In Cornwall we have a special kind of geological feature that through history has given the Cornish folks bucket loads of joy. It is the natural phenomena known as the Logan Rock.
The word Logan comes from the Cornish ‘logging’, meaning rocking. and refers to a number of rocks which through some a happy accident are on a pivot and can be rocked despite their mighty tonnage.
The most famous of Cornwall’s logan rocks is at Treen on a stunning stretch of coastline close to the famous Minack Theatre. It is reputed to weigh around 60 tons but because of its perfect pivot could be rocked by a small child. Of course there is a kill-joy in this tale and his name was Lieutenant Hugh Goldsmith, R.N. (nephew of the famous poet Oliver Golsmith).
In April 1824 Goldsmith was on a jolly with the navy just off the Cornish coast and apparently they heard tell of the legend that no mortal man could dislodge the rock from its axis. Goldsmith and 14 crew decided to test the theory. After several hours of struggling with iron bars they succeeded in tumbling the stone from its position.
The crew had however underestimated the importance of what they had done, the people of the area were understandably furious at this act of vandalism. Goldsmith wrote to his mother on 24th April 1824 saying “the Rock was so idolized in this neighbourhood . . . I found all Penzance in an uproar. I was to be transported at least; the newspapers have traduced me, and made me worse than a murderer, and the base falsehoods in them are more than wicked”. He was soon reported to the Admiralty and told to replace the stone immediately.
This was not an easy undertaking and it took several months to organise the necessary equipment but the Royal Cornwall Gazette reported on 6th November 1824 that crowds of people had watching the Logan Rock being hoisted back into position and a great cheer went up when it was seen to rock.
Although the stone was replaced apparently it never rocked the same again. This is a stretch of coastline that is well worth a visit and if you have a head for heights climb up to the Logan Rock and try it for yourself!
Just beside the road, not far from the much-visited Merry Maidens stone circle, is an ancient site often over-looked as people whiz by it on their way to have their picture taken at Lands End.
Tregiffian Barrow, which is in fact half covered by the road, is a prehistoric burial chamber and is between 4500 and 3000 years old. It is just one of many barrows dotting the landscape of Cornwall but this one has something a little bit different from the rest.
Barrows like this one have a number of flat uprights with larger roof stones creating the cave-like chamber and a kind of underground passageway as an entrance. You have to try an imagine them as they were intended, a grave site that would have been completely covered in an earth mound. What makes Tregiffian special is that one of the upright stones was highly decorated. When I say highly decorated I mean of course for the time, we are not talking a Da Vinci fresco here!
The Trigiffin stone with my toes
The stone has 25 cup-mark hollows both circular and elongated cut into it, it may not be an oil painting but the time and effort taken makes it a masterpiece in my eyes. This kind of decoration is found elsewhere in the UK but is very unusual in Cornwall. It has been speculated that the marks represent the cycles of the moon as in any given year there are 13 full and 12 new moons. This pock-marked stone is considered so important that the original was removed and can now be seen in Royal Cornwall Museum in Truro.
An investigation of the site by Cornish antiquarian William Borlase in 1840 uncovered evidence of human
cremation and burial. Borlase recorded finding a large amount of ash and bone fragments lying underneath the stones and also some shell sand he thought had come from Porthcurno, a beach several miles away from the site.
There are other examples of carved stones in Cornwall but none are quite like this so of course it makes me wonder. . . who was buried here? Why were they so important that their people marked their passing in this unique way? Were they perhaps from a different area of the country where cup-marking is more common? Answers on a postcard . . .
When Charlotte Dymond’s body was found on the lonely moors near Camelford it was April 1844 and Cornwall was overcome with shock but there was also something else – a little unsavoury excitement. This was the stuff of Penny Dreadful fiction. A beautiful and pious young girl brutally murdered on a Sunday while out walking on a lonely moor. There were rumours of jealous lovers and secret rendezvous’, it was all rather melodramatic and darkly romantic. It was the kind of story the rather morbidly obsessed Victorians loved to read about while eating their boiled eggs and soldiers in the morning.
