Sennen, Geevor, a tin miner and DH Lawrence

A week ago I drove with Mrs TD down to my favourite part of Cornwall, west Penwith, for one of our regular visits to these remote and beautiful moors and coasts. There’s a point on the A30 when the road crests a rise and a couple of miles below you see the magnificent sweep of Mount’s Bay, with the dark turrets of St Michael’s Mount in front, and the graceful crescent of the bay curving round to Penzance and beyond (I’ve posted about this, and St Mary of Egypt, here.)

Sennen Cove harbour

We headed further on this road, past Penzance, to Sennen Cove. We wanted to see again another lovely Cornish bay – not as spectacular as Mount’s Bay, but still lovely. It’s a popular destination for summer holidaymakers, and on a lovely August day the beach was busy with surfers, swimmers and watchful lifeguards (but not, sadly, the famous Newfoundland surf lifesaver dog, whose name I forget; there’s a book about him.)

The cliffs loom above the cream-coloured sand of the beach, giving the bay a sense of being protected by a tremendous elemental force: furrowed and fissured black granite.

We wandered through the village, heading for the art gallery: the Capstan and Round House. It’s a wonderful old building, with an ancient capstan wheel in the basement; there’s just room to walk around its perimeter and admire the artworks on the walls and surfaces.

Geevor entrance flags

Entrance to the Geevor Mine site

The owner was charming: Colin Caffell (his partner runs the gallery upstairs). He told us about his commission a few years ago to make a memorial statue to Cornish miners. He started with the clay model, then handed it on to the people who specialise in casting. He also told us about the garden in which the statue stands, at the entrance to Geevor Mine, a few miles along the coast road just outside Pendeen, which of course we had to drive on and visit (it’s only been there since 2015, and we’ve somehow never been in before).

This north Cornish coastline is spectacularly beautiful: more rugged and forbidding than the south, just a few miles across the moors of this narrowest part of the peninsula. I’ve posted before about Cape Cornwall, nearby, with its dangerous offshore rocks and iconic community of red-legged, red-billed choughs. Also nearby is the surprisingly large town of St Just, home of the gallery of one of my favourite artists: Kurt Jackson.

 On his website the sculptor Colin explains his intentions: he wanted to position the seven-foot bronze resin statue in a garden containing grasses and plants from all of the continents to which the intrepid Cornish hard rock miners took their skills: the Americas, Australasia, Africa and Asia. The colour scheme he was aiming for, the blues, oranges and reds, were intended to evoke the sunset over the Atlantic. He wanted this garden to become a ‘place for quiet reflection.’ It is.

Of course the plants had to be hardy enough to survive the salty winds blowing off the ocean. He goes on to say that the plants do better than one might expect; the artist Patrick Heron managed to create his own exotic garden where he lived not far along the coast.

The plaque beneath the statue reads:

Hard rock breeds hard men

Who slip between earth’s cracks for a living,

The dark chasm which closes around you,

Tight like a fist, draws you down

Into the mine’s gullet, the belly of the beast

Hewn out of granite, the ledger of tin,

The ingot of tradition, a labyrinth of strong voices

That still chisel the dark, the rich seam,

A stream that runs through each generation,

A lode that anchors a man’s life

From ‘The Wheal of Hope’ by James Crowden.

The memorial was ‘raised and funded by the community of the St Just Mining District in honour of the courageous men who worked the narrow lodes in hazardous conditions far below the land and sea in the mines of this district; and the women and children who toiled on the surface crushing and dressing ore. As pioneers, many of these Cornish families took this skill and expertise to the far corners of the world as new mining opportunities emerged.’ [from the same plaque]

That last point is perhaps a little romanticised. The diaspora of Cornish miners – the hard rock specialists who’d learned to extract every kind of valuable mineral from the granite under the moors of west Penwith and the rest of the county (or duchy) – had to emigrate when the mines became less competitive than their counterparts in other ‘far corners of the world.’ They had little choice, in other words.

In 2016 I wrote some posts on the Man Engine (here, and here) the massive mechanical puppet that toured the county and beyond, commemorating these hardy miners – many of whom died or suffered terrible injuries, working in dangerous, unpleasant conditions. The Levant disaster was just one such terrible event.

View from the moors above Zennor

View from the moors above Zennor

We drove on for lunch at the Tinners Arms, Zennor. I usually aim to have a pint of Tinners Ale here, the inn where DH Lawrence stayed briefly while searching for a place to rent in what he optimistically considered his ‘promised land’. He eventually found the small, basic cottage complex at Higher Tregerthen just outside the village. I’ve posted several times before about his stay in west Cornwall, trying to create a utopian community, Rananim, starting with John Middleton Murry and his wife Katherine Mansfield – but they disappointed him by moving to the ‘softer’ part of the county, to less basic accommodation.

A comment on a related post last August, about the sale of this remote cottage by a local estate agent, elicited a comment today from Julie Warries (thanks, Julie), who said she’s particularly interested in Lawrence’s time in Cornwall and the letters he wrote there. She added a charming aside: when she visited the Tinners Arms she asked a barman for directions to Higher Tregerthen. He didn’t know, but added that she wasn’t the first person to ask that!

Mrs TD thinks I should start a ‘DH Lawrence tours in Cornwall’ agency…Who knows.

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