There are those that believe that the River Gannel is haunted. Strange and fearful noises have been heard rising from the waters with the incoming tide. Superstitious locals once thought that the sound was the cry of a troubled spirit and they named it the Crake.
But what is the legend of the terrible Crake (or Craake) and what really haunts the River Gannel near Crantock?
A Single Act of Kindness
There is an old saying that ‘no good deed goes unpunished’ and when it comes to the Gannel Crake this aphorism really seems to ring true.
The story that follows appears to date from the 17th century and goes something like this:
It is said that there was an evil man living at Penpol on the River Gannel. A man who had never seen a happy day, never had a kind word to say, never given a penny to charity or helped his neighbours in any way. One night he was asked to do a good deed.
An elderly lady living close to him was deathly ill and asked him to bring her a priest. Her dying wish. And for the first time in his life the man agreed to help.
He crossed the river and went to fetch the vicar but on their return journey the tide had turned and the River Gannel was now in flood. The vicar managed to get across but before the evil man could reach the opposite bank he was swept away and drowned. He lost his life as a result of his first and only act of kindness.
The legend says that because of this final good deed his soul was saved from hell but his spirit was doomed to haunt the river forever, tasked with warning others of the danger of the waters of the Gannel for all eternity.
The Haunted River Gannel
According to Arthur Norway writing in the 1890s the River Gannel had “an evil reputation”. It seems likely that part of this reputation comes from the surprisingly strong currents caused by the incoming and outgoing tides as the sea is forced into and dragged out of the narrow funnel of the estuary.
The footbridge, once just a precarious single plank of wood, is quickly submerged and the ford, which is no longer really used, disappears as the salt water races in at a startling pace.
“Countless disasters have occurred there; and the souls of drowned men and women are perpetually flitting to and fro across the waste of sand in the guise of little birds . . . so runs one of the traditions and indeed the valley is infested with birds.”Arthur Norway, Highways & Byways in Devon and Cornwall, 1897
Dangerous waters, especially those that appear so idyllic on the surface, naturally create these stories of curses and evil spirits and sadly the local newspapers from the 19th and 20th centuries are full of accounts of tragic deaths taking place in this seemingly picturesque river.
In August 1857 twenty-five year old John White drowned while bathing in the Gannel when he was sucked into a “vortex”. Three lives were lost in May 1872 when a small boat capsized crossing the river. In April 1888 nine year old Thomas Champion was drowned in the river and then Mrs Greenstreet and her maid died swimming in the estuary in 1903. Another boat capsized in strong currents in 1913 with one life lost. In September 1929 two young men drowned while swimming when the incoming tide created a whirlpool.
There were further deaths in 1933, 1936 and 1955, and this was after the warning signs had been put up.
Even a poem has been written about one of these tragedies.
The rivermouth has a death-smell
Of rotting shellfish.
On its wide bend, as the moon moves closer,
Big tides pull violently to sea.
Here a man was sucked to his death
By his own choice. Perplexed
At the immense quiet that engulfed him
At the point of death,
He furrowed his brow.
At low tide across the width
Of this same rivermouth,
You can see the man's brow echoed
In the neatly furrowed sand:
Rows of noiseless, soft ribs
Upon which white seabirds perch.
Alan Bleakley - The River Gannel
The word Crake, sometimes called Crank or Craake, is supposed to come from a Cornish dialect word meaning ‘croak’. That, however, does not seem a sufficient description of the sound that witnesses claim to have heard. It was recorded in the 19th century as:
“A thousand voices pent up in misery, with one long wail dying away in the distance.”
Others have described it as “a hoarse shriek” or “a wild inarticulate cry”. Hardly a croak then!
When the writer Eleanor Inglefield visited Crantock in the 1970s she was told by a local woman that the people of Penpol were always hearing strange noises coming from the river.
On once occasion in the 1920s the Crake was heard in broad daylight by a group of family and friends near Penpol Quay. The group had been sitting eating lunch when they all heard “a fearful sound”. Everyone jumped up and went to the window but could see nothing unusual in the river.
“It is the crake and for many miles there is no man, woman or child who, having once heard that scream, will not turn and go five miles round rather than cross the river-bed that day.”Arthur Norway, highways & Byways of Devon and Cornwall, 1897
The sound is said to drive animals wild, as two young men collecting seaweed on the beach discovered in the early 19th century. Apparently their horse suddenly became spooked and then bolted after they heard the scream of the Crake and thereafter it refused to return to the beach.
On another occasion a doctor was called to see a patient late at night and had to cross the river to reach them. As he was crossing at the ford he heard a horrible sound and arrived to see the ill man extremely shaken. On his return journey he went via the road, adding the extra 4 or 5 miles on to his walk, rather than have to cross the River Gannel again.
Birds or Booze or Bubbles
Over the years many have tried to find a logical explanation for the unearthly sound known as the Crake. It has been suggested that it is the cry of a bird, an idea dismissed by those that have heard it.
“Some people suggest it a bird but those who have heard it laugh the theory to scorn. Once you have heard the Crake you believe in it.”Cornish Guardian, 8th January 1970
Indeed, it does seems unlikely that country people would mistake the cry of an owl (one suggestion) for something supernatural. Another idea, often repeated, is that it is purely a fancy of overactive imaginations or perhaps due to intoxication.
One writer commented in 1925 that he felt sure that the Crake had actually originated in the Ship Inn in Crantock.
“It is certainly a fact that certain people who have attempted to cross the Gannel by night have been waylaid by piskies (or other ‘spirits’) and have wandered about until daylight before finding their way.”Cornish Guardian, 27th April 1939
Was is clear is that something is happening on this piece of coast, that the sound is, or was, real. A fact confirmed by a local man who wrote to the Cornish Guardian in January 1970.
While Mr N. Nankervis was keen to point out that he did not believe “the Craake” as he called it, was the work of a ghost or the devil he explained that he had definitely heard it and offered an explanation as to what he believed it to be.
“The Craake is a natural phenomenon caused by the action of air escaping from very soft sand as the tide recedes. This is not an every day occurrence but only happens when the sand is so soft in places as to become like quick sand and must also be due to some tidal change.”
The situation that Nankervis refers to is most commonly known these days as “Booming Sand”.
Although this strange effect is more usual in dry places it does occasionally occur in wet sand too.
“A higher pitched sound in the 800 to 1,200 Hz or 500 to 2,500 Hz range is known to occur in dune sand and beach sand; most commonly in dry sand but occasionally in wet sand conditions.
Sands making such sounds are known as whistling, singing, squeaking, or barking sands.”Scientific America, Franco Nori et al, October 1997
It is easy to imagine that such a phenomena, should that be what was occurring in the River Gannel, would have been very disturbing to all those who heard it! And it would certainly have seemed to be something supernatural.
So was the Crake a natural phenomenon, the effect of reverberations through the sand in or around the River Gannel? Or is it the spirit of a damned man crying out to travellers to steer clear? And has anyone heard it recently?
One thing is certain, should you choose to go swimming in this estuary be very, very careful to keep an eye on the tides, whatever you might believe.