DH Lawrence’s idyllic cottage in Cornwall

Estate agent's advert for DHL cottage

The ‘tower house’ at Higher Tregerthen, nr Zennor, where the Lawrences lived in 1916-17; advertised for sale by a local estate agent last week

An advert in the property pages of last week’s local Cornish newspaper, The West Briton, provided the inspiration for today’s post. Two years ago I posted a series of pieces on DH Lawrence’s letters written during his stay here in 1916-17. I shall dip into these posts here, with some added material from the letters of that time (he was a prodigious, brilliant correspondent).

The first post was on Aug 11 2016:

When we came over the shoulder of the wild hill, above the sea, to Zennor, I felt we were coming into the Promised Land. I know there will be a new heaven and a new earth take place now: we have triumphed. I feel like a Columbus who can see a shadowy America before him: only this isn’t merely territory, it is a new continent of the soul. Letter of 25 Feb. 1916 to Lady Ottoline Morrell, from The Collected Letters of D.H. Lawrence, ed. Harry T. Moore (Heinemann, London: 1962, repr. 1970; all quotations here are from this text), vol. 1, p. 437

The copy at the bottom of the estate agent’s ad gives the Lawrence quotation(s)

The quotation in the estate agent’s copy (I’ve gone for a full-size image in the hope it can be read) conflates and slightly misquotes two different letters from Lawrence. The first part I quoted in that first post of mine. It should read

At Zennor one sees infinite Atlantic, all peacock-mingled colours, and the gorse is sunshine itself, already. But this cold wind is deadly. [24 Feb. 1916, from Porthcothan, to JM Murry and K. Mansfield]

Not surprisingly the agent omits that second sentence. Their second sentence cites part of this, which I quoted in my second post:

 [5 March 1916, from the Tinner’s Arms inn, Zennor, to John Middleton Murry and Katherine Mansfield] We have been here nearly a week now. It is a most beautiful place: a tiny granite village nestling under high, shaggy moor-hills, and a big sweep of lovely sea beyond, such a lovely sea, lovelier even than the Mediterranean… To Penzance one goes over the moors, high, then down into Mount’s Bay, looking at St Michael’s Mount, like a dark little jewel. It is all gorse now, flickering with flower…

The rooms and fabric of the house have clearly been modishly updated since the Lawrences lived there in relative squalor

In the same letter he goes on to describe the house, in good estate-agentese:

What we have found is a two-roomed cottage, one room up, one down, with a long scullery. But the rooms are big and light, and the rent won’t be more than 4/- [4 old shillings, 20 pence in new currency, if I remember rightly: a pittance even then; it’s rather more expensive to buy now!] The place is rather splendid. It is just under the moors, on the edge of the few rough stony fields that go to the sea. It is quite alone, as a little colony.

DHL planMy picture left from the text captures the whole of the rest of this excited letter, with Lawrence’s sketches of the site plan. I see I’ve underlined his likening the place to ‘a little monastery’. As my posts of two years ago indicate, he was hoping to set up a ‘Rananim’, a sort of Utopian commune of like-minded higher spirits (with his own and Frieda’s at or near the top of the heap, he assumes, with characteristically disarming lack of modesty). If you can read the text in my picture you’ll see that he enthusiastically allocates living space to his chosen companions; the Mansfields were unable to put up with the primitive, ‘rugged’ living conditions and escaped to the ‘soft’ part of the county. ‘The walls of their cottage are rather damp,’ he admits in a later letter to Barbara Low (?30 May).

Lawrence had a sturdier spirit, and preferred this ‘queer outlandish Celtic country [where] I feel happy and free’ [16 April 1916, Higher Tregerthen, to Catherine Carswell].

