harbour impossible. But perhaps the bar was much smaller until that 13th century storm. Maybe it has grown in height and width over the centuries and at first did not completely close off the entrance to the estuary but formed more of a spit, with a open channel still giving access at high tide. There is another possibility too – that man maintained a passage through the shingle bank wide enough to allow boats through. In fact, historian John Leland seems to imply just that when discussing the town’s usefulness in the 16th century:
“If this bar might always be kept open, it would form a goodly haven up to Helston.”
It is possible that it was once common knowledge that a deep channel was maintained across the bar. In addition, in 1822 a letter published in the Royal Cornwall Gazette newspaper asks plainly why authorities were unable to keep the entrance to Loe Pool open. Indeed, a few years later in the 1830s plans were put forward proposing to build a permanent harbour at Helston, although they were abandoned due to the exorbitant cost of the undertaking. All this may seem far fetched now but we do actually have historical evidence that a channel through the bar has been regularly opened, even within living memory.
Cutting the Bar
Loe Pool is fed by the River Cober as well as numerous other smaller streams, such as Carminowe Creek. During the winter months the pool can become over full, threatening to flood the surrounding area. In order to save the town from damage a channel was once dug through the bar to allow water to escape into the sea. This process, first recorded in writing by Borlase in 1758, has become known as cutting or breaking the bar. F. W. L. Stockdale witnessed the event around two hundred years ago in the 1820s:
“Workmen are employed by the Mayor of Helston to cut a passage through the pebbles, and the opening is no sooner made, than the whole body of water rushes through the aperture with wonderful force and impetuosity.”
Tradition dictated that permission to cut the bar had to be obtained from the owners of the Penrose Estate, which, now looked after by the National Trust, borders Loe Pool. The Lord was presented with a leather purse containing three half-pence pieces in exchange for his leave for the work to be done. The event, which by it’s nature, often happened in the dead of winter, was something of a spectacle for the local people, drawing crowds from miles around to watch the deluge.
“Heavy rains during the last week raised the level of the Loe Pool to such a height as to be a serious inconvenience to the inhabitants of the lower part of the town of Helston, flooding their houses and stopping the mills . . . the channel was opened, the vast torrent of water rushing into the sea in waves 20 to 30 feet high, affording a very gratifying spectacle to the numerous lovers of the sublime and beautiful who witnessed it.”Royal Cornwall Gazette, 9th March 1838
The sea was said to be stained with the muddy lake water for miles around, one writer in the 19th century even claimed that the discolouration reached as far as the Isles of Scilly. According to Murray’s Handbook from 1859, which also vividly describes the cutting of the bar, the channel would naturally close up again within a few days.
Flooding remains an issue in Helston to this day. But the last time the bar was cut, I believe, was in 1984, since then work has been done to ensure that a concrete lined channel remains open to allow excess water to escape.
Every Seven Years
To the people that live close to it Loe Pool has become infamous for it’s pernicious nature and as such is always treated with respect. No one I know will swim there. The lake is notorious for drownings, which once seemed to happen at regular intervals. I have lost count of the times that I have heard someone say that “Loe Pool takes someone every seven years” and it seems that this dark prophecy is by no means a modern invention.
When the Royal Cornwall Gazette reported the accidental drowning of a 19 year old lad called John Lukie in September 1878 the article concluded with the following:
“There is an old legend which says that some are drowned in the Loe Pool every seven years. The old folks about here believe it, and well they may, for for several sevens past they have had good cause.”
The newspapers from the era carry many melancholy articles related to Loe Pool, giving details of numerous people drowned and a fair few who chose the lake as the place to end their lives. The seven year prophecy doesn’t quite add up but it is abundantly clear why local people will never swim in the pool.
