Weird, Wonderful and Mysterious Places in Cornwall
For me Cornwall has always been a place with a wild, romantic side. Almost surrounded by ocean, with spectacular rugged scenery and wind-lashed open spaces, this is a land of legends. From the first Stone Age settlers, to the Celtic tribes and Arthurian myths Cornwall offers unique experiences and a wealth of magical secret places for those who know where to look.
All but one of the locations on this list of hidden gems are completely free to visit. Their appeal also relies largely on their natural charm and mystical air, although a few have been enhanced with aged and ruined man-made structures.
A few of these spots have long been regarded as somewhat secret, and that is the way all of us who love Cornwall would have kept them. However, over recent years the have been outed for the love of money and "likes" so I am grudgingly sharing them. But for those of you willing to explore a little there are plenty equally magical and special place in Cornwall to be discovered...
Set less than a mile to the south of Land's End lies the little known cove of Nanjizal, or Mill Bay as it is sometimes known. Until relatively recently this was a place that even many locals had barely heard of. I knew of it because it is home to a mystical surf spot which involved hiking across angry farmers fields and with never a surfable wave at the end. The story is similar for beachgoers too; often described as a sandy cove, this is only half the story. Over the years the sand comes and goes, so that one year you may find a pristine stretch of golden beach, but it is just as likely you will be met by a shoreline of round granite boulders.
OK, so maybe I'm trying to put you off a little, but I'm just wishing it could remain off the beaten track forever.
Backed by brooding craggy cliffs and facing into the full force of the Atlantic there is no doubting the drama of this place. But perhaps the most defining feature of Nanjizal is the natural rock arch at the southern end of the beach. The slightly unattractive sounding Cornish name of Zawn Pyg doesn't really do it justice, I much prefer the more commonly used "Song of the Sea". This narrow slit in the rocks sits at the end of a shallow sandy lagoon and captures the sun's golden rays towards sunset. Ever popular with photographers, you won't have much trouble finding plenty more evocative photos than the one above.
Come here when the tides, sand and sun are all aligned and you will be lucky enough to see one of the most unspoilt and special places in Cornwall.
The name Rocky Valley is something of a clue to the nature of this place, but it only tells part of the story. It is certainly true that this is a winding slate canyon just north of Tintagel although this does not convey the drama of the place. At its deepest the rocks tower over 70 feet above the Trevillet river as it cascades down towards the sea.
From top to bottom Rocky Valley is a place of truly exceptional natural beauty. At the upper reaches of the valley the little river meanders through woodland forming pools and shallows before it gathers pace further down. This alone may sound magical enough but as you head along the riverside you will come across the ruins of an old mill. Various dates are carved into the stones of Trethevy Mill the earliest of which is 1779.
But what really earns this hidden gem a spot on our list is tucked away on a rock face just beyond the mill - the mysterious Rocky Valley Labyrinths. Discovered in 1948 these rock carvings have a familiar maze motif which can be seen in other Celtic settings. Beyond this very little is known about who created them and when. Suggestions range from the Bronze Age settlers to early Christian pilgrims. Whatever their source the proximity to Tintagel has made the carvings something of a New Age shrine.
Rising up to dominate the landscape beyond Redruth and Camborne is the 750 feet high Carn Brea is fairly hard to miss. In fact it is quite easy to spot from half of cornwall which goes some way to explaining its significance in history and legend. The rather mundane translation of the name to "rocky hill" does not really do Carn Brea justice.
This bleak windswept hilltop oozes history with signs of human activity here go all the dating back 6,000 years to Neolithic times when it was the site of a Stone Age fort. With views for miles around in every direction it is not hard to imagine why. Ultimately it seems the settlement met a bloody end as archaeologists have found hundreds of flint arrowheads and remains of what appeared to be burnt down huts.
The ancient settlers made use of the rocks strewn around the hilltop for protective purposes. Many of the more distinctive rock forms have names such as Giant's Head, Giant's Coffin and Giant's Cradle; the reason they were put here by John o' Gaunt one of the last of Cornwall's giants. It is on the "Giant's Seat" that Carn Brea's most striking feature is perched - Carn Brea Castle.
The enigmatic and eerie castle was built as a hunting lodge for the local land-owning family, the Bassetts, but the site goes back further. In the 14th century a chapel sat in this spot. Also the work of the Bassetts is the Carn Brea Monument, a massive Celtic cross built in 1836 in memory of Francis Bassett, Lord de Dunstanville. It is not obvious from a distance quite how big this granite obelisk is, but as you get closer you realise it is in fact over 90 feet tall.