The estate agents might feel the need for some judicious editing of some of his other descriptions, as here in that same letter to Barbara Low cited above:

The place is perfectly lovely. The cottage is tiny…The stairs go up at the side, nice and white, the low square window looks out at a rocky wall, a bit of field, and the moor overhead. The fireplace is very nice, the room has a real beauty. Upstairs is a good bedroom with a great window looking down at the sea – which is six fields away. There is also a window, as in the living room, at the back, looking over the road on to the hill which is all rocks and boulders and a ruined cottage. It is very lovely, and dear to my heart.

Third post, Aug. 13, 2016

By this time the euphoria Lawrence had felt on entering this ‘promised land’ in the far west (‘there is something uralt and clean about it’, he said in that letter about the house) had faded, transformed into something bitter and disillusioned. This was partly because he felt betrayed by his ‘truly blood kin’ – principally the Middleton Murrys, who failed to share his enthusiasm for Higher Tregerthen and the ‘rough primeval’ scenery around – ‘too rocky and bleak for them’, he wrote disparagingly to Ottoline Morrell on 16 April; and partly because of his and his German wife’s experiences with the locals, who suspected them of signalling to the enemy (this is at the height of WWI), a feeling reinforced by their tendency to hold forth heatedly on the stupidity of the war and the bigots (as they saw them) who blindly supported it (‘one hates one’s King and Country’ he wrote to Ottoline Morrell on 18 April). The dream ended when Lawrence was exempted from conscription on the grounds of his ‘consumption’ – which relieved him (‘I should die in a week, if they kept me’, he wrote to Catherine Carswell, 9 July) and saddened him, for he felt a deep sympathy for the Cornish conscripts, ‘most unwarlike, soft, peacable, ancient’ – yet ‘they accepted it all…with wonderful purity of spirit’ and sense of ‘duty to their fellow man’. This was an attitude he pityingly admired, for he despised what he saw as wrong-headed patriotism (and a nationalist sentiment unfortunately being encouraged in some political quarters again today):

All this war, this talk of nationality, to me is false. I feel no nationality, not fundamentally. I feel no passion for my own land, nor my own house, nor my own furniture, nor my own money. Therefore I won’t pretend any…the truth of my spirit is all that matters to me.

Post 4, Aug 14 2016

In October 1917 the police raided the house at Higher Tregerthen and the Lawrences were ignominiously evicted from the county, still half-suspected of being spies in the pay of the enemy. Lawrence in these last Cornish letters had given up on this Celtic paradise – ‘here one is outside England’ he had written ecstatically to JB Pinker from Porthcothan, nr Padstow, on 1 January 2016, on first arriving in Cornwall, before moving to Zennor – and was now talking of going instead to the actual, not his fantasy Celtic America/new found land, which despite its shortcomings was ‘nearer to freedom’.


36 thoughts on “DH Lawrence’s idyllic cottage in Cornwall

    • Thanks, Jacqui. What’s not clear is whether it’s the two adjacent cottages (a selling point in DHL’s letters to potential fellow Rananimites) or just the tower house, which is tiny, as he says in the pieces I quoted

  1. Thanks for posting this, Simon (and hello!). Great to re-read these extracts. Incidentally, we spent 3 days in Zennor this summer and spotted the cottage. Strange to think of it as featuring in some Estate Agent’s window as a mainstream desirable property…

    • My goodness, Catherine, how lovely to hear from you here! I follow your posts from exotic/interesting places on FB with interest. Oddly enough I found this cottage some years ago, but more recent visits have failed to locate it. Must try again, posing as a buyer. Hope you are keeping well. Just look at the price tag of the renovated cottage now!

      • It would be a great idea to pose as a potential buyer! I guess the price tag almost left me unfazed considering this is the price of a tiny flat in London. Pleased to hear my photo ramblings are of some interest – and here’s to yet more interesting blog posts.

