Cornwall

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. (more…)

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Zennor’s medieval mermaid

In May 1958 the historian Peter Pool wrote the following to preface a short booklet entitled ‘Legends and Traditions of Zennor’:

‘Although in the century since the coming of the railway Cornwall has lost most of its individuality, its remoteness has throughout history tended to make it a place where old ways and old beliefs have lingered longest. Furthermore, such things have always tended to be best preserved in the Lands End Peninsula, also called West Penwith, nowhere more so than in the ‘High Country’, the name given to the beautiful parish of Zennor and its neighbours, Towednack and Morvah’.

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Tintagel: On stones and landscapes

Carved stones connect us to landscapes. Through the material, they connect us to a physical one; through the technique of its production and where it is placed, a human one; through the image itself, often a spiritual one. They are points in time and through time that allow us to sense the past and allow the past to leak into the present. Over time, these records of human interaction with the land become more and more precious, documents of moments lived hundreds of years ago. In turn, they, like the medieval churches where they are often found, become part of the landscape themselves, weathering back into it, taking the secrets of the centuries with them. Stone sculpture and landscape are inextricably linked. (more…)

A Gothic masterpiece at St Endellion

I’d heard about the late medieval sculpture that exists in a handful of churches in North Cornwall but until recently hadn’t seen any of it first hand. Because of the excellent North Cornwall Book Festival at St Endellion over the weekend I had the opportunity to combine my love of books and writing with my love of Gothic stone carving, clearly a win-win situation. When the church was empty one afternoon (it was great to see it used as a performance venue for the speakers and musicians, as well as hosting an exhibition and printmaking workshops) I was able to take a closer look. (more…)

Vanishing Dragons

‘To one whose mind is still full of the memories of some great English Abbey or Cathedral’ wrote the architect Edmund Sedding in 1909, considering the church of St Winwaloe at Tremaine in North Cornwall, ‘this desolate little sanctuary would seem hardly worthy of notice’. However, to ‘the few who love the work of the medieval craftsmen, these works they have left us are beyond price’. It is easy to understand Sedding’s reflective prose inspired by the tiny church at Tremaine. Framed by beech trees it sits on the very top of a hill, its weatherbeaten masonry changing colour with the passing clouds whose shadows collect in the fields and woodlands far below. It is a simple structure of chancel, nave and tower. On a still day it holds a loud, ear-ringing silence. (more…)

Circles and Serpents

Romanesque sculpture is consistently surprising. In few places in Cornwall is it anything other than fragmentary, a doorway here or a corbel or tympanum (the segmental space immediately above the door) there. Sometimes, however, it is fragmentary at a single site, which, at some point in its building history has adopted a fairly scattergun approach to the reuse of its twelfth-century carved stones. Mylor is one such church. Here it’s possible to find one doorway still in situ, another likely made up from a tympanum and other original stones, and several carved corbels now positioned in prominent architectural locations (one of which is a beakhead, unknown in the county outside of Morwenstow and Kilkhampton). (more…)

Atlantic Romanesque

Vertiginous cliffs, the rock folded and crushed; the distant groans of white water. The north coast of Cornwall is a land apart from the sub-tropical south. Tucked into the slope of a steep-sided valley or combe and only a field or two from a sheer drop into the Atlantic stands the church of St Morwenna, home to some of Cornwall’s finest Romanesque sculpture. (more…)