We all know that the Tintagel area is steeped in myth and legend. Its dramatic cliffs, ruined castle and many tales of Arthurian derring-do make it a must-see place to visit. Park at Trethevy on the B3263 between Tintagel and Boscastle, however, and you’ll find St Nectan’s Glen – a location that is arguably even more mystical than its better known Camelot counterpart.
Our walk took us past a holy well, the very old, tiny church of St Piran that was once owned by monks, far-reaching sea views and, as the path sloped downwards, into the shade and shadow of the banks of the River Trevillet. Awarded Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Special Scientific Interest status, stepping into this ancient wooded valley is like stepping back in time. Ferns, giant trees and huge slabs of slate combine to create a strange, eerie, tranquil beauty. Ghosts, piskies and fairies are said to roam the pathways and, although we didn’t spot any, it’s not hard to imagine spooky nocturnal ramblings.
There are several different versions of the St Nectan legend. In Irish mythology, he is said to be a wise water-god who guards a sacred well that is the source of all knowledge and wisdom. The Cornish version has him living as a hermit above a waterfall that plunges into a basin, also known as a kieve, before flowing into a narrow cleft and then crashing through a round hole and falling into a shallow pool.
The story goes that Nectan had a silver bell which he rang during violent storms to save ships that would have otherwise foundered on nearby rocks. When the Romans came, he threw the bell into the water, vowing that unbelievers like them would never hear it. If the bell is heard today, bad luck is supposed to follow.
Thankfully, there was no sound of a bell whilst we were there – just bird song and water. As we climbed the steep, often slippery steps towards the cafe, shop and entrance to the waterfall, the latter noise became much louder, telling us that we would soon seen the sight that those who worship nature often travel many miles to see.
Privately owned, there is a charge to descend to the kieve. Young women dressed in long flowing skirts and adorned with lots of rings and beaded jewellery provided information, offered us wellington boots to wear and buzzed us through the gate. It was all slightly surreal and charming, in a hippy, peace-loving sort of way. A bit like dreaming or walking into a wardrobe and finding Narnia. Certainly arriving in the basin, taking off our shoes and wading into the ice-cold river to watch the water thundering down from sixty feet above us was mesmerising – an other-worldly experience that seems to demand quiet contemplation. Equally strange and rather wonderful are the many colourful ribbons, crystals, photos and prayers that adorn the rocks and trees – plus the piles of flat pebbles, carefully positioned one on top of the other, that visitors have built in tribute to the magical setting and the tales that go with it.
One particularly moving inscription read as follows:
“We first came here by chance on 13 October 2012, the day after our 49th anniversary not knowing what we would find. The place affected us both. We spent time by the waterfall and found ourselves remembering friends and family who have gone and threw a stone into the river thinking of them. We returned today with this marker to remember the people we miss; those who have helped us over the years; to mark our love for our families, our children and their children; but especially for each other. One day this will fall into the river and become part of it again. We hope it’s left where it falls because that’s how it should be. Anita and Fred – married 12 October 1963. “All you need is love”.”
Whether or not you believe in legends, there is something extraordinary about St Nectan’s Glen. Something that attracts pilgrimage and a desire to leave one’s mark.
It’s beautiful certainly but, with many centuries of history bound up in the geology, its appeal goes much deeper than that. Perhaps to our very soul.
For more information about places to stay and things to do in Cornwall, visit We are Cornwall.