The grey afternoon light falls on the surreal moonscape of mid-Cornwall's industrial clay country. Nearby are the artificial paradises of the celebrated Eden project, golden sandy beaches, and picturesque fishing coves. But these barren, unprepossessing looking highlands hide something far more interesting: if there were such a thing as a 'geological ghost', Roche Rock would be it.
Perhaps it's the way it sits there, seemingly blending in with the colour of the landscape, until you realise that it's too big, it's too imposing and that discovering it is too sudden; reaching the island-like crag of Roche Rock takes the visitor by surprise.
To find this unusual outcrop, take a left turn off the A30, eight miles (13km) south-west of Bodmin, towards Roche (pronounced 'Roach') village. There you will find it – a random fragment, as out of sync with its surroundings as a farmhouse in the middle of New York City. But there's no sprawling metropolis here; just a cluster of terraced cottages a few hundred yards up the road, including the old Rock Inn. From here, it looks as if the Rock was once part of the comm-unity but then cast out for some mysterious wrongdoing, dumped over the parish line and left to fend for itself.
The ruined chapel on the summit of the Rock's centre crag was dedicated to St Michael in 1409, but you can't help thinking that the Rock would have had religious or sacred connections from more ancient times, even though, unlike Cornwall's many megaliths, this blob-like structure is an entirely natural phenomenon.
According to geologists, Roche Rock has been in the lee of the mountainous clay waste heaps, and overlooking the plateau of northern coastal Cornwall, for over 270 million years, formed by a geological process every bit as fascin-ating as the results look today. Big movements underground in the late Carboniferous period caused boro-silicates in the local granite to 'boil'. This fluid separated from the other molten rock, then bubbled up towards the surface on its own, much like the globules in a lava lamp, and finally cooled to its present state. The unique look of the Rock – its texture, its shape, and its position in the locality – must have had a great impact on the first inhabitants of this area.
Even today, and armed with this geological knowledge, the visitor feels some trepidation on approaching Roche Rock. It looks as if it could suddenly get up and shout at you for no reason, like a madman in the street. Then look at it again and suddenly it appears to be asleep. With one eye open. Is its phallic appearance capable of instilling some primæval fear in us? Certainly, its unusual presence seems to strike locals and tourists alike as somewhat sinister.
The writer John Timpson once referred to Roche Rock as "waiting, glowering down the Cornish countryside, for the next legend to come along". And, indeed, myths and spooky stories have trickled out of its boulder-stacked nooks and crannies for centuries.
Below the ruined chapel at its summit once lay a hermitage. Here, in the tragic love story of Tristan and Iseult, Ogrin is said to have given the lovers refuge, hiding them from Iseult's husband (and Tristan's uncle) Mark. Others though, have sought refuge here from more terrifying foes.
Famous Cornish 17th-century bad man, the cursed Tregeagle (see FT198:40–41), was chased to the Rock by a pack of headless hellhounds. The crooked ex-magistrate had previously been sent to the underworld for his wrongdoings, including robbing an orphan of his estate, but was needed back on Earth when another court case required him as a witness. Tregeagle's ghost promptly appeared and admitted his guilt, effectively saving an innocent man from conviction. The court took pity on his troubled soul, and ordered him to carry out arduous and imposs-ible tasks so his return to Hell would be delayed indefinitely. His first duty was to empty the waters of Dozmary pool using a shell with a hole in it. Understandably tiring of the task, Tregeagle did a runner one stormy night, fleeing to the sanctuary of Roche Rock. Unfortunately, he got wedged in the chapel window and his pursuers, the headless hounds of Hell, got their fangs – there appears to be a bit of an inconsistency here – into Tregeagle's backside. For an unspecified period of time, Tregeagle's screams rang out, terr-ify-ing the chapel priest just as much as the priest's praying terrified Tregeagle. Eventually, the priest saved the beleaguered Hell-dodger and sent him to a beach to make a rope out of sand.
The visual peculiarities of Roche Rock have continued to exert a hellish fascination even in recent years: some of The Omen – The Final Conflict was filmed here – specifically, the scene in which a group of priests ambush someone whom they believe to be Antichrist Damien Thorne; another scene was shot at the nearby Goss Moor.
But, as I climb the ladder to the summit of the Rock's 30-metre (100ft) tor, it feels as if I'm entering a world of sun and air, and I wonder why people choose to associate Roche Rock with sinister forces. If the Rock has provided a hermitage, a refuge for doomed lovers and a means of escape from the hounds of Hell, then aren't we demonising it rather unnecessarily? Although the first sight of the Rock can be a shock, are our modern selves simply getting the wrong impression of this ancient oddity? Perhaps it's not the Rock itself that creates a sinister air, but rather our unfamiliarity with the timelessness of geology and legend.
Like the nearby Goss Moor, Roche Rock is an official Site of Special Scientific Interest, providing scientists and visitors with an important resource for education and research. It is a home for wildlife: rabbits and badgers, as well as field mice, and butterflies winging their way above the rusty sea of veget-ation that lines the narrow paths around it. And adding to the argument that the Rock is no more sinister than a Cornish cream tea is the story of its very own lady, St Gundred.
Afflicted with leprosy, and not wishing to pass it on to his family, Gundred's father left his mansion and riches to take hermitage atop Roche Rock. Yet the devoted Gundred was undeterred by his brave sacrifice. She followed him to the lonely crag to tend to his ailments, occasionally immersing him in a nearby well. This Holy Well is now, of course, dedicated to St Gundred, and popular traditions from the nearby village of Roche once saw young girls throwing in pins and pebbles and predicting coming events by the sparkling of the rising bubbles. Access to St Gundred's well is a bit tricky – it lies over a mile from Roche Rock on the other side of the A30 in a dark valley (which sounds scary, but isn't).