News from Budock Vean

The Nessie of the Helford River

Cornwall is not only a place of stunning natural beauty, it is also a magical land of myths and legends, a westerly world of fantastic beasts and curious creatures. There is a huge collection of weird and wonderful folktales about the region which make it seem as if the superstitious locals once believed the whole landscape, both above and below ground, was populated by strange mythical beings!

From grumpy giants, who were said to build enormous rock castles on the hilltops and chuck boulders at each other over great distances, and the mischievous little piskies leading people on a merry dance over the moors, to the knockers in the mines sounding their warnings of impending rock falls in return for pasty crusts.

Out at sea there were beautiful mermaids of course and something else too . . . there were sea monsters!

Old maps of the world often depicted sea monsters rising up out of the ocean waves and belief in these creatures was very common amongst people who lived in coastal regions. The boatmen and fisherfolk of Cornwall frequently reported strange sightings all around the coast but one of the most famous phenomena was said to live in the waters around Falmouth Bay and the Helford River.

This Cornish Nessie-like creature has become affectionately known as Morgawr, which means ‘sea giant’ in Cornish, and has been spotted numerous times over the years. Athough the reports date from the 19th century onwards it was during the 1970s that the sighting became most frequent. He or she mostly appeared within an area of the Helford River that soon became nicknamed ‘the Morgawr Mile’ but the creature has also been seen as far off as Pendennis Point and Gyllyngvase Beach in Falmouth as well as in the waters around Flushing.

There are various description of Morgawr but all seem to agree that whatever it was it was a dark coloured, black or brown skinned, hump-backed creature with a very long neck and short stumpy horns. This illusive sea serpent, though giving people a fright, was never considered a threat, and witnesses have mostly described seeing the creature bobbing about in the water, moving with an undulating motion and sometimes chasing after fish. Mrs Scott, who reported seeing Morgawr off Pendennis Point in September 1975, claimed she saw it swimming with a conger eel in its month.

One of the earliest sightings dates from the 1950s when Rex Hosking of Gear Farm, on the Lizard side of the Helford, was a boy. Rex recalled seeing what he thought might be an enormous conger eel when he was playing by the river. He claimed to have seen two large humps rise up out of the water but when he told his family they didn’t take him seriously.

Another sighting, which happened in July 1976, was harder for authorities to dismiss however. Two very experienced fishermen, George Vinnecombe, and his friend, John Cock, reported a strange experience that they had had in Falmouth Bay. They were fishing not far off shore on beautiful summer’s day when they spotted what they thought was a capsized boat in the water. This was strange in itself as the water was flat calm and so they decided they had better check to see what had happened.

As their boat came nearer to the shape in the water the men say that a head rose up out of the sea on a neck about 6ft long. The fishermen said that it was like nothing they had seen before, that it wasn’t a whale or a dolphin or any creature they recognised. George told the papers:

“It looked like a prehistoric monster. There was something about it, it was something different to anything I’d ever seen before and larger than anything I’d ever seen before. We had a 32ft boat and it was as big as the boat.”

The story, which appeared in the local papers, gained national media interest and even a scientist from the Natural History Museum in London came to talk to the men. Vinnecombe and Cock were interviewed separately but both identified the creature they had seen as a plesiosaur – a dinosaur extinct for many millions of years – from a book of sea creatures that they were shown. The museum official was understandably shocked by this identification and tried to convince the men that what they had seen was actually a sea turtle! The fishermen denied this.

And the sightings continued!

A woman called Mary wrote to the Falmouth Packet in March 1976 claiming to have seen a sea monster from Trefusis Point and she even sent the paper some grainy photographs. A dentist spotted something with a hump and a long neck off Rosemullion Head, near the entrance to the Helford, and a Helston schoolboy reported seeing a “weird animal with two humps and a long neck like a snake” in the river. Morgawr was seen by a local man walking his dog on Gyllyngvase Beach, some visitors from London boating in the Helford River and by some holidaymakers off Grebe Beach!

In fact, there were so many sightings during the 1970s that the Helford River began attracting the attention of scientists, researchers, New Age boffins and even TV companies from across the globe as everyone searched for Morgawr!

In April 1976 a professor from New Mexico in the USA visited the Helford planning to catch the sea monster, though he was unsuccessful. Although the fishermen in the area began to claim that Morgawr’s voracious appetite was effecting their catch and it appears that most local people were delighted at the prospect of a real life sea monster in their backyard, Falmouth schools even held competitions for the children to make their best Morgawr costume. The interest and speculation continued for many years and in 1996 ITV’s flagship programme “Strange but True” made an episode about the Cornish sea monster.

The connection with the Scottish Nessie was first made in 1976 when a witch from Inverness, who believed she could communicate with the Loch Ness Monster, came to Cornwall to swim in the Helford and try and make contact with Morgawr. She wasn’t successful.

And just like Nessie modern technology seems to have failed to find her Cornish cousin too. She has never been spotted on radar or captured on video. Indeed, in recent years Morgawr seems to have disappeared entirely, there have been no new sightings and no one has managed to catch her on camera . . . yet! So keep your eyes peeled!