The North Pennines is a powerful place. A landscape of scarred, runneled, barren moorland. The hills are long, wide and flat, not particularly tall but they emanate a sense of empty, eerie grandness. The valleys – ‘dales’ as dey called up norf – are populated, by very pleasant villages actually, but in between them are moors, proper moor. With those special Moorland roads, ones that are just a winding ribbons of tarmac set down directly on the wild, borderless heathland.
I love it. Although I’m not sure I could live here, it doesn’t have the archaeological and topographical detail of the moors of home, no real sense of connection to the ocean either but it certainly holds some sway over my sensibilities and I admit that I do not know it nearly as well. Evidently it has it’s own secrets and knowledge to reveal that staying with it would surely uncover.
Remote and sparse, the great poet W.H Auden felt the magic here keenly. Perhaps initiated into its mysteries, he felt the connection we forge to certain landscapes and the names within them. The place names here are indeed evocative; Rookhope, Cauldron Snout and High Force, each found their inexorable way into his poems.
I’m living in Durham for the year as I attempt my much waylaid Masters degree and I’m very glad to have this lump of upland close enough for me to escape to. Like many country folk put into the city I crave the freedom of space and ‘The Roof of England’ as they call it has it in abundance. A somewhat overlooked AONB it seems, it is remarkably devoid of ramblers (something in common with Bodmin Moor), passed over perhaps for the high romance of the Lake District and the slightly more civilised Yorkshire Dales. It does though, have a ski field, forsooth, something that caught me off guard as I drove by years ago in my little van when I was exploring the land outside of Kernow.
Those were great adventures, when I was motivated by my lack of exploration of my own country, something many people share. In New Zealand I often met people who spoke of escape from Britain, from their hometowns, like it had become too much to bear. I know what they mean, I have felt it too but there is something about England.
It is overly populated, ugly and expensive. People are poor and kept that way various forces (we are one of the richest nations on earth yet to live comfortably on ‘minimum wage’ is an impossiblity), there is no ‘wildness’ left, nearly every part of the country shows the damage of humanity; of our toils and efforts, interference and greed. Our biodiversity is shrinking. The cities are largely bland and grey, the new buildings are uniform and uninspired, the high streets homogenised, everything is bought and we need to buy everything, the people can be aggressive, mean-spirited and cruel, lacking imagination, scope and drive, as grey in their souls as pebble-dashed estates. The main roads and motorways are bleak, bland and deadly, clogged arteries, the industrial estates and retail parks that encircle nearly every town are all identical in their bland oppressive atmospheres. But, for all this England is underrated.
There is good everywhere, people are also warm, kind and happy much more than they are mean, they struggle and strive to find their own meanings and live accordingly, everybody has their hobby, passion and families, if they look of course. The same etches of human toil can be beautiful marks of humanity: churches, hay bales, fields, even the moors themselves. The cities have their small but thriving pockets of creativity, colour, imagination, rebellion and subversion. It is still so green, the Atlantic ocean of home so blue and clear. It is cleaner than it was. There are crisp winter days amongst bare oak trees in a park, watching happy people. There is swimming in the Avon river underneath a weeping willow in June, a deserted beach at home, good food, pubs with friends. There is beauty even in the unkempt scrub of an industrial estate, for there are the largely eradicated wildflowers that have been left to live. There is much to be done, but much to be savoured. Modernity is remorselessly destructive, greedy and ugly but also people are relentlessly creative and loving.
There is a sense I get when I walk in England, even when I drive in it, a connection to the land and history – some would call this land-magic -it is a connection with something much deeper and older than all of the things I list above. As if the land itself has a soul. It has its own taste or aura, spirit or quality, it is energising and is ultimately what brings me back here and when I feel oppressed by negativity and depression, as I suppose we all are at times, I can find it.
So with metaphysical claims about the land aside I will tell of a walk up in these rare hills.
A few weeks ago I decided to head out to High Cup Nick where not so long back – geologically speaking – the glaciers that dominated England north of the Severn river carved out a rather picturesque, almost perfect u-shaped valley. This is the very edge of the North Pennine upland and the high land abruptly drops into the flat and fertile Vale of Eden.
