It was early on a bright May day and I had risen at dawn to climb Carburrow Tor in the quiet, cool of the morning. Later, driving back towards the A30, I had a sudden urge to see Dozmary Pool. I took a detour, where the scenic drive hugs the edge of Colliford Reservoir, and at a curve in the road on Gillhouse Downs a deep blue saucer of water comes into view. I stopped the car and wondered why I had never written about this place!
Before the sea impetuously threw up thousands of tons of sand forming Loe Bar, and creating Loe Pool near Helston, Dozmary Pool was the largest natural freshwater lake in Cornwall. It is roughly a mile in circumference or, as Henry VIII’s historian John Leland put it, the length of eleven arrow shots. Our own Cornish King, Dungarth, was said to have hunted deer on its shores.
But when I have visited over the years Dozmary Pool has always seemed a sad, dreary place to me. The black water is so often whipped up by sharp moorland winds, it feels forbidding and cold, I had seen little need to spend much time there. But this day it was so different. As I walked along the reedy edge the water was flat calm and impossibly blue. Hundreds of damselflies danced above the smooth glassy surface.
If we take a look at the legends connected with Dozmary, however, it is clear that I am not the only one who sees trouble in its waters and a sadness on that wind.
The Old Storm Woman
This tale feels timeless, like a fable that has been passed down from generation to generation. You see, Dozmary Pool is beyond ancient, probably created millions of years ago when the granite uplands were formed. And we know that people have been living and working around its edges for over 5000 years – but more of that later. It is little wonder then that this place is the source of a number of long-standing myths. One particular legend has it that all the winds on Bodmin Moor come from Dozmary Pool.
Beneath the inky water, where no light reaches, lives the Old Storm Woman. As ancient as her watery home, and with a face as wrinkled and pitted as the great granite tors, she is like a strange inland mermaid. In the peaty depths of the pool the Old Storm Woman stirs up the water and creates the wind, casting it out angrily onto the moor.
The 19th century collector of Cornish folklore tales, Robert Hunt, also records a story that the centre of the lake is in fact one huge whirlpool, drawing all down into the depths of a watery grave. Hunt, however, confesses that when he took a boat out on to the water himself to test the theory he passed from one side to the other quite safely! I note his apparent disappointment.
Drop of Sea
‘a quiet tarn on a hilltop, reflecting an empty sky’E. C, Axford, Bodmin moor, 1975
The name Dozmary (sometimes Dosmary or Dozmare) first appears in writing in 1170 and supposedly means ‘drop of sea’. However, Craig Weatherhill writes that it is more likely to come from Middle English ‘tos mery’ which translates as ‘pleasant drinking bowl’. The first reference to the sea may relate to the long-held myth that there is an underground tunnel from the bottom of the pool which connects it with the coast, specifically with Fowey harbour.
There is even today a popular belief that the pool is bottomless and that a [bundle of sticks] which was once thrown into it was some time after seen in Fowey harbour.The Cornish and devon post, 4th september 1909
And this leads us neatly to another legend often associated with the pool – that it is bottomless and can therefore never runs dry. The source of the pool’s water seems to have created a bit of a puzzle for early writers. Most claimed the pool had no springs feeding it or streams running away, so its apparent constant level was a problem. These days the pool is widely thought to be rain-fed from the surrounding hills and to also have a rising spring. On the marshy western edge water feeds into Colliford Lake and Dozmary is considered to be one of the sources of the Fowey River. Also, unfortunately, the idea that it could never dry up was disproven in 1866, 1869 and again in 1976 when drought caused water levels to drop dramatically in the little lake.
Dosmary Pool, near Liskeard, is said to be dry, a circumstance never known to have previously occurred.Royal Cornwall Gazette, 11th september 1869
A few days after the announcement in the newspaper the editor received an anonymous letter which claimed that the pool had not dried out because of the ‘tropical weather’ but had been drained on purpose by ‘a certain company’. Who that was or why they had drained the lake the letter writer does not elaborate. However we do know that neighbouring stream works had dug a channel to divert some of the water so this may have been partly the cause. It was reported that when this channel had silted up the pool returned to its original level.
The writer J.W. Malim also adds a little more to this story in his 1936 book about the moors. He claims:
“Many years ago, it is said, a scheme was afoot for draining Dozmary Pool, the idea apparently being that its bottom was rich in black tin. Fortunately for posterity there appears to have been strenuous opposition, and as often as the trench was excavated by day, so it was filled in by the Devil by night.”
The low levels of water experienced in 1866 led to an amazing discovery which, without exaggeration, changes our understanding of ancient Cornwall. Across the dried-up bed of the lake hundreds of flint tools, known as thunderbolts to the locals, were revealed. Dozmary Pool produced the largest collection of early flint artefacts ever found anywhere in Cornwall. It is now considered to be a site of ‘manufacturing’ where flint pebbles brought from the coast, and some high-quality black flint from Beer in Devon, were turned into tools during the Mesolithic era.
