SECRET CORNWALL: MULLION COVE
Mullion in the Lizard Peninsula,lies within an area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) three Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI)
Once home to the offspring of a brutal Russian dictator Mullion is probably better known for being an area of outstanding natural beauty. STEPHEN ROBERTS is seduced by the magic of Mullion near the Lizard.
Mullion (or Eglosvelyan for the Cornish speaking among you) sits on the Lizard Peninsula, around five miles south of Helston. Mullion lies within an area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and there are also three Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) within the parish. The area is truly blessed as much of the Lizard National Nature Reserve (NNR) is also tucked inside the parish.
The parish merits the term ancient thanks to for there is evidence of prehistoric burial mounds and Celtic crosses hereabouts. Mullion is recorded as Melyan in the Valor Ecclesiasticus (Church valuation), the survey of church finances carried out in 1535 on the orders of Henry VIII, which became an integral part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The parish actually takes its name from St Melaine, the 6th Century Bishop of Rennes in Brittany. He is a patron saint in these parts of Cornwall due to a tradition of him having visited the area.
The main village of Mullion lies in the north of the parish and is about one mile from the coast, which is to the west. The village resides at the end of two steep river valleys, which plummet south-west to meet the sea at Polurrian and Mullion Coves. Ironically Polurrian Cove is actually nearer to the village than the cove, which carries its name. North of the village is a third river valley, which heads off east to empty into the sea at Poldhu Cove. Just south of the latter cove is a memorial to Guglielmo Marconi, as it was from here that the first Morse wireless message was transmitted across the Atlantic in December 1901.
Mullion itself has the distinction of being the largest settlement on the Lizard Peninsula and represents an important centre for the community with its shops, amenities and services, as well as being a magnet for tourists. Mullion is no museum piece or remote village struggling to prosper in the day of the ubiquitous second home, however, as there is young life here. With a population of some 2,300, Mullion has also been lauded as the largest village in the county.
The village centre bustles with its mix of shops, galleries, craft shops, pubs and cafes. It is also a delight to walk around as the village clearly takes its appearance seriously. We found a community garden complete with rock fountain, a splash of colour decorating an old boat and a pick your own herb garden near to the car park - talk about community spirit!
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The 13th Century parish church is exquisite, although it should be said that little now remains before the 15th Century. The church was known as St Melan’s (from St Melaine), until the early part of the 20th Century, but is known today as St Melanus. The church is most famed for its eclectic mix of oak bench ends dating from around 1535, which portray some surprisingly bawdy scenes and everybody from a monk and a jester to Jonah and the whale. They are rightly praised as amongst the best in the whole of the West Country. The squat tower is made from granite and serpentine, the local multi-coloured stone found on the Lizard. In the main, sturdy 13th Century door is a dog door’, the canine equivalent of a cat flap, which allowed free access to the local sheep dog. The approach to the church is idyllic, with a dry-stone wall to the left, which was covered in pink, white and yellow flowers.
There was also a small Roman Catholic Church on the edge of the village, an attractive white building with a sweet little tower surmounted by miniature battlements. There was a hedge to the side and a profusion of wild flowers to the front. What’s not to like?
The land around the village is noted for its fertility, encouraging arable farming and the keeping of livestock, which allied with fishing and tourism, account for most livelihoods in the area.
Remote as it may be, Mullion has had its flirtations with fame. When Francis Drake sailed on the high seas, he thrice included James Erisey, born at Erisey House, near Mullion, in his ship’s company. He was with Drake when the Spanish Armada was engaged in 1588. Ernest Pitcher was born at Mullion and was awarded the Victoria Cross in August 1917 for gallantry during action in the Bay of Biscay. Squadron Leader Geoffrey Wellum DFC, was a Battle of Britain fighter pilot who retired to Mullion. Wellum also became an acclaimed author for his book First Light about his experiences as a wartime fighter pilot. Finally and perhaps most bizarrely, the only daughter of none other than Russian dictator Joseph Stalin resided in the village. Svetlana Alliluyeva (better known to those around her as Lana Peters) spent part of her life living in this tranquil part of Cornwall in the 1990s, and despite her relative poverty her life contrasted totally with the fate suffered by the many millions of victims of her father’s purges. Perhaps less suprising is the fact that no-one knew her true identity at the time.
She had defected to the US in 1967 and became a British citizen later in her life. Her Cornish doctor was one of the few people who knew her true identity. She died in 2011.
To the south of the village, the land rises up to a plateau, Predannack Downs, which is where you can find the former World War II airfield, which now serves as a satellite of RNAS Culdrose. During the war the airfield served as a fighter base, protecting the nearby ports of Falmouth and Penzance.
As we left the village and headed for its eponymous Cove, which is also part of the parish, the sun disappeared behind clouds for a period. That was just about acceptable though as in between the village and Mullion Cove can be found Mullion Meadows, a development of Cornish barns, now home to Cornish craft shops.
Walking into the Cove, the appearance of clouds only seemed to enhance its brooding majesty, with views from the harbour side towards the uninhabited bulky mass of Mullion Island, which lies approximately half a mile offshore. The island is owned by the National Trust today and is home to large colonies of sea birds, especially guillemots and fulmars. That would explain the quantities of screaming gulls that greeted our arrival with a symphonic chorus. The actual cove itself is tiny and sandy, but only reveals itself at low tide.
One thing we appreciated about Mullion Cove was finding the tea-room straight away, with its picture windows overlooking the slipway. It did a very presentable all day breakfast and a pot of tea to die for. All this exploring can make you hungry and thirsty.
Mullion Cove is majestic with towering cliffs and sea-stacks, speckled with yellow lichen, which tells us something about the healthy purity of the air There is a narrow inlet here, enclosed with substantial piers, which give a reassuring sense of protection and safety.
The whole place is splendidly cliff-walled. Mullion Harbour, or Porth Mellin has also been in the care of the National Trust since 1945 and has a quaint cobbled slipway, which had a dozen colourful boats hauled up on the day we visited. The Rev CA Johns, writing towards the end of the 19th Century, mentions a watermill in the valley leading to the cove.
Dating back to 1895, to the days when pilchard was king, the harbour is still used by local fishermen today, with lobster and crab being landed. Lord Robartes of Lanhydrock, who took pity on the fishermen here after several heartbreakingly poor pilchard seasons, financed its building. It’s not a particularly startling revelation to discover that there was also smuggling going on here. There is a cave, which may have been used by smugglers, but again is only accessible when the tide is out. The whole scene here is storybook.
There used to be a lifeboat station at Mullion Cove, but this was withdrawn as long ago as 1908, with the boathouse being demolished.
The Mullion Cove Hotel sits on top of the cliffs overlooking the harbour. Rather aptly, given that dogs were clearly welcome in the church, the hotel advertises itself as dog friendly, with a free dog friendly welcome pack, outdoor washing facilities and a sea view lounge, where man’s best friend is welcome.
All this exploring, taking on of knowledge and talk of dogs had made us both feel unaccountably thirsty, so it was time to leave Mullion Cove and head off to find another quaint Cornish tea room. We were happy, however, that we had reacquainted ourselves with Mullion after all those years.
We’ll try not to leave it so long next time.
This article first appeared in April 2015 issue of Cornwall Life