Cornish author and storyteller Anna Chorlton took to literature when she was in grade school, later attending an evening class on writing, which inspired her to put pen to paper daily.
“I found it therapeutic,” she shares via email. “Writing is a wonderful outlet for emotion.”
Although her first inlkling was to be a poet, Chorlton also explored different genres of prose, including short stories and even a “magic realist memoir.” Today, she considers herself a “place writer,” and that she is at her compositional best when she is “out in the wild.”
“I write to share with readers the joy of Cornwall and to give our folktales a wider reach. When I began writing, I imagined fame and fortune. However, the reason I write today is to push myself to be the best writer I can be – to make stories happen and to be read.”
Chorlton’s latest effort is Cornish Folk Tales of Place. She was approached by History Press about the project while promoting Mazed Tales (a website and collection of traditional stories from East Cornwall) at the Society for Storytelling’s gathering in Plymouth.
As she explains, Cornish folklore was originally passed down through oral tradition by wandering “droll tellers.” Fortunately, a number of folklorists put the tales to ink and paper. The author referenced about 30 books for Cornish Folk Tales of Place, including the work of 19th Century folklore collectors Robert Hunt, William Bottrell and Enys Tregarthen. A few of the tales in Chorlton’s book, such as “The Ghostly Feast at Bethany” were collected straight from local elders.
“I went to all the places in which the folk tales are set and spent some time getting a feel for the place and writing in the wild.”
“It was an enjoyable part of the research – discovering new places. My favourite place found in South East Cornwall is St. Nona’s Well: a magical well tucked away in a field above the West Looe River. In North Cornwall, I loved walking across the moors at Rough Tor.”
Interestingly, though many collections of the tales of West Cornwall have been published, stories from South East and North Cornwall had largely been forgotten.
“I had to forage deep into the old volumes, often finding only a fragment of a tale to unearth the folk tales of East Cornwall and bring them together. Cornish Folk Tales of Place explores Cornwall, giving a real sense of location. Tales of wild giants and mischievous piskeys (Cornish fairy folk) up on the moors. Tales of mermaids, smugglers and ghosts along the coast. The book can be used as a travel guide to readers visiting Cornwall to follow the trail of the folk tales.
“Cornish Folk Tales of Place puts East Cornwall on the map for readers and visitors discovering the folklore and place alike.”
For Chorlton, “change” is a crucial piece in any story, whether it be “a change of heart or a change in nature.” Often, she explains, Cornish tales are centred around morals.
“Witch Patten Peg learns the hard way how to be kind to her neighbours. Sarah in ‘The White Hare of Looe’ learns to forgive. Smuggler Finnygook is punished for betraying his friends.”
In other stories, it is the physical landscape that changes. “‘The Legend of the Cheesewring’ tells the tale of the forming of an Ancient granite cairn on Bodmin Moor, and in ‘Seaton Mermaid’ the landscape is changed irrevocably at the hand of a vengeful mermaid.”
Chorlton says that she will continue to work with folklore and Cornish folk tales in her writing. Recently, though, has found herself going back to her first love: poetry. “I am writing poetry set within the Cornish landscape. During the lockdown I wrote a poem a day based on my response to the situation and the nature enjoyed during my daily walk.” In addition, she is working on telling a family story through creative nonfiction.
As for the future of folklore preservation, she is hoping for a contemporary droll-telling revival. “Mazed Tales bought Cornish storytelling back onto the streets, firesides, cycle trails, hotels and cafes of East Cornwall. I would like to see this continued, and spread back down west, with folklore re-embedded into the community narrative through the whole of Cornwall – my next book and project, perhaps.”