Off the very Southwest tip of Land’s End, in Cornwall, England, there lies nothing but water and a few small islands called the Scilly Isles. Legend says that under the fierce Atlantic Ocean waves rests the remains of a beautiful old kingdom called Lyonesse. It is a kingdom steeped in the legends of King Arthur and was once overcome by a great flood. Locals believe that if you look in the right direction at low tide you can even see the submerged towers and domes. Sometimes, late at night, it is possible to hear the ghostly tolling of lost church bells.
Lyonesse is said to be a great country that contained magnificent cities and stretched to the distant west off Land’s End, from St Michael’s Mount to beyond the Scilly Isles. There were supposed to be 140 churches in the country, and great forests covering the area. However, on 11th November 1099 a terrible flood raged over the land, drowning all but one of the inhabitants. This single survivor was a man called Trevilian, who saw the waves coming and rode his horse to safety on higher ground. The Trevlyan coat of arms still shows a white horse rising from the sea, but the cities of Lyonesse were lost forever, and only the highest points of the kingdom peaked through the waves. At a distance of 20 miles from Land’s End, we now know these summits as the Scilly Isles.
Another variation of the Lyonesse legend says that when King Arthur was wounded in his final battle against Mordred, the remnants of his foe’s army chased the king to Lyonesse. As Arthur and his men reached the highest points in the kingdom, the ghost of Merlin appeared. He called the terrible flood and Mordred’s forces were drowned. It is said that Arthur then died on the Scilly Isles, and the association between King Arthur and Lyonesse has been extended by imaginative minds over the years. Alfred Lord Tennyson even suggested the great king may have had his fabled, mystical court, Camelot, there.
So what proof is there to accompany these fanciful myths? To begin with, surrounding St Michael’s Mount at low tide, the fossilised remains of an ancient forest can be seen. So there once was definitely woodland under what is now sea. Similarly, at low tide around the Scilly Isles, it is also possible to spot walls and ruins running from the islands” shores. In the 1920s it was believed that structures found on the beach at Samson Flats were field boundary markers, although more recent thought considers that they were probably fish traps. But definite remains of hut circles and cysts on other islands suggests the water really has risen. Indeed, writings as late as the fourth century AD state that the Scilly Isles were one singular land mass.
A group of rocks positioned halfway between Land’s End and the Scilly Isles, known as the Seven Stones, are believed to mark the site of a once great city. Sailors and local fishermen call the area “The Town”. Some of these mariners have even reported catching parts of doors and windows in their nets around the area. In the 1930s, Stanley Baron, a journalist from the London paper, News Chronicle was staying in Sennen Cove, just north of Land’s End, when he was awoken one night by the sound of muffled bells. His hosts explained that he had heard the ghostly tolling of Lyonesse’s churches. Another reliable witness, Edith Oliver, was a former mayor of the town of Wilton in Salisbury. She claimed to have twice seen the towers, spires and domes of Lyonesse emerging from the waves as she looked out from Land’s End.
Science, however, refuses to accept these legends. Oceanographers are convinced that in the last 3,000 years there has not been a big enough change in tidal height to account for any of these phenomena. But even if they disprove the fantastical stories, there is still real evidence at the shore edge on many of the Scilly Isles. And anyway, oceanographic proof alone is not enough to dissuade old Cornish seadogs. Sometimes a story is so magical it seems silly to let science spoil it.