Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall, Vol. 2, by William Bottrell, , at sacred-texts.com
Old folks also called this place the Sweethearts’ Cove, from—tradition of its having been the scene of a tragical love-story, which is best known to me from fragments of a quaint old 'copy of verses,' entitled
This composition of a forgotten western bard related that, far back in old times, the son of a fisherman, who dwelt at Pargwarra, lived many years—off and on from a boy—in service with a rich farmer in Roskestal, and courted his master's only daughter, who, almost from her childhood, loved the young serving-man with a strength of affection beyond her control.
The youngster, being of a roving turn, often went to sea for many months in summer, and although he was then most wanted on the farm, his master always took him back again when sailors were paid off and merchant ships laid up during the stormy winter season. It was his old master's and Nancy's great delight of winter's nights, to be seated with neighbours around the fire and hear Willy tell of strange things he had beheld on the ocean and in foreign lands; they wondered at what he related of waterspouts, icebergs, and northern lights, of whales, seals, and Laplanders. And they listened with awe and surprise to what he told them of burning-mountains, where he said he had seen, from a distance, the very mouths of hell vomiting clouds of sulphurous smoke, flames, and rivers of fire. And when sailing
as near these dreadful regions as anyone dared venture for the heat, and for fear of having their vessel drawn ashore, where all the nails would be pulled from her planks by the load-stone rocks that bordered these lands; of nights, he had heard high overhead, devils shouting, "the time is come but such and such a one isn't come;" soon after, one would hear doleful cries and behold black clouds of doomed spirits driven to the burning-mountains by troops of demons. He had seen the wreck of Pharaoh's chariots on the beach of the Red Sea, which, he assured them, had retained the hue from which it took its name ever since the Egyptian hosts were slain and overwhelmed, where their bones are still bleaching on the sands.
But all that was easily believed by his simple hearers, and mere nothing to the marvels he related from shipmates’ stories when he told them of those bold mariners who had been farther east and seen the Dead Sea across which no bird could fly—how they had plucked from trees that bordered its black waters apples full of ashes that were tempting to the eye; they had touched Lot's wife turned to salt, and brought home some of her fingers that was often done, he said, for with the next tide's flow they sprouted out again.
The neighbours liked above all to hear him tell about the dusky men and strange women of Levantine lands, and how the latter would shoot loving glances at British tars through peepholes cut in their thick black cloth veils.
Now William himself was a wonder of perfection, past compare in Nancy's eyes. She admired him for his stalwart form, for his strange adventures on sea and land, and for the rare presents he brought her home. The farmer, too, liked him just as if he had been his own son, yet it never entered his head that his daughter and only child would ever think of the dashing and careless young seaman as her lover.
Yet her mother, more sharp sighted, soon discovered that her fair Nancy was much in love with their serving-man. When William was gone to sea the dame upbraided her with want of proper pride and self-respect till she had fretted her almost to death's door. "What a fool thou must be," said she, "to throw thyself away, or to hanker after one so much beneath thy degree, when thy good looks and dower make thee a match for the richest farmer's son in the West Country; think if you wed a poor sailor how you will be scorned by all your kith and kin." Nancy replied, "but little care I for relations’ reproach or good will and sink or swim if ever I marry it shall be the man I love who is able to work and win." The dame prevailed on her husband, much against his will, however, not to take the sailor to live there when he returned home again; and she—watching
her opportunity—slammed the door in his face and told him he should nevermore harbour beneath her roof.
But the father fearing his only child would pine to death, told her and her lover that if he would try his fortune by a voyage to the Indies or elsewhere for three years, when he returned, poor or rich, if he and Nancy were in the same mind, they might be wedded for all he cared.
That being agreed on, William got a berth in a merchant-man bound for a long voyage, took friendly leave of his old master, and the night before his ship was ready to sail he and Nancy met, and he assured the sorrowing damsel that in three years or less she might expect him to land in Pargwarra with plenty of riches and he would marry at home or fetch her away and make her his bride. According to the old verses he said—
They vowed again and again to be constant and true; with their hands joined in a living spring or stream they broke a gold ring in two between them, each one keeping a part. And to make their vows more binding they kindled, at dead of night, a fire on the Garrack Zans (holy rock), which then stood in Roskestal town-place, and joining their hands over the flame, called on all the powers of heaven and earth to witness their solemn oaths to have each other living or dead. Having plighted their troth with these and other ancient rites—that romantic lovers of old regarded as more sacred than a marriage ceremony—they said farewell, and William went on his way and joined his ship.
