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Finding a treasure trove of magic in Cornwall

Finding a treasure trove of magic in Cornwall

Author Claire McGowan explores magic and superstition in Cornwall, from stone circles to mermaid carvings

Growing up in rural Ireland in the Eighties and Nineties, I was surrounded by superstition. It was very common in my village to believe in faith healing, seek out herbal cures or folk remedies for illnesses, visit holy wells to leave offerings, and of course you would never ever cut down a ring of "fairy trees", even if they were right in the middle of prime farmland.

Banshees, ghosts, fairies—all of these things are still widely believed in, and that’s before you even get into the many Catholic beliefs that are similar, including the effect of holy water, pilgrimages to shrines such as Knock, and the power of prayers, icons and relics. I still throw salt over my shoulder if I spill some, and cross myself if an ambulance passes or I see a lone magpie. 

"I was to find a new trove of magic in the beautiful surroundings of West Cornwall"

I thought much of this tradition was lost to me after I moved to England at 18. However, I was to find a new trove of it in the beautiful surroundings of West Cornwall. I was researching a story about a young couple who buy a fixer-upper in the remote countryside, only to find witchy relics in the walls and discover the previous owner was an herbal healer rumoured to dabble in dark magic. She was also a convicted triple murderer.

Having fallen in love with Cornwall when I went there for the first time in my late twenties, I decided to set the book there.

Sacred sites in Cornwall

It's a pleasant quirk of the writing life that random ideas are very often supported by real life, even though you couldn’t have known that before you imagined it. There are many sacred sites in this part of the country, from holy wells to standing circles.

The most obvious place to start is the Museum of Witchcraft in Bocastle, a pretty riverside town. I was entranced by its spooky collection of over 3,000 items, all crammed into a small building and including scrying mirrors, curse dolls, witch bottles, and until recently the skeleton of a woman executed for witchcraft. Although small, there is a huge amount to see in this very atmospheric space.  

Boscawen-un Cornwall - magic and superstition in Cornwall

Boscawen-un, Cornwall

While staying in the beautiful village of Mousehole, I particularly wanted to visit some stone circles. It was early June, so getting close to the solstice, a date I had quietly started to mark myself in recent years, usually by going for a wild swim or getting up to watch the sunrise (you can even watch live streams of the sun coming up at sites like Stonehenge or Newgrange in Ireland).

I visited the Merry Maidens stone circle and Boscawen-un—the latter was hidden away down a narrow lane and I walked for half an hour seeing only cows, quickly losing phone reception. When I got there however, I interrupted a couple who had decked the place up with ring lights and cameras and were filming something for Instagram—they didn’t look at all happy to see me!

"The Madron Holy Well is still in use as a site for offerings"

Serendipitously, I also passed a book swap in the village of St Buryan, which had the exact treatise on botany and healing plants that I was looking for to aid my research on herbalism. 

I also went to Men-an-Tol, an unusual standing stone with a hole in it you can pass through, and Madron Holy Well. I was fascinated to see that the well is still in use as a site for offerings, with prayers, photos, and colourful rags tied to the trees near where the small stream bubbles up. With no one else around in the woods, and a ruined chapel nearby, there was a real tingle in the air.

Nanjizal Cove, Cornwall - magic and superstition in Cornwall

Nanjizal Cove, Cornwall

The next day I went to Sennen Cove and sought out the famous carving of the mermaid legend in Zennor. Further afield, you can also visit King Arthur’s seat at Tintagel and the ancient tidal island of St Michael’s Mount in Marazion. There are many other lone standing stones littering the landscape, often completely overlooked except for grazing cows or sheep.

Other atmospheric places are Lamorna and Nanjizal coves, the latter with beautiful sea arches and a rumoured ghost, like so many places in Cornwall. 

A long history of witchcraft 

Cornwall has a long history of witchcraft, with many people convicted and even hanged in 17th-century Assizes, and a deep-seated belief in selkies, mermaids, giants, and pyskies or little folk.

On top of that, over 3,000 people in Devon and Cornwall identified as Wiccans in the last census. Interest soared in the practice during lockdown, with younger people seeking out a connection to nature and discovering the occult via the WitchTok movement on TikTok and Instagram.

"I’m sure I’m not the only person who came away from Cornwall with a lifelong interest in the otherworldy"

If you’d like to learn more after a Cornwall trip, Glastonbury is the perfect place to stop on the journey back, where you will find dozens of shops selling crystals, essential oils, occult books and more. I got myself a deck of tarot and have been learning to read the cards ever since. I’m sure I’m not the only person who came away from Cornwall with a lifelong interest in the otherworldy.

Let Me In by Claire McGowan (Thomas & Mercer, £8.99) is available now

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