Cornish Gardens: Godolphin

The garden at Godolphin is a Scheduled Ancient Monument; the side garden is a pre-Renaissance garden with a layout still recognisable after 700 years. It includes three compartments from the original nine which surrounded the 14th century Godolphin Castle.

When the new house was built in 1475, the Godolphins created a new nine-square garden to the east. A 200 year old box hedge lines the path in the lowest compartment of the side garden from where you can walk on one of the original boundary wall walks.

Open throughout the year - Goldophin in the snow

Open throughout the year – Goldophin in the snow

The Kings Garden is a 16th century privy garden named after the 1646 visit by the Prince of Wales, later King Charles II. The north wall in the Kings Garden is also the back wall of the stable block and contains bee boles with bee skeps. There is the remains of a 17th century orchard with a cider house in the centre which is sparsely planted now but would once have contained many fruit and ornamental trees.

Outside the garden walls there is woodland and the remains of the former deer park. Exploring Godolphin Hill one can find evidence of prehistoric enclosures, early mine workings, medieval field systems and ‘pillow mounds’- artificial rabbit warrens.

Ancient Roots

The defining feature of the garden is the archaeology which indicates its ancient origins. The garden is Grade 1 listed and a Scheduled Ancient Monument; the archaeology of the site is ongoing limiting the work that can be carried out in the garden.

The Gardener

“My name is Juliet Turner and I am the new Gardener-in-Charge at Godolphin. I have been in the post about five weeks and have been getting to know my colleagues and to recognise the priorities that will define the work that I undertake this year. There is much work to do in the garden and I hope to get the garden lifted with colour and planting to renew its beauty but to always keep the air of tranquillity and timelessness that makes Godolphin so hauntingly evocative. New to the garden next year will be a gardener’s Bothy for the visitors to sit in and read information about the garden. There will also be the new vegetable and cut flower beds to enjoy.”

 

Open daily from 10am – 4pm, 7 days a week

Godolphin, Godolphin Cross, Helston, Cornwall, TR13 9RE

Tel: 01736 763194

 

Want to see more like this?

Subscribe to myCornwall magazine here for the very best of Cornwall’s food, culture, events, art, heritage, personalities and places.

Coves and Beaches of Cornwall

Bill Oakley escapes the crowds and looks at a few of the lesser-known coves, beaches and bays of Cornwall.

At more than 300 miles the Cornish coast is one of the longest in the UK (430 miles including the Isles of Scilly) and although one of the best known it can still surprise even the most intrepid traveller with the many sheltered coves and unknown inlets. To hear, “we had the whole beach to ourselves”, is not uncommon, and a spot of cove-hunting is a chance for real adventure as you seek-out a stretch of secluded sand all for yourself.

Porthgwarra

Porthgwarra

Some coves are only a minute away from a car park, whilst access to others can come and go with the storms. Either way, if you’re willing to head off the beaten track there are many hidden gems with something for everyone and every occasion. What follows is by no means a comprehensive list, but rather a guide and a few suggestions to get you started. Stay safe and have fun.

Bearing the brunt of the Atlantic Ocean, the north coast offers golden beaches and the opportunity to discover many caves pummelled out of the rock. It is consequently one of the most varied shorelines of Britain, and you will not be bored amongst the plethora of wild flowers such as kidney vetch and bladder campion. Be sure to keep an eye on the skies for Falco perigrinus, better known as the Peregrine Falcon. There are about 50 pairs on the North Cornish coast, nesting on rocky outcrops far out of reach and often out of view.

Not particularly secret but well worth a visit, Crackington Haven near Bude is a great beach to take the family. Work up an appetite with the good surf that can be found here and then head to the Coombe Barton Inn for an extensive fish menu and a pint of the local ale. Further west is Tintagel; an area steeped in Arthurian Legend. You can pretend to be the great King himself as you wade ashore to tiny Tintagel Haven where Merlin is said to have rescued young Arthur after he was shipwrecked.

With it’s rocky outcrops this whole area is typical of the North coast and particularly good for cave-hunting. Continue south a few miles toward Port Isaac for peaceful Port Quin. It is signed not far from the St Endellion Church, and was tragically abandoned when the entire male population drowned at sea in the late 17th Century.