The whole story filled the newspapers for weeks, details of the search for Charlotte, her discovery lying in a river at the foot of the austere Rough Tor, her injuries, the manhunt for her killer and then the trail itself was all reported blow by blow. It was a pretty open and shut case her murderer was apprehended quickly, the evidence was damning and before he was hung he left a written confession (which was printed in the papers too as well as a private letter to his family).
It is a story that I have grown up with, I don’t really remember when I first heard about it but it has stayed with me and Charlotte has always been a kind of Tess of the D’Urbervilles character in my mind. It is however always the public’s reaction that shocks and fascinates me most about Charlotte’s case.
On the morning of the trial there was chaos in the courthouse in Bodmin, crowds had been gathering all night to try and get a seat in the public gallery. The police had to intervene as so many tried to get inside there was danger of someone getting crushed in the scrum of onlookers. Later when the murderer Matthew Weeks was hung an estimated 20,000 people turned out to watch.
But even before the trial had began a large fete was held at Rough Tor and the West Briton newspaper reported that around 10,000 people attended. There were donkey rides and wrestling matches as well as all kinds of entertainers and refreshment stalls. There was also a pole with a black flag on it marking the spot where Charlotte’s body had been found. According to the paper this attracted ‘much attention’ and penny ‘subscriptions’ were taken to view it.
Some of this money did go towards the granite memorial stone that can been seen at the base of Rough Tor to this day. It is a place often passed by as everyone strikes out to conquer one of the moors highest peaks (400ft, not exactly Everest but the view is lovely). The last time I visited it was on a very busy sunny Sunday and I found a peace there that certainly wasn’t available on the rest of the tor.
I can’t help wondering what the 18 year old diary-maid was thinking about that day when she set out across the moors to meet her mystery lover. She could have had no idea of what was coming. She was an unknown girl who would soon come to mean something to thousands of people and still nearly 200 years later mean something to me too.
We think of saints as being ethereal characters who did unbelievable things in distant lands and in unknown times. And lets face it some of them very much live up to that reputation. But we shouldn’t forget that they were also real people.
Saint Keyne was the daughter of King Brychan of Wales and his wife, Gwlady. And apart from being royal this was
no ordinary 5th century family. Brychan had an impressive 24 children with 3 different wives (Christmas and birthdays must have been a nightmare). His first wife, poor woman, produced 15 children for this mammoth brood and one of those was our lovely Keyne.
Sadly her father Brychan hasn’t really made it into the history books for being anything other than an celebrated producer of numerous progeny!
As for his daughter, well, whether it was seeing her poor mother in a perpetual state of pregnancy or the call of something greater Keyne decided that married life was not for her. Before leaving her home in Brecknock in South Wales she reportedly turned down the advances of several young suitors and she remained single until her dying day!
Saint Keyne was a woman with a mission. She wanted to see some of the world and spread a little Christianity on the way. This she pretty much achieved, spending the rest of her life travelling through Wales, Somerset and Cornwall and according to legend founded numerous churches along the way. She is meant to have arrived in Cornwall in around 490AD and had a little holiday on St Michaels Mount, Penzance with her cousin, Saint Cadoc. Saint Keyne you see came from a very saintly family, no less than 14 of her siblings were canonized. Many of them have connections with Cornwall also – Morwenna, Clether, Nectan, Ive, Maybn to name just a few.
After a long life spreading the word of the Lord far and wide Saint Keyne decided to settle in Cornwall and made her home in a valley not far from Looe. In this valley there was a beautiful spring of fresh running water and she loved the spot so much that she planted trees there to add some shade – an oak, an ash, a withy and an elm. On her death bed she asked to be brought to lie beside it so that she could listen to the soothing babble of the stream. It was this spring that Saint Keyne blessed with her dying breath and bestowed upon it a special power which every woman in the county soon heard of.
For once here was a well that wasn’t supposed to cure rickets, infertility or lumbago! This well was meant to give equal rights to women!
