Asides: Cornish choughs, St Just and Cape Cornwall

My long summer break is coming to an end, so my wife and I are trying to make the most of our beautiful county of Cornwall.

Market Square, St Just

Market Square, St Just (Wikipedia image)

Yesterday we drove down to St Just in Penrith – the most westerly of Cornwall’s regions. It’s the most westerly town in mainland Britain, beyond the tourist honeypot of St Ives, and west even of DH Lawrence’s Zennor – about which I posted several pieces recently. It’s part of the Cornwall AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty).

The town’s name is of uncertain provenance: it might be named after the 6th or 7th C Welsh hermit St Iestyn (Latin Justinus) and said to have been a son of a ruler of the Celtic kingdom of Dumnonia in SW England. This confessor-saint is attributed with the founding of St Just’s namesake village in the Roseland peninsula. In the 15C bones found in the church were said to be remains of St Justus of Trieste, a 3rd C Italian martyr.

It’s a rugged, wild part of the peninsula, with huge granite boulders half-buried in the moorland. Fields host brooding standing stones, and massive crags and headlands jut skywards from the land and over the sea. Many of the field wall-boundaries reflect Iron Age  agricultural systems.

This element-battered scenery was once teeming with industrial activity: the Man Engine pieces I posted recently explain about Cornwall’s mining heritage. Penwith is now a post-industrial landscape, with engine-houses and chimneys abundant on the moors and the clifftops. Levant and Botallack nearby still have buildings and working visible, while Geevor, an 18C tin mine which closed in 1990, is open to the public.

The 1861 census recorded that over 9200 people lived in St Just, but the sharp decline in demand for Cornish copper and tin resulted in mass migration of miners to all parts of the globe. The town’s twins in Bendigo, Australia and Nevada City, USA, reflect this mining diaspora. The current population of St Just is just over 4000.

The St Just plen-an-gwari (or playing place – there’s a village of that curious name just outside of my town of Truro) is a large circular space, encircled by a 2-metre high wall of stone, one of only two surviving in the county. It hosted sports and performances of all kinds, including medieval miracle plays such as the Cornish Ordinalia. John Wesley preached there.

The gaunt granite crags of Penwith are the haunt of many kinds of wildlife and seabirds

Red-billed chough

Red-billed or Cornish chough (image from oliversCornwall website

and notably of the iconic red-billed or Cornish choughs. These once-prolific corvids have been associated with the county since the 13C. Their Cornish name ‘palores’ (meaning ‘digger’ – they probe the ground for invertebrates to eat) nearly became extinct down here, but are now starting to flourish again.

Cape Cornwall

Cape Cornwall: the chimney on top is a remnant of the mine there. Hazy cloud but bright Atlantic light when I took this picture

I could hardly contain my excitement as we walked from the National Trust carpark on to the chimney-capped headland of Cape Cornwall and I saw my first ever wild chough. It watched us approach, then languidly flew off towards the distant hills towards Lands End.

This handsome bird has an ancient association with Cornwall, and features in its coat of arms.

This is from Olivers Cornwall website description:

ARMS: Sable fifteen Bezants in pile within a Bordure barry wavy of eight Argent and Azure.
CREST: On a Wreath Argent and Azure a Chough proper resting the dexter claw upon a Ducal Coronet Or.
Motto ‘ONE AND ALL’.
Granted 5th April 1939.

Old coat of arms for Cornwall:

Old coat of arms for Cornwall: Olivers site image

These ‘bezants’ (an ancient coin, name a corruption of Byzantium) were allegedly raised by loyal Cornishmen (hence the motto) and paid as ransom for the release of Richard, Earl of Cornwall (1209-1272, son of King John), who’d been captured by Saracens. They may also be a visually punning reference to the French for ‘peas’ (pois), as Richard was earl of Poitou.

Duchy of Cornwall crest

Duchy of Cornwall crest

The College of Arms illustration below (from mrssymbols website) shows the shield’s supporters as a pair of choughs (blazoned as ‘beaked and legged gules’), each of which holds an ostrich feather, a badge of the Prince of Wales…The motto below, ‘houmout’, is thought to convey the notion of ‘high mood’ or ‘courage’ (although the similar-sounding German word Hochmut can be translated as ‘arrogance’ or ‘pride’).

Back to St Just, where we had an excellent bowl of broccoli and stilton soup (and a pint of Sharp’s Doom Bar ale – grimly named for the sandbar in the Camel estuary, near to where it’s brewed in Rock) – in the Commercial hotel, one of three (three!) pubs in the market square. I derive disproportionate pleasure from ordering this beer as the locals do: ‘A pint of Doom, please.’

View from Cape Cornwall

View from Cape Cornwall, looking towards the headland of Land’s End

The west of Cornwall has long been associated with the arts – not just in St Ives. There are several good galleries in St Just, and a thriving community of arts and crafts practitioners. We were headed for one that opened just a couple of years ago, featuring the work of one of our favourite local artists: Kurt Jackson. He’s lived in St Just since the 80s, and much of his work  brilliantly depicts the seascapes, land, flora and fauna of this beautiful county.

There’s a useful website about Cornish Choughs HERE; follow them on Twitter @cornishchoughs

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10 thoughts on “Asides: Cornish choughs, St Just and Cape Cornwall

    • Wow, Karen, a quick response! Yes, the scenery this far west is stunning: it’s easy to see why DHL loved it so much. There’s a special feel down here, hard to pin down. DHL romantically ascribed it to the ancient Celtic blood (but he tended to do that sort of thing a lot). But it’s different from anywhere else in the world I’ve been.

  1. I really enjoyed this post, Simon. The Cornish chough is a new bird on me – how wonderful to have seen a wild one near the National Trust place. Lovely.

    Have you ever visited any of the vineyards in Cornwall? I’m thinking of Camel Valley in particular, award-winning sparkling wines by the Camel River. I’ve never been, but would like to one day.

    • I’ve been past Camel Valley, and love their sparkling wine. Knightor, near the Eden Project, is also in my sights for a visit. They do a good sparkler, too.The chough is a handsome bird, and a charming symbol for Cornwall.

  2. Lovely. SIMON!
    It is a balmy 300 degrees F in DC today, and Trump is stark raving bonkers as usual. SucH a refreshing tead.

  3. Lovely blog Simon. I can really feel your excitement at seeing your first chough. Isn’t it strange how confronting living creatures in the wild can be so wonderful? My daughter and I visited Sizergh Castle in the Lake District recently, and we found a pair of dragonflies on a fence by the pond and they were so unafraid we stood close by for an age just watching them.
    It sounds like you’ve had a wonderful time in Cornwall. It is a beautiful place. We’re heading down there in October. I’m looking forward to my own pint of Doom!

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