For the kids head to dog-friendly Daymer Bay near Wadebridge. The large car park and nearby facilities make for a comfortable day out, but also mean the area is popular. To escape the crowds walk 500m North from the car park to the Greenaway. Here you can find a few secluded pools for a spot of snorkelling beneath the houses there. If instead your are feeling a little more in the mood for history, pay a visit to the final resting place of Cornish poet laureate Sir John Betjemen at St Enodoc Church, Trebetherick.

St Anthony Head lighthouse

St Anthony Head lighthouse

West of Padstow, another dog-freindly bay is Treyarnon. Again, it is particularly good for children for two reasons: it has lifeguards in the summer, but perhaps best of all, a large natural rock pool big enough to dive into. North of Padstow is Hawker’s Cove, created by the formidable stretch of sand which has wrecked many a vessel, known as the Doom Bar. Explore the ancient well and Napoleonic fortifications, 15 minutes away at St. George’s Cove.

A personal favourite in the area is Long Cove on the north east coast of Trevose Head, in Mother Ivey’s Bay. As the name suggests, this small inlet is long and narrow, and if you are lucky enough to find that you have it all to yourself it will feel like your very own private bay.

Situated 8 miles north of Newquay is Pentire Steps. This little-visited cove is actually a northern extension of better-known Bedruthan Steps, separated by Diggory’s Island at high-tide. Look out for signs to Pentire Farm. Head west of Newquay meanwhile, from Perranpoth to Crantock on the A3075 and continue to the West Pentire car park. A ten minute walk from here will lead you to the alluring and often deserted Porth Joke.

Further west along the north coast are some seriously secluded coves dotted around Navax Point near Godrevy. Leave the car at one of the few small car parks beside the road and keep your eyes peeled for many discreet footpaths snaking off into the gorse. Not all lead to the coast, but if you pick a winner you’ll be confronted by spectacular private bays with inviting turquoise water.

Beware however, the climb down can be treacherous so take care. Experienced divers hunt bass with harpoon guns in this area. Keep an ear out for the odd ice cream van that frequents the vicinity, or drive to The Sandsifter at Godrevy for something a bit more substantial.

Continuing west into the Penwith area about a mile north of Zennor village, is the homeplace of Morveren the Mermaid at Pendour Cove. Such is her beauty, she is reputed to have lured local lad Matthew Trewella into the sea, so listen for his fabled singing. If you get bored continue to the nearby Tinner’s Arms pub which dates back to 1271.

bedruthan Steps

Carnewas and Bedruthan Steps

Drive down the B3306 toward Morvah for the little-known gem that is Portheras Cove. It may not be the easiest to find, but you won’t regret the effort: this is a real locals’ beach. From the Pendeen lighthouse walk east along the coast for about half a mile. Debris from a shipwreck in 1963 prohibited access to some areas, although today it is completely clear, so don’t worry! Seals are often sighted here.

Something a little more pleasant than razor-sharp metal will be the gorse and heather which, ablaze in purples and golds, is a contrast to the rugged, granite coastline of Land’s End. Unspoilt Cot Valley, near St Just, is a typical example as it leads to quiet Porth Nanven Cove. Here you should be able to see Brisons Rock – the point to which an annual swim takes place from Priest’s Cove just off from Cape Cornwall.

With a chance to see Dusky Warblers, Skylarks and Stonechats, bird-watchers may want to stop by Porthgwarra, SE of Sennen. Serious cove hunters however, will want to walk about 2 miles north of Porthgwarra along the coast for Nanjizal Bay. Not only has this secluded cove featured in an episode of Dr.Who, it also has a distinctive narrow slit in it’s cliffs known as the ‘Song of the Sea’ arch. Carry on east along the B3315 to the hamlet of Treen for the alluring lagoons and seductive sand bars of Pedn Vounder Sands.

Much like Land’s End, the neighbouring Lizard peninsula has a rugged coastline but is still remarkably different. It’s name derives from the Kernewek word, “Lys Ardh”, meaning “high court”, and the Serpentine rock which can be found at beautiful Kynance Cove forms a basis for the otherwise rare Cornish Heath.

