Roche Rock is a spectacular geological phenomenon that has been the focal point of the surrounding communities for so long that there are numerous ancient myths and legends associated with it. I set out to discover the history of this striking landmark and the many stories that seem to cling to these enigmatic ruins like moorland mist.
“The granite outcrop rises like a huge molar into which has been inserted the early fifteenth century chapel of St Michael, long roofless and with a hermit’s cell below it.”John Betjeman, 1964
The nearby village of Roche, indeed the whole parish, has been named after this strange group of rock formations. Since at least 1201 the area has been known as La Roche, meaning ‘the rock’ in French. But this is a truly ancient landscape in geological terms too. The highest outcrop of these black tourmaline granite rock formations rises to 20m (66ft) above the surrounding moorland and was probably formed around 270 million years ago.
A Tangle of Myths
The history of Roche Rock is a delightful tangle of folktales and half-remembered truths. A story of lepers, lords, giants, evil spirits and hermits.
In the past fairs and cattle and horse markets were held in the shadow of the outcrops several times a year, in 1933 the annual meeting of the Cornish Gorsedd took place in the shadow of the rock. It was also a campsite for gypsies and, as far back as the Middle Ages, was considered a place where evil spirits would congregate.
Roche Rock has always drawn people, and tall tales, to it and yet it still remains firmly off the typical tourist trail.
For many years before the structure, the chapel, that we see today was built on the outcrop it is thought that there was a simple hermit’s cell here and that a monk or priest called Ogrin lived there.
According to legend Ogrin gave shelter and council to the famous star-crossed lovers, Tristan and Isolde, as they tried to escape the wrath of King Mark. The 12th century poet Beroul mentions the priest and his hermitage in his telling of the romantic tale.
A chapel was actually built on the rock more than 600 years ago in 1409 by the Tregarrick family, who owned the manor in which the formations stood at that time.
Sturdily constructed of locally quarried granite the building is a feat of medieval engineering. It hugs the topography of the outcrop, using the natural stone as an intrinsic part of its structure. The two stories of this now roofless, floorless ruin once provided accomodation for the chaplain on the ground floor, with a small chapel above that was dedicated to Saint Michael.
Just like St Michael’s Mount, it is thought that Roche Rock was once a site of pilgrimage and that a beacon would be lit on its heights to guide weary travellers to it across the lonely moors.
The windows of the chapel, which still frame staggering views of the surrounding clay country, are decorated with finely carved mouldings, as are the doors. Old etchings hint at other buildings on the rock, long since disappeared.
The chapel can still be accessed today via some rather rusty ladders but according to historian William Hals, writing in the 18th century, there was once a stone-built flight of stairs leading to the doorway. Sadly these were subsequently pulled down and the stone reused in the village.
One of the most memorable legends connected to Roche Rock is that it was the home of a leper. This story may have some truth in it as it is said that Sir John Tregarrick, Lord of the manor, and his family were the chapel’s last inhabitants.
Some say that Tregarrick, who was also the MP for Truro in 1383, was weary of the world and wanted to live on the rock in solitude and peace. Others suggest that he had in fact contracted leprosy and was forced to hide away from the community. His daughter is said to have cared for him, bringing him meat and bread every day and collecting water for him from a well at the base of Roche Rock.
Roche Rock’s Well
This well, supposedly named after the leper’s daughter, is called Saint Gundred’s or Gunnett’s well and has several strange and miraculous myths all of its own. The folklorist Robert Hunt wrote about it in 1896 claiming that it never runs dry and the level of the water “ebbs and flows as the sea”.
Richard Carew wrote a verse about this curiosity in 1602:
A friend of mine, Bart O’Farrell, once told me that he had actually seen this phenomenon. He said that the water in the well had disappeared before his eyes in a whirlpool, like it was vanishing down a plughole.
It was also said that the little well was filled from a tunnel that reached all the way to the sea of St Austell Bay. An article published in the Royal Cornwall Gazette in 1878 claimed that there were hundreds that believed in this miracle because they had been to the well and tasted that its water was indeed salty. Though the writer, Mr E. Symons, went on to explain that this may all have been due to a clever trick!
“I saw a gentleman who lives in the village, he informed me that for a long series of years wicked boys resident in the neighbourhood have been i the habit if depositing saltwater in the hole and asking visitors to satisfy themselves by tasting the water that it comes from the sea.”
Although Roche Rock was clearly once a site of important religious significance stories like this one illustrate the many traditional folktales and flights of fancy that are attached to this atmospheric place. A lonely spot, it is well suited to wild imaginings.
