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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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