Porthcurno beach is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful in Cornwall and it’s not hard to see why. On a sunny day it has something of the feel of the Caribbean about it, a tropical paradise, a Robinson Crusoe beach – secluded, idyllic, with white sand and clear, emerald green waters. The last place perhaps that you would expect to see a ghostly apparition!
But, as anyone who has braved a walk beside the sea during a winter storm will know, the coast of Cornwall has many faces. And some of them are fearsome!
“The wind was a torrent of darkness amongst the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas . . .”Arther Noyes, the Highwayman
Heart of the Empire
Porthcurno beach lies in the far west of Cornwall, close to the popular cliffside theatre, the Minack and the famous Logan Rock at Treen. These days, apart from being recognised as an instagramable beauty spot, it is probably best known for once being at the epicentre of international communications.
It was here in June 1870 that the ‘Falmouth, Gibraltar & Malta Telegraph Company’ belonging to John Pender landed the final section of the first Great Britain-India submarine cable. The first message from England to Bombay was sent on 23rd June that year and in the years that followed further cables to Newfoundland, France, Spain, and Gibraltar were all landed at Porthcurno, making Cornwall the unlikely mouthpiece of the British Empire.
But before those cables came ashore something else is said to have troubled the crystal clear waters and white sands of the beach at Porthcurno.
A ghostly galleon, a spectral ship . . . Cornwall’s very own Flying Dutchman.
The Flying Dutchman
Perhaps the most infamous ghost ship, the Flying Dutchman, was first recorded in print in 1790 by the author John MacDonald but the story has been told and retold many times since, most recently in the Pirates of the Caribbean films.
There are various versions of the legend but the bones of the story are this. A hard hearted Dutch captain, thought to be called Henrick van der Decken, was caught in a violent storm in about 1641. His crew and passengers begged him to find a safe harbour but the captain just laughed at their fears and swore that he would sail on.
Some versions say that the ship was sank, others that crew and passengers were saved by some miracle, but the captain was cursed by God or perhaps sold his soul to the devil. Whatever the case, he was forever doomed to sail the Seven Seas alone onboard his ghostly ship. He was condemned to travel the globe without ever being able to touch land or drop anchor.
” . . . the Flying Dutchman has always sailed in the heart of storms and his only pleasure has been to bring bad luck to poor seamen. It is he that strands their ships on uncharted shoals, sets them on a false course that ends in shipwreck. No one knows for sure what the Dutchman’s ship looks like for it is continually changing its colour and shape. Sometimes it appears black from truck to keel and rigged like a swift privateer . . .”Michael Brown, The Hamish Hamilton Book of Sea Legends, 1973
It was said that if another ship ever came into contact with the Flying Dutchman their food would go rotten, their wine would turn sour, the crew would mutiny or the whole ship would just be swallowed up by the sea.
The phantom vessel was a terrible portent of doom.
Images of the Flying Dutchman often show the ship floating on a plume of sea mist or glowing with an unearthly light.
Which leads us to our own ghostly version of this spectral ship . . .
Porthcurno’s Spectral Ship
According to the folklorist, Robert Hunt, the ghost ship at Prothcurno had been “frequently observed”. He wrote in his book ‘Popular Romances of the West of England‘, a book that he compiled from stories that he had heard in his early childhood growing up in Cornwall as well as other tales he collected during his lifetime, that the ship was remembered by the “old people” living in the area.
Hunt had first been told about it in the 1850s by a man living at Penberth, a picturesque cove a little further along the coast.
It was said that the ship would be seen at dusk, especially when there was a mist hanging on the water. As daylight began to fade the ghostly craft would rise up out of the sea and then, without a sound, glide up across the sand as if still afloat.
“It passed steadily through the breakers on the shore, glided up over the sands and steadily pursued its course over the dry land, as if it had been on water.”Robert hunt, Popular Romances of the West of England, 1881
The ship was described as “black, square-ribbed, single masted”, sometimes with a row boat in tow behind it but no crew were ever seen onboard.
It would apparently travel overland to Bodellan, a hamlet above the beach, and then on to Chegwidden (Chygwiden) where it would vanish like sea mist. However, it was said that the ghostly galleon was an ill omen, that it foretold some misfortune and that anyone who was unfortunate enough to see it would soon have some terrible tragedy befall them.
The Ghost Pirate of Chygwiden
It is thought that the legend of the ghost ship may well be connected to the tale of a dark stranger who came to live at Chygwiden. This man was described as “returning from the sea” implying that he was originally from the Porthcurno area but had spent sometime abroad or in the navy perhaps.
Whoever this man was he kept a servant, a foreigner with a “forbidding aspect”, a pack of angry dogs and a boat at Porthcurno. The local people seem to have convinced themselves that these men were pirates, evil buccaneers who had made a deal with the devil.
They were said to keep very strange hours, taking their boat out at dawn and not returning until night fall, if they returned at all. They would also go to sea in wild weather – “when the storm was loudest” and their neighbours doubted that they were going fishing. In fact, it was suspected that other ships were their prey.
Legend has it that when this dubious character died his servant asked some of the locals to help him carry his master’s coffin to St Levan churchyard. This they did but it was said that as soon as it was lowered into the grave and earth was thrown down onto the lid the servant and the dogs vanished into thin air. At the same moment their mysterious boat disappeared from the cove too and according to Hunt “from that day to this, no one has been able to keep a boat in Porthcurno Cove.”
False Lights & Ill Omens
Countless lives have been lost around the Cornish coast. The region is rightly notorious for its shipwrecks and the superstitious cohorts of sailors and fishermen once feared the ghosts of drowned men returning from their watery graves as much as they did storms, sea monsters and whirlpools. Ghost ships however are a little rarer in Cornwall.
There are a couple of possible explanations for the ghost ship of Porthcurno.
The coast around Porthcurno was, like so much of Cornwall’s south coast, popular with smugglers. It proximity to mainland Europe made it the obvious choice for landing contraband goods.
An example of this ‘freetrading’ occurred in about 1815 when a boat called the Rose from Coverack was returning from Roscoff with 200 tubs of spirits. As the crew tried to land at Gunwalloe they saw a signal on shore telling then they had been spotted by the Revenue men and quickly set sail again. They headed for Porthcurnoe instead and managed to unload some of the contraband onto the sand before they again saw a signal from the clifftop telling them there was danger. The men apparently hid themselves and the barrels until it was safe and then carried the spirits to Treen before stashing it away with the help of a local farmer!
Importantly for our story, smugglers were known to spread rumours of ghosts, curses and evil spirits to keep prying eyes away from a particular cove or trackway and it has been suggested that the ghost ship at Porthcurno is one such tale.
A legend told to keep people away from that part of the coast at night.
An alternative theory is a phenomenon known in Cornwall as “Jack Harry’s Lights”, otherwise called phosphorescence, which was also considered an evil omen.
Phosphorescence is a strange light or glow seen in sea water that it is emitted by tiny organisms called bioluminescent algae.
Bioluminescent algae are found in oceans worldwide and in the right conditions they give off flashes of bluish-green light when there is disturbance to the water around them.
Some marine experts believe that stories of ghostly apparitions could be related to this and that tales of false lights or phantom ships could stem from this strange phenomenon.
Whether the story of the Porthcurno ghost ship was created but wily smugglers to make people wary of the area, the result glowing algae or something entirely more mysterious it certainly casts this beauty spot in a different light. And is a strange tale to contemplate as you stand with your toes in the sand watching the lazy waves lap in at dusk . . .
Author’s Note: A special thank you to my pal Jamie Ashley for letting me use a couple of his images of the coast around Porthcurno!