The story goes that who ever drank from this well would have the upper-hand in their marriage. For the first time perhaps a woman could have the chance at an equal partnership with their husband. John Murray wrote about the well in 1859 in his guide to Cornwall and claimed that belief in it’s mystical powers was still common. Robert Southey also recorded the powers of the well a comical little rhyme:
A well there is in the west country
A clearer one never was seen.
There is not a wife in the west country
But has heard of the Well of Saint Keyne.
The poem tells the tale of a foolish Cornishman who is out-manoeuvred trying to reach the precious water of the well first when his smart wife takes a flask of it to the marriage with her:
I hastened as soon as the marriage was done
And left my wife in the porch
But in faith she was wiser than I
For she had took a bottle to the church
Sadly the trees Saint Keyne planted are long gone, Mabel and Lillian Quiller-Couch report in their guide to holy wells in 1894 that they were blown down in a fierce gale in 1709. It is however still a wonderfully secluded and beautiful spot to visit. I have to admit I did have a little sip of the water too . . . just in case!
Last week I had to go and fetch my nearest and dearest from Gatwick airport. Now I will admit I really do love an excuse for a road-trip. I have always loved driving and as soon as I learnt I never looked back. I think that part of that has to do with growing up in a rural area. Without a car in Cornwall having a life can be a challenge and with so many beautiful places to visit you really do need some wheels.
So surprisingly perhaps despite being a country-girl I am always happy to set off on a long journey. I have driven all over Europe, through some of the biggest cities and so am fairly confident behind the wheel. Cornwall can feel a long way from anywhere though and the longest part of any journey is always the final leg home down the rolling A30.
Back to this week I successfully retrieved my Cornish other-half from Gatwick and we decided rather than return straight to Cornwall we would take a bit of a side-trip to the south coast and basically bunny-hop our way down it for a few days. We love nothing better than setting out with a vague route and just seeing what we find along the way. We weren’t disappointed.
We had a wonderful few days in Kent, Sussex, Dorset and Devon before crossing the border on to home turf! The pictures below are some that I took with my faithful old Brownie and I thought I would share! Again I have to say I was delighted with the results although I notice that bright sunlight (weren’t we lucky with the weather!) may be causing a few issues with exposure and my ability to see what I am taking a picture of in the tiny little view-finder! Lady behind the lens!!!
What happens when the truth turns out to be far duller than the legend? Do you try to get the facts to fit the exciting story that you
would like to believe or do you just acknowledge that history and time has a way of making fools of us all sometimes?
And then of course there is a third option – to present other people with what you do know and see what they decide to make of it all.
So the question is who was Pirate John ‘Eyebrows’ Thomas? The answer to this question was an obvious one or so I thought. I had read about this chap before and visited his grave at Gulval church. He seemed like a good candidate for an amusing little story about one of our lesser known but colourful Cornish characters. I thought that I would just do a little research and try and fill in some details about him to really bring the story to life. . .
You see there is a story that is often told about John Thomas. He was meant to have been a notorious pirate and smuggler who was so feared and disliked that when he died at Marazion in 1753 the town refused to bury him. His family we are told had to pay Gulval church to take him.
John Thomas’ date of birth was easy to find, after all I had his date of death and his age when he popped off this moral coil. He was born in 1692 and baptised at Gulval church, the church record gives his father’s name as John also. His mother’s name was Margery, she gets a mention in her husband’s will (AP/T/2717) when she inherits among others things his best bed.
And there are other facts that I know about him, for example he married a lady called Martha Bant in 1738 and that he was a reasonably wealthy man when he died. The Cornwall Record Office in Truro has copy of his Last Will and Testament (AP/T/2702) which I have read. To give you the bare bones of it so to speak John Thomas left bequests amounting to about £2129 to friends and family when he died. The ‘rest and residue’ he left to Martha. When you consider that the average labourer earned around £16 a year at that time that sum begins to look slightly different. Add to that the fact that he also passed on leases for 3 separate properties, in Gulval, Madron and Wendron, and you start to wonder what kind of man John Thomas was. And where exactly was he getting his money?
However there are some problems. You see the Will of John Thomas does disprove part of the pirate legend. In the very first line John requests (quite unusually) that his body be buried in the town of his birth: Gulval. So no mention of ill-will with Marazion, just the simple request of a dying man. Oh.
