Folklore Stories: The Mermaid of Zennor

Sit among the wild pink heathers that grow on the clifftop of Pendour Cove, close to the old stone cottages that line the Cornish village of Zennor. If the sun is setting and the sea is calm, you might hear the haunting love song of Mathey Trewhella carried by the summer’s breeze and on the gentle waves of fair and even tides, or so the legend goes…


Matthew Trewhella was a young man who lived in Zennor many centuries ago, a bright and handsome tinner’s son, and owner of the sweetest voice in the parish. Matthew sang in the church choir and was the pride of the village, his dulcet tones able to sooth away the worries of the most troubled of souls, in fact, people would travel for miles just to hear his tender notes. One such admirer of Matthew’s gift was a mysterious and beautiful woman who would listen joyously as he sang the closing hymn for the church congregation. She wore a long, flowing dress and soon became a regular visitor to the old church of St Senara, always slipping away before anyone had a chance to exchange the briefest of pleasantries or even bid her a ‘good day’.

What no one knew, was that the woman was in fact a mermaid who basked in the turquoise waters of Pendour Cove, and who had become so enchanted by Matthew’s voice that she was emboldened enough to travel to the village, concealing her golden flukes and sparkling tail beneath her elegant gown. Her striking yet timorous presence had not gone unnoticed by Matthew, who was equally as enchanted by the beautiful stranger sat on her own in the furthest pew, and who would vanish no sooner had the congregation rose.

Despite not knowing her name, Matthew’s affections blossomed, and he began to realise that he had fallen in love. As the sun set one late summer’s afternoon – the blackberries ripe in the hedgerows and the mackerel leaping in the bay – Matthew finished his angelic solo and hastily retreated via a secret door in the chancel. Much to his excitement, he saw the woman whisking herself away and so began to follow her as she headed towards the cliffs, very nearly thwarted by her brisk abscondment. As he rounded the heather-bathed path above Pendour Cove, he heard the voice of a woman singing a slow and sorrowful melody, and while he cast his footprints across the shore, he felt his heart might burst under the beguilement of this sweet and mournful ballad. It was there on the rocks that he saw the mysterious woman singing in the soft glow of the sinking sun, her long gown laid beside her and her resplendent turquoise fin gently lapping the water.

She froze when she saw him, exposed in her natural form; a magnificent Cornish mermaid with shimmering auburn hair that fell below her waist. ‘Stay back,’ she said firmly, trying to halt the young man’s advances with her outstretched palm. ‘I cannot,’ replied Matthew, now fallen even deeper under her spell and wading out towards her. ‘I have come to tell you that I’m in love with you’. ‘And I with you,’ said the tearful mermaid, ‘but our love will never last for I am a creature of the sea, so I beg you, turn back.’ But it was too late. Overcome by his passion and bound by the mermaid’s ancient magic, Matthew disappeared below the surface, opening his lungs to the salty depths. The stricken mermaid dived into the sea and darted towards her lover in a desperate attempt to save him, even though she knew it was already too late.

Carried far away on distant currents, the mermaid shed tears of pearls as she drifted forlorn along the seabed, soothed only by the heartfelt lullabies of whales and the precious memory of the handsome chorister and the sweet voice that had beckoned her from the sea.

‘However long the waters roll
Longer my love shall be,
Nor shall you leave my burning soul
Torn by the moving sea,
Though all the bells of Zennor toll
And say you died for me’

From the ‘Ballad of the Mermaid of Zennor’ by Vernon Watkins

If you ever find yourself wayfaring the cliffs of Zennor on a swallow-filled summer’s evening, listen out for the sad song of Mathey Trewhella, the young man who lost his heart to a mermaid. And if you should venture into the village of Zennor and locate the beautiful old church of St Senara, you’ll find the exquisitely carved ‘mermaid chair’, the very bench where the mermaid sat to listen to her beloved while he gazed down at her from the singing loft. It’s said that the songs of Mathey help warn the fishermen of Zennor about the coming of brooding storms, before guiding them safely to calmer waters.

Delve deeper into West Country folklore when you book a stay with Toad Hall Cottages and embark on your very own Cornish love affairhappy endings guaranteed!