The walk starts in a small village called Dufton in the Eden Valley and from there you skirt the edge of the looming fells until you turn up into them, coming into the almost perfectly shaped valley of High Cup and walking up the moorland stream to its irruption from the bedrock. I think I did the walk backwards by the way, it seems you are to descend the ‘Miners Track’, not ascend it but whichever works.
It was a genuinely tough climb up, my legs actually gave out, something that has never previously occurred to me, and I had to stop and munch my Greggs sandwich, which it may be fairly claimed to be the absolute worst sandwich I have ever eaten, but I was ravenous. I blame leg day.
It was a cold day in October and the winds that met me when I clambered the precipitous path to the top of High Cup, were fierce, sharp and cold, coming straight from the north.
When you stand up here, looking out over the flat valley to the Dales and the Lakes you can really imagine the glaciers. Where only the highest peaks would just be visible. The rest just barren ice.
I can’t say enough about the view here, it really may be one of the most beautiful I’ve seen in England. I plan to camp up here in Summer and wake up to it.
The walk back was much easier, traversing a wide path along the right hand side of the cup, where it descends (relatively) gently to Dufton. I was happy to choose a particularly beautiful time to return. The sun was setting over the distant jagged crest of the Lake District and the calm, quiet of dusk was with me as I walked through the milder, tamed, sheep-grazed farmland. My boots sending a rare hare skitting into the undergrowth as Foxes started to stalk the fields.
Sounds seem to sharpen at dusk, tractor trailer clank, a car in the distance, bull bellow and sheep bleat. Senses alert and heightened but also feelings in this case; satisfaction and happiness.
The Moor is an occult place in all senses of the word. Mostly bypassed, hidden in plain sight, it dominates the landscape yet it is diminutive in the scale of most uplands. It is a world given to juxtaposition. Alien and natural, wild yet tamed, secretive yet exposed, wandering up here is to be amongst inaccessible, ancient secrets that are not given readily or to the uninitiated. It is not the Cornwall that most know. Moor walkers, dwellers, admirers extoll the virtues yet keep favoured places to their chests; a place to retreat to. A place of ancient serenity retaining its peace even in the hectic six weeks of Summer.
It is a sacred place and has been so for millennia, the land and air is palpably infused with thousands of years of meanings, venerations, fears, loves, deaths and lives. This is part of the magic of the moor. The tangible and intangible traces left by otherwise untold generations of human life.
Walking the granite crumble of Rough Tor with a friend, I was blithely and haughtily pointing out various things I had learned from Time Team and passing off as knowledge when I caught sight of the uncanny stacks of stone on the summit, preternaturally resembling some kind of walled fortress. Not for the first time I imagined them constructed by some ancient giant race of beings, gods perhaps, usually this a thought whimsically dismissed. This time, I was listening to my friend speak and the thought took its opportunity to linger, when I resumed within my own brain I struck upon something.
People must have always looked at the Tors and instinctively seen the work of something powerful yet unseen or extinct. A God, the Gods, a forgotten tribe of powerful ancestors, a race of giants or even the power of the earth.
Modern eyes are in the privileged position to know with certainty that the seemingly unerring Tors are the current manifestations of the architecture of the Earth itself and its implacable processes. However, even this scientific answer holds a mystical dimension. The inconceivable age involved far exceeding humanity, the relentless slow power and the confrontation of the idea that that which seems eternal to us in our lifetimes crystallises into fragility when spread out over aeons.
I am sure this instinctive knowledge, that the tors were created somehow, is one of the reasons why the moor holds sacrosanct, what made it hallowed ground to begin with when the first people came. It is an obvious realisation really but one obscured by the tors themselves and the desire to understand them.
Those Paleolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic and Bronze Age peoples who found homes on and around the Tors, who cleared the stunted ancient woodland with fire and who deigned to build the enigmatic megalithic monuments we revel in attempting to understand, these folk would surely have assumed divine or mystical ancestral origins to these strikingly artificial looking yet impossible to recreate granite formations defining and marking the landscape in so many ways that were useful to the earth-and-sky-wise Moorfolk. Way-markers, vantage points, topographical landmarks, cairns, sacred burial mounds, abode of Gods, shelters, defensive positions. Enough uses to start to assume they were placed there deliberately for them.
