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The Haunting of Talland (Talland Red) - A Story for Halloween
It was one of those rare, beautiful, warm sunny days of early Autumn; the leaves rustled beneath my feet – a few picked up by the capricious breeze and swirled around in a mad aerial waltz, before being dumped to decay in some forgotten corner. It was 1949 - the year before I was born - and a hundred years after ... after what! Yet I was here, now surely, outside the church at Talland.
I walked into the Church and made my way slowly up the North Aisle towards the Altar. I had been here once before with my friend Jonathon, the local Doctor and respected scholar of Natural History. I half turned away from the Altar towards the North Wall - yes, beyond the window, there was a wall with a painting - a bloodied cross; an old sailing ship under full sail, red flags a flutter, and the staring red eyes of the Devil – ‘such an incongruous tableau as cannot easily be imagined’ - I thought: what an odd phrase – where had that come from! I blinked. No, there was only some graffiti in the corner; perhaps just a trick of the light. But I knew it was there. I came over all goosebumps and shivered as if someone had walked over my grave.
Making my way back down the Aisle I looked back briefly - there - can you see it; a ghostly ship in the dust swirls of my passing showing in the weaker light now from the window.
I shivered again. Had I been daydreaming; an hour had passed – the afternoon shadows of the tombstones already lengthening.
Of course the 13th Century church has always been haunted ever since being built: there's a story as told by the droll tellers of yesteryear and still retold today……
Long, long ago - eight hundred years ago or so, forty men from Talland, Lanreath and Polperro set to, to build a church. They found the best place, dug good foundations and the stones went up quick enough.
That night as the men were packing away and the dark clouds rolled in from the sea; they heard a voice drifting through the dusk …..
"If you will my wish fulfil
Build a church on Talland hill".
They laughed, a little uneasily, and wearily made their way home. Only to find the next morning, all their hard work and sweat undone.
Now this happened day, upon day, upon day – the voice the same each night as clear as could be ….
"If you will my wish fulfil
Build a church on Talland hill".
until weary and frustrated they:
"Did indeed the wish fulfil,
and built the church on Talland hill"
I stood outside near the cliff's edge, drinking in the purest sea born air and light, hearing the waves crashing on the rocks below and the mournful cry of the seagulls on the wind; my head spinning like the leaves; a flashing kaleidoscope of colours:
My friend Jonathan and I had just enjoyed a brisk walk along the coast from Polperro - it was the early part of October 1849 and one of those sunny Autumnal days when nature summons you - whereupon topping the brow of the hill by the Church we were alarmed to hear shouting coming from the other side. On hurrying around we were amazed by the spectacle that met our eyes - an incongruous tableau as cannot easily be imagined - a cross; the ghostly shape of a full rigged ship, red flag and the red eyes of the Devil - amidst the dust and rubble of the crumbling north wall which was being repaired.
Later that evening sat by the fire with Jonathan in his quayside cottage in Polperro I wrote up some notes in my Journal:
‘In the early part of October 1849 it was found necessary to take down the wall of the North Aisle, on which were discovered a number of fine frescoes; they consisted of two series, laid one on the other, the first (that nearest the wall) was executed in colours, while the other was traced in black and being on a white ground its figures were displayed in bold relief. Both were much defaced by exposure to heavy rains.
Among the subjects of the original or coloured series was an imposing representation of the Crucifixion, some female mourners, a Roman soldier looking on interestedly, a brick built well or fountain (read cistern) - with a man in an overcoat drawing water, and another man in rude costume departing from the well with a skin or leather utensil slung from a spear that rested on his left shoulder …..
….. what was most notable was the unaccountable vividness of colour displayed by the large drops of blood, from a wound in the left side of Our Saviour, which issued in rapid succession forming a continuous line to the ground. Such was the striking effect produced by the peculiar intensity and brilliancy of the colour that it was doubted whether the richest oil painting of any age ever equalled it.
The next and most perfect of these coloured paintings ….
….. was that of a large ship [Carrack or Galleon], under sail, which from her slanting position on the water appeared to be mounting over a long swell. She had four masts - on the foremost large square sails were set, while the others were rigged lateen fashion. Her sides were decorated with gaily painted bands and strakes with separately charged saltires and crosses of opposite colours such as a red band with a black cross. Atop each mast head was a square green flag with a saltire in red …..
….. This in turn was overlaid, almost covering it completely, by a striking painting of the Devil, traced in black. He had the most horrible countenance imaginable with a dark mantle thrown over his shoulders and clasped at the neck. He had two short thick horns bent slightly backward, on his head, and the balls of his enormous round eyes were painted a brilliant red to which an additional horror was imparted by their being surrounded with a slight circle of white.’
I started; took a deep breath and, turning away from the cliff edge continued my walk from the Church along the path towards Polperro. Dreckly, I chanced upon the Vicar and sat on a nearby bench with him awhile, looking out to sea: a trifle hesitantly, I told him of my vision.
After a somewhat uncomfortable pause, he began to tell me the story of how Dr William Box and Jonathan Couch, the local Doctor had discovered the Talland Frescoes and how Dr Box had written extensive notes, now held in the Royal Institution of Cornwall.
As he was talking I remembered a story we were told when growing up - a story of the ‘Devils Doorway’ .....
‘There was a time when Polperro counted the Devil amongst its inhabitants. He chose the slate behind the village of Polperro as a place to hide by day. As darkness fell he would ride out in the wilds unnoticed by the families exhausted by their day's farming or fishing far out at sea.
One night, as he rose from his lair on a small black cart, his red eyes flaming and his smelly cloak flapping, the Devil appeared so frightening that the rock gave way before him with a mighty split and quiver. As the rock split it left a tear that would never heal, evidence of his ghastly residence.’
The Vicar said he knew the story and added ... some say - on dark nights when the storm clouds come rolling in off the sea, just past the gates of the Church, runs a cart with a fleeing smuggler on his way to Polperro harbour with a good load of rum. He is pursued by the customs – and a distant voice can be heard from the churchyard:
‘Flee, flee Jack flee, and drive as if the very Devil were after Ye’…
I thanked him, and my head full of jumbled thoughts continued my walk to Polperro to stay the night in the quayside cottage that once belonged to Jonathan Couch.
Later that evening sat by the fire, alone, I started to write a story about the Lost Frescoes of Talland.
I’ve never been there, but if you ever visit the Church at Talland walk up the Aisle towards the Altar, pause a moment by the window in the North wall, close your eyes; and maybe, just maybe you will hear the sound of the wind in the rigging as the ship heels mounting the swell; and ever, ever so faintly perhaps a distant cry ….. ‘Flee, flee Jack flee’ … or is it some wind blown leaves come in the door to settle in a dusty corner - and the cry of a passing seagull.
And what of me - well I never was - just a ghost of a memory ...
The picture of Talland Church is of a lithograph by John Piper RA from The book‘English Scottish and Welsh Landscape , a selection of poetry chosen by John Betjeman and Geoffrey Taylor and published in 1944, just after the Second World War, by Frederick Muller. Image may be subject to copyright.