The Mesolithic is considered to be the first period of major human occupation in Cornwall. It covers a roughly 5000 year long period from the end of the last Ice Age in 8000BC until roughly 3500BC. Given the length of time involved we know very little about the lives of the people who were living then, they didn’t leave us any monuments. We do know that they were hunter-gatherers, on the move from season to season. The finds at Dozmary give a rare window into their world.
“[Dozmary Pool was] a mesolithic centre of activity, probably during the summer hunting seasons. Many of the flint implements found here, such as scrapers, indicate that animal hides were being prepared for use in clothing, shelter-building and boat construction.”Craig Weatherhill, The Promontory People, 2018.
Various studies of the pool have been carried out, when water levels have allowed, and, as well as the numerous Mesolithic flints, finds dating from the Neolithic and Bronze Age have also been discovered including a number of leaf and barbed arrowheads, indicating a thousands of years of use and occupation. In a paper written for Cornwall Archaeological by Peter Berridge and Alison Roberts in 1986 it was suggested that further study of the site was necessary to reveal all of its secrets. As far as I am aware no recent excavations have been carried out.
The Ice Works
The cold and inhospitable moors during the winter months are not at first glance the ideal place to start a business but that didn’t stop the ingenious Cornish from finding a way. During the 19th century ice blocks were being produced on a small scale at Dozmary Pool by local farmers. They had built a stone-lined shed close to the water’s edge and after cutting the frozen lake into blocks they used their horses to drag the ice up onto the granite floor where is was covered with turf. Amazingly the ice lasted very well and could be sold to the fish market at Looe where it was used to keep the catch cold on it’s way to London and beyond.
In October 1876 James Henderson of Truro took over the lease of Dozmary Pool and began working on a patent for a technique forming crushing ice and snow into blocks. A whole new commercial industry was born. Henderson called his business the English Natural Ice Company, advertising the ice he produced as coming naturally from the wilds of the moor.
Dozmary became one of his main sites of production and in October 1877 the Royal Cornwall Gazette reported that he was expanding the premises with new reservoirs, storehouses and machinery. Within months many more tons of ice were being produced and the ice works were supplying markets at St Ives, Mevagissey, Hayle and even over the border at Plymouth.
We are glad to be able to state that the ice secured at Dosmary this winter is meeting a ready sale, it being of first rate quality. It is being pressed into blocks and sent by rail to Plymouth and other places.The Ice Works of Dosmary, Cornish & devon post, 15th march 1879
The buildings that can still be seen close to the edge of the pool today are what remains of the English Natural Ice Co. which by 1880 was estimated to have capital of £40,000. The premises was eventually closed in around 1900.
Tregeagle and his Hell Hounds
There is one legend that is deeply connected to this pool. A name that ripples across the surface. A spirit that is said to haunt the surrounding moorland. It is impossible for anyone from Cornwall to stand on Dozmary’s banks and not think of Jan Tregeagle and his limpet shell. Tregeagle is Cornwall’s Sisyphus. There are various versions of his story but most concur that he was dark and evil character who sold his soul to the Devil and as an eternal punishment was doomed to repeat impossible tasks, such as making rope from sand and emptying Dozmary Pool with a holey limpet shell. At night he would find himself being hunted across the moor by the hounds of hell. It is said that his howling can still be heard on the wind.
The Dubious Mists of Avalon
After the ice works closed the lease was taken over by a Mr Bray, who made himself a steady income from a new kind of visitor to the pool – the Arthurian tourist. Mr Bray kept a small rowing boat and for a fee you could take yourself out onto the waters and seek out the Lady of the Lake. But if you read any of the early travellers descriptions of the pool you will notice that none of them make any reference to King Arthur. That is because the whole thing was invented by the poet Tennyson. Before he planted the idea that Dozmary Pool was the watery home of Excalibur in Idylls of the King, The Passing of Arthur published 1869 it had no Arthurian connection at all.
One of the oldest books I own is the Parochial History of Saint Noets by James Michell, it was printed in Bodmin in 1833. This little book covers in detail all manner of stories relating to the parish and includes a section on Dozmary Pool. There is no reference to Arthur, although several pages are dedicated to the Ballad of Tregeagle. In 1842 Cyrus Redding, like myself, obviously saw Dozmary on a bad day, he dubs it the ‘Dead sea’ of Cornwall and writes:
“No scene can be imagined more horribly dreary . . . it is a contemptible lake, not being more than a mile in circumference . . . The cheerless aspect of the spot accounts for the stories which the country people have invented . . .”
Redding goes on to describe the legend of the pool being bottomless and the dark story of Tregeagle but again no mention of King Arthur at all. Murray’s Handbook of Devon and Cornwall published in 1859 calls the pool ‘a melancholy sheet of water’ and again Tregeagle and his hell hounds are there but no knights, no swords, no watery nymph. So sadly those searching for King Arthur should probably look elsewhere.
It’s also important that we remember that “strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is not a basis for a system of government.” Sorry, I couldn’t resist!
Dozmary Pool is a truly fascinating place, with or without King Arthur. Teeming with wildlife, legend and incredible ancient history but my advice would be to try and visit on a warm and sunny day!