  2. Katherine Mansfield stayed with the Lawrences in Cornwall towards the end of her life, in this house, I suspect. I don’t have the bio to check when or exactly where it was, but this is what I wrote in my review of Katherine Mansfield The Storyteller, by Kathleen Jones
    “There are also revealing insights about other writers, especially Virginia Woolf (who was jealous of Mansfield’s talent and snooty about her behaviour) and D.H.Lawrence. It seems as if Mansfield’s incomplete novel, ‘The Aloe’ was stymied in part by Lawrence. Mansfield and Middleton Murry were installed at the Villa Pauline in Bandol (France) and after a long period of stasis she was making progress with the novel – when Lawrence wrote, insisting that they all live together in a kind of community in Cornwall. Murry, who was never keen on living in France anyway, agreed to go. Mansfield (whose fragile health depended on a milder climate) reluctantly acceded even though she knew that she was better able to write where she was, and of course the entire venture turned out to be a disaster and the novel was never finished.”

    • Indeed she did stay there, Lisa. That letter of invitation to her and her husband, Murry, with his sketch of the layout of the two buildings is from a letter written to the couple. Lawrence was disgusted and felt betrayed when she and Murry left the 7-roomed ‘tower house’; it was formerly three old cottages. Katherine could have the ‘tower room’, he’d suggested in the same letter. In a slightly later letter, just before they arrived, he’d predicted, with typical overoptimism, that they’d live there ‘a long, long time, very cheaply…it is so free and beautiful.’ There they could live without further acrimony, ‘treacheries and so on’, with ‘no more quarrels and quibbles’ – they would have, he cheerfully predicted, a ‘Blutbruderschaft’, they’d be, he said in another letter, ‘truly blood kin’. He’d sadly miscalculated how alienating his behaviour could be – he and Frieda fought like tigers – they can’t have been easy housemates. He also miscalculated that they share his delight in such basic accommodation, assuming that his impecunious disdain for comforts would be shared by the more patrician Murrys. They didn’t get off to a good start; soon after their arrival Murry was arrested by a local policeman bearing a warrant for his evasion of conscription – he produced a dodgy ‘rejection certificate’ from the Officers’ Training Corps that seems to have satisfied the law. In a letter of 24 May he wrote to Lady Ottoline with the first signs that the Murrys were unhappy there: they ‘do not like the country – it is too rocky and bleak for them. They should have a soft valley, with leaves and the ring-dove cooing’. His disdain is palpable in the rest of the letter. Why can’t they just rough it, as he and Frieda did? He can’t forgive such feebleness (as he saw it). In that letter of 30 May to Barbara Low he wrote that they were to leave ‘in a fortnight’. So they only stayed a month or so. ‘I give up having intimate friends’, he wrote acidly to Catherine Carswell soon afterwards.

      • Hi Simon, have been reading but remaining silent for the last month or so, with nothing that felt as if it would be much of a contribution. Hope this doesn’t come across as Pollyanna-ish, but it seems such a sad waste of life force for someone like Woolf to be jealous of other writing talent, like a butterfly and a peacock coveting each other’s beauty.

        I really liked this quote from David Lodge on the creative writing process, which I may have sent to you before:

        “[I]t is like a chemical, or alchemical reaction between form and content [with factors including life experience, genetic inheritance, historical context, reading, powers of recall, capacity for introspection, fantasy life, understanding of the springs of narrative, responsiveness to language, its rhythms, sounds, register, nuanced of meaning, and so on].”

        • Maureen: I’m just pleased you’ve been a silent reader! I think VW had a bit of a tendency to be spiky about the apparent success of others – even Vita S-W, a far lesser talent. I find it hard to imagine her and DHL hitting it off: his incandescent flame and her icy controlled one (or is that just the received view? She was pretty passionate herself, maybe expressed herself with more sang froid)

        • Maureen – PS don’t feel you have to ‘make a contribution’; I’m always delighted to hear from readers; it sometimes seems like I’m whistling in an empty cave, so all responses are most welcome, even if it’s just to say yes or no to what I’ve been posting

          • That is good to know, Simon! I recommend you whenever I find what I sense could be a receptive audience. Your work deserves a wide readership. Cheers!