Witches & Demons
Roche Rock was also said to have been a meeting place for witches. On stormy nights another myth has the moans of a giant emanating from the stones but perhaps the most famous former occupant was Jan Tregeagle.
Tregeagle was said to have been a 17th century magistrate and is Cornwall’s answer to Sisyphus. There are various versions of his unfortunate story but most agree that he was an evil character who sold his soul to the Devil. After his death Tregeagle was to be doomed to repeat a number of impossible tasks for all eternity, such as making a length of rope from sand and emptying Dozmary Pool on Bodmin Moor with a holey limpet shell.
At night he would find himself being hunted across the moors by the hounds of hell and on one occasion they chased him all the way to Roche Rock. Legend has it that he took refuge inside, the ungodly hounds couldn’t enter the chapel walls, but it is said that Tregeagle’s terrified howls can still be heard on the wind.
Dynamite & Protests
In the late 19th century it was not the screams of Tregeagle that were heard about the rock it was cries of protest and earth-shaking explosions.
As long as anyone could remember the public had been free to access Roche Rock and the surrounding moorland was considered common land. Then in 1895 Lord Falmouth started putting up signs proclaiming his ownership of the site (which was true). These were unceremoniously taken down by local people. Next in November 1897 Lord Falmouth quite suddenly decided to assert his rights of ownership by fencing off the land and putting a padlocked gate across the footpath. The Western Morning News reported that the Steward and officers from the Tregothan Estate had locked the entrance to the site and posted a notice that the public would only be allowed entry at the Lord’s say so.
A crowd gathered to watch but at that time things remained fairly peaceful.
Police officers were stationed to guard the gate and local people began to report that they had been roughly turned away when they tried to visit the area and their names written down. One man, Mr David Cook, a resident of Roche was so incensed that he attempted to break down the gate by hitting it repeatedly with a large rock. It is unclear how long this state of affairs lasted but it appears it was over a few days or weeks.
Questions began to be asked about not only the legality of the situation but also how a private individual appeared to have hired the Country Police as his personal enforcers. That December the Roche Parish Council held a meeting to discuss what was to be done. A document held by the Bishop of Exeter and dating back to 1409 was produced which seemed to indicate that Roche Rock had been a place of worship since at least that time and as such had a public right of access.
It was agreed that action would be taken to inform a local MP and Lord Falmouth of his ‘error’.
Then in January 1898 things took an explosive turn . . .
Use of Dynamite
“About 11:30 on Monday of last week a large explosion was heard at Roche and on the following morning it was discovered that another demonstration had been made against Lord Falmouth’s claim to the ownership of Roche Rock etc. Wooden notice boards having been destroyed, Lord Falmouth agents erected in 1895 a sign of cast iron with raised lettering, bolted to an iron standard about 10 to 12ft high, strongly embedded in a solid block of concrete. The notice read: ‘Lord Falmouth allows the public to have access to Roche Rock and to the grounds, Tregothnan Office, October 1895.’ On Tuesday morning it was found that this had been blown up. The iron having been split clean across about three inches from the base. It is said that fully three pounds of dynamite must have been used.”St Austell Star, 3rd February 1898
The episode made national headlines.
Eventually it appears that the problem was resolved when it was agreed that Lord Falmouth could lock the gate to Roche Rock on one day a year to assert his ownership but that at all other times free access must be maintained.
I am not sure if the iron sign was reinstated . . .
Roche Rock was one of the first really strange and wonderful places that I ‘discovered’ as a teenager and it still surprises me how few people have visited it. Myths and legends aside, it makes a beautiful spot for a picnic, especially with the surrounding nature reserve, and its precipitous rock faces often attract brave rock-climbers.
The outcrop stands in the heart of clay country, a part of Cornwall often overlooked but an area that boasts a dramatic scenery, much of it shaped by its epic industrial past. Roche Rock makes an ideal place from which to start a day’s exploration of this unusual landscape.
Oh and make sure you look out for the gorilla face . . . !
Author’s Note: In 1929 a visiting Londoner was told by locals that there were at least five (heart-stopping) routes to the top of the rock but he opted, as I advise you to, to take the metal ladder that has been attached to one side of the outcrop. A word of caution, this is a dangerous place, not for children or those who have a fear of heights or are unsteady on their feet. There are no safety barriers and uneven surfaces and sheer drops on all sides at the top. Proceed with utmost care!