It fits that veneration and mythologizing of prominent or important topographical features is a commonality amongst many cultures and tribal societies right up to the modern day. I have recently returned from New Zealand and on the North Island there, where the majority of the Maori live, the great Volcanoes that dominate the landscape there each have personalities, stories and legends that surround and cling to them like the long white clouds.
It occurred to me that it could well be that the Moor-folk of the Neolithic and Bronze Age, with their gradual shifts into more static and pastoral living, were moved to recreate this enigmatic architecture. Inspired by some imagined being constructing these impossible stacks long ago. It is human to observe and recreate. Hence we have the mysterious stone-circles and dolmens. I would not posit that it is the only reason for megalithic monuments but it may be part of their inspiration.
It could be that the idea that the Tors are the work of ancestors, gods or giants motivated our moorland kin to both call this home and to achieve the seemingly impossible. To come up with the means, technology and drive needed to manhandle incomprehensibly heavy menhirs into precarious positions and to try to work out the meanings of the Tors before them. As we marvel and puzzle at their work, their dolmens, passage tombs, henges and stone circles, so might they have done with oddly shaped precisely balancing boulders of Stowe’s Hill and Rough Tor, the peculiarly deliberate looking outcrops of Garrow and Hawks.
Inspired by the landscape, the tors themselves and their interpretation of what was before them, to achieve what these gods or deified ancestors apparently could. A functional and artistic testament to them and themselves, stirred by what they had assumed was created. The megalithic monuments that we pore over are, amongst other things, a monument to the Tors and those that had created them, an attempt to reach them in the enduring medium of stone.
The granite is the Moor after all. Everything that endures up here – and anywhere – is built with it, the same stone of the Tors. Blended in with the land. This was understood as surely then as now.
The oldest farmsteads, drystone walls, the abandoned houses still standing, churches, the stone circles and dolmens that are older than Pyramids are all the same pale granite. Eventually they will weather and crumble away but the Tors themselves still last longer than invented gods, farmsteads, pyramids, humans, trees and even the moor as we know it but the whole time they are there and there are humans to interact with them and interpret them then they will continue to inspire.
Aneurysm, dead before he hit the riveted iron floor of the bridge, the small hours of a February morning.
A small craft warning in Lundy/Fastnet, nothing serious, a moderate gale, a cold northerly blowing fast arctic air across the Irish Sea. Easy for the jaded, reliable RMS Sehnsucht out of Cork en route to Bremerhaven at sixteen hundred tonnes and three hundred foot.
Built for this, for these seas but with the Chief Officer stiffening below the wheel she bore down blindly on the Trambly Rocks, loaded to the Plimsoll Line.
The impact slit her hull, the barnacled shale shearing a ninety foot jagged wound.
The small, sleeping Polish crew slammed from their bunks, scrambling on sprained ankles and shock-weak legs in the flashing red light and savagely loud klaxon. The slotted, wire lashed containers wrenched from their careful stacks, tumbled into the shallow ocean, cacophonous clanging against submerged rock.
The winter swell pushed her in inexorably to the waiting wildflower cliffs. Listing, her maroon bulbous breached the white water, back slowly breaking in the brief flashes of gibbous moon through the cold racing cloud.
All but the Chief Officer, lifeless on the bridge, rescued within the hour by the thumping efficiency of the yellow Sea King sent in from RMB Chivenor.
Word was seeping through the villages, along the bony, dark north Cornwall coast. Where the magic still lives. There were prizes to be had.
The Hunkins and the Pascoes were there almost immediately; god knows how, some ancient smuggler sense. Old sea-families. Didn’t tell the Kellows, they’ll tell the Polwheles and then nothing is sacred. And there was that time in 85 that wasn’t entirely forgiven, mind.
Half of the clans wrapped up against the winter upon the cliff tops, watching the dying ship long before the orange dawn with the aloof, detached sympathy of sea-kin. Each one thinking of the times they had come close.
