Unsurprisingly for a region so rich in culture and history, Cornwall has quite a few tales to tell. From smugglers to pirates, and from sirens luring fishermen to a watery grave to unforgettable romantic spiels, numerous authors have had quite a bit to say about Cornwall. And that’s before we mention the multitude of local myths and legends (although we suspect the sirens may well fall into that category…)
Of course, who could forget the most infamous of Cornish legends – King Arthur; although it is very possible that Poldark has taken that spot recently!
Literature offers a whole new way to explore Cornwall and, to make it even better, you don’t need to wait until you visit to experience it.
Authors living in or inspired by Cornwall
Daphne Du Maurier
“I walked this land with a dreamer’s freedom and with a waking man’s perception – places, houses whispered to me their secrets and shared with me their sorrows and their joys. And in return I gave them something of myself, a few of my novels passing into the folk-lore of this ancient place.”
Although not born in Cornwall, Londoner Daphne Du Maurier developed a love of the coastal region during childhood holidays, and eventually made Fowey her home. While the tales she told, full of pirates and carnage, may not accurately represent the Cornwall of her time (1907-1989), Du Maurier’s work has definitely helped to put Cornish literature on the world stage.
Born into a creative family, Du Maurier wrote her novels in a writing hut overlooking The Gribbin. Those who have enjoyed Du Maurier’s writing will be familiar with the area’s use in setting locations for the novels.
If you’d like to incorporate an appreciation of Du Maurier’s written work with a visit to Cornwall, mid-May is the best time to visit. The Fowey Festival of Arts and Literature is held each year, and always covers 13th May, Du Maurier’s birthday. The 2017 Fowey Festival will run from 6th-13th May.
Born on the Isle of Wight in 1962, the son of a prison governor worked as a typist, ghost writer and book reviewer before finally achieving his ambition of becoming a noted author.
Gale’s recent writing has been completed on the farm, near Land’s End, which he owns and runs with his husband.
Did you know the author of Lord of the Flies was born in Cornwall, and also spent his final years in the region? William Golding was born at St Columb Major, Newquay in 1911.
D M Thomas
Shortlisted for a Booker Prize in 1981 for The White Hotel, D M Thomas is another Cornish native who was produced outstanding literature. A visit to Thomas’ website reveals a rich array of novels, poetry, Russian translations and various other publications.
Born in Redruth in 1935, Thomas returned to Cornwall in 1987, where he has lived ever since.
Lelant-born Rosamunde Pilcher began publishing novels since 1949, the most notable of which is perhaps the 1987 Shell Seekers saga. Pilcher officially retired from writing in 2000, although published Tea with the Professor Gilbert in 2004.
Following a spell of National Service, Pilcher’s lengthy writing career produced thirty novels, including a number written under the pen name of Jane Fraser. Several of Pilcher’s books were adapted for TV and film, including a massively popular German series of over 100 films based on the tales told by Rosamunde Pilcher.
Fans of Pilcher’s work may wish to spend a little of their holiday time in Cornwall exploring the South West Coast Path.
Amongst those writers and creative individuals who made Cornwall their home more temporarily, are D H Lawrence, who lived in the region for two years between 1916 and 1918, leaving when his wife was accused of being a German spy, and Virginia Woolf, who regularly holidayed in Cornwall as a child.
No list of Cornish authors and books would be completed without the addition of Winston Graham and his famous Poldark. The twelve-book series has been resurrected by a popular TV series of the same name, which first aired in 2015. New episodes are planned to reach their audience throughout 2016 and 2017.
Poldark is certainly what Graham is most famous for nowadays but, in fact, he wrote over 30 other novels, including Marnie, which was adapted to become an Alfred Hitchcock film in 1964.
Full details of Winston Graham’s work can be found on the author’s website.
While it is not an official Poldark trail, the various Cornish locations used for filming the TV series can, of course, be visited by the public. If you would like to follow in the footsteps of Poldark, here’s where you need to go:
Visit Cornwall have also published a list of five Poldark experiences you may wish to try.
Myths & Legends of Cornwall
Let’s start on a big one – the legend of King Arthur.
