Mousehole, which was once described by Welsh poet Dylan Thomas as the ‘loveliest village’, has retained its picturesque beauty despite an interesting and at times volatile past as myCornwall editor Mark Pugh found out.
The poet’s comments about Mousehole, as it is known in the English language, followed his marriage to Caitlin Macnamara in 1937. The origins of the village’s name seem to vary, with some sources like Edmond’s ‘The Land’s End District’ saying that the name ‘Mousehole’ derives from the hole or cavern in the cliff to the south. Competing with that theory is that of the Rev W. S. Lach-Szyrma, the Vicar of Newlyn St Peter, who wrote in 1878 that the name ‘Mousehole’ is “probably a corruption of an earlier Celtic form, though it was also commonly known among the old Cornish by the descriptive term of Port Ennis or the Port of the Island (referring to St Clement’s Island close to it).”
Other sources state that the name derives from the small brook running through the town (also referrenced in Edmond’s book). Despite its small size and location the village used to be of greater importance than its neighbours Newlyn and Penzance. Back in 13th century Cornwall, Mousehole was referred to as a town and was one of two main commercial centres in the Mounts Bay area, the other being Marazion, and it remained that way until the 16th century.
These days the stunning harbour and pretty narrow streets attract a lot of visitors during the summer months and again in winter for the magnificent display of harbour lights in November and December,. However, not all visitors to the area have been so welcome.
In 1595 a group of 400 Spanish men, led by their commander Carlos de Amésquita, attacked the village and razed nearly all of it to the ground. So destructive were the invaders that following the invasion of the village, which took place during the time of the Anglo-Spanish war of 1585-1604, only the pub remained standing.
The former Keigwin Arms which is still standing but is no longer a pub, has a plaque with the words ‘Squire Jenkyn Keigwin was killed here 23rd July 1595 defending this house against the Spaniards.’
The invaders, who went on to attack other local towns and villages, met with little resistance. Sadly the militias of the area, who were charged with its defence, fled the invading Spanish. It was not until Francis Godolphin, the Deputy Lord Lieutenant of Cornwall, and his men started to offer resistance in Marazion, with the aid of reinforcments coming in from the east, that the Spanish boarded their ships and left. Sadly this was was too late for Mousehole.
Throughout its history the village’s economy has mainly revolved around fishing. Mousehole, whose fleet fished for pilchards and mackerel, was known as one of the centres of the Cornish fishing trade.
In 1292 Edward I granted permission for the town to run a market; the most westerly of markets on the British mainland. The quay was built a century later which helped protect the fishing boats in the harbour. Greater protection was created when the seven hundred foot long southern pier was built in 1887, with the northern pier being completed in 1888.
Thanks to its setting, Mousehole has always had an important relationship with the sea, partly because of its former fishing trade, but also because of the location of the Penlee Point based lifeboat station and the fact that men from the town have manned the lifeboat since the station’s creation in 1913.
Penlee Lifeboat and its crew were involved in numerous rescues but sadly it is disaster that has brought the most attention.
The Penlee lifeboat disaster occurred on 19th December 1981 when the Penlee Lifeboat ‘Solomon Browne’ went to the aid of the coaster ‘Union Star’ after its engines failed in heavy seas. The lifeboat’s crew had managed to remove four people but sadly all of those aboard both vessels lost their lives.
Despite the disaster and the relocation of the lifeboat station to Newlyn, volunteers from Mousehole have still come forward to man the boat for the RNLI.The effects of the sea upon the town are also highlighted in the story of the actions of the legendary Tom Bawcock. The story goes that the people of Mousehole were suffering badly because of the huge gales and stormy seas.
The fishing boats were unable to put out to sea and this resulted in the population being close to starvation. One man, by the name Tom Bawcock, braved the storm and brought back a haul of seven types of fish.
The villagers were saved. By way of rememberence the village celebrate Tom’s legendary deed on the 23rd of December each year when people gather to eat ‘Star Gazy Pie,’ so called because of the fishheads that poke out of the crust of the specially made fish pie.
The town is a magnet for visitors throughout the summer, mainly due to its picturesque beauty. The narrow streets, granite houses and stunning harbour draw visitors by the car load. In the winter months it is quieter except for those who visit to see the harbour lights. The lights, whose switch on ceremony can attract several thousand, range from simple coloured lights strung between lamp posts, to the more adventurous sea serpents and sailboats fixed to the harbour wall.
One of the most interesting is the Celtic Cross located on St Clement’s Island which is powered by wind generator. The lights are switched on at 5pm and remain on until 11pm each night from 17th December to the 3rd January. There is one exception to this continuous evening display of colour. On 19th December each year the bright lights are dimmed from 8pm to 9pm in memory of the brave men of the Solomon Browne Lifeboat who lost their lives on that stormy night in 1981.
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