Church of the Storms

‘Close to the sea, but sheltered from it by a bluff’ wrote Nikolaus Pevsner in 1951 in his trademark terse prose. Such understatement does little to introduce this building, the church of St Winwalloe at Gunwalloe on the west coast of the Lizard Peninsula. It is fortunate that the volume’s later contributing author, Peter Beacham, editing and updating it in 2014, adds exactly what Pevsner had missed but what appears obvious to even the most casual visitor. ‘Even for Cornwall’, the sentence now begins, ‘an especially romantic site for a church, on its own on the edge of a sandy cove but sheltered from the sea by a bluff’. Without this giant rock and its attendant spikes of slate to break the waves I doubt the building would last much more than one Cornish winter. ‘So close is the building to the shore’ wrote the vicar in 1870, ‘that the waves have frequently broken away the walls of the churchyard’. A neatly-lettered sign hangs above the door in the porch: St Winwaloe, it says (one ‘l’), The Church of the Storms.

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Its origins are – suitably for a building that sits alone on a stretch of sand and unstable cliffs (a makeshift fence diverts us around a section of missing coast path at one point) – obscure, prey to fanciful narratives and near death experiences. In Churches and Antiquities of Cury and Gunwalloe, published in 1875, Alfred Cummings mentions a local tradition about two sisters who vowed to build a church if they escaped from their wrecked vessel with their lives. They did, but couldn’t agree upon the site, so settled their differences by one building the tower and the other the nave and chancel, a story that accounts for the unusual separate structures perhaps a bit too neatly. The story is a reminder that death stalks this coastline, however. In the small graveyard are memorials to an unknown Luftwaffe pilot and countless drownings.

When the draw is so obviously the location I’m probably alone in coming here expressly to look at the font. The sepia photograph facing page 128 in Cummings’s book shows a fairly sorry looking bowl propped upon a section of column. Its decoration is straightforward but unusual among Romanesque designs, a repeating pattern of broad arches each sheltering an upward-pointing arrow. Its upper part is missing a section of stone and was still in this state when Edmund Sedding drew it over thirty years later, in 1909 (he describes its condition as ‘mutilated’). At some point since then it has been repaired and it appears that the font is now back in use.

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Left: 1875 photo. Right: as drawn by Sedding in 1909.

Unlike the photograph Sedding’s drawing shows a crucial detail: the carving is unfinished. In fact the design is worked into one half of the bowl only. This feature reminds me of the font at Fowey further east (the subject of an earlier blog post), although in this case it is the repair that is unfinished, the carver having given up, quite possibly due to having left too little space for the final palmette motif that would join the repaired insert of stone to the original medieval design. (Alternatively we might follow Fowey’s church booklet which states that the unfinished pattern is ‘usually a sign that the carver died before completing the series’. In my own experience deaths while carving are less commonplace than this particular author might think).

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The font today to show (left) the unfinished original design, and (right) the repaired section.

If a carved stone is otherwise sound but a section of it has failed for whatever reason, one way to repair it is to chop out the failed piece and insert a new one, either left plain (as at Gunwalloe) or carved so that the design continues across it’s surface. Done well, the new piece will join almost seamlessly with the old. Needless to say, this is skilled work that demands close attention to detail and critical on the spot thinking informed by experience. Yet the results can be profound; not only is a unique piece of carving given a new lease of life but there has been an interaction, a meeting of minds across the centuries. The font at Gunwalloe is a nice reminder that something created centuries ago can be repaired and brought back into use, and in doing so, its survival ensured.


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