A saint, a hermit on high, and a cousin

I HAVE OFTEN VISITED my cousin, Peter, who lives near Bodmin in Cornwall. On my way to see him, I have always noticed signs pointing to roads leading to Roche. It was this year, only on our most recent visit to the area, that we first visited the small village about 6 miles southwest of Bodmin.  Roche, pronounced as in ‘poach’, and is French for ‘rock’, is known as ‘Tregarrek’ in the Cornish language, which means ‘homestead on the rock’, which is a suitable name for the place, as I will explain.

Hermitage at St Roche, Cornwall

Unfortunately, the parish church was closed when we stopped in Roche. It is dedicated to St Gomonda, one of the many saints barely known outside Cornwall. Robert Meller, who is compiling a fascinating multi-volume, encyclopaedic account of Cornwall, wrote of Gomonda:

“Precisely nothing is known about this female-sounding saint and in reality, she might have been Saint Gonand, a male saint.”

Nothing is known about St Gonand. It is also possible that the church was dedicated to Bishop Conan, the first bishop of St Germans, appointed in the 10th century. The church itself has a Norman font (which we were unable to see) and a mediaeval tower (15th century). The rest of the church was rebuilt between 1820 and 1822 in a style typical of older churches in the area.

St Gomonda’s churchyard, which we entered by crossing over a stile made of granite slabs, contains a weathered Cornish cross, a primitive-looking monolith about six feet in height. The stone is covered with man-made indentations or carvings. One of these depicts a sword, which according to Meller, is an unusual image to be found on a Cornish cross. There have been standing stones, menhirs, such as the cross at St Gomonda, since before Christianity arrived in Cornwall. The crosses with Christian symbolism date from the 5th century onwards. It is therefore possible that the one we saw at Roche was pre-Christian with later Christian carvings, but here I am merely guessing.

About 420 yards southeast of the parish church, there is a ruined early 15th century, two-storied hermit’s chapel. Like many holy Hindu shrines in India and the monasteries in Greece’s Meteora district, the chapel perches high above the land around it. It can be seen 60 feet above its surroundings on the top of Roche Rock, whose presence inspired the naming of the village near it. Built in 1409 and dedicated to St Michael, the chapel used to be accessed by an iron ladder. At some stage, the cell beneath the chapel (on the upper floor) was occupied by a leper, expelled from his village because of his illness. He survived because every day, his daughter, Gundred, carried him water from a well about a mile and a half away. For her compassion and kindness, she was sanctified, becoming yet another of the saints of Cornwall.

Roche Rock and its chapel figure in various folk legends, including “Tristan and Isolde”. Meller wrote that when King Mark was chasing the lovers, Tristan and Isolde:

“… they took refuge in Roche Chapel to escape capture …To escape capture from the soldiers, Tristan jumped out of the chapel window – referred to as ‘Tristan’s Leap’”

Putting aside legends, the Roche Rock is an exceptional geological feature. Geologists consider it to be the finest example of quartz-tourmaline rock in Britain. It is composed of quartz and black tourmaline, which is a type of granite also known as ‘schorl’. Schorl is extremely hard and resistant to being worn away by the weather. Over the millions of years since this large lump of stone was formed, the surrounding terrain has been worn away, leaving the prominent rock that we see today.

I doubt that I would have thought twice about visiting the place had my cousin not lived nearby. I first met Peter in the early 1980s or late 1970s. Then, I got to know him and his family as friends. In the late 1990s, I began researching my family history, a process that included filling in gaps on family trees. A relative in New Zealand provided me with much information about a branch of my mother’s extended family. You might be able to imagine my surprise when I discovered from this information what Peter and I never knew before – that we are related; we have a common ancestor. We found out that apart from being friends, we are also members of the same family. Peter and I are doubly related because my mother’s parents were second cousins once removed. Peter and I are not only 4th cousins but also 5th cousins.

Our first visit to Roche proved interesting. Small as it is, Roche contains several things to see, which are some of the many features that help to make Cornwall attractive for visitors. Although one might not want to stay there, it is worth making a small detour from the main A30 road to explore the place briefly.

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