About 3 miles north of Kynance is Mullion Cove. Look out for the old pilchard cellar and harbour wall which was funded by Lord Robartes of Lanhydrock in 1895 as recompense for a bad seasons’ fishing. Whilst there is little sand here, it is a good place to grab a drink before walking 20 minutes north along the cliffs to Polurrian, where there is surf to be had.

Good surfing can also be found on the other side of the Lizard at Kennack Sands, near Kuggar. A car park, food hut and nearby campsite can make this beach a little crowded in peak tourist season, so head over the hill to the quieter part. Remember to pack the fishing gear as it is a hot-spot for bass.

Walk 3km east of Kennack on the scenic coastal path to reach Lankidden Cove. Again, there is good bass fishing here as well as great snorkelling. The footpath crosses ancient settlements and hill forts, dating back to the iron age. Perhaps even better snorkelling can be had north at Porthkerris. About 1.5 miles from St Keverne, this shingle beach is privately owned and accessed off the Porthoustock to Porthallow road. It attracts many divers who explore the shipwrecks of the Manacles Rocks, as well as fishermen for the abundant mackerel.

Heading north east past the Helford Estuary is the outstanding Roseland peninsula. With it’s quaint villages and gentle bays, it is a refreshing contrast to the bolder-strewn coast of the Lizard. Leave the car at St Anthony Head and walk a 30 minute pilgrimage east to Porthbeor Beach. This long stretch of sand reveals numerous rock pools at low tide which are great fun to explore.

Around 9 miles south of St Austell is Dodman Point, a headland which is home to a few beaches that are well worth a visit. On the west-side of the headland is Hemmick Beach located near Gorran Haven and is complete with it’s own National Trust car park. On the east is the shingle/sand of Vault Beach which is part-naturist.

At nearby Caerhays Castle, the screen adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca was filmed. However, the inspiration is said to have come from a cove further east near Fowey, called Polridmouth. Before reaching Fowey turn right onto the A3082, take the next left and park the car at Menabilly. The beach is a 20 minute walk away. Here Du Maurier is reputed to have swam naked and today you can still see the red and white striped Gribbin Head Daymark which is open to the public for a short period in September each year.

Further east along the south coast past Fowey is Polperro and Lantivet Bay. This region is synonymous with smuggling thanks to a smattering of small secretive sandy beaches. Drive to the village of Lansallos near West Coombe and leave the car at the church for Lansallos Bay. This beautiful cove is also home to a small waterfall which once drove a mill.

For something even more secretive, walk about 500m west to find Palace Cove. The descent can be hard-going, so take care. Finally, another must-visit gem of the area is Great Lantic Beach, situated east of Polruan. Leave the car at the National Trust car park and walk 20 minutes across farmland. Again, the descent can be tricky with a steep cliff path. Your legs will be feeling it the next morning, but it will be well worth it.

 

Want to see more like this?

‘The Cornish Coast: Cove Hunters’ is taken from our August/September 2011, Vol.2 Issue 7. Subscribe to myCornwall magazine for more stories like this one.

A History of Mousehole

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.

Mousehole Harbour

Mousehole Harbour (MarkPugh).

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

The former Keigwin Arms (Mark Pugh).

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.

Penlee Lifeboat Station

The old Penlee Lifeboat Station (Mark Pugh).

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.

 

Want to see more like this?

Subscribe to myCornwall magazine here for the very best of Cornwall’s food, culture, events, art, heritage, personalities and places.

Scenic Connections: The Cornish Railway

Pete London travels through some of the most beautiful of landscapes on board some of the branch line locomotives of Cornwall.

Dr Richard Beeching had a lot to answer for; his infamous ‘axe’, wielded for the Government during the mid-1960s, led to cutbacks of local railway lines throughout Britain which widely affected rural areas. In Cornwall, closures included parts of the North Cornwall Railway and the West Cornwall Railway. Today though, across the Duchy five scenic branch lines have survived, meandering through beautiful countryside away from the bustle of main-line services; they offer great car-free days out, often to places you might otherwise overlook.