  3. I have just found these pictures of Lawrence’s cottage, along with your interesting narrative, by chance while surfing the internet.
    I have been fascinated by D.H.Lawrence to an almost embarrassing degree for most of my life and know the war time letters well so I was very excited to visit Zennor and have lunch in the Tinner’s Arms recently . It is immediately clear, as you approach across the rugged moors to the little village, why it’s isolation would appeal to the Lawrences as they attempted to escape the industrialised society they hated. Zennor is astonishingly peaceful and remote even today. I asked a young waiter at the Tinner’s Arms if he knew the location of Higher Tregerthen . He didn’t but added as I turned away, ‘ That’s funny. You’re not the first person to ask me that !’.
    I am now reading the Cornish letters again with new insight as I have now seen most of the places he mentions. It was lovely to find these pictures of the house.
    It is so beautiful down there ! Such a shame it didn’t work out for him.

    • Hello Julie: thanks for dropping by and taking the trouble to comment. I went with my wife to the Tinners just the other day. It’s one of my favourite areas of Cornwall, that rugged Celtic west Penwith moorland. The huge granite boulders gave rise to local legends that they were thrown there by a giant on St Michael’s Mount. He was called Cormoran, then later better known by that of his nemesis, Jack the Giant Killer – a lad from Marazion who lured him from his lair. You’re right about the atmosphere of the area: it feels as DHL described so beautifully in his letters: remote, lonely, desolate, but full of history. Every rock and hedge looks like it’s been there for thousands of years – because they have! I love nearby Cape Cornwall, too, where choughs wheel around the craggy headlands, and gannets dive among the seals and sharks out at sea. Lovely anecdote about the pub waiter. I often have trouble relocating Higher Tregerthen – the place in the estate agent’s ad. It’s quite hard to find. And of course it’s privately owned, so not possible to enter. You can see why the M Murrays weren’t keen on staying in such a desolate spot, when the cottages were very primitively furnished and fitted out. But L was in his element, tending the garden, striding the coastal paths, writing all those wonderful letters, and of course (Frieda too) irritating the locals. Have you read Helen Dunmore’s Zennor in Darkness? I think I mention it in one of my posts on the letters.

      • Thanks for your reply. I didn’t realise you live in Cornwall ( hopefully the waiter I mentioned isn’t someone you know ). Lucky you ! My husband and I have been plotting our escape ever since we got back to London but I don’t think I could cope with the remoteness of Zennor. I bet it can be a bit inhospitable in winter !
        I have heard of the book you mention and, no, I haven’t read it yet so that will give me another Cornwall fix.
        Best wishes.

        • Julie: we’ve lived here for 25 years now, but in the ‘soft’ part as DHL saw it. Yes, W Penwith can seem very remote. Winters are pretty mild, though; we don’t get much snow. Sometimes it’s a nuisance travelling abroad and having the long trip to Bristol or London before getting a connecting flight or Eurostar, but there are compensations, living in such a beautiful part of the country.

  4. I had the good fortune to stay in this wonderful stone cottage while I was a young man visiting from San Francisco (where I taught at the Academy of Art) in the summer of 1976.

    I had been staying at a B&B in Penzance and, perusing the local bookshops in the area, I came across a number of fascinating little books by an author named Michael Adam. They captivated me and I wanted to meet the author who I understood was a local.

    After many inquiries and a number of dead-ends in my search, I learned that ‘Michael Adam’ was actually Kim Taylor and was living in Zennor. I cycled from Penzance to Zennor and inquired at the local pub, Tinner’s Arms, if anyone knew where Kim Taylor lived. The proprietor told me that he lived in the house across the fields and that it would be fastest and closest to leave my bike at the pub and walk across to his house—Higher Tregerthen.

    I knocked at the door and was greeted by Kim’s wife, Eya—an exotic woman who was a weaver and, according to Kim, a Gypsy. I told her I simply wanted to thank her husband for the joy I had gotten in reading his books. She immediately invited me in to meet Kim and he suggested I stay with them for several days. Thus began an adventure at Tregerthen that I shall never forget—along with wonderful stories of the area: of D.H. Lawrence (of whom Kim had written some essays), and of Virginia Woolf who had stayed years before in a nearby cottage.

