Roche Rock Hermitage: a ruined 15th-century hermitage steeped in myth and mystery~5 min read
Roche, in cornish dialect “Tregarrek”, which mean homestead of the rock, is a civil parish and village in mid-Cornwall, United Kingdom.
Atop a 20-meters-tall tourmaline granite, outcrop looking out at the atmospheric Bodmin Moor and china clay mountains of St. Austell, stands a suggestive ruined hermitage. Built around 1409, it is dedicated to Saint Michael and has been surrounded by myth and mystery for hundreds of years.
The hermitage has two floors, with the top room originally serving as the chapel. Although the west wall is all but gone, the east wall still stands at almost its original height. According to a 1881 description of the chapel, at the time it still had a considerable portion of the masonry standing and one or two windows were fairly perfect.
In any case, Roche Rock has long been a significant local religious centre. A particularly ancient legend relates that St. Conan, one of the first Bishops of Cornwall, took refuge at the site.
According to local folklore, a hermit and his daughter once lived within the rocky structure. The legend relates that his daughter Gunnett (or Gundred, depending on the story you hear) climbed the rock each day to tend to him and brought water for drinking and washing from a neaby well, reputedly Roche’s Holy Well.
The hermitage was last occupied by a family of local landowners who, when they contracted leprosy, stayed here in “quarantine” to avoid infecting the nearby village of Roche.
In addition, the hermitage is associated with a number Cornish folk tales, most notably the story of a 17th-century magistrate, Jan Tregeagle, a tortured sinner who made a pact with the devil and tried to find refuge in the chapel when being chased by demons. The name of the demon Jan Tregeagle is well known name in every part of Cornwall. His wild spirit rages on cold dark nights when his ghostly wails can be heard along the rugged coasts, across the quaint moors and through the wooded valleys.
During his life, he acquired a great deal of wealth through devious means and is said to have stole the estate of an orphan and sold his soul to the Devil. There was practically no sin he had not committed.
Shortly after his death there was an important lawsuit. The judge was just about to finish his summing up, and the case was all but decided against the defendant when he called for a further witness, Jan Tregeagle. To the horror of the court his figure appeared in front of them in the witness stand. Whilst many fled the judge remained and questioned the ghostly figure. The evidence given was enough to proove the defendant’s innocence.
After a long conference it was decided the only hope for peace for the spirit of the evil man was to set him a task that would keep him busy until the Day of Judgement.
As punishment for his transgressions he was set the task of emptying Dozmary Poll, a gloomy lake at that time believed to be bottomless with a limpet shell with a hole in.
As the story goes, he managed to escape from his demon guards and fled, pursued by them, to Roche Rock. There he managed to get his head through the east window, but his body remained stuck outside and was exposed to the full fury of the storm and the demons.
Eventually the infernal howling of the demons and Trgeagle’s screaming drove the preist to call upon his bretheren for help: they bound the wretched soul with holy spells and took him safely across to Gwenvor Cove, on the north coast, where another task was set for him. He was to weave a truss of sand and spin a sand rope to bind it with. Either way story ended with St Petroc being summoned who bound Tregeagle with a mighty chain and led him round to the south coast near Helston. Here Tregeagle was set to the task of carrying all the sand from the beach across the estuary of the River Cober to Porthleven, until only rock remained at the beach. A futile task, because with every tide the sand would be swept back again.
In any case this task is still carrying out to this day, because according to popular folklore he is still endeavouring to sweep the sand in the zone. It is said on many a winter night if you are nearby you can hear Tregeagle howling and roaring at the hopelessness of his task.
It’s also said that the doomed lovers Tristan and Isolde, from a medieval legend, hid here when their love had been discovered by Isolde’s husband, King Mark.
Tristan was the nephew of King Mark of Cornwall, who accidentally shared a love potion with his uncle’s intended bride, Isolde. As a result, Tristan and Isolde falling hopelessly in love. Thereafter, their lives involved a series of furtive trysts, while they sought to escape the traps laid for them by King Mark. It is thought that Roche Rock may have been the site of the hermit Ogrin’s chapel, where the lovers found refuge while trying to escape from an angry Mark. In the end, Tristan met his death and Isolde, unable to live without him, followed soon after.
Despite the legends, even today, the Hermitage is touched by a bit of mystical mystery. And, If you visit when there’s a gale, listen carefully, as it’s believed you can hear a Cornish giant howling around the rock…