Calstock Viaduct above the River Tamar

Calstock viaduct (railimage.com)

The fourteen-mile Tamar Valley line connects Plymouth and Gunnislake. Along the eastern river bank, the route passes Devonport naval dockyard and Brunel’s Royal Albert Bridge, before entering Cornwall over the towering, dramatic Calstock viaduct. The valley was once part of the richest copper mining area in Europe; along the way, amidst the countryside views industrial ruins can still be made out, overgrown and softened by lush green woodland. Some of the most attractive walks accessible from the railway are around Gunnislake, and the village has shops, pubs and cafes for refreshments.

In south-east Cornwall, the nine-mile Looe Valley branch line begins at Liskeard, and for much of its route follows the valley of the East Looe River. We’re lucky it’s still with us; in 1966, just two weeks before it was due to close as part of Beeching’s cuts, the line was reprieved by the Minster of Transport Barbara Castle. Liskeard’s station is near the town centre; visit on a Thursday to take in the weekly livestock market. The route to Looe passes below the Cornish east-west mainline and the A.38 road, before heading south under the Liskeard viaduct.

Looe Valley’s station names belong to a bygone era: Coombe Junction Halt, Sandplace, St Keyne Wishing Well Halt. After a short stretch following the old Liskeard and Looe Union Canal, at St Keyne break your journey to visit the ancient holy well. Drop into the Magnificent Music Machines Museum, a unique collection of phonographs and player pianos; there’s even a mighty Wurlitzer organ which the owner, Paul Corin, will demonstrate for you.

At Causeland one of the old canal locks can still be seen while the nearby village of Duloe has a thirteenth-century church, and a stone circle of white quartz probably dating from the Bronze Age. As your single-carriage train unhurriedly pulls into Looe you can enjoy the beautiful view across the harbour, then stroll through the old-world streets. If you have kids with you, wander down to the beach by Banjo Pier and try a spot of crabbing.

The twenty-mile Atlantic Coast Line links Par on the south coast with the broad sands of Newquay. It’s a journey which for the most part traces the route of the old Cornwall Minerals Railway and the even earlier Par Canal, among often-changing scenery.

Looe Valley Line (Pete London).

Looe Valley Line (Peter London

Passing through the thick woods of Luxulyan Valley and under Joseph Treffry’s imposing Victorian viaduct, the single line emerges on to Goss Moor nature reserve; to the west is the pale, eerie landscape of St Austell’s china-clay industry. The fifty-minute ride ends at Newquay’s holiday resort and wild Atlantic breakers but if peace and quiet are more your thing, a short walk takes you to the tranquillity of Trenance Gardens.

Connecting Truro with Falmouth is the Maritime Line, a ride of around twelve miles. The journey takes twenty-five minutes and after Penwithers junction near Truro the line’s single-track to Falmouth, except for a passing point recently installed at Penryn. Tunnels feature twice, the first just outside Truro before Sparnick Tunnel is reached, more impressive at over a quarter of a mile in length.

As the route moves south it crosses Carnon Viaduct high above Restronguet Creek, long since silted up. Below, perpendicular to the line runs the Mineral Tramway heritage trail connecting Devoran with Portreath, enjoyed by walkers and cyclists.

The St Ive Bay line (Image Rail).

The St Ive Bay line (Image Rail).

Perranwell station is charming, its buildings and restored artefacts evoking earlier times – though the platform’s tiny shelter is a modern reproduction of an older style. Over viaducts at Perranwell, Ponsanooth and Penryn, on a clear day the Maritime Line provides a striking view of the river toward Falmouth.

Penryn’s Collegewood Viaduct was the last timber-spanned railway viaduct built in Cornwall, replaced by the current stone and masonry construction during 1934, though the original piers still stand. Falmouth hosts three stations in quick succession; Penmere serves the western residential area, Falmouth Town sits nearby the National Maritime Museum, while at the end of the line Falmouth Docks is handy for a visit to Pendennis Castle or the sea front, with great outlooks across the harbour.

