Carn Marth is the highest of a range of hills that stretch from Gwennap to Camborne. Rising 757ft (230m) above the village of Lanner, it is riddled with quarries and old mine workings. Carn Marth was once a place of refuge in the Bronze Age and the site of one of the beacons that used to be lit across Cornwall in times of war or celebration.
Old buildings, I feel, always have a certain presence but ruined places somehow even more so. There is a special kind of mystery in a ruined place and I find myself drawn in and pisky-led. My rather over-active imagination can fill these ivy-clad, tumble-down spaces with life and lives that are entirely of my own invention. Maybe that is their attraction.
The church of St Cohan at Merther is one of those places. To begin with to find this little nowhere place leads you down a long, winding and dead-end lane. I saw a grazing deer on the road here once, that is how infrequent the traffic is. When you step out of the car there is no sound but the wind and the birds (maybe a tractor).
The tiny hamlet stands at the far reaches of St Clements Creek just a few miles from the buzz of Truro though you would never know it. The original building on this site is said to date to around 1370 but it was only named for Saint Cohen (Coan) in about 1480 when the poor chap was murdered in his hermitage near here during King Athelstan’s conquest of Cornwall.
And after that, well, it seems the life of the church continued peacefully as with each generation birth was followed by marriage, followed by death, followed by birth.
According to Henderson’s Cornish Church Guide Merther church fell into disrepair in the 1920s when a larger, smarter church was built at Tresillian a couple of miles away. Eventually that church took Merther’s 3 bells and its statue of Saint Cohen and the building was left to crumble.
But if you are looking for somewhere to take a walk with ghosts or perhaps get some atmospheric photographs then find Merther on a map (or try your Sat Nav but I am not promising) and hunt it down.
Living as I do in Mid Cornwall sometimes it can feel that I am a long way from anywhere in either direction. If I take a trip ‘down west’ then I like to make a day of it and take a picnic and the same must be said for the other direction too. There would be very little point in going ‘up the line’ to North Cornwall for just a couple of hours.
Yesterday however I did just that, I found myself with a couple of hours to kill in North Cornwall before an appointment across the border in Devon, so I took the opportunity to stop in the pretty town of Launceston.
Launceston, I think, has a lot going for it. The pretty narrow streets, old gateway, a lovely market square and a wonderful Norman castle looking down on it all.
The church however is truly something special. It was built between 1511 and 1524 and has hardly been altered since. I think it is the prettiest in the county! And I understand from the information booklet I purchased on my visit (I like a booklet and aim to get one from every church I go in!) that it was voted in the top 100 churches in the whole country!
As I wandered around listening to the almost deafening organ practice I have to say I fell in love all over again. Magical. But while I was taking another look at the outside something caught my eye.
The exterior of the church is really wonderful, the detail and extravagance of the sculpted granite is truly fabulous. There are plants and flowers, pomegranates, George and a scary looking dragon, saints, dogs and griffins. So much detail. But why was that reclining statue lying in a niche at the east end of the building littered with small stones? I referred to my handy information booklet. . .
It tells me the statue is the Mary Magdalene after whom the church is named. She is lounging on a cushioned bed, surrounded by choristers and minstrels, clearly Launceston quite liked this so called fallen lady. But why then the stones?
I read on . . .
The tradition continues among children and some adults in Launceston, that if you throw a stone that lodges [on Mary Magdalene] you will shortly have new clothes given to you.
Well, that has to be worth a go! . . . Luckily Mary’s face is very worn by time and weather so I can’t really see her expression. I wonder what she thinks about having pebbles lobbed at her by a 38 year old woman?! Sorry Mary!
Everything has a beginning, a middle and an end. The Tamar river in many senses marks the beginning of Cornwall and of course we all know where to find the End.
It is the village of Lanivet, not far from Bodmin, that marks the middle. You see this little place’s claim to fame is that it is meant to be the geographical centre of the county of Cornwall.
And in the centre of the village that is in the centre of Cornwall is of course the parish church.
And in the centre of the graveyard, in the centre of the village, that is in the centre of Cornwall, there is an ancient cross which historically is meant to mark the exact point that is the middle of Cornwall.
But not only that, according to Historic England this wonderful 10th century wheel-headed cross is also the most highly decorated in Cornwall. Some of it’s intricate features are found nowhere else in this region and are unique to this particular cross alone. The carvings may be fading now but there can be no doubt of how special this piece of stone was to the people who first carved it so many moons ago.