They had called the Coastguard and the lifeboats, done their bit, if it weren’t for them those souls would be gone. Keen, quiet eyes on the quarry now, watching how the Maersk marked treasure chests moved in the swells and ebbing tide. Hushed plans, hatched and coordinated.
They had the boats coming round. Alan’s RIB will be fine, risky to take an open Crabber but young Jack could get it round in this, not too bad, cover the Craft ID up though, just to be safe. Got to move fast, the police will be roused from their soft beds soon, gale will probably worsen.
The coastguard eyed in official disapproval whilst the lifeboat, both manned by cousins, friends, acquaintances, future beneficiaries, stood on tentative guard, feigning ignorance.
As the light from the east came, an ember-red line over a night-dark cloudbank, the family trawlers and skiffs were herding the containers in to Trevethy Cove where the swell was quieter.
Corralled onto the shingle, prized open with angle grinders and crowbars the harvesting began. The small, rich, steel pod beached and gutted with quiet, urgent industry.
A sepia photograph in the Baggywrinkle Pub, nailed above the fire by the glass buoys in their hessian nets, of Beached Minkes in Bossiney Haven. A Grind. Happy pilchard-fed men, Hunkins, Pascoes and Polwheles, flaying the blubber with rolled sleeves and sharpened shearing knives. Children running, a line of young girls in white pinafores squinting with grim curiosity into the unfamiliar camera by the stacked lobster pots. The scene now retold under February darkness, the quarry now updated. No photographs of this haul.
A pair of quad bikes, three BMW motorcycles, blown glass from Bunratty, twenty pairs of walking boots, crates of Connemara single malt whiskey, children’s Aran jumpers, silver jewellery from a Dublin heading to a fayre in Innsbruck, venetian blinds, a shipment of alternators, boxes of perfume, an antique rocking horse, Dyson storage heaters and a dozen mountain bikes.
‘Roight’. Jowan, sea-voiced patriarch of the Pascoes in his orange oilskins, whose ginger-root hands faced backwards when his arms were limp, turning his barrel chest and swollen stomach to the sea and noting the paling skies, red passing into orange now, the cloud patterns showing the gale setting to worsen, made the call. ‘Lez ge’ goin’.
Small things ferretted up the furzey fisherman’s path hidden in the cliff to the idling vehicles. Bigger hauls ferried by young Jack out to the trawlers, where they would stay for a month or two, surreptitiously unloaded piecemeal under darkness at clandestine harbours, beaches and coves.
A half hour on the boulder and shingle beach all told. An operation, surgical, a skill that’s in the blood. Left the rest, the tat, some things missed of course, can’t dwell on that though, leave it for the others in the light, trying to sneak and crane around the line of patrolling Police, when the word was as out as the pale sun.
Everyone knew, all had inklings but no one really spoke of it. Some half-hearted questioning from the official shipping line investigation but the villages and the families, with the practice of generations of distrust and taciturnity, sealed up like the mussels at low tide, waiting for the slack.
I have overlooked Pentewan, the small, quiet village on the south coast that grew up in. Taken it for granted, as we seem to do, purely because it has always been there for me.
So I have been reading into it and in doing so uncovered quite a bit more than I anticipated. Pentewan has a serious abundance of significant history linking a few of Cornwall’s prominent families and figures as well as historical themes, also, unusually, there is a real wealth of material to research from.
These days Pentewan is probably most well-known for the busy, well-developed campsite with its chlorinated pools, arcades and burger bars. The campsite in my youth had a much more raffish feel, with a big, dated big wooden clubhouse, cheap John Smiths bitter, bingo nights and awful circuit entertainers in waistcoats. We would venture over, cause trouble with the security, smoke as many Superkings as humanly possible and try to entice the northern girls to the beach with cans of Oranjeboom. It is a much more polished place these days. A little pop-up town of strange transient neighbours. Hemming the campsite is a large strip of sand that makes for a large, accessible and relatively safe beach. ‘Big Beach’ as it is known locally as opposed to the more local ‘Little Beach’ of the previous post.
