Precious Powder, Our Cornish White Gold

One of the most iconic and memorable sites in Cornwall is a man-made one.  What the locals call the Cornish Alps.  The huge, bright-white spoil heaps left by the China Clay industry dominate the centre of the county and can be seen for literally miles and miles highlighted against a blue sky.

Gunheath China Clay Mine, 1966

China Clay is an industry that just keeps rolling dustily along, although it’s importance to the area has faded in recent years.  But despite these workings near St Austell being at one time the largest quarry of its kind in the world this wasn’t where it all started.

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Since it’s arrival along the famous Silk Road in the 16th century fine Chinese porcelain, for which China Clay is a main component, had been in high demand amongst the gentry of England.  But the magic formula of how to produce these delicate wares was a closely guarded secret.  This meant that the Chinese could continue to charge exorbitant prices for their imported pieces.

By the 18th century rumours of the ingredients required for this porcelain alchemy began to filter into Europe.

A Plymouth chemist, William Cookworthy (1705-1780), set out like many others around that time to discover the magic for himself and to hopefully exploit the gap in the European market.

 

In 1745 his search led him to a small hamlet with a big hill.  Tregonning hill, near Helston, had large natural deposits of finely decomposed granite, known locally as Moorstone or Growan (china clay).  This material is extremely rare, has a texture finer than talcum powder and is the main ingredient used in the making of fine porcelain.

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Overgrown quarry on Tregonning Hill

Sadly however it wasn’t exactly Cookworthy’s eureka moment, he had found the right ingredient but he spent the next 20 years trying to work out the complicated process!

An early mug produced by Cookworthy

 

Despite the delay Cookworthy is still considered to be the first person in Britain to perfect the production of hard-paste Chinese porcelain using the ‘clay’ he found on a quiet hill in Cornwall.

The porcelain factory that Cookworthy established in Plymouth in 1768 was one of the earliest in the country to start production.  The business moved to Bristol in the 1780s and was eventually sold to the Staffordshire Pottery.

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Tregonning Hill commands outstanding views and besides the China Clay it quietly guards a long and varied history that makes it a fascinating place to spend some time on a summers evening.

Besides the old quarries (watch your step they are deep!) there are hut circles, a hill fort, an old Quaker preaching pit, the OS trig point and a war memorial to be found on Tregonning Hill, at this time of year mostly hidden waist deep in ferns!  And that is saying nothing of the stunning views which stretch for miles and miles in all directions, sometimes I fancy I can see the white mountains of the St Austell China Clay pits.

 

For more tales of high places try:  A Fort with a View

Celebrating the Rather Eccentric Mr Knill

John Knill loved St Ives and more than 2oo years after his death St Ives is still remembering him.  2016-07-26-10.44.57.png.png

This rather eccentric philanthropist (some say smuggler) wanted to provide for the people he had grown so fond of and to guarantee that his name would be remembered for all time in the town that he made his home, so he devised a ceremony to do just.

Every St James’ Day, the 25th July, the locals and hangers-on like myself, march up to the 15m high pyramid he built on Worvas hill above St Ives.

There is music, dancing and singing and at the end of it all the Master of Ceremonies asks the 3 trustees if they believe that all has been done as John Knill requested.  If they all agree then the crowd disperses, job done for another few years! I have never attended the ceremony before as it is only held every 5 years and this is the first year that I have been able to (or indeed remembered) to go.  But I have to say I am really happy that I did, it may not be as famous as the Padstow Obby Oss or as colourful as Helston Flora Day but I loved it.

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It all starts in the town centre outside the Guildhall where the trustees – the vicar, customs officer and mayor- put their 3 keys into the locks on the chest that Knill gave the town and hand out the money that he provided in perpetuity for the day.

Remaining faithful to Knill’s specific instructions they choose 10 girls under the age of ten, who must be the daughters of seamen, tinners or miners and two elderly widows who must be the widows of seamen, tinners or miners, and a fiddler to accompany the dancing.  Then they, along with the trustees and other notables, all proceed up hill to the Knill Steeple (these days by bus!).