If none of this has convinced you that Carn Brea is a place of mystery then it is one further claim to fame. In 2006 the flying Ford Anglia car used in the Harry Potter Chamber of Secrets film was stolen but "magically" turned up parked next to Carn Brea Castle.
Cornwall's wildest and most foreboding landscape can be found on the exposed high ground of Bodmin Moor. This is an area with a rich history intertwined with myths and legends of smuggling, hauntings and unknown beasts. Close to the heart of the moor is a small, shallow lake with an dark ambience that far outsizes its appearance. Even the name Dozmary Pool itself is reputedly derived from 'Dozy Mary', an unfortunate girl who was murdered here.
The mysterious Dozmary Pool has a number of stories relating to it with the best known being that it is final resting place of King Arthur's sword, 'Excalibur', i.e. this is the very lake of 'Lady of the Lake' fame. Arthurian legend states that after the King's death Sir Bedivere threw the sword into the lake whereupon an arm rose from the surface, catching the sword and vanishing back into the depths. There is some context for this as nearby Slaughterbridge is a possible site for the battle of Camlann in which King Arthur died.
Another dark legend attached to the lake is that of Tregeagle. As penance for his dealing with the Devil the pool becomes the location of one of Jan Tregeagle's trials. It is said he was set the task of emptying the bottomless pool equipped only with a holed limpet shell. On windy nights his ghost can be heard howling across the moor.
In the modern world it would be almost unimaginable to build a major industrial complex in a place of indisputable natural beauty. Yet this is exactly what happened just over a century ago, and all over Cornwall. It is true that in their day these were places of work, driving the Industrial Revolution and belching out smoke and mine waste. But today the old mine workings remain like ghosts of Cornwall past, becoming part of the landscape and complementing their surrounds.
Nowhere is this more true than the Crowns engine houses in Botallack. Set at the foot of austere cliffs the pair of granite mine workings barely sit above the crashing waves. Once a place of industry an air of melancholy hangs over these roofless shells as they weather the relentless wind and waves.
If you make the walk along the narrow path down to the engine houses it is hard to imagine that men entered a shaft at the foot of the cliffs that went down diagonally under the sea floor for over a mile. The shaft is still there, but the idea is fairly terrifying, even on a calm summer's afternoon. And maybe this is a place of ghosts, for at neighbouring Wheal Owles mine the nightmare happened and the sea broke through and flooded the mine.
First thing, there is nothing magical or mysterious about the village of Roche which lies on the edge of China Clay Country a few miles inland from St Austell. However, on the outskirts of the village is striking outcrop of splintered tourmaline granite which rises over 60 feet above the surrounding downs. This is a geological Site of Special Interest in its own right, but built into the tallest pinnacle are the ruins of a small chapel.
Despite its diminutive size this structure is a particularly fine piece of medieval engineering. Dating back to the early 15th century the two-storey chapel is built from neatly squared blocks of local granite. What is most impressive is the way the chapel seamlessly blends into the sheer rock face, incorporating the bedrock in its design. Today much of the upper storey and roof has been lost but the facade still reaches its original height complete with its arched window.
Although not a great deal is known about the origins of the chapel it was apparently dedicated to St Michael. At some point in time it is said that a hermit lived in the lower floor; one version of the story says he was a member of the local landowning family, the Tregarnicks, who had contracted leprosy. His daughter who attended to him is believed by some to have been St Gundred.
Other legends are attached to this rather eerie location, the most notable of which features Jan Tregeagle. After making (and breaking) his Faustian deal with the Devil Tregeagle was pursued by demons and sought refuge in the chapel on Roche Rock. He escaped to holy ground just in time, getting his head stuck through the arched window whilst local clergymen fought to save his soul.
Although the modern world has slowly encroached on Roche Rock this windswept outcrop is still a place heavy with atmosphere. Make the climb up to the chapel and look out through the window and the view hasn't changed much over the centuries. Come here on a windy, winter's day and the legends may seem a little more real...
Holywell Bay Cave
Mention Holywell Bay and most people will immediately think of the beautiful, wide sandy beach - very few will actually dwell on the name itself. If they did then maybe they would wonder what is this "holy well", in fact there are two of them; one is set within a holiday park and is enclosed in a structure featuring a Gothic arch. The other is far more intriguing and sits tucked away in a cave on the beach. Which of these the bay is named after is unclear.
