Walkabout feet Penzance - We're going on a ghost hunt
First stop in my book of short romantic fiction based in England and Ireland. This one is a ghost story, one of those love lost through the ages, never-ending longing, unfulfilled . . . Well, no, probably not. I’m a romantic. For me, it’s about the happy ending.
Penzance in Cornwall is the perfect spot for a bit of otherworldly writing. The town’s colourful history is layered with pirates, smugglers, attacks from the sea, and an ancient prophecy written by Merlin himself.
There shall land on the stone of Merlyn,
those who shall burn Paul, Penzance, and Newlyn
Merlyn's stone and the Spanish Armada
It's 1595. The Spanish armada prowls the seas, flexing its naval muscle, and searching for a way that Spain can extend its grasp. The coast of Cornwall is a tempting target that would provide a base on English soil.
The towns of Mousehole, Mou-zel not Mouse-hole, Paul, Newlyn, and Penzance are in reach, and Mousehole, the home of Merlyn's stone, is their first target.
Four ships bombard Mousehole with cannon fire before landing soldiers who carry out a round of pillaging, set fire to houses and carry off prisoners. Flushed with success, the armada sets sail for Newlyn and Penzance.
At the time of the Spanish armada's attack, the words of Merlyn's ancient prophecy are deeply engrained in the citizens of the towns. They leave their homes and flee for the hills. The next day, they rally and fight back. The ships of the armada retreat.
On the road to Mousehole
The real pirates of Penzance
The ocean is a dangerous place, and the rocky, undefended coastline of Cornwall in the mid 1600s to 1800s is easy pickings.
Barbary pirates attack and plunder the coast, descending with little to no warning, taking captives and carrying them off for ransom or sale in the thriving slave markets of northern Africa.
Fishing boats are easy targets, their crews convenient prey. Most of the captives will never be seen again, and only the empty boats bobbing on the ocean’s swell mark they ever existed.
The pirates of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera, The Pirates of Penzance were nothing like the real pirates who plagued Cornwall's coasts.
The mid 1700s and 1800s saw the British crown raise taxes on imported goods like tea, wine, and spirits sometimes as much as 250%.
With surviving and raising families getting harder, smuggling is a lucrative business. A fast boat is a way to higher income.
Evading the excisemen puts food on the table and provides a few luxuries for families barely scraping by.
The down side to being a smuggler makes staying ahead of the government agents charged with enforcing the law vital. The price of getting caught by the excise man is hanging or deportation.
Penzance, the largest, most westerly town in Cornwall, sits at the edge of where the English Channel and the Atlantic ocean meet.
The bones of over 6000 shipwrecks litter its rocky shores.
The laws of the day make it legal to claim goods washed ashore from grounded ships, unless . . . there are survivors. Woe be it to any half-drowned crew or passenger who staggers to shore. Chances are they will meet their end in a watery grave and the wreckers won't be accused of breaking the law.
Looking for a gothic romance set in the days of smugglers and wreckers? Try Daphne Du Maurier's classic mystery Jamaica Inn. It was made into a movie by Alfred Hitchcock in 1939. It's been redone since then, and also, in 1983, released as a mini series starring Jane Seymour and Patrick McGoohan.
My idea light flickers on
Finding a ghost story
All this history has sparked the idea for a ghost story. With that in mind, Suzanne and I wait for the sun to go down and head out on a ghost walk through the alleys of Penzance. We want haunting scenery, not haunted. As in no ghost sightings, please.
We start our dark and spooky stroll through narrow alleys, passing townhomes where the warm glow of light spills from curtained windows. I imagine these same alleys three hundred years ago, and almost hear the fall of running footsteps, the quick knock on a door, and the whispers of men preparing to move loads of smuggled goods into the tunnels running beneath the town.
Going on a ghost hunt
The next day we visit the Dolphin Inn, one of the oldest buildings in Penzance. History surrounds you as you approach the bar to order food and drink. The tavern has served thirsty customers since before 1585. Under its roof the English naval commander/privateer, John Hawkins recruited Cornishmen to fight the Spanish armada. It's said that this is where Sir Walter Raleigh smoked the first tobacco on English shores. The Dolphin Inn was a smugglers tavern, complete with peep holes in the walls and a trap door leading to a warren of smuggler’s tunnels under our feet.
The Dolphin Inn
The Dolphin Inn
We carry on with our walk and visit the Admiral Benbow Inn, another historical landmark. It’s been serving grog to the thirsty since 1695. We pull up a chair and sit down for a pint. In 1880, when Robert Louis Stevenson visited here, the inn was an illegal drinking den with a notorious reputation. Some of the inspiration for the classic book, Treasure Island, comes from here.
The Admiral Benbow Inn
The interior of the inn is a fascinating collection of maritime history. Ship figureheads, pulleys, ropes, lanterns—the room is stuffed full of nautical artifacts salvaged through the years. It's a place demanding exploration.
On our way out, we meet the owner/operator of the inn and talk smugglers, tunnels, and spirits, before he shares a ghost story. When he first moved to Penzance, he was approached by a local woman at the market. Penzance is a small town, so she knew he'd bought the Admiral Benbow Inn.
"Have you met the ghost," she asked.
Receiving his no, she describes how when she worked at the inn, she glimpsed the shadowy figure of a woman watching through a window.
The ghost, Arabella inhabited the inn during the early 1800s. She met a boy, fell in love, and then one day, he sailed away with the promise to return, but never did. Does Arabella still wait, peering through the curtains, watching for her man to return?
Now, with my first story percolating in my head, it's time to return to our hotel, the Longboat Inn. Time to find a place to eat, and plan our the next day's adventure.
The Longboat Inn—our home away for a few days
Carol Kinnee logo