SECRET LANDSCAPES OF CORNWALL
A new book Hidden Landscapes of the South West Coast Path tells tales of this stretch of England’s coastline. We ask author RUTH LUCKHURST to share some of Cornwall’s secret spots
Some 375 million years ago, the Lizard peninsula sat in a molten layer 10km beneath the Earth’s surface, sandwiched between the Earth’s crust and the mantle below it. The collision of continental plates during a mountain-building period thrust this layer to the surface, punching it through the crust and the molten rocks lying above. Coverack beach is one of only three places in Britain where this fossilised Moho’ layer can be seen.
On its way to the surface, the Moho brought up a complete sequence of the rocks it passed through, and these can be seen nearby: serpentinite at Kynance Cove, gneiss and basalt at Kennack Sands. Around St Keverne, gabbro is overlain by loess’, a fine silt formed from Ice Age dust clouds. Up to 2m deep at Lowland Point, this has created a unique plant habitat, and it is one of only two places in Britain where Cornish heath (Erica vagans) grows. Lowland Point is also remarkable for its archaeological features, including some from prehistoric times.
3.West Penwith field systems
West Penwith, too, had a substantial prehistoric population. After rising sea levels cut Britain off from the continent, the roaming bands of hunter-gatherers settled down and started to cultivate the land. The earliest farmers, in Neolithic times, constructed earthen banks and stone hedges to establish the patchwork field systems around Land’s End, and they are the world’s oldest buildings still in use.
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When local antiquary WC Borlase excavated a mound of mining debris near Cape Cornwall, Ballowall Barrow yielded two pits that were possibly graves and five small stone-lined cists These were found to contain pottery, thought to have been cremation urns from the Bronze Age, and the surrounding apron covered an older Neolithic entrance grave’. There is another similar barrow at Chapel Carn Brea, on the heathland high above.
Newquay’s Trevelgue Head was an important trading centre right up to Roman times. There was a prehistoric bronze foundry here, and later iron was smelted, using ore from the caves that pit the headland. At certain states of the tide, water is thrown high into the air from a blowhole as the waves penetrate one of these caves.
6.Penally Point rocks
There is another blowhole at Boscastle’s Penally Point, where the underwater caverns boom with the sound of invading waves. The rocks around this headland were dramatically deformed during the mountain-building period, and they are punctuated with boulders of quartzite which was squeezed into cracks in the slate during all the upheavals.
Five much larger bodies of granite were intruded into the south west peninsula meanwhile, and the minerals circulating through the rocks resulted in the rich deposits of copper and tin that gave rise to Cornwall’s mining heritage. At Chapel Porth – where sixth-century St Piran washed up on a millstone before setting up a hermitage on the beach – the caves are multi-coloured and the cliffs are stained red by the minerals – or are they the bloodstains of the simple giant Bolster, who bled to death in the name of love?
The sixth-century Celtic saints arriving on the coastline in a bizarre assortment of vessels included St Ia near St Ives, St Carantoc at Crantock, Sts Meva and Issey at Mevagissey, St Constantine at Constantine Bay. Along with many others, they established hermitages and oratories around Cornwall to stem the flood of paganism. St Levan’s eponymous saint – great-grandson of St Constantine and brother of St Just – built himself a tiny cell that is still visible above the beach, and he climbed to the clifftop to sanctify the local pagans’ standing stone, splitting it with a single blow of his staff and erecting a cross beside it.
At Morwenstow, on the north border, the eccentric Reverend Hawker – who invited his cats to church but excommunicated them for mousing on a Sunday – built himself a driftwood hut at the top of the cliffs near his church. Here he would sit and smoke an opium pipe, often in the company of Alfred Lord Tennyson or Charles Kingsley. Hawker penned the Cornish anthem The Song of the Western Men and was instrumental in passing the law requiring shipwrecked sailors to be given a decent burial. He also instituted the Harvest Festival.
10.Queen Adelaide’s grotto
Another folly with a view of the waves is Mount Edgcumbe’s grotto above Penlee Point, built around a cave used as a lookout post. Edgcumbe’s strategic position over Plymouth Sound made it an important defence site, and many redoubts and batteries were located on Maker Heights during the Napoleonic Wars. Later, more than 20 of Lord Palmerston’s more serious follies were built around the Sound – costing £11m and intended to protect the Empire’s arsenals and dockyards, but never used. They are still a brooding presence at Tregantle, Cawsand, Polhawn and elsewhere.
Lavishly illustrated throughout Hidden Landscapes of the South West Coast Path tells the tale of England’s southwest coastline and highlights some of the fascinating features to be found along its 630-mile length. The story begins 600 million years ago, when the first rocks were laid down on an ancient seabed. After exposing all the geological rumpus that happened subsequently, and the physical processes that shaped the coastline, the narrative continues chronologically through its human history, from the Stone Age to the Cold War.
Author Ruth Luckhurst spent four years devising more than 500 short circular walks based on the South West Coast Path, as part of the National Trail’s Unlocking Our Coastal Heritage project. Being Cornish herself, she took particular pleasure in researching the features on this stretch of the coast path, relishing its giants, mermaids and Celtic saints, as well as the miners and fishermen, rocks and the wrecks, pilchards and pasties, and the sculpting of the coastline by wild Atlantic storms.
Hidden Landscapes of the South West Coast Path (Ruth Luckhurst). Published Halsgrove