Also known as St Cuthbert's Cave, what looks fairly mundane from the outside leads into a grotto featuring steps cut into the rock and a natural spring which flows into a series of basins. The result is quite magical and hard to believe it is largely natural. Around the spring are multitude of colours; reds, greens and purples, all caused by the mineral deposits the spring water passes through before reaching the cave.
In years gone by the cave was much better known and something of a place of pilgrimage. Drinking the water was believed to have curative and health-giving properties. All this stems from the legend of St Cuthbert, one of the most important early Christian saints. The story goes that Aldhun, the Bishop of Lindisfarne, was transporting the bones and other relics of St Cuthbert when his ship was blown ashore by a storm while en route to Ireland. At some point the relics came into contact with the well and bestowed magical healing powers on the spring within.
St Helens Oratory - St Just
As with many of the places on this list, it is as much about location as anything - and they don't come much more magical than Cape Cornwall. Once thought to be the most westerly point on the mainland, i.e. the land's end, this promontory cuts a more dramatic profile than the actual Land's End a few miles away. With a bay to one side and a small cove to the other the Cape takes pretty much the brunt of everything the Atlantic throws at it.
Set at the foot of the hill which defines the cape are the ruins of a tiny medieval chapel. Known as St Helen's Oratory the single-roomed structure is built from a seemingly random mix of different sized roughly hewn granite blocks. Besides lacking a roof the little chapel is in fairly good condition. Atop the eastern gable is an early christian cross, although this is not believed to be original and is said to have been found nearby.
It is hard to imagine why someone would have built a place of worship in this remote storm-battered section of coast. Then again, it is a uniquely beautiful and atmospheric place which to contemplate one's faith.
Cheesewring - Minions
Huge flat stones, balanced on top of each other in a gravity-defying stack... this sounds like a perfect candidate for a legend involving a giant! Enter Uther, the strongest and most fearsome giant in Cornwall at that time.
The story takes place when Cornwall was becoming the "Land of Saints" which was causing some consternation amongst the giants. They held council to discuss how to rid Cornwall of the saints to which the diminutive St Tue (Tudy) invited himself and challenged Uther to a duel of strength. If he lost the saints would leave, if he won the giants would convert to Christianity. The challenge was a hurling match where two dozen enormous flat granite stones measuring 20 feet across where to be tossed across the moor to the top of Stowe Hill near Minions.
As you can imagine the flat slabs of granite landed on top of each other to form the otherworldly rock formation we know as the Cheesewring. You may also not be surprised to hear that, infused with the power of God, the little saint managed to beat Uther who converted to the new faith on the spot.
An alternative explanation is this 30 feet tower of granite is entirely natural and formed by milenia of erosion from the relentless wind. Whichever version you prefer there is no denying this is a spectacular structure set in the equally dramatic landscape of Bodmin Moor. It is probably no coincidence that this area is home to several other fascinating sites and oddities such as the Cave of Daniel Gumb, a quarry which produced granite for Tower Bridge and the Hurlers - a stone circle made up of the petrified forms of a group of men who dared to play games on the sabbath!
The wooded valley of St Nectan's Glen, just outside Tintagel, has been carved into the Devonian slate over tens of thousands of years by the Trevillet River. By coincidence, or otherwise, this is the same river which runs through Rocky Valley further up the list. The two are separated by just over half a mile.
What makes St Nectan's Glen more than just a picturesque woodland river is the sunning waterfall near the head of the valley. St Nectan's Kieve, as it is known, plunges around 60 feet (18 meters) into a deep rock basin. Over the years the force of the water has worn through the rock at the front of the basin creating a natural archway. The result is both uniquely photogenic but also adds to an already magical setting.
It perhaps no surprise that St Nectan's is considered by some to be a sacred site. In the pagan tradition this beautiful little woodland space has become a kind of "clootie well" where offerings are left in the form of crystals and ribbons tied to nearby trees. Others create "fairy stacks" - small rock piles using the flat slates that abound here. Most hope to somehow tap into the healing powers attributed to the waterfall.
Much of the valley's mythical nature can be attributed to St Nectan himself. The sixth century saint is said to have lived in a hermitage at the head of the waterfall. On stormy days he would venture down to the end of Rocky Valley and ring a silver bell to warn ships away from the treacherous rocks. The legend goes that St Nectan was buried under the riverbed at Trevillet, giving it magical powers.