And the ‘Eyebrows’, some distinctive pseudonym created to build a mysterious persona? Perhaps not, you may have already noticed that the skull and cross bone motif on the gravestone has a fine pair of raised eyebrows and they were most likely just a quirk of the man who craved it. Nothing more.
So what evidence is there that this legend of the cruel pirate is true? He did die a rich man when most of his family were recorded as just yeoman and he doesn’t give his trade in his Will. A little strange perhaps.
The inscription on his gravestone is odd also depending on how you interrupt it.
Study to imitate, you won’t excell
If you would live beloved and die so well
Apart from that there is some other circumstantial evidence. Between 1622 and 1641 Sir James Bagg recorded the names of all the fishermen and sailors in the south of Cornwall. In Newlyn, just across Mount’s Bay from Gulval and Marazion, Bagg recorded 3 men called John Thomas. Unfortunately it is impossible to know if any of these men are related to our John Thomas but it does give the impression that there is the possibility that the family had sea-faring roots. There is no record of John being convicted of any crime but that could mean that just he didn’t get caught. Or maybe he had a Letter of Marque.
These certificates were issued by the Crown and the government between 1243 and 1856. They basically gave the bearer the right to attack and plunder any foreign vessels that strayed into our waters. Usually issued during times of war they were a cheap way of protecting the coast from invasion as in effect those with a Letter of Marque formed a kind of cheap, rag-tag Naval force. Was John Thomas one of these privateers?
So you see I have arrived at many more questions through my research than answers. I want to believe that this great character existed but the evidence is slim at best.
However there is one final point that I have to make, rumours such as this one always start somewhere and just because there is no solid evidence doesn’t mean there is no truth, perhaps the wily John Eyebrows Thomas was just good at covering his tracks!
If you were going to build a monument, perhaps in commemoration of someone or for some religious purpose, you would build it to last wouldn’t you? And when you designed it you would make sure that it was beautiful and that it stood out from its surroundings. After all you would hope that your monument would last for a long time. That it would be admired for generations to come, that passers-by would pause and contemplate what you had created.
I like to think that perhaps that was part of the thinking behind the Nine Sisters stone row at Winnard’s Perch or the wonderful stone circle at Duloe. That the builders planned to create something not just beautiful but something to also span time and space.
You see there is something quite special about these two particular structures that makes them stand out amongst the many other Neolithic and Bronze Age remains in Cornwall. It’s quartz.
Both the Nine Sisters, Naw Voz in Cornish (also known as the Nine Maidens) and Duloe circle are constructed using monoliths with a high quartz content.
You could argue that this was because that was the material that was most readily available in the area at the time but I think that underestimates the resourcefulness and the true desires of the builders. It also underestimates just how many rocks there are lying around in Cornwall that could have been used instead.
These structures took a great deal of hard work and planning and not just by individuals but by whole communities. Quartz stones of that size aren’t readily available to anyone! These particular stones must have been sort for. The tallest monolith in the stone row is just over 2m high while the largest stone at Duloe is 2.6m high, 2.3m wide and weighs in at a whopping 12 tons. Someone selected each individual stone and transported them to where they wanted them to be placed without the supervision of Health and Safety or a JCB.
Lets not forget the stones for Stonehenge in Wiltshire were transported hundreds of miles from Wales before they were settled in their present position. The choice of stone must have had some importance to those ancient people.
Quartz quite clearly must also have had a symbolic importance as well as an aesthetic one. The mineral has long been associated with the moon and the white stones are said to shine brightly in the moonlight. Excavations at other sites have found large concentrations of smashed quartz in the ground and Boscawen-un circle has one white stone in its ring.
Why those people who built these monuments used white quartz we can only guess at, unfortunately going back and asking them is not an option. Whatever their reasons I am very glad that they did choose this precious mineral. I think it only adds to the impact and beauty of these dramatic sites, not exactly Stonehenge I know but just as wonderful to me.