As legend has it, King Arthur led the British troops into battle against the Saxon invaders of the 5th and 6th centuries. As tends to be the case, the content of the tales relating to King Arthur’s escapades is very questionable and, in fact, historians still debate whether or not the king ever existed. Regardless of how accurate this particular folklore is, the story of King Arthur remains a compelling one, particularly as so many of the locations can be explored during a holiday in Cornwall.
The Knights of the Round Table, the wizard Merlin, Arthur’s father Uther Pendragon and Guinevere are legendary across the globe, having first appeared in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s written works (although this too is topic for some debate). Not only have numerous versions of the tale been told over the years, there have been multiple film and TV adaptations. Each telling has one thing at its core – the infamous sword Excalibur. Lancelot and the Holy Grail were added to later versions of the lore, from around the 12th century onwards.
We’re sure you don’t need us to recount the tale of King Arthur, so we shall share some of the Cornish sites you may wish to visit instead. Create your very own version of the folklore!
This map from the King Arthur in Cornwall website may help when it comes to planning your route.
You may also wish to follow some or all of the King Arthur Trail.
Mermaids and Sirens
Far from the contemporary notion of mermaids being beautiful, kind-hearted creatures, the mermaids of ancient Cornish lore were wicked beings who lured fishermen to a watery grave. Legend also has it that an entire village between Looe and Seaton was turned to sand after a mermaid placed a curse on it.
Not quite Ariel and Sebastian!
Some of the various mermaid-related tales recounted by Cornish locals and visitors over the centuries include the following:
Have you heard about the lost land between the Isles of Scilly and the western coast of Cornwall? According to popular legend, one man escaped from a town which suddenly flooded and disappeared into the depths. As the man survived due to being out hunting on his horse, the family crests of those said to be his descendants feature horseshoes.
Mermaid of Lamorna
Similar to the tales of sirens rife in myths from various cultures and regions, this mermaid simply sits on a rock and sings, in an attempt to lure unsuspecting sailors and fishermen to an aquatic end.
Mermaid of Padstow
There are a few slightly different versions of this legend but, in one of the most common, the Mermaid of Padstow sat on a rock at Hawker’s Cove, and fell in love with a local man. Sadly for the mermaid, when she attempted to lure her beau into her lair, he shot her to escape the water. An alternative version suggests that it was the Cornish man who fell in love with the mermaid, shooting her when his advances were rebuffed, with another telling how a fisherman mistook her for a seal and shot her. Whichever version you tell, the mermaid always gets shot, resulting in a catastrophic storm. According to legend, the Doom Bar was created during this storm.
Mermaid of Zennor
While this tale also involves a mermaid falling for a local man, that is where the similarities end. The Mermaid of Zennor was said to be a mysterious, yet outstanding, singer at the nearby church. When the man followed her home one day, neither being was ever seen again. Folklore has it that a ship once dropped anchor in the sea, near where the two vanished, only to have a mermaid appear and request that the anchor be removed from the door of her home, so she could return to her children.
Whooper of Sennen Cove
On clear days in Sennen Cove, a sudden mist would descend from nowhere, accompanied by an odd whooping sound. Apparently, the whooping serves as a warning of impending storms which may have disastrous consequences for fishermen.
More Cornish Legends and Lore
Ghostly Church Bells
Supposedly heard around midnight from a graveyard near Land’s End, the ghostly church bells are said to be rung by the spirit of a sea captain, eternally unable to accept that his ship has sunk. Sailors beware!
In life, he had a fierce reputation for involvement in all manner of wicked and ruthless activities. In death, he made a pact with the devil himself and ended up forced to complete all manner of pointless, endless tasks. Various versions of the legend report Tregeagle of being guilty of a variety of heinous crimes, including murdering his wife. Regardless of what he actually did, Jan Tregeagle is said to behind some very, very spooky Cornish hauntings.
Mysterious Ship of Porthcurno
Rather than meeting its seemingly inevitable end against the rocks of Porthcurno, this mysterious galleon instead sailed away across land before disappearing forever.
Strange Lights at Sea
Spotted during the First World War, these lights allegedly appeared strategically to lure German ships to a watery end.
Intrigued by the various myths and legends of Cornish folklore? Or do you want to explore the settings of some much-loved novels?
Either way, Cornwall is the perfect place to pitch your caravan next time you tour.
Don’t forget, we still have plenty more Cornwall-related content to come.