The legend of the torments of Jan Tregeagle stretch from the bleak moors of Bodmin, to the lonely beaches of Land’s End. He has been identified by some as a forgotten Celtic god who still haunts the landscape. The story has many versions, and is one of the most interesting legends of Cornwall.
There can be little doubt that Jan Tregeagle actually existed, he was an early seventeenth century magistrate, known widely for his cruel ways. He is said to have made his fortune by robbing an orphan of his estate. His ghostly wails have been identified with the cries of the wild hunt over Bodmin moor, and there are many versions of how he came to haunt the area, in penance for his earthly crimes.
Some time after his death there was a dispute over some land, said to have been obtained illegally by Jan Tregeagle by forging some papers. The case was all but over, and the Judge was about to sum up, when one of the parties asked for a further witness to be called. Permission was granted and Jan Treageagle was summoned to the bench by the orderlies. There was raucous laughter among the court members, stilled when a shadowy figure began to manifest in the witness stand. The shade of Jan Tregeagle stood before the court, a translucent representation of his living form. Some people fled from the court in terror, but in a calm steady voice the judge began to question Tregeagle, who explained that in life he had deceived the defendant of his rightful possession.
The verdict went in the defendant’s favour, but the ghost of Jan Tregeagle would not be dismissed so easily, not wishing to return to his earned place in some corner of hell. After some discussion it was decided that he should be set impossible tasks so as to keep him occupied for all eternity, and to keep him safe from the hell hounds, who would drag him down to their infernal region.
With ceremony and ritual Jan Tregeagle was bound to the task of emptying Dozmary pool (at that time believed to be bottomless) on windswept Bodmin Moor, with a leaking limpet shell. The hell hounds and a host of demons would always be waiting to drag him to back hell if he ceased in his task.
One night, many years after the court case, a terrible storm blew over Bodmin moor, whipping the still waters of Dozmary pool into huge waves. Jan Treageagle, either terrified or seizing an opportunity to escape, fled from the scene of his torment across the moor to Roche Rock. As soon as Jan Treageagle ceased in his toil, the demons were on his trail mingling, their ghastly cries with the rending roar of the storm.
Upon Roche Rock, thrusting skyward like part of the living rock, a fourteenth century chapel dedicated to St Michael stands. Jan Tregeagle saw this place of Christian refuge, and crashed into the East window in a bid to gain access to this place of sanctuary. His head became stuck in the stained glass, and his spirit shoulders would not pass through the arched window, in this way he hung, his head inside the church, and his body at the mercy of the clawing demons and the raging storm.
His howls of torment brought forth the local priest, who called on the aid of two saints to transport the wretched spirit of Tregeagle to Gwenvor Cove (or in some versions of the tale to Padstow). Here he was set the task of weaving a rope from the beach sand. When completed this rope had to be taken to Carn Olva. Of course the task set was meant to be impossible and to keep him occupied for eternity but one very cold night Jan completed his task by pouring icy water over the rope, so that it froze solid. His success was short lived, as a group of local exorcists and holy men gathered and bound him to the task of weaving the sand rope at Gwenvor, under the condition that this time he was not allowed to approach water. It is said that on dark nights, when the cold Northern winds scatter the sand far across Whitesand Bay, his howls of frustration can be heard mingling with the wind.
In the other version of the story the task of rope weaving is set in Padstow. After a period enduring his unearthly cries the local people called on the aid of St Petroc, who bound Tregeagle with a mighty chain and led him to Berepper. Here he was commanded to carry the sand from Berepper beach across the Loe estuary to Porthleven, until only rock remained at Berepper beach. This task was futile because the sand on the beach was replenished with every turning of the tide.
One night when Jan was busy in his task, some of the demons awaiting his soul tripped Tregeagle, so that he crashed to the ground and the sack of sand that he was carrying on his back fell in to the estuary, forming Loe Bar. This sand embankment cut of the harbour from the sea, and the local people and priest, angered by losing their harbour had him banished to Land’s End. Here he is still engaged in the task of sweeping the sands from Porthcurno Cove into Mill Bay.