Not all those who wander are lost.’
Against the rugged and impressive coastline of the southern peninsula of Cornwall, it isn’t hard to see why each cliff edge, town, bay or ruin is bathed in the mystic and magic of myths and legends. Across the length and breadth of this stretch of British landscape, ghosts, phantom ships, angels and mermaids have licentiously shaped how Cornwall is seen to the rest of the world.
Most of those who are said to haunt Cornwall stem from an element of reality, it is this that perhaps makes their fantastical existence everlasting. One such figure appears in the shape of Sarah Polgrean.
Inside the timeworn graveyard of Ludgvan church is a hidden tombstone bearing the famed lady’s name. A woman whose anger and hatred for her husband would drive her, not only to have an illicit affair with a local sailor named ‘Yorkshire Jack’ (real name Thomas Sampson), but also to murder.
Dying suddenly, the death of Sarah’s reviled husband was submerged in the murky waters of suspicion, leading to his body being exhumed. The following autopsy showed that his death was the result of arsenic poisoning, and there was only one prime suspect – his detestable wife, Sarah Polgrean.
Over the next few weeks a high-profile trial ensued and Sarah, without effective legal representation, was sentenced to be ‘hanged by the neck until dead’. Whilst the court was satisfied with the passing sentence, the locals were not. Many took pity on the poorly treated Sarah and were deeply opposed to the imminent hanging. Though there was also local superstition surrounding her looming demise. Many believed that any child who had been baptised in Ludgvan’s Well could not be hanged. If so, then disaster would follow and for some this proved to be true.
As the day of Sarah’s execution arrived, her lover ‘Yorkshire Jack’ escorted her to the noose. They spoke quietly before the noose was placed over her head and her last words were recorded as ‘you will, you will.’ The victimised murderess was executed shortly afterward, but the presence of Sarah Polgrean did not leave Ludgvan. In the following days, locals began to see the ghostly figure of the hanged woman, including a tormented ‘Yorkshire Jack’.
The sailor swore he was being haunted by the spectre of Sarah Polgrean, hearing footsteps following him wherever he traversed. Eventually he revealed that on the day of Sarah’s hanging he had promised to marry her on a specific day – one which was fast approaching. As his torment grew, his crew saw him whispering ‘I will, I will’ before throwing himself off the side of his ship and into the black cold waters of the Atlantic Ocean.
Ludgvan Church still stands today, as does the grave of Sarah Polgrean, and even today some still claim to have witnessed a ghostly apparition floating amongst the graves.
Whilst there are numerous spectres which possess the Cornish landscape, perhaps the most common are the phantom ships which haunt the many bays throughout the Southern Peninsula.
One such ship is the Porthcurno Black Rigger. This ghostly vessel is famed throughout Cornwall and when mists are rising, the Black Rigger is said to glide in from the sea, up over the sands, then carry on inland. Deemed an omen of ill-fate, this Phantom Ship is said to carry a small crew of ghostly figures who watch as the Porthcurno valley passes by.
Set against the treacherous terrain of Pistol Cove lies a meadow with a dark and deadly secret. In 1750, a British merchant ship sailing out from England struck a submerged reef and began rapidly sinking. The speed with which the ship foundered resulted in a catastrophic loss of life. As first light crept over the winter horizon, the sheer horror of the sinking was fully revealed as 200 mangled bodies were littered across the jagged cove.
Several days passed as the locals transferred each body into a mass grave beneath the large meadow resting atop the adjoining cliff. After the internment locals began to hear strange noises and whispering coming from the meadow. More peculiar still, dogs would refuse to step anywhere near the gravesite.
Today the site is marked by a small enclosure and when standing on the cliffs edge looking out to sea amongst the stumpy willows and small grass mounds, the area is strangely quiet.
These three stories of ghost and ghouls are easily believable. Watching the sea mist creep in from the ocean, it is hard not to believe the tales of phantom ships and lost souls.
Equally the tales of legendary mermaids and giants have also come to shape the cultural imagery of Cornwall, with the mermaid of Zennor perhaps the most renowned. There are other bays, however, which claim their own fisherman’s friends. Lamorna Cove is said to be home to numerous mermaids, though unlike Zennor, they are believed to be much more hostile.
These tales are but a small example of the numerous mysteries and legends which have come to shape the way in which Cornwall presents itself to the world. Across the expanse of its coastline, it is virtually impossible to find one beach, cove, village or town which isn’t touched by a ghost story or mythical tale.
Throughout our two-part series this Cornish coastline exudes history, each beach, cove, and village is a page in the continuing story that is Cornwall. Here, there is an indefinite magic in the air, a Merlin-esque spell which casts across the starry night sky.
What Cornwall is, is a concoction of exploration, adventure, fantasy and the familiar tied neatly together in a ribbon of community. This coastline is the home of the most southernly point of Britain. It is where the land ends, but imagination begins. It is home. It is rest. It is family. It is friendships. Cornwall is many things to many people, to those who have experienced its magic, and those who are still yet to discover.
So, as you stand and watch those waves crash across the granite rocks, the soaring seagulls rise and fall against the setting Sun, and the myths and magic of this most enchanting coastline seduce your senses, you suddenly realise that that fabled saying was true. You were never lost, just wandering.