The village doesn’t really fit any traditional Cornish-coastal-village mold with its relatively orderly streets and terraces, houses and homes are nestled into the valley sides facing away from the sea sheltered by the arm of the cliff. Most Cornish seaside villages have the sea as the focal point, facing it down, as most were first and foremost fishing ports making their living and reputation directly from the sea so the eyes of the village needed to be turned upon it. Pentewan’s collective gaze is on the now disused harbour, a glorified pond now, left to the rudd and eels.
The amphitheatre-like geography gives us several clues as to it’s history; it compounds the fact that it was not historically a fishing port, the dunes that were once here made that not worth the effort – although some low-level domestic fishing would likely have occurred. It tells us also that Pentewan’s short zenith as a clay – and to lesser extent tin and stone – port exporting around the world was in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The village nucleus was mostly expanded in this industrial period and this was a time of great pride in our industrious achievements and the artificial harbour was victory of engineering and ingenuity over nature. Hence the focus upon it as the locus of trade and wealth.
Pentewan is a product of its history, the village and landscape has been absolutely changed by humans, various families and their endeavours to make a living and possibly a fortune. Whereas other villages that attracted such an entrepreneurial spirit flourished then expanded, Charlestown, Par, Fowey or Falmouth, Pentewan enjoyed a brief heyday and then foundered. After World War Two all industrial, larger scale businesses were abandoned.
We can go back much further with Pentewan, which is of particular satisfaction to me. I have developed a fairly intense interest in prehistory over the years, the Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Ages ignite a curiosity in me that is hard to sate. Most of our ideas about the people and culture of them are interpretations of the enigmatic things they left behind on and in our landscape, which sharpen in focus and detail – but not by a lot – as we progress into the early Middle Ages. Well my digging has unearthed a few things and solidified a few more.
If i were more superstitious I could assert that my interest could be connected to the fact that I grew up on what is locally known as ‘The Round’. My childhood home is set on its slopes and from the terraced and tiered back garden you can step out on to the grazing land and reach the summit in a few steps. I lost my first kite here actually, it had a big, mean pirate face on it, grimacing down at me as I watched it sail off to freedom, never to be retrieved. Losing a kite is a lesson in permanence and responsibility for a kid, I remember not quite wrapping my mind around the fact that it wouldn’t come back, the finality of it was quite incomprehensible and I remember being rather put out about it, begging my Dad to chase it. I was only 23 at the time.
The Round is a very hill-shaped hill, dominating the village from a commanding position. There have been no excavations of course – the land is owned by a biblically ancient and curmudgeonly farmer named Enoch of Towan Farm – but the general consensus is that this was the genesis of what is now Pentewan village. The Round has evidence of an entrenchment, most likely fortified and hut circles. Iron Age at least (800 BC to 100 AD), it is a fine example of a ‘Cornish Round‘, hence the rather un-inventive colloquial name – a running theme in Pentewan it seems. It is worth noting that The Round now stands at least 400 metres from the ocean, these days its slopes bleed out into woods, gardens, village and valleys. However before campsites and harbours, the sea here, mostly sheltered from the Atlantic swells by the colossal buffers of the Dodman and the Lizard, would have lapped up around what is now the village square and at high tides to where the main road now runs to Mevagissey. Thus this ancient settlement would have been much closer to the tides.
Sites that show indications of such things, ancient things, are often on sites of significance, spiritual, geographical or strategic (sometimes all three) and thus run farther back into history than we might think. The Round may have been a Bronze Age site and thus may have been Neolithic or perhaps even further. Whilst it is not a headland promontory it would have been rather close to one a millenia and a half ago. Headland forts are ubiquitous in Cornwall, being very obvious place really for fortified villages, the majority of the hard work already done by formidable and easily defensible sea cliffs, the only part that needs effort to build and manage being the landward side. What is worth noting however is that the only example in Cornwall systematically excavated, Treryn Dinas way down west, shows evidence of Bronze Age (2500 BC to 800 BC) activity too.
The etymology of place-names, again, gives us some image of the Pentewan of millenia ago. The word can be broken down into ‘Pen’ and ‘Towan’ which means ‘end’ and ‘dune’ in Old Cornish, giving us some idea of the landscape.