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The Steeple was built by Knill in 1782 and was intended to be his final resting place.  Sadly he died in London in 1811 so his wishes in that regard were not fulfilled.  His mausoleum is however a land mark for miles around and can also be seen far out to sea leading to tenuous rumours that he built it as a marker for his pirate friends.

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Born in Callington in 1733 Knill was an important and respected man in St Ives. He was the Collector of Taxes, the Customs Officer and the mayor but it must be said that there are hints that the small fleet of privateers vessels that he formed to combat smuggling was, in fact, a front to cover up a rather lucrative trade in contraband goods.  No wonder the town loved him!

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The fiddler leads the dancing around the Steeple

 

The first ceremony at the Steeple took place in 1801 with John Knill present to supervise that all was done as he envisioned and it has continued in the same way ever since.

The huge granite pyramid has Knill’s coat of arms on one side and his motto, ‘Resurgam’, on the other.  The motto translates to ‘I shall rise again’ and in a way John Knill does.  He comes alive in our lives and in our minds every 5 years or indeed every time we visit his monument and breath in the beautiful views.

For more interesting local folk try: The Singular Mr Daniel Gumb & his house of rocks or Hannah Jory: Mother, Prostitute & Convict or Granny Boswell: Cornwall’s Gypsy Queen

Show Time with My Minolta SR-7 : rewind and rediscover

Roughly around 20 years ago I bought an old camera, second hand at a flea-market, it was a Minolta SR-7. I don’t remember what I paid for it but I wasn’t earning much at the time so it can’t have been expensive.  I had fun with it for a few years and then the speed and light-weight convenience of the modern camera tempted me and the Minolta went in a drawer for a long rest.

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Since I found my lovely Box Brownie  in a charity shop I have been thinking that I should dig out my old Minolta and take it for a spin.

The summer sunshine always makes me wants to get out and about, even more so than I do normally, so this year I took the opportunity to visit some of the many local village shows and take some pictures of the things I go to see –  big bulls, long eye-lashed cows, huge vegetables and steam engines.

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Stithians Show is the one nearest to me and I think it is the best (controversial?).  It has everything that you would find at the much larger and grander Royal Cornwall but without the mass crowds.  Stithians still feels like a real village affair and a community effort (which it is) and, for a local girl like me, chances are you will see one or two people you know!Scan stithians 5

 

So one hot July day off I went to Stithians, the heavy weight of my old camera swinging by my side.

The Minolta SR-7, which was produced from 1962 – 1967, is far more complicated than any other camera I have.  Where as in previous posts I have revelled in the simplicity of my Brownie, my Minolta is about as complicated as I ever want my photographic life to get. (I like to keep things nice and simple.)

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I am afraid I am not qualified to give you a run down of all its features yet but needless to say I think I am going to enjoy the results! That is once I get the hang of the light meter I just bought on eBay!  This model of the camera is completely mechanised (although it did have a built in battery-powered light meter it functions fine without it) which means that when you take a picture and wind on the film it makes all the clicking, crunching and grinding noises you could possibly wish for.  An audio experience as well as a visual one!

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The other thing that strikes me about these first pictures is that they have a real timeless quality about them.  I realise the subject matter helps – the traditional country show – but still there is an almost ageless feel. The prize-giving picture above could have been taken when the camera was first produced in the 1960s.

I must just add that those cabbages are HUGE, cattle are surprising good at standing still for a picture and steam engines smell amazing!

I am really looking forward to further adventures with my Minolta!

For more of my photographic stories try: Box Brownie: The Perfect Reflection or Adventures with my Box Brownie: Part 2 How to load your film! or Lady behind the lens

My Grumpy Grandpa & his Shires

Grandpa Dale was a quiet, stern looking man who always wore a shirt, tie and waistcoat on the farm, even on the sunniest days.  He was hard but never unkind and I adored him.  I followed him about the farm like a puppy, getting under his feet.  He always carried a roll of blackcurrant fruit pastels in his pocket and would stop now and then to pop one into my month with his rough shovel-like hands.