At first glance there seems just a pleasing jumble of patterns and shapes. Strips and dots, lines and crosses. But look closer and the figure in the middle panel that pops out at you. Who is this rather bandy-legged chap I hear you ask? The answer is nobody knows and just to add a little more confusion into the mix, although it isn’t really clear from my photograph or from Blight’s lovely illustration, our long-legged friend also has a tail!
According to Andrew Langdon in his book on the Crosses of Mid Cornwall the carved man has some kind of Pagan associations but alternatively Historic England suggests that we are looking at an unidentified ancient saint (with a tail . . .?)
I have had a little dig and there are a few global myths about humans with tails of various descriptions. The Manticore, the Campe, the Cecrops and perhaps my personal favourite the Satyrs: a tribe of nature spirits with the body of men, pug noses, asses ears and horses tails. But none of this mixed bag of freaky-looking creatures quite fit our funny little man’s description.
Historic England, as I mentioned, does have another theory however, they suggest that the ‘tail’ is in fact a string with a key hanging at the end. There are several Saints that are
represented holding keys but probably the most popular is Saint Peter was said to who carry the Keys to Heaven with him.
Whatever you think, tailed-man or Saintly key-holder, this cross is a lovely piece of our history. It stands about 9′ high (2.933m) with another 1′ below the surface and is splendidly decorated on all four sides. Sadly the wheel head has been badly damaged at some point but that doesn’t detract from it’s beauty.
Experts think that at one time there were as many as 12,000 of these crosses all across the English countryside, now less than 2000 remain.
I feel that they are another precious piece of our past to treasure and marvel at whatever your religious beliefs may be.
Oh and I will finish with just a word of advice, don’t put man with tail into Google images! Not for the faint hearted!
We think of saints as being ethereal characters who did unbelievable things in distant lands and in unknown times. And lets face it some of them very much live up to that reputation. But we shouldn’t forget that they were also real people.
Saint Keyne was the daughter of King Brychan of Wales and his wife, Gwlady. And apart from being royal this was
no ordinary 5th century family. Brychan had an impressive 24 children with 3 different wives (Christmas and birthdays must have been a nightmare). His first wife, poor woman, produced 15 children for this mammoth brood and one of those was our lovely Keyne.
Sadly her father Brychan hasn’t really made it into the history books for being anything other than an celebrated producer of numerous progeny!
As for his daughter, well, whether it was seeing her poor mother in a perpetual state of pregnancy or the call of something greater Keyne decided that married life was not for her. Before leaving her home in Brecknock in South Wales she reportedly turned down the advances of several young suitors and she remained single until her dying day!
Saint Keyne was a woman with a mission. She wanted to see some of the world and spread a little Christianity on the way. This she pretty much achieved, spending the rest of her life travelling through Wales, Somerset and Cornwall and according to legend founded numerous churches along the way. She is meant to have arrived in Cornwall in around 490AD and had a little holiday on St Michaels Mount, Penzance with her cousin, Saint Cadoc. Saint Keyne you see came from a very saintly family, no less than 14 of her siblings were canonized. Many of them have connections with Cornwall also – Morwenna, Clether, Nectan, Ive, Maybn to name just a few.
After a long life spreading the word of the Lord far and wide Saint Keyne decided to settle in Cornwall and made her home in a valley not far from Looe. In this valley there was a beautiful spring of fresh running water and she loved the spot so much that she planted trees there to add some shade – an oak, an ash, a withy and an elm. On her death bed she asked to be brought to lie beside it so that she could listen to the soothing babble of the stream. It was this spring that Saint Keyne blessed with her dying breath and bestowed upon it a special power which every woman in the county soon heard of.
For once here was a well that wasn’t supposed to cure rickets, infertility or lumbago! This well was meant to give equal rights to women!
The story goes that who ever drank from this well would have the upper-hand in their marriage. For the first time perhaps a woman could have the chance at an equal partnership with their husband. John Murray wrote about the well in 1859 in his guide to Cornwall and claimed that belief in it’s mystical powers was still common. Robert Southey also recorded the powers of the well a comical little rhyme:
A well there is in the west country
A clearer one never was seen.
There is not a wife in the west country
But has heard of the Well of Saint Keyne.
The poem tells the tale of a foolish Cornishman who is out-manoeuvred trying to reach the precious water of the well first when his smart wife takes a flask of it to the marriage with her:
I hastened as soon as the marriage was done
And left my wife in the porch
But in faith she was wiser than I
For she had took a bottle to the church
Sadly the trees Saint Keyne planted are long gone, Mabel and Lillian Quiller-Couch report in their guide to holy wells in 1894 that they were blown down in a fierce gale in 1709. It is however still a wonderfully secluded and beautiful spot to visit. I have to admit I did have a little sip of the water too . . . just in case!