We have positioned ourselves in the city of Truro in central Cornwall for the next week as a base for exploring the area. This is the capital Cornwall with a cathedral (only finished in 1911) and a popular shopping centre. We choose to stay here because of its centrality – only 30 to 40 minutes from most places that we want to visit.
I had expected this city to be mundane and less interesting than the small and cute seaside villages but it has an amount of character and some style. We spent our first morning visiting the central city area. The Cathedral is probably about the same size as St Paul’s in Melbourne. It was being set up for a graduation ceremony in the evening. Next door was the Methodist Church. Cornwall is a stronghold of Methodism. It seems that John Wesley came to Cornwall to preach and converted a large number of the population. There are as many Methodist Churches in the area as there are pubs. Being teetotal was an important part of the Methodist lifestyle – alcohol was perceived as the devil itself. There are a lot of pubs still here today so I can only imagine that many must have closed, or fallen on hard times, with the growth of Methodism.
My ancestors (on my mothers side) were Cornish. With the help of some cousins, I have tracked them back to the 1600’s. After checking at the library, we fund a Cornish Heritage Centre just up the road from our hotel. One of the volunteers spent an hour with us researching the Davey family (a common Cornish name). It was well worth paying the £3 for a day membership to get access to the family information.
My great, great grandfather (Stephen Davey) was an illiterate tin miner who brought his family to Australia in 1861. Our research got confused at first because another Stephen Davey with the a wife of the same name appeared in the records but we realised their dates of birth were incorrect and we reworked the records to find the right family. I din’t find anything new about them, but at least we confirmed the facts that we knew. The family seemed to live in, and around, a little hamlet named Crowan. The 1851 census confirmed that they lived in a location named Horse Downs. Google Maps shows a road named Horse Downs near Crowan, so I will check it out in a few days. When tne records say that these ancestors came from Crowan, my suspicion is that this refers to the parish in general rather than the specific hamlet / village.
We drove down to Falmouth during the afternoon and around some the nearby countryside. More narrow laneways, cute villages and lovely countryside!
Yesterday, we did a serious exploration of the southern coast of Cornwall. We began by driving to The Lizard and Lizard Point. This is the most southerly point on mainland Great Britain. There have been more ship wrecks here than I can count. The Royal National Lifeboat Institution operates a nearby lifeboat station and is responsible for the biggest rescue in the RNLI’s history on 17 March 1907 when the 12,000 tonne liner SS Suevic hit the Maenheere Reef near Lizard Point. In a strong gale and dense fog. The lifeboat volunteers rescued 456 passengers, including seventy babies. The lifeboat would have then been launched from this now disused shed and slipway right on the Point.
We found many other rugged coastal views from nearby vantage points.
We stopped for a while to look around the town of Porthleven and its historic harbour. It is the most southerly port in Great Britain and was originally developed as a safe harbour when this part of the Cornish coastline was recognised as a black spot for wrecks in days of sailing ships. Strangely, because of the huge seas in its location, Porthleven has become one of the best-known and highly regarded surfing spots in Britain. Waves, often exceeding two metres high, break on the shallow reef that was shaped by blasting out the harbour. Its most recognisable building is the Bickford-Smith Institute next to the pier and harbour entrance. It has a tower about 20 metres high and looks like a church, but it is currently used as a snooker club and houses the town council offices.
From there, we drove around to Marazion to see St Michael’s Mount. Historically, this small island which is accessible by a causeway at low tide is a Cornish counterpart of Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy, France. It was given to the Benedictine religious order of Mont Saint-Michel by Edward the Confessor in the 11th century. We were let down, for the first time, by the Kings Arms hotel in the town. It looked very cute from the outside, but the inside was more rustic than it was charming and the food was only average. Most of the pubs in which we have had lunch have been excellent, but I guess that we are not going to get it right all the time.
Nearby was the town of Penzance. There were no pirates (as per Messrs Gilbert and Sullivan) and it also seems to be a fairly uninspiring place with a large industrial harbour and some dilapidated buildings. However, the nearby village of Mousehole made up for it with its charming harbour and street front. It took a couple of laps through the narrow streets before we could find a spot to park but we had a chance to walk around the harbour front.
We hear many people speaking with a local accent that has a long ‘west country drawl’ and Cornish place names seem never to sound as they are written. Fowey is pronounced as Foy and Falmouth is pronounced as Fallmuth. Somehow, Mousehole is pronounced something like ‘ Mouzell’.
A little further on to the west, we came across the village of Porthcuno where the open air Minack Theatre is built into cliffs overlooking the sea. The theatre’s season runs each year from May to September, and 80,000 people a year somehow get to this remote place and brave the elements to see a show. It was built by a woman named Rowena Cade who moved to Cornwall after the First World War and built a house for herself and her mother on land at Minack Point. In 1929, a local village group of players had staged Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a nearby meadow at Crean, repeating the production the next year. They decided that their next production would be The Tempest and Miss Cade offered the garden of her house as a suitable location, as it was beside the sea. Over time, the theatre has been improved to the rather stunning structure of today.
Just a couple of miles away is the famous site of ‘Lands End’ – the most westerly point of Britain. Not bad for us – we got to the most southerly and westerly points of the country in the one day. There is a large parking area there with a fun park but it looked far too commercial to be worthwhile, so we just drove through the car park and finished our day at the lovely little village of Sennens Cove, just up the road.
The village of Sennen Cove overlooks the southern end of Whitesand Bay. The village is on a spur road which joins the A30 trunk road about 3km from Land’s End. The road descends gently for about 300 metres and then steeply for another 300 metres to the village which sits above the beach. The beach extends further north along Whitesand Bay. There are a few dozen houses built primarily of granite and some of concrete, arranged mainly in terraces, typical of many of the villages in Cornwall.
The Sennen Cove Lifeboat Station is run by volunteers and operates a Tamar-class all-weather lifeboat. It is manned by a crew of 24 people who ensure that the boat is operational and on call 24 hours a day, throughout the year. Next to the lifeboat station is the restored Roundhouse, now used as an art gallery and souvenir shop, but originally used to house a winch for hauling boats up from the beach.