Bernard Walke, Twenty Years at St Hilary. Truran, Mount Hawke, Cornwall, paperback, 2002. First published 1935
The friends with the beautiful Siamese cats, who’ve featured in a couple of recent posts, are active participants in the life of the city’s cathedral, and the charity that runs Epiphany House, which featured in one of my ‘local walks during lockdown’ posts (link HERE). In discussing some related topics, the life of Fr Bernard Walke came up. I hadn’t heard of him, so a copy of his book about his time as vicar of St Hilary, near Penzance, was duly reserved at the local library, now open for a click and collect service.
I’m not a religious person (my friends clearly are), but Fr Walke’s genial and charming humanity shine through every page of his memoir. His Anglo-Catholic faith is apparent, and he has that rare ability to make it seem natural and attractive.
He’d been a curate at two other Cornish churches before St Hilary: first at St Ives, where he initiated his popular practice of taking mass outdoors onto the harbourside, and endeared himself to the ordinary townsfolk by joining the fishermen when they put to sea; then at Polruan, opposite Fowey, where he enjoyed occasionally accompanying the freighters carrying china clay to Europe and beyond.
Each chapter is packed with incident and experience. In the opening chapter he relates a typically endearing anecdote of the stray cat that adopted him and would trot after him to church when he celebrated mass. One day she was taken with the sparkling sequins decorating the mantle of a grande dame of the village in the front pew. She sprang from her usual spot on the pulpit lectern into the old lady’s lap. Next day Walke received an irate letter from his Vicar, enumerating his many ‘extravagances’ (code for ‘high church practices’) concluding with the cat’s ‘monstrous behaviour’ the previous night. One phrase stood out for him:
‘Your performing cat has made religion stink in the nostrils of the best people in Polruan.’
In his defensive reply Fr Walke adduced the example of St Philip Neri, whose cat always accompanied him ‘at his devotions’, but to no avail; the poor little cat was barred from the church.
Fr Walke arrived at St Hilary in 1913. His first impression of the village, just outside Penzance in rural west Cornwall, was not favourable. The church had been unsympathetically rebuilt in Victorian times, the landscape was rather bleak, and the village was blighted by what he thought rather ugly villas.
In his twenty years as vicar there, however, he became much loved by his parishioners and locals. There was hostility throughout that time from some to his catholic rites and adornments to the church, culminating in a violent incursion by Protestant activists near the end of his time there – an attack that almost broke his spirit and his already faltering health.
He began the memoir while being treated for TB in a sanatorium at Tehidy, then later in Gran Canaria when his health again deteriorated.
The memoir is dominated by his deep reverence for and love of nature: birds, trees, plants and animals are frequently befriended or described. He was particularly fond of donkeys, and would ride around the county in a ‘shay’, tolerating the wayward animals’ tendency to wander off the road. One had a habit when off duty of taking to the fields and causing mayhem, such as leading local horses into bad habits.
Fr Walke’s wife Annie was a noted member of the Newlyn community of artists. Many of this famous group populate the pages, and several of them contributed artworks to decorate the church: Harold and Laura Knight, Dod and Ernest Procter. Roger Fry did a reredos. Other well-known figures appear briefly, from AJ Munnings to GB Shaw.
This amiable country vicar’s warm heartedness wasn’t confined to love of nature: he was a great campaigner on behalf of the ordinary working people of his community. In St Hilary this was largely the pre-mechanised agricultural workers. Like all the greatest Christians, he practised what he preached, and strove to bring light and purpose into the lives of St Hilary’s people.
He is perhaps best known for the Christmas plays that he wrote and had performed in the church by the parishioners. A BBC friend persuaded him to have some of these broadcast on radio – the first ever outside broadcasts in the mid-1920s, continuing into the thirties.
He set up a local children’s home, and opened his own house up to a small group of Austrian refugees after WWI. The chapters set during that terrible war are particularly poignant. Fr Walke was a committed pacifist, and the already simmering hostility to his catholic tendencies was heated even further by his anti-war stance. There’s no mention of DH and Frieda Lawrence’s similar activity in nearby Zennor at this time (see my posts on DHL in Cornwall HERE).
His campaigning was also extended to an attempt to establish a new mining enterprise in the area; most of the mines had by this time closed, and many former miners who hadn’t joined the Cornish diaspora were unemployed.
I approached this memoir with some trepidation, since I don’t share the author’s faith. But I enjoyed it immensely; the author has a delightfully self-deprecating style, and his love of humanity is uplifting.