    Kim told me of Lawrence and Frieda (who was German) being harrassed by the locals during World War I. They accused the Lawrences of signalling to German u-boats offshore by hanging wash to dry on the line outside in code. The locals would clandestinely peek in the windows of the cottage and, at that, Lawrence would begin singing German drinking songs to perturb them.

    We would walk out through the bracken to the coastal footpath above Wicca Pool with spectacular views of the headlands.

    There was a farm in Lower Tregerthen owned by two sisters who had married college professors. I was told the professors quit their academic positions and began farming the land in an ancient way without modern equipment. Kim would take a break from writing in the afternoon and go help them scythe grain and stack it in little pyramids. I would go out and help. What an adventure.

    Kim was proud of his organic garden and his amazing cherry-red baked enamel Aga stove which not only was used for cooking but also heated the water and provided heating for the entire house. It went 24 hours a day. A fascinating time.

    I am currently writing an autobiography which I plan to make into a blog.

    • Donald: what a story! Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to tell it. I wrote a series of posts on DHL in Cornwall a year or so before this one, and on his story ‘Samson and Delilah’, which is mostly set in a pub based on the Tinner’s Arms. If you were interested, just type ‘Lawrence’ in the search box. The Woolfs used to stay also in St Ives at Talland House (now divided into flats), There’s a book about her, V. Bell and St Ives by Dell and Whybrow. It’s well known that Godrevy lighthouse in St Ives bay was the inspiration for To the Lighthouse.

  5. Hello,
    Interested in this Zennor related chat as I’ve just returned from 4 days walking the section of the Cornish Coast Path from Penzance to Hayle, two nights under canvas but one in the welcome comfort of Tregeraint House, a beautiful renovated 17th Cornish (farm?) house up the hill in Zennor. I was determined to visit Zennor mainly for its association with Lawrence and also for the interesting connection with John Wesley who addressed an audience of 300 there in the mid eighteenth century. Ate at the Tinner’s Arms the first evening and had quite a talk with the landlord about Lawrence’s time there. Lawrence’s description of the place’s rugged remoteness and ancient Celtic beauty is spot on. I found it moving in its sturdy simplicity and remoteness – despite being quite close by road – not coast path! – to both St Ives and Penzance). Have been inspired to write 2 poems about the place, one in the words of a young man who heard Wesley there in 1747/8 and another in the words of Lawrence during his time there in 1916/17. A very special place.

    • Helen: thanks for taking the trouble to comment – the wild beauty of this area is well evoked by DHL. I don’t know if you read my sequence of posts about his letters from his stay in the Zennor area; it was a strange and turbulent period in his and everyone’s life, and he evokes the ancient aura of the landscape superbly. I also posted on his powerful short story, Samson and Delilah, set in a village very like Zennor, and a pub very like the Tinner’s Arms. It would be good to see your poems, if you feel like sharing?

  6. Yes thankyou, Simon; I did find the discussion here very interesting, with useful extra information. I did a paper on D.H. at York Uni many years ago so and continue to find him interesting. As I do Katherine Mansfield, for different reasons. Also was very impressed by Zennor itself. I should like to share the poems, but as I have just submitted one for possible publication and you’re not supposed to have previously published it on any public media platform, I’m not sure what would be the best way to do that.

  7. The poems were submitted to ‘coverstorybooks’ which is planning a paperback anthology for the new year – and may well get nowhere of course, but one of the conditions is that they should be unpublished. I should know some time next month or so if they’ve been short-listed and either way, I could then share them if people were interested.

