Thursday, 30 October 2014

The sad tale of Pistil Meadow

Anyone who walks the Lizard coastline regularly will be familiar with Pistil, a little valley a quarter of a mile west of the Most Southerly Point, which, thanks to a small copse of tamarisk, offers a little shelter along this otherwise wind battered stretch of coast.  The name more than likely derives from the Cornish for waterfall; a stream cascades onto the beach below.
Pistil Meadow, cleared ready for the October 2014 survey

Almost 300 years ago, this valley is said to have become the final resting place of 200 shipwrecked souls, buried as was customary at the time, in unconsecrated ground close to where their bodies washed ashore.

A Galley very similar to the Royal Anne
The year was 1721, and their ship was the Royal Anne, a military transport vessel taking the Governor of Barbados to his posting. She ran aground, as have many boats both before and since, on the treacherous rocks off Lizard Point during a November storm, with a terrible loss of life. 207 drowned; just 3 survived.

Local lore has it that the Lizard folk who went to bury the bodies could not complete this mammoth grizzly task within the day, but that when they returned next dawn, a pack of dogs had got their first and were tucking into a gruesome breakfast! Even to this day it is said that dogs cower when passing through the meadow, perhaps in shame at the actions of their ancestors! The story of Pistil Meadow fired the imaginations of later generations, with the likes of Daphne du Maurier taking an interest in the tale.

Wet ground conditions in 2012 made some techniques unreliable
However, is it story or fact?  Although there are plenty of references suggesting a mass grave at Pistil, its exact location is unknown, some saying the tamarisk grove, others the open meadow land.

We have teamed up with archaeologists from Bournemouth University and MAST (Maritime Archaeological Sea Trust) to investigate further. The team first visited in November 2012 to undertake geophysical surveys, using non-invasive techniques to see if they could detect any anomalies in the ground that might be consistent with a mass burial. The ground was first cleared with brushcutters, so that the archaeologists could take the smooth and regular paces on which their equipment relies, and a grid was pegged out. They were able to use magnetic and electromagnetic techniques in 2012 but unfortunately due to the saturated ground, other kit which relies on detecting differences in moisture content could not be used. This preliminary analysis threw up 3 places of interest within the meadow area that could conceivably be grave pits.

Magnetic survey under way
Fast forward to this year, and the unusually dry September gave us a window of opportunity to try some of the techniques that the archaeologists had to give up on previously because it was too boggy! Late into October, the stream bed is still dry, and the waterfall silent. Once again the vegetation has been cleared and this time the team have had success using earth resistivity area 3D imaging, ground penetrating radar and slingram electromagnetic techniques.

We’re eagerly awaiting the results of this latest work. If these techniques agree with the 2012 results, we will have an interesting question to ponder. Do we give permission for the archaeologists to dig a test pit to see if their data has led us to a conclusion, or do we allow this 300 year old mystery to remain just that?



  1. It was said that dogs were not welcome in the village for very many years. I have a friend, Vaughan Bennett, who sings a song of his own composition about the events of Pistil Meadow, and if you ever want the story itself to be know who to call! Mysteries are what create the magic of the countryside, but I have a sneaking suspicion that after all that effort you will try to find out. If there's nothing there after all these hundreds of years, just don't tell us!

    1. I would like to hear Vaughan Bennett 's song. Has he recorded it. Does he sing it at folk clubs?

    2. I would like to hear Vaughan Bennett 's song. Has he recorded it. Does he sing it at folk clubs?


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