16 August 2012

Roche Rock – Where Tristan and Isolde Hid in Plain Sight

It is no surprise that Roche Rock in Cornwall in the United Kingdom is associated with a number of famous folktales.

It is said that Triston and Isolde hid here when their love had been discovered by Isolde's husband, King Mark.

Yet others have fled here from far more frightening enemies than a cuckolded king.

Atop Roche Rock (a short distance from the town of St Austell) lies the eerie remains of a chapel, dedicated to Saint Michael. The rock, even without the ruins, looks out of place, jutting unexpectedly out of the Cornish landscape. The chapel was built in 1409 and abandoned some centuries afterwards. The scariest tale associated with it is the legend of Jan Tregeagle.

Tregeagle had been a sixteenth century lawyer and a very bad man. He had used his legal prowess to steal from his clients and was sent to hell for his sins. His spirit was drawn back to the land of the living to testify in a court case, so saving an innocent man from execution for a crime which Tregeagle had committed.

The court then pitied him. As he could still never enter heaven, he was sentenced to empty the water of a nearby pool with a cracked shell, a task so impossible that his spirit would never return to the misery of hell. Yet Tregeagle tired of this undertaking and fled – reaching the sanctuary of Roche Rock’s chapel.

Yet he was pursued by the headless hounds of hell, which savagely bit him (some versions say on the posterior) as he tried unsuccessfully to clamber through the window above. He was eventually rescued by the priest whose prayers drove the hounds away. The priest debated for a while what to do with Tregeagle’s hapless soul but eventually sent him down to the coast. His new hell avoiding task was to create a rope out of sand and there, it is said, he remains to this day.

The strange outcrop that is Roche Roche rock is about forty meters high - take a look at the seemingly tiny person waving from the top. It is made from tourmalinised granite. Put simply, hundreds of millions of years ago, underground shifting caused boro-silicates in the granite to heat up to melting point. It separated from other molten rock and rose upwards to the surface. As it hit the air it slowly cooled and the rock was created.

Science aside, this must have been a source of wonderment to the first people who came across it. It is thought that Roche Rock has been associated with religious (pagan as well as Christian) since the time of Stonehenge.

The builders of the chapel were more than resourceful. They integrated the bedrock in to it structure and built it from granite, so it almost looks as if it is growing from the rock. By medieval standards, if not our own, it is something of a feat of engineering.

Yet entropy has claimed much of the chapel, with only the eastern wall now surviving to its original two storey height. The west wall has all but disappeared as have other buildings which old pictures of the rock show. The steps up to the chapel have long been considered unsafe and an iron ladder enables the hardier visitors to ascend.

Others choose a different route.

Despite the religious and so celebratory nature of the building, the place has a sense of supernatural foreboding about it. It is little wonder that the writer John Timpson described Roche Rock as waiting, glowering down the Cornish countryside, for the next legend to come along.

First Image Credit Flickr User Drewhound