I love imagining the Pentewan valley prior to the Industrial period, it would have been estuarine possibly up as far as London Apprentice or even what is now an unromantic retail estate comprising McDonalds, Travelodge and other such bland franchises on the outskirts of St. Austell. It is certain that Nansladron, some way up the valley has telling evidence of maritime activity. The name itself means ‘Thieves Valley’ and the tin streaming works there – the first real mining works near Pentewan – uncovered canoe-like boats and shells. Also the Trewhiddle Hoard, unearthed further up the valley (at Trewhiddle) by more industrious workings yielded Saxon era treasures deposited by fearful Pentewanites – possibly monks as I will discuss below – who were understandably anxious about increasingly frequent Viking raids. Indicating that perhaps this was as far as possible one could reach via boat. The Trewhiddle Hoard itself is a wonderful find, found in the 18th Century and now housed in the British Museum, large parts of it are lost but what remains is curious. There is a silver wired flail or scourge – for painfully whipping unruly folk – that is uncommon in Saxon finds. The hoard comes from a time when Cornwall had only just become fully subjugated to Saxon Wessex so the objects may have roots in the Iron Age/early medieval period in Cornwall, when it was the fully independent Brythonic Kingdom of Dumnonia.
So there is quite bit more to the village than meets the modern eye. It is possible that this quiet village has Bronze Age roots, perhaps earlier but definitely we can see evidence of Iron Age settlement. That the landscape once looked radically different. What is now campsite, road and woodland was once sea and estuary.
There are other curiosities. Cornwall was, along with Wales, Ireland, some Scottish Isles and northeast England, one of the first areas that Christianity took hold after the Roman departure. There is some tenuous but I think interesting evidence that Pentewan was the site of a monastery. The Trewhiddle Hoard is one clue. Another is anecdotal; there is a legend about a Breton Prince – named Tewan – being shown great kindness by some religious folk here after a shipwreck who then named the village after him. Myths and Legends contain spectres of folk memory, which is laughably unreliable in an academic sense but often hold kernels of truth.
Lastly the peculiar church here is unlike any other in the Cornish villages that I know of, it is built like a monastery and is very un-churchlike with no towers, spires or cruciform shaping (see the picture below) situated at the end of cell-like buildings now converted into small but quite beautiful terraced houses. I think this is an architectural ghost of a memory. The present building dates to 1849, but according to the church record there is a much older back wall, probably Norman in origin, and there is also apparently a norman-era cell in the basement of the big white house at left hand side, visible in the picture below.
After the conquest of 1066 we start to come into some more solid records of Pentewan. The Domesday Book notes that the Manor of Pentewan, centred on what is now Barton Farm – opposite Mill Garage – was ultimately owned by a fellow named Robert de Mortain, who happened to be William the Conqueror’s brother and who was bequeathed nearly the entirety of Cornwall for his loyalty to William during and before the conquest. There are other minor Tenant – Lords named as Oswulf and Algar. Saxon names. The Manor was then known as Bentewoin athough this could have been a French-Latinisation of the Cornish.
The manor house became the seat of the Wyse Family in the 13th century, it was passed through various familiesand marriages, including the Dart, who may have been a branch of the previous and the Robartes (presumably of Lanhydrock). The manor burnt down in the 15th century and was rebuilt only to be burned down again in the 17th century.
This manor would have been neighbours with Polrudden farm, still extant and with whom it shares some similarities of fate.
A large farmstead on the cliffs above Pentewan on the Porthpean side. The family at Polrudden had a bit of trubulent time, despite living in apparently rather elegant house the eldest son of John Pulrudden was dragged off by French Pirates in 1423 and never heard of again, this was when the tide of the Hundred Years War was not in English favour and the south coast was frequent victim to raids. It also burnt down in the 15th century – it seems likely it was part of a French raid that also probably burned down Pentewan manor and perhaps stole some sons. It was rebuilt in 1600. The traceries in the windows of the Terrace come from this version of the farm. It was subsequently burned again in 1734. The farm then changed hands and seemed to be where the wealthy mercantile families who eyed Pentewan with vision and ambition settled. The Church Record says that the Tyzzer family (of West Cornwall) came to Polrudden and built the first incarnation of the harbour here. Although I can not find any other information to support this.