Three years passed during which the old dame had done her utmost to persuade her daughter to become the wife of some rich farmer—for true it was, as she said, Nancy might have had her choice of the best—yet coaxing and reproaches were powerless to shake the maid's constancy. When three years and many months were gone without any tidings of William, she became very melancholy perhaps crazy—from hope deferred, and took to wandering about the cleves in all weathers, by day and by night.
On the headland, called Hella Point, which stretches far out west of the cove, there is a high over-hanging rock almost on the verge of the cliff, which shelters, on its southern side, a patch of green sward, mostly composed of cliff-pinks; this spot used to be known as Fair Nancy's bed. There she would pass hours by day and often whole nights watching-vessels that came within her ken, hoping to see her lover land from every one that hove in sight, and to be the first to hail him with joyful greetings in the cove. Her father and the old fisherman—anxious for William's return
[paragraph continues] —treated her as tenderly as a shorn lamb, and often passed long nights with her there; at length the poor maiden had to be watched and followed for fear that in her night wanderings she might fall over the cliff or drown herself in a fit of despair.
One moonlight winter's night, when in her chamber indulging her grief, she heard William's voice just under her window, saying, "Sleepest thou, sweetheart, awaken and come hither, love; my boat awaits us at the cove, thou must come this night or never be my bride."
"My sweet William come at last, I'll be with thee in an instant," she replied.
Nancy's aunt Prudence, who lodged in the same room, heard Willy's request and his sweetheart's answer; looking out of the window she saw the sailor, just under, dripping wet and deathly pale. An instant after—glancing round into the chamber, and seeing Nancy leave it—she dressed, in all haste, and followed her. Aunt Prudence, running down the cliff lane at her utmost speed, kept the lovers in sight some time, but couldn't overtake them, for they seemed to glide down the rocky pathway leading to Pargwarra as if borne on the wind, till they disappeared in the glen.
At the fisherman's door, however, she again caught a glimpse of them passing over the rocks towards a boat which floated off in the cove. She then ran out upon the How—as the high ground projecting into the cove is called—just in time to see them on a large flat rock beside the boat, when a fog rolling in over sea, shrouded them from her view. She hailed them but heard no reply.
In a few minutes the mist cleared away, bright moonlight again shone on the water, but the boat and lovers had disappeared.
Then she heard mermaids singing a low sweet melody, and saw many of them sporting on the water under Hella; that was nothing new, however, for the rocks and sawns (caverns) bordering this headland were always noted as favourite resorts of these death-boding syrens, whose wild unearthly strains were wont, before tempests, to be heard resounding along Pedn-Penwith shores.
By daybreak the old fisherman came to Roskestal and told the farmer that he hoped to find his son there, for, about midnight, he saw him at his bedside, looking ghastly pale; he stayed but a moment, and merely said, "Farewell father and mother, I am come for my bride and must hasten away," when he vanished like a spirit. It all seemed to the old man uncertain as a dream; he didn't know if it were his own son in the body or a token of his death.
In the afternoon, ere they had ceased wondering and making search for Nancy, a young mariner came to the fisherman's dwelling, and told him that he was chief officer of his son's ship, then at the Mount with a rich cargo from the Indies, bound for another port; but put in there because his son—her captain—when off Pargwarra, where he intended to land last night, eager to see his native place went aloft, and the ship rolling he missed his holdfast of the shrouds, fell overboard and sunk before she could be brought-to or any assistance rendered.
All knew then that William's ghost had taken Nancy to a phantom boat, and a watery grave was the lovers’ bridal-bed. Thus their rash vows of constancy, even in death, were fulfilled, and their sad story, for a time, caused Pargwartha to be known as the Sweethearts’ Cove, and some will have it that the old Cornish name has that meaning.
There are other versions of this story, that only vary from the above in details of little interest.
I have recently tried in vain to find anyone who knows the old 'copy of verses,' the argument of which I have for the most part followed.
The fragments I recited, however, recalled to a few old folks a newer piece called the "Strains of Lovely Nancy," that used to be printed in a broad sheet and sung and sold by wandering ballad singers of the west, forty or fifty years ago; and from what I heard of the latter one might conclude it to have been a modernised and an imperfect version of the ancient tragedy.
Traditions connected with places in the southern parishes of West Penwith having brought us within a short distance of the Land's End, we now return to St. Just and purpose to relate such as are found in that parish and Sennen.
And singular enough, almost all old stories handed down in St. Just are fairy-tales.