A belief once prevailed in the western districts of Cornwall that Porthcurno was its principal port until the cove became ‘sanded up’. Some said this was the work of Jan Tregeagle of TREGAGLE’S HOLE, but others linked it with the old maritime tradition of ghost ships.
‘There is … a very old belief’, wrote William Bottrell in 1873, ‘that spectre ships frequently visited Parcurno … and that they were often seen sailing up and down the valley, over dry land the same as on the sea.’ They were regarded as ‘tokens’ that enemies were about to descend on the coast, their ships equal in number to the number of ghost ships seen. The presage had latterly become attached to a person who had lived more than a hundred years before in a lonely house inland from Porthcurno called Chygwidden. An old farm labourer of St Levan told Bottrell the story.
Harshly treated by his drunken father and his stepmother, Young Martin went to sea, vowing never to return while they lived. Years passed and he was presumed dead. Old Martin and his wife died, and the house went to relations.
About ten years later, Young Martin returned to Chygwidden, with a companion and several chests. His cousins, a young man and his sister, Eleanor, offered to leave the house, but he said he would only stay a while and they could keep it.
His companion’s name was José, and he conversed with ‘the Captain’, as everyone called Young Martin, in some foreign tongue. The Captain never answered questions concerning his adventures while away, but when drunk he was heard swearing at José, saying that he had risked his life to save him from being hanged at the yardarm. He had plenty of money, which came out of the chests, as did fine clothes and jewels for Eleanor. After about a year, the Captain had a ship built in which he and José would vanish for months. (One is led to suspect they were pirates.)
Time passed, and the Captain, feeling the approach of death, made José swear to take him out to sea to die, and send him to rest on the seabed. However, he died before this was done. He had also laid a curse on anyone burying him in the same ground as his father and stepmother, and, when a coffin was taken to St Levan churchyard and buried near them, it was rumoured that all it contained was earth. When, the next night, José had two chests conveyed to Porthcurno, people suspected that the largest held the Captain. They were put on the ship, and José and his favourite dog climbed on board, and no more was seen of them. Eleanor also vanished.
Presently a tempest arose and, in the week that it raged, Porthcurno was choked with sand. Shortly after that, people began to see a phantom ship driving into Porthcurno against wind and tide. Often she came at dusk, and would sail over the land till she came to Chygwidden. She was generally shrouded in mist, but now and then people glimpsed on her deck the shadowy figures of a dog, two men, and a woman.
After hovering over the farm, this ship with her spectral crew would bear away and vanish near a rock where a hoard of foreign coins was supposedly found. ‘Of late the ghostly ship has not been known to have entered Parcurno.’