On Polrudden Farm there remains a quarry, cut out of the clifftop above Poldhu cove. It was here that a type of Elvan was mined, once again inventively named ‘Pentewan Stone’. Pentewan Stone is/was one of the finest building stones in Cornwall and was very much sought after. It is durable but relatively easily sculpted and capable of very fine detail. It is yellowish when freshly cut – not unlike Bath Stone – but weathers to a silvery-grey colour . It can be seen at Place House in Fowey, Trelowarren and Anthony House in Torpoint and on the ecclesiastical facades of Bodmin and St. Austell churches. Pentewan Stone, along with Tin, was one of the first exports of Pentewan. It is also of note that Cornwall’s first copper smelter belonged to Polrudden and was established between 1693 and 1697.
There seemed to have been a rudimentary harbour established around the 15th and 16th centuries – possibly by the Tyzzer family – from which the Pentewan stone was shipped but also tin from the tin streaming works at Nansladron.
The Pentewan valley and its River, the River Clissey (known as the White River also as it use to run milk-white with clay sediment after heavy rains, even in my childhood this would occur, it doesn’t anymore, which is good for everyone and everything around it and is now teaming with trout) had been utilised for tin streaming for millenia, tin being a vital part of Bronze manufacture. William Borlase, the Cornish antiquarian called the Pentewan Valley one of the richest seams in Cornwall. The Polgooth mine was enormously successful for a time and modestly dubbed ‘The Greatest Tin Mine in the World’ but by 1780 there were two larger scale streaming works working the river with the peculiarlarly optimistic and pious names that mining works have – Wheal Virgin and Happy Union. These much more intensive workings quickly exhausted the supply and were closed down by the 1850’s.
We have reached the period of history that Pentewan came under the scrutiny and hegemony of the Hawkins family of Trewithen, a monstrously large estate centred around Grampound and owning large swathes of central Cornwall.
Baronet Christopher Hawkins was an interesting character, embodying a particular strand of Cornishness. He was arrogant, obnoxious, mean-spirited and greedy. A collector of rotten boroughs and land, found guilty of bribery in relation to this habit (so he really must have been spectacularly guilty), he tore down potential dissenting electors houses that happened to be on his land so they could not vote and was generally unpleasant to be tenanted to, work for or be around at all: The following verse was said to have been fixed to his gates at Trewithen.
“A large house, and no cheer,
A large park, and no deer,
A large cellar, and no beer,
Sir Christopher Hawkins lives here.”
However, through his zealous land grabbing he had acquired clay pits, a rapidly expanding industry in the late 18th century, on the St. Austell moor and his quite fantastic wealth coupled with a greedy yet undeniably prescient entrepreneurial vision caused him to settle his eye on Pentewan and change its fortunes considerably.
It is thanks to the Hawkins family that the Harbour was built, the first in 1744 and was then rebuilt by Christopher in 1826 – it must have been a whacking great undertaking – furthermore the genius idea of a tramway was alighted upon by Hawkins and constructed in 1827. This linked the new harbour to St. Austell town which was recently wealthy thanks to the abundance of China Clay, the viability of which owes itself to the industry and experimentations ofWilliam Cookworthy, himself an interesting figure and quite the antithesis of Mr. Hawkins. The faster cargo movement meant more bucks for Mr. Hawkins and more trade for Pentewan. This tramway was upgraded to a smal steam railway a few decades later.
So Pentewan flourished. By the mid -19th century it was a bustling port and had expanded considerably. The village had a school, church, forge, butchers, grocers, pubs, coopers, boatbuilders, masons, carpenters and all the various things one thinks of when conjuring a delightful bucolic idyll of a village. To be fair though the village, according to its records at least, appears to have been a friendly and prosperous place in the years of peace after the Napoleonic wars. The records of Pentewan from here are well documented and there are many pictures to bolster the evidence. They are plenty of very nice sepia photographs of iron hulled three-masted sailing boats of the Victorian era moored in the harbour. Various pictures of Pentewanites squinting with suspicion into the unfamiliar contraption that was the camera.