Without giving too many depressing details here are a few examples (note that strangely September seems to be a particularly dangerous month): September 1835 – drowning. December 1834 – suicide. 1843 – two drownings, one in June, one in October. March 1846 – suicide. September 1857 – drowning. In April 1858 Richard Perkins from Breage was walking with friends beside the pool, no one actually heard him fall in but when they realised he was missing it took several hours to find his body. September 1878 – drowning. September 1881 – drowning. 1920 – drowning. 1935 – drowning.
One of the main theories as to why Loe Pool is so dangerous is the long, thick weed which grows on its bottom. It is thought that swimmers become tangled in it and are pulled or held under. At one time the lake was a much as 40ft (13m) deep in places and the bodies would sometimes take days to surface. The pool likes to keep her secrets.
The Wreck of HMS Anson
Shipwrecks were all too common on Loe bar, the most infamous of them all was the H.M.S. Anson which sank in a violent storm in December 1807. More than 100 officers, men, women and children were lost. A white cross overlooking Loe Pool and the beach commemorates the disaster and marks the spot where the dead were buried.
This tragedy, which took place around dawn, was witnessed by many local people and actually led to a permanent change in the law. Helstonians were so horrified by the unceremonious burial of so many victims in the dunes above the beach that a Bill, presented at Parliament by Cornish M.P. Davies- Gilbert, was passed in 1808 which authorised the Christian burial of bodies washed ashore.
Henry Trengrouse was one of the witnesses that day and was so distressed at having to stand by and watch as the disaster unfolded that he later invented the ‘Rocket Life-Saving Apparatus’ which went on to save countless lives in the 19th century.
Devils & Dragons
There are a various other mythical stories, involving St Michael, Tregeagle, the Devil, dragons, buried treasure and King Arthur, which relate to how the bar was formed or involve the pool in some way.
For Tregeage, the Cornish Sisyphus, the bar was the result of another of his tasks of penance. He was banished from Dozmary Pool to endlessly carry sand from Gunwalloe to Porthleven. On one of these journeys he accidently dropped the sack of stones blocking the entrance to the estuary creating the pool. In another story the Devil is flying over the area in the form of a dragon carrying a red-hot stone from Hell, he intends to burn the town to ashes! Fortunately St Michael saves the day and despatches the dragon and the Hell Stone into the depths of the lake.
A different legend proposes an explanation for the famous Flora Dance.
“It is understood that, on deciphering the inscription of an ancient stone found during excavations but now unfortunately lost, a monster fiery dragon breathing flames of fire and admitting omitting fiery dparks from it’s scaly tail flew over Helston, or Hellstone as it was then named, and the inhabitants, being persuaded the dear old town was going to be burned up and shriveled like a parchment scroll leaving not a trace behind fled in mortal terror for their lives to the rockbound coast and the seabeat shore. But to their great joy and astonishment the unearthly monster dragon fluttered and fell into the Cornish lake, the famous Loe Pool, at the bottom of Helston town, where after frizzling and spattering his fire was extinguished and he was drowned. Never again being able to frighten peaceful Helstonians, and in commemoration of this very happy escape the townsfolk could not do other than dance for joy, hence the reason for the Flora Dance.”The Cornish Telegraph, 28 April 1892
Alternatively in the little pamphlet ‘Degibna and the Loe Valley‘ the authors claim that the pool has Arthurian connections and Sir Bedivere visited here to thrown Excalibur into the waters from Carminowe Creek. Apparently the Carminow family claimed once to have been direct descents of King Arthur himself. Fancy!
Lastly, looking for a windfall? Well, keep your eyes peeled as you walk beside Loe Pool, another legend has it that the mound of the bar actually hides a treasure ship which was buried there during a violent storm. So you never know what may wash up on the next tide . . .
Whatever the geological origins of the pool and whatever the legends that have attached themselves to this body of water it is an unusual and picturesque place to visit. A walk around it’s edge is about 6.2 miles (10km) with ever changing vistas, wildlife and the occasional ropeswing to keep you entertained. If you want my advice though, wear wellies in winter and, whatever the time of year, stay out of the water.