Westernmost of Cornwall’s scenic railways, the St Ives Bay Line links Rose-an-Grouse, just off the A30 near St Erth, with the seaside and port of St Ives. Like Looe Valley’s line, the route came under scrutiny during the 1960s but was reprieved; it’s only around four miles long and the journey takes just twelve minutes but again, the views are enchanting. St Erth is an old-fashioned railway station with character, and boasts a buffet chosen as a favourite track-side tearoom in a top-ten list published by the Guardian.

Single-track along its entire length and so operated by only one train, initially the St Ives Bay Line follows the Hayle River’s western bank, passing through two miniature stations before turning west. The coast is famous for its glorious sandy beaches at Carbis Bay and Porthminster; the railway traces the cliff edge, close by Cornwall’s Coastal Path.

Arriving at St Ives by rail certainly provides a more restful experience than driving, especially during the summer, while the views across to Godrevy lighthouse and west to the town simply aren’t to be had from the road. At the height of the holiday season a two-carriage train trundles back and forth, but through the winter months a single car is sufficient.

The Hayle estuary is an RSPB nature reserve. Throughout the year the area offers a great opportunity to watch birdlife, mostly waders and seabirds though occasionally there are sightings of peregrine falcons and ospreys. Oystercatchers, curlews, egrets and cormorants thrive, together with wildfowl such as teal and widgeon; during spring and autumn there’s also the chance to see migrant birds. Along East Looe’s valley too birdlife flourishes, especially between Sandplace and Looe where the river begins to widen toward its mouth.

Autumn, winter and the early spring are the best times for the birds, mostly waders: curlew, dunlin, redshanks. Both the Hayle and East Looe are also home to the stately grey heron, and the big cheerful-looking shelduck.

Atlantic Coast Line

Luxulyan Valley (Pete London).

Part of the journey’s appeal is exploring the countryside surrounding the stations. Walking trails have been developed by the Devon & Cornwall Rail Partnership, under the Trails from the Track initiative. The Partnership was formed in 1991, to improve local railway services and promote travel on rural branch lines. Circular or linear, the trails begin and end at stations and vary from easy ambles to more challenging hikes.

Typical is the five-mile circular walk from the Tamar Valley’s Gunnislake station. You’ll pass along the river bank and find the tiny sixteenth-century stone crossing at Newbridge, before cutting inland. At Clitters Wood eerie overgrown mining remains can still be seen, reminders of the area’s industrial past when copper, tin and arsenic were extracted. A return is made via Chilsworthy Halt, part of the old railway axed in the sixties, and through the quiet hamlet of Delaware.

On the Maritime Line, Perranwell village provides an accessible stroll: peaceful lanes, bridleways, maybe a stretch of the nearby mineral tramway trail. Near the St Ives line is a memorable walk past the birds of the Hayle estuary, west though the grassy dunes, and across the cliff top to Carbis Bay.

From the bay’s broad sands it’s just over a mile to Porthminster beach, with St Ives nearby. Typical of the Looe Valley walks is the four-miler between Causeland and Sandplace, which takes in the standing stone circle and the local church. Trails from the Track information packs can be downloaded.

The Looe Valley Line (Image Rail).

The Looe Valley Line (Image Rail).

And after all that healthy exercise, what better than to reward yourself with a pint or two of refreshing real ale? Each of Cornwall’s branch lines has a nearby Rail Ale Trail, so you can combine your journey with sampling the local brews. You’ll find traditional, out-of-the-way pubs you wouldn’t otherwise have discovered, and for souvenir hunters there are various collectibles on offer as you build up your visits. Most of the pubs serve food, and as well as their usual beers many feature guest ales; the Rail Ale Trail’s website has full details of what’s on offer.

All Cornwall’s scenic routes are operated by the First Great Western Company, supported by the Devon and Cornwall Rail Partnership. Through means such as line guides and support to leisure opportunities, passenger numbers are growing; great news in ensuring the links stay open. If you’d prefer someone else to do the driving while you explore some of the most beautiful countryside the Duchy has to offer, make a date with Cornwall’s branch lines.

The writer would like to Rebecca Catterall, Development Officer with the Devon and Cornwall Rail Partnership, for her generous help, together with the following suppliers of images: Ray Bentley, Lyn Winter, and Image Rail.