It is here, to be honest, that my interest wanes. The historical documentation on this period is even more prolific and I urge you to seek it out if you’re interested. The excellent ‘Past in Pentewan‘ by Robert Evans and Maureen Prettyman is a good place to go. As is this report.
The village can lay claim to other random things, apparently it is the proud owner of some of the first conrete bulidngs in Britain as the industry turned to exporting concrete briefly after the war. The harbour finally closed in the 60’s as the silting became too much and the industry too little to make the constant dredging worth it. There is some talk of reviving it to a working harbour. This could be a great thing, it could also be a financial black hole, although the silting was largely an industrial by-product of tin streaming and clay mining. The latter of which is on its last legs and the former completely dead.
Pentewan is an interesting little village that’s for certain and it is also home.
I have felt slightly constricted with this blog of late, I have not been out exploring as much as I should or could and that is a due to a combination of the weathern (tis bleddy ‘ot, just wanna be at the beach most of the time), overindulgence and braiding season. However I have been feeling an urge to write and publish other things; poetry and stories primarily, perhaps some drawings. To compound this, in a month and half I will be living in the Northeast, Durham to be exact, as I complete my Masters degree in Philosophy so once again I will not be in my county. Diversification is needed.
Unfortunately the name of the blog, something I have come to regard with something close to dislike, is of course rather limiting. The name will have to stay but I thought that perhaps I can use this as a platform for other things. I shall still be writing about my forays around my county (and others) of course and I have a few in the works although completing them has felt laborious of late, which was not the case before I went away.
I absolutely imagine some of these things will be repellent to more discerning readers and I apologise for that, ignore them, my talent in fiction and poetry is wanting, hence why I would publish them here rather than anywhere else but I certainly enjoy writing them and that, I suppose, is all I could hope to gain from the whole process.
If you’re going to write about home then perhaps the best time to do this is after a prolonged absence.
This will likely be the last year I spend any real time here. The squat little whitewashed 1920’s bungalow perched on the hill that I grew up in is being sold and my parents are vacating the county. I severed most of my emotional ties with the house years ago but I confess that I may have been re-attaching some of those in the last few weeks.
Every year since I was able, except the last, I have swum off what has always been known as ‘Little Beach’ at Pentewan. It wouldn’t be too much hyperbole to say I grew up here on the coarse sands. Childhood, adolescence, adulthood. A number of the formative experiences of those indistinct phases we all encounter have occurred within the confines of this little coastal village.
it’s quite something to have such a constant, taken for granted of course but now this constant has its end in sight I am sensitive to my time here. Finality is a powerful impetus. As I approach thirty whole years of age, I start to see life for what it is, or so I think. The remnants of a sea wall crumbling into the sea built on the shifting sands of a childhood. A glassy sea in June, capable of great violence but now appeased and peaceful. A collection of memories. A mark left somehow, small or large, far reaching or localised, both perhaps.
So now I am here again, home in a sun-drenched Cornwall in June, battling the same old vices of indolence and nicotine addiction but trying hard to appreciate every sunset, the immensity of the trees in full bloom, every cool swim in the clear sea, forge new friendships, write more things, draw more.
I heard somewhere that the mind is like a soft rock. When water runs over it it forms channels and funnels, paths of least resistance, through which it will flow more easily and erode further as we age. This is a great analogy. I suppose we have to force that water to flow differently. Follow new paths. Carve new grooves. Easier said.
Going from winter to summer in 24 hours landed me in the humid air of Heathrow. Body clock shot, seasonally confused.
I had forgotten the feel of England in summer and I have spent the subsequent week revelling in it. Lush and verdant. Despite the depressive homogeneity of the high streets and chainstores, industrial estates and service stations (the same anywhere). There is a great deal to be relished and delighted in. Old stone buildings, field patterns, the thick and effulgent trees and grassy meadows at their peak, the familiar insects at dusk.
This is the view from the house I grew up in, looking up the Pentewan valley on a warm evening. Something I had been able to look at every year until the last one.
The air is thick with summer and I am relatively at peace trying to catch up with old friends and full of new resolutions for the months ahead.