Albion, ancient sites, Archaeology, Books, Magic, Photography, Stuart France and Sue Vincent, travel

A Thousand Miles of History XXXIV: A Lake of Legends…

Next morning we were once again up and away early, though this time our first stop was only a mile or two down the road and still on Bodmin Moor, a place where there must be as many legends as there are people who visit the place. We had come to pay our respects to a lake and to those who, so the stories tell us, reside within its depths.

Dozmary Pool is a small and isolated lake left behind by a glacier. Around it the remains of flint-working have been found, suggesting it was a gathering place for early Man and there are many prehistoric remains in the area. The waters of Dozmary feed nearby Colliford Lake and it is one of the sources of the River Fowey. There are no trees and no shelter, and although the ordinary world measures its depth at around ten feet, it is said to be bottomless. Perhaps it is, for the waters of Dozmary mirror only the vastness of the sky and the light that shimmers and sparkles in its wind-born ripples. You can imagine that at night, here where there are few traces of modern man, the still surface would reflect the stars and would indeed appear to hold infinity within its heart.

Jan Treneagle, an evil man who made a Faustian pact with the devil in exchange for wealth and power in life, is a central character in Cornish folklore. At his death, he was doomed to wander until the end of time, performing impossible tasks. One of those tasks was to empty the bottomless Dozmary Pool using only a holed limpet shell. He escaped from this thankless task and headed instead for Roche Rock. The devil caught up with him there and Treneagle was set to weaving ropes from the sands of Gwenor Cove.

The weaving of ropes has an echo in the legends of the lake too. The Victorian writer and folklorist, Sabine Baring-Gould, wrote of the witch’s ladder, woven of black wool, with white and brown thread and designed to curse an enemy. Aches, pains, boils and ills would be woven into the ladder which was adorned every two inches with the feathers of a cockerel. This would be thrown into Dozmary Pool and the spell-caster would watch the bubbles rise from the bottom of the lake, believing that as they did so, so would their curse be set free to do its abominable work.

One tale says that the name of the lake comes from ‘Dozy Mary’ and refers to the murder of a young woman at the spot. Other and more recent tales tell of the Beast of Bodmin, a strange cat-like animal that terrorised the livestock on the moor as recently as 1978, while an older story tells an even darker tale…

Back o’er the moor, the frozen moor,

Flies the cursed soul to Dozmary Pool.

With gleaming fangs and eyes aflame,

The pack, the pack, the hellish pack

Race by his side, yap, yap, yap –

Race by the side of the soul in pain.

~ The Ballad of the Haunted Moor (full text available online here)

But not all the tales of Bodmin Moor and Dozmary Pool are so dark. The most widely known legend to speak of this lake seldom names it, so that many would not realise that it was from these waters that the legendary King Arthur was given his sword, Excalibur. The legend, as told by Malory, says that when Arthur lay dying after the battle of Camlann, mortally wounded by Mordred, he instructed Bedivere, one of his true knights, to take the Sword of Britain and cast it into the lake whence it came.

Twice Bedivere took the sword to the lake, but he could not throw away the Sword of Britain, symbol of Arthur’s kingship… and twice he returned to the dying king to say the task had been fulfilled. When Arthur asked what had happened, Bedivere could tell him naught, so the king sent him back to do his bidding. When he returned to the lake the third time, and cast the sword into its waters, the hand of the Lady of the Lake rose from the water to catch the sword… and there it waits to this day.

Two swords have been found at Dozmary; one, a blade allegedly linked to a Victorian mystery, was found by author Andrew Collins and formed the basis of his book with Graham Hancock, The Seventh Sword. Another created a bit of a stir a few years ago, when a little girl bathing with her father in the lake found what at first appeared to be a medieval blade, but which turned out to be an offering to the Celtic gods left in the waters in the ‘80s by a local man.

Even when the tales of the popular Arthurian legends are traced back beyond the Romances to a more ancient root, and when the Lady and her Lake might be taken as symbols in a deeper story yet, still the quiet waters of Dozmary hold mystery, and to stand on its shore in the early morning light is to touch something beyond words. We saw neither hand nor sword… though the child in me held her breath and looked through the eyes of hope as the day brightened and the silver surface changed to purple and blue… but there is a magic in the mirror of the lake that goes straight to the heart.