 

Want to see more like this?

Subscribe to myCornwall magazine here for the very best of Cornwall’s food, culture, events, art, heritage, personalities and places.

Stitch in Time: A story of Cornwall’s knit-frock tradition

Megan Westley unravels the history of Cornish knit-frocks and guernseys

Over a century ago, in cottage gardens all around the coast of Cornwall, the gentle clacking of knitting needles would have been a common sound. Equally as common would be the sight of an indigo blue jumper – though the intricate pattern each man bore on his chest would rarely be seen on another.

Two young Polperro girls, Mary Jane Langmaid and Elizabeth Jolliff knitting

Final stages of construction in these knit-frocks, showing the skills of two young Polperro girls, Mary Jane Langmaid and Elizabeth Jolliff.

The tradition of Cornish guernseys and knit-frocks has its roots firmly in the fishing industry which once dominated this region. Guernsey jumpers themselves are not uniquely Cornish – they have been made all over Britain for many years. Named from the knitting industry that found success in the Channel Islands, guernseys were nevertheless seen throughout the British mainland thanks to strong sea links.

Those produced in Cornwall, however, have a distinct history all their own. The pattern of each garment showed, to a certain extent, the place in which it was made. Each fishing family wore hand-knitted guernseys in their ‘family pattern,’ meaning that if either fisherman or jumper was lost, its wearer could be identified. Naturally, in different parts of Cornwall patterns could be replicated by chance, but within small communities this identification process would have worked.

On a practical level, the jumpers were well-suited for fishermen as their thick, tightly knitted wool provided vital warmth and protection from the sea-spray and blustery winds that could hit when out on the waves. If well-made, they could last for more than twenty years and became an item of clothing for all occasions. Young boys were given oversized guernseys that reached their knees; something to ‘grow into.’

Thomas and Elizabeth Mark of Polperro with their children in knit-frocks

Seamen wore their best knit-frocks for family photographs. Thomas and Elizabeth Mark of Polperro with their children Joan, Nell, Mary, Kate, John and Tom. The caps were known as ‘cheese cutters.’ 1890

The tradition of knitting guerseys began as early as the 17th century in the Channel Islands. Around the same time, a Cornish industry in hand-spinning began to form, using the wool from local sheep to make yarn that could be sold at markets. This was largely a female occupation – women would receive deliveries of raw wool, to be spun into yarn at home. By the end of the 18th century, the invention of new machinery made these hand-spinners redundant. To fill the gap, hand-knitting developed as a popular pastime.

Although knitting is popularlyassociated with dark winter evenings in front of a roaring fire, before the days of homes lit by electricity people often knitted outdoors for better light. The method they followed was also different to that which we use today. Most women used a holder; a piece of hardwood around twenty centimetres long, which could be hooked onto a belt or waistband.

This acted as a sort of ‘anchor,’ or stand, for one of the needles, meaning that it no longer had to be held; leaving one hand free for faster working. These holders, known as knitting sticks, were made from wood and decorated with ornate designs. They were often used as gifts, with men buying sticks carved with hearts or their initials for their sweethearts. The needles used for a traditional guernsey were made of steel, very thin in width, and pointed at both ends. During the First World War, shortages led to some women improvising by using bicycle or umbrella spokes.

Guernseys became so iconically associated with fishing that the eccentric Reverend Hawker of Morwenstow made a point of choosing to wear them instead of clerical robes, describing himself as a ‘fisher of men.’ The traditional dress of a clergyman was cast aside in favour of a three-quarter length coat, ‘blue fisherman’s jersey’ and long boots.

Though Hawker’s life was far removed from that of a fisherman, he did have a remarkable affinity with those who made their living on the sea. He made it a personal quest to give drowned men a Christian burial; scrambling down the cliffs whenever there was a wreck to retrieve the bodies and carry them safely to shore. His unusual costume, featuring at least two differently patterned guernseys, can be seen in several of the photographs and sketches made during his later years.

