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Popular Romances of the West of England

Robert Hunt


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Popular Romances of the West of England is a book first published in 1903 and this edition includes both volumes. A treasure trove of Cornish folk-lore and mythology, including subjects like Giants, Fairies, Romances of Tregeagle, Mermaids, Romances of the Rocks, Fire Worship, Demons and Spectres, Saints, Holy Wells, Romances of Arthur, Witches, Fishermen and Sailors, Death Tokens and Superstitions, and, Customs.

This book has 400 pages in the PDF version, and was originally published in 1903.

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Excerpt from 'Popular Romances of the West of England'

THE beginning of this collection of Popular Romances may I be truly said to date from my early childhood. I remember with what anticipations of pleasure, sixty-eight years since, I stitched together a few sheets of paper, and carefully pasted them into the back of an old book. This was preparatory to a visit I was about to make with my mother to Bodmin, about which town many strange stories were told, and my purpose was to record them. My memory retains dim shadows of a wild tale of Hender the Huntsman of Lanhydrock; of a narrative of streams having been poisoned by the monks; and of a legend of a devil who. played many strange pranks with the tower which stands on a neighbouring hill. I have, within the last year? endeavoured to recover those stories, but in vain. The living people appear to have forgotten them; my juvenile note-book has long been lost those traditions are, it is to be feared, gone forever.

Fifteen years passed away--about six of them at school in Cornwall, and nine of them in close labour in London,--when failing health compelled my return to the West of England. Having spent about a month on the borders of Dartmoor, and wandered over that wild region of Granite Tors, gathering up its traditions,--ere yet Mrs Bray had thought of doing so, -- I resolved on walking through Cornwall. Thirty-five years since, on a beautiful spring morning, I landed at Saltash, from the very ancient passage-boat which in those days conveyed men and women, carts-and cattle, across the river Tamar, where now that triumph of engineering, the Albert Bridge, gracefully spans its waters. Sending my box forward to Liskeard by a van, my wanderings commenced; my purpose being to visit each relic of Old Cornwall, and to gather up every existing tale of its ancient people. Ten months were delightfully spent in this way; and in that period a large number of the romances and superstitions which are published in these volumes were collected, with many more, which have been weeded out of the collection as worthless.

During the few weeks which were spent on the borders of Dart-moor, accidental circumstances placed me in the very centre of a circle who believed "there were giants on the earth in those days" to which the "old people" belonged, and who were convinced that to turn a coat-sleeve or a stocking prevented the piskies from misleading man or woman. I drank deeply from the stream of legendary lore which was at that time flowing, as from a well of living waters, over "Devonia's dreary Alps;" and longed to renew my acquaintance with the wild tales of Cornwall, which had either terrified or amused me when a child.

My acquaintance with the fairies commenced at an early date. When a very boy, I have often been taken by a romantic young lady, who lives in my memory--

"So bright, so fair, so wild,"

to seek for the fairies on Lelant Towans. The maiden and the boy frequently sat for hours, entranced by the stories of an old woman, who lived in a cottage on the edge of the blown sandhills of that region. Thus were received my earliest lessons in fairy mythology.

From earthly youth accidental circumstances have led to my acquiring a taste for collecting the waifs floating upon the sea of time, which tell us something of those ancient peoples who have not a written history. The rude traditions of a race who appear to have possessed much native intelligence, minds wildly poetical, and great fertility of imagination, united with a deep feeling for the mysteries by which life is girdled, especially interested me. By the operation of causes beyond my control, I was removed from the groove of ordinary trade and placed in a position of considerable responsibility, in connection with one of the most useful institutions of Cornwall. To nurse the germs of genius to maturity -- to seek those gems "of purest ray serene," which the dark, though not "unfathomed caves" of the Cornish mines might produce--and to reward every effort of human industry, was the purpose of this institution. As its secretary, my duties, as well as my inclination, took me often into the mining and agricultural districts, and brought me into intimate relation with the miners and the peasantry. The bold shores of St Just--the dark and rock-clad hills of Morva, Zennor, and St Ives--the barren regions of St Agnes--the sandy undulations of Perranzabuloe--the sterile tracts of Gwennap--the howling moorlands of St Austell and Bodmin--and, indeed, every district in which there was a mine, became familiar ground. Away from the towns, at a period when the means of communication were few, and those few tedious, primitive manners still lingered. Education was not then, as now, the fashion. Church-schools were few and far between; and Wesleyan Methodism--although it was infusing truth and goodness amongst the people -- had not yet become conscious of the importance of properly educating the young. Always delighting in popular tales, no opportunity of hearing them was ever lost. Seated on a three-legged stool, or in a "timberen settle," near the blazing heath-fire on the hearth, have I elicited the old stories of which the people were beginning to be ashamed. Resting in a level, after the toil of climbing from the depths of a mine, in close companionship with the homely miner, his superstitions, and the tales which he had heard from his grandfather, have been confided to me.

To the present hour my duties take me constantly into the most remote districts of Cornwall and Devon, so that, as boy and as man, I have possessed the best possible opportunities for gathering up the folk-lore of a people, who, but a few generations since, had a language peculiarly their own, a people, who, like all the Celts, cling with sincere affection to the memories of the past, and who even now regard with jealousy the introduction of any novelty, and accept improvements slowly.

The store of old-world stories which had been collected under the circumstances described would, perhaps, never have taken their present form, if Mr Thomas Wright had not shown the value of studying the Cyclopean Walls of the promontory beyond Penzance, popularly called "The Giant's Hedges,"--and if Mr J. O. Halliwell had not told us that his "Rambles in Western Cornwall, by the Footsteps of the Giants," had led him to attempt "to remove part of a veil beyond which lies hid a curious episode in the history" of an ancient people.

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