Once, at Castle Tintagel, lived a Baron and his daughter, Serena. Serena loved wearing beautiful clothes and visiting beautiful places, she also loved music and dancing. She was always out walking across the fields and along the cliffs. Her father was worried she would be mazed by the piskies who were plentiful and mischievous around Tintagel. He fixed a silver bell to the tower in the chapel and told her,
‘Serena, you may go adventuring to explore my lands, but when the vesper bell rings, you must hurry to the chapel.’
Serena obeyed her father and was often seen running back to the chapel to the sounds of the bell. She was growing up and her father organized a number of lavish dances for Serena to meet many young princes and noblemen. Her father hoped she would like one enough to choose as her husband. Serena enjoyed dancing with all her suitors and wearing beautiful gowns but she turned them all down.
One day, a stranger appeared, he was perfect in every way, it was said he had been sent to Serena by the piskies. Serena danced with him often but in time, she turned him away as she had the others and went back to her long walks along the cliffs and through the woodlands. Serena’s nurse was not pleased Serena had turned the young man down. She believed he was a gift from the piskies. Nurse warned her, ‘You will have angered the piskies by turning down their gift. Make sure you always listen for the vesper bell and run to it before the piskies can make mischief for you. The bell will protect you.’
Serena hugged her dear nurse, ‘I will be fine,’ she laughed.
Next day, Serena walked away from the castle across some fields and into a wood. It was a lovely wood with a stream running through its valley. Serena followed the stream up through the trees until she heard a rush of water, cascading into a stunning waterfall. She went to climb down but sitting on a stone at the bottom of the falls lay a young man playing music. He was very handsome and his music was mesmerizing. Though Serena was listening closely to his music, she could hear the silver bell ringing in the church. A voice whispered, ‘Serena you must listen to the vesper bell and return.’ Instead, she hid behind a tree and continued to watch the musician playing in St Nectan’s Glen. Suddenly a mist filled the glen concealing the waterfall, when it lifted the musician had gone. Disappointed, Serena returned home. She felt very sad for some days afterward as she wanted to see the musician again. When her nurse asked her the matter she told her,
‘I missed the vesper bell to listen to a musician in St Nectan’s Glen. I so want to see him again.’
‘You have been piskey-led, maid,’ Nurse told her. ‘I fear they have put a spell on you.’
‘Oh no, Nurse what shall I do?’
‘You must visit the magician Swillpot, that is what you should do,’ said the nurse unwisely. For Swillpot was not always the most fortunate or wise of magicians.
Serena went to meet Swillpot to ask his advice and on the next full moon he led her back to St Nectan’s Glen. He instructed her to climb onto the ledge above the waterfall and there recite a verse. ‘You must call on Merlin who will come in the form of a giant night bird and undo the piskey spell. Repeat it when you see the bird, Serena, and we will see whether or not you will be forgiven.’
Serena stood on top of the falls. She could see quite well, the full moon shone through the trees. At last a huge shadow of a bird flew towards the waterfall.
‘Here it is Serena, repeat after me,’ said Swillpot.
‘Bird of night; ‘tis time to leave
Thy nest, and seek St Nathan’s Kieve
Bird of power o’er pixy dells
Disenchant me from thy spells
Give me freedom from their thrawll.
Ere thou seekest yon waterfall;
Drive me idle fancy’s mood.
Or drown my folly in the flood.’ (A E Bray)
With her words, the bird flew straight into the falls. Peering over to see if he would fly back out, Serena lost her footing and plunged into the kieve. The bird had not thought to forgive her and she was not seen again.
The wizard Swillpot was very guilty for his folly in summoning the bird. The nurse was guilty for suggesting the wizard. The Baron was very sad to have lost his daughter and continued to ring the silver bell each day in the hope of her return. Although her chapel and bell have long gone, when the moon is full and sparkles on the waterfall at St Nectan’s Kieve, the sound of Serena’s silver bell can still be heard.
retold by Anna Chorlton
from Anna Eliza Bray A Peep at the Piskies
- Boscastle, Bude and Beyond