Nowhere in Cornwall is the practice of knitting guernseys – or knit-frocks – as well-recorded as in Polperro. In a village dominated by its relationship with the sea, most residents worked within the fishing industry, either on or off shore.

Charles Jolliff (1808 - 1887) and Polperro fisherman Jim Curtis, holding his daughter kate, born in 1874

Charles Jolliff (1808 – 1887), seated left next to his eldest son Charles (jnr). The Polperro fisherman on the right, Jim Curtis, is holding his daughter kate, born in 1874

Those not casting the nets themselves might be employed making boats, cleaning, washing and salting fish, or manufacturing ropes and nets. Wives and mothers with husbands and sons out at sea, spent much of their time knitting outside. In tight-knit communities (so to speak), making knit-frocks could be a social activity, with children learning to join in as soon as they could work the needles. It was also a possible career route: in 1851, 28 women and girls were employed as knitters in this small village.

At the beginning of the 20th century, women could earn 3s. 6d. for a ‘fancy’ knit-frock, and between 2s. 6d. and 2s. 9d. for a plain one. A skilled knitter could make one knit-frock a week; not bad when a domestic servant earned only an average of 9d. each week. It wasn’t just in Polperro that money could be made this way. Contract knitting became a good money-making venture for women whose husbands worked away, either in foreign climes or on the sea. Many had young children to care for and were not able to go out to work as single women might. By 1901, almost 6,500 wives had husbands working in a maritime trade.

82 portraits of Polperro fishermen by Lewis Harding

The famous panel of 82 portraits of Polperro fishermen taken by Lewis Harding during the 19th century. All are named.

Contract knitters became a vital cog in an expanding home industry, often producing garments for an agent who visited once a week or once a month. Generally, the agent supplied yarn, the knitter made a guernsey, and the agent collected the work to be sold. Other knitters took their finished items to a shop, though this often resulted in being paid in kind, rather than in cash. In Looe, one shopkeeper refused to pay anyone with money, and instead only gave out goods from her stock.

Despite its downsides, contract knitting was a reasonable occupation for those who needed it, and it continued for many years. The industry in Looe was still alive in the 1930s. It could also be a communal activity – in Polperro, women knitted in groups, meeting along the cliff path or on high rocks over the harbour. To get the most out of the free yarn that was given to them, some used leftover scraps to knit stockings for their children – these were often inadvertently patterned many shades of blue from different batches of wool. If an agent suspected this was happening, he could choose to weigh the finished items to check that they equalled the yarn originally given out.

The Polperro knit-frock is now seen as so uniquely Cornish that it was one of the items chosen as part of ‘A History of Cornwall in 100 Objects.’ This project, which ran throughout 2011, explored the Duchy’s heritage through objects found in its galleries, historic sites and museums. In being chosen, the knit-frock joined other famous objects from Cornwall’s past, such as the Davy Safety Lamp, a hurling ball and William Bickford’s safety fuse.

One of the reasons that Polperro is so well known for its knit-frocks is that a photographic record of its fishermen and their clothing was created from the 1850s onwards. A collection of 82 images of local men, each named, were captured by photographer Lewis Harding. Photographs such as these – along with others in private collections – now form the most comprehensive record of the different patterns that were once used. Patterns were generally not written down, but instead passed from mother to daughter by word of mouth and demonstration.

The book Cornish Guernseys and Knit-Frocks by Mary Wright contains many of these patterns, from towns and villages such as Sennen, St Ives, Porthleven, Bude, Looe and, of course, Polperro. It is a reliable and authentic starting point for anyone keen to try making a guernsey or knit-frock of their own – and to keep alive this wonderful, now sadly lesser-known, Cornish tradition. Photography provided by care of Polperro Heritage Press.

Cornish Guernseys & Knit-frocks by Mary Wright

Cornish Guernseys & Knit-frocks by Mary Wright
Polperro Heritage Press
ISBN 978-0955364884

Want to see more like this?

This feature first appeared in myCornwall Vol 2 Issue 9 December 2011/January 2012. Subscribe to myCornwall magazine here for the very best of Cornwall’s food, culture, events, art, heritage, personalities and places.

 

Page 13 of 13« First...910111213
Subscribe Today