A visit to the north coast of Cornwall brings you to a place of high cliffs and wild seas. A favourite these days with surfers and holiday-makers. In the past however it was the scene of many ship wrecks and foolish bathers were often lost in fierce and unpredictable tides.
Crantock beach’s flat sand is backed by tumbling dunes at one end and dramatic black cliffs at the other. The flatness of the sands mean that the incoming tide can be frighteningly quick. The cliffs, which make an excellent home for nesting sea-birds, are as impassable as fortress walls to anyone caught below. It would be a very dangerous place to find yourself.
Hidden in a deep cleft in those rocky cliff walls there are numerous little caves but there is one which holds a beautiful secret. A woman’s face shines from the flat wet stone, her lips almost smile, beside her craved into the solid rock are these words:
Mar not my face but let me be,
Secure in this lone cavern by the sea,
Let the wild waves around me roar,
Kissing my lips for evermore.
The name of the woman at first alluded all my research. It seems that the man who fashioned her face in the stone and craved out the poem in her honour was once common knowledge in the area – Joseph Prater. But who was the woman in this quiet cave, water dripping from the roof, sand and seaweed at her feet?
The story that is told locally is that sometime in the early 1920s a woman was riding her horse along the beach. For some reason she didn’t notice or couldn’t escape the incoming tide. Sadly she and the animal were both trapped and drowned in this cleft in the cliffs. Her heartbroken love, perhaps her husband, was said to have craved her image here on the flat grey rock in remembrance of her.
How true this story I can’t be sure, I haven’t been able to find a newspaper account to verify the tale and at that time in our press’ history we took great delight in publishing those kind of stories in all their dramatic and romantic detail. However Joseph Prater was a real man. He is listed in Kelly’s Directory 1930 as Joseph Henry Prater and living at West Pentire, just above the cave, and working as a dairyman.
Joseph was baptised in Cubert church just two miles from the beach in 1860 and was the son of Nathan and Susan Prater. His father was a farm worker and it is possible that the family home was at Halwyn in Crantock parish.
Records show that Joseph H Prater did marry in 1913. His wife’s name was Lillie Jenkin. So is it possible that the name of the woman in that cave Lillie Prater?
As yet I haven’t been able to find any further record of Lillie but of course something must exist and I will keep looking until I find her!
In a previous blog I mentioned that my dear friends find the idea of me traipsing around the Cornish countryside with an antique camera highly amusing. I am guessing, actually I know, that this is because this is the kind of image they imagine when they think of me:
The lady photographer was a bit of a rarity, especially when photography itself was in its infancy. (Part of that may have been the sheer weight of the equipment involved, even more of a challenge while wearing all those skirts.) But seek them out and there really are some wonderful early examples of the art created by some smart pioneering women.
This is Anna Atkins (1799-1871) in a portrait taken in 1861. Anna moved in very scientific circles, William Henry Fox Talbot and John Herschel were family friends. She was clearly an intelligent and inquisitive lady and she used what was considered the new gentleman’s hobby to help her record and illustrate her real passion – botany. As a result she is thought to be the first person to ever publish their photographs in a book. Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions was published in October 1843. She also proudly claimed to be the world’s first female photographer.
Since I am starting to find the cost of developing my Box Brownie films a little steep I am seriously considering learning to process them myself. Hopefully if Anna can do it so can I and lets face it these days it is much less of a hit and miss procedure than it was for her! And despite what my friends may imagine I will not be wearing a large hat, corset and 3 underskirts when I do it! In fact the reality of course is far duller, although I still like to think of myself as elegant (ha!) and I must admit that I am all too often inappropriately dressed! (I once climbed a volcano in flip-flops)
This then is the actual me, snapping myself Vivian Maier style ( I wish) in a reflection in Boscawen Street, Truro. I would like to add that I am far more cheerful than this picture would lead you to believe, that’s my face of concentration.
I have had another film developed and am quite happy with the results. Little by little I am getting the hang of this, that is of course despite accidently catching the shutter while putting the Brownie back in its case and so taking a picture of the inside of the bag! What did I say in a previous Brownie post – make every shot count! Oops!