  8. Thought I’d share this after all, Simon. Why not, really?

    Lawrence in Zennor

    Yes, this should suit us well, far from the fret and heave of human life,
    a space of peace.
    Such a fine, wild landscape – the finest I have seen in all my travellings.
    A kind of paradise – I could be happy here.
    The mind can breathe – we can settle to our work,
    with like minds forge a new way.
    Six rough stone-walled fields from my window
    is the sea, I feel I hear its breathing out there
    through the day, its hush and rush. It takes us out, away.
    I feel the words and lines come crowding in, worlds
    building from the passions of our lives and loves.

    Yes, so I thought, thought I could escape smallness here
    with these grand shapes, the jutting profile
    of the Head, the stony tumble of the fields.
    And surely there was space
    for all of us, Katherine, Murray, Frieda, me,
    to be – and grow, but no; the littleness, the fear
    came creeping in to shrink and darken us.
    Banal complaints: the place too large, too small,
    the damp, the inconvenience,
    the awkward shape and pace of things,
    the surly silence of the working neighbourhood.
    How they diminish us, betray our better selves.

    And what we do to each other – the stupidity of that –
    the grief. How we feed the innocent the lies of honour, duty,
    serve them the myth of nationhood. What does that mean?
    I see the stoic faces quietly accept this myth
    of honour, duty, nationhood, turn from the land
    to follow that hollow call.
    I want to shout at them: Don’t listen to those lies!
    But they regard me warily.
    Old Celtic stock, the folk are quiet and plain with us,
    are rooted in their own truth, in myth memory
    that tunnels underneath the bright turf
    where they delve within the roar of waves.
    Some may be lost in that roar, the blindness it brings.
    Well, they may see a light and read it as the enemy
    or a signal to such, I’m told.

    And Frieda moves to the sea’s pulse; sometimes calm and lazy,
    sometimes dancing, sometimes turbulent.
    We move to each others’ moods, the flux and turn
    of moon-drawn tides.
    I have loved her boldness, reckless energy,
    but here it spills to carelessness –Volklieder
    in the lanes does not sit well with this community, not now,
    she should see that. So now we’re trapped in gossip,
    warped in the mirror of suspicious minds.

    A brave community this could have been,
    and this place carved from granite and the light,
    it could have been a paradise.
    In its sounding of the ancient ways it brought new possibility:
    it brought a hope and we have wasted it.

    September 26th, 2020

  9. As a child we spent very holiday in this cottage which my parents owned ( were given). There was no running water and no toilet but these were put in after many years.

    The big picture window upstairs as you know looked out over the sea where Frieda was supposedly sending messages to the Germans.

    We used to have people knocking on the door asking to see where DJ Lawrence and Frieda lived for a while. Also Katherine Mansfield for a short while.

    Obviously many many happy memories of Tregarthan Cottage.

    • No wonder Lawrence was so pleased by the low rent! How wonderful for you, Cass, though I suppose you were too young to appreciate the significance of the cottage’s former tenants. It’s a beautiful spot.

  10. Interesting to read your posts on Zennor and the Lawrentian connection, Simon. My first book, an illustrated translation of the Upanishads – ancient Indian spiritual texts – was designed by Kim Taylor, who lived in the cottage at the time (c.1980). I’m in the throes of re-issuing the book now, so those days are back in my mind.

      • Thanks Simon. The out of print original, with Kim’s design, is on my website and also amazon.co under The Upanishads + my name, at a huge price! I’ll give you a link to the re-issue when its ready – January I guess. I visited Kim a couple of times to work on the book, and loved the cottage of course, but didn’t stay as my in-laws lived in St. Mawgan where they ran the village school, so I was staying there on my Cornish visits.

        • Alistair: thanks for the update. Look forward to hearing about the reissue. Funny, KM and JM Murry found the cottage too basic – I daresay it’s all mod cons now. Beautiful location of course. I know St Mawgan well – nice pub there…

  11. Another interesting connection. The place seems to be a creative and reflective locus. There is a power in the stones and antiquity, I’m sure!..

  12. Pingback: Shadows & Reflections: 2020 in review – Moorland Musings & Murder Mystery

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