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Harvest time: Me & Grandpa (with my brother) c1980

My Grandpa, Wilfred Dale (1903-1995), had been born into a large, hard-working farming family.  Farming was his whole life and right up until just a year or two before he passed away, aged 92, he came up to the farm every day to “supervise” my father.

His greatest love however, other than my Grandmother, were his horses.  As a young boy he would sometimes do deliveries on a horse and cart in the mornings on his way too school in Falmouth.  He told me that when he arrived at school he would turn the horse around and give it a slap on the rear.  The horse would make it’s own way home the 4 miles to the farm. He was a man of few words but ask him about his Shires and suddenly he became animated and engaged.  It always struck me as amusing that this very tough, Victorian man named all his massive work horses after plants.  There was Flower, Buttercup, Primrose, Marigold, Cactus . . .

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Grandpa as a young man with his horse, Flower

Because of him I have always felt a connection to these giant animals and this summer I have taken the opportunity to go to a couple of our local shows to see them and of course all the other birds and beasties too.

I especially enjoyed the Stithians and Camborne shows as I know my Grandpa took his horses at those and many other shows back in the 1940s and 50s.

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Grandpa and Cactus at a show c1948

These wonderful animals have thankfully had a bit of a revival in recent years thanks to some passionate enthusiasts but after the World Wars and the Industrial Revolution they were in danger of vanishing from our countryside. The Shire was originally brought to this country some time on the Middle Ages to carry our rather weighty armoured Knights into battle.  Their lovely calm nature but impressive strength made them perfect for farm work and pulling heavy loads – but tractors changed all that of course and the Shire fell out of favour.

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One of Grandpa’s horses decorated with brasses, bells and plumes

Grandpa had to get rid of his horses in the 1960s, the demands of the mechanised farming world had become too great.  Although he would never say why he also gave away all their brasses and leathers too, perhaps because he couldn’t bear to keep them.  As a family we have nothing left of his horses apart from a few large rusty horseshoes and a couple of the silver cups that they won. But I do have the memory of that sparkle of joy in my grumpy old Grandpa’s eye when he spoke about them.

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Every year I try and go to the Tregony Heavy Horse Show to see these beautiful beasts up close and in all their glory.  Above are some of the pictures I have taken over the years.  This year it is on August 14th and I am hoping for sunshine so I can go and sit on a hay bale and feel the thud from their hooves vibrate through my bones as they plod by!  Grandpa would have approved!

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The last picture I have of him, taken by me with my old Hanimex camera

For more of my family stories try: My Grandmother & Rope Walk, Falmouth

Langarrow: Cornwall’s Sodom & Gomorrah

Tales of lost worlds and underwater cities are the stuff of our fantasy, myth and imagination.  The legends of Atlantis and Avalon have become a part of our psyche and ingrained in our culture. 

Since I was quite young I have been told the stories of the magical land of Lyonesse that is said to have vanished into the ocean somewhere between Lands End and the Isles of Scilly.

Recently I bought a box of old books about Cornwall at auction.  (Books are a bit of a weakness of mine, in my house the age of the book is most definitely not over.) Inside one of the volumes were a number of old newspaper cuttings that the previous owner had clearly felt needed keeping.  The picture below was one of them and it sparked my interest straight away. I have no idea of the date of the cutting or which newspaper it came from.

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This was a story I had heard somewhere before.

On further investigation the story was always the same, the books all told me that 1000 years ago there was a great and wealthy city somewhere on the coast between Crantock and Perranporth.

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But unlike the Shangri-La existence we imagine in Avalon Langarrow was a city of vice and excess, the inhabitants were work-shy and selfish.  And just like a Cornish Gomorrah, God decided to punish them for their evil ways (Genesis 19:24).  For 3 days and 3 nights a vicious storm raged along the coast.  It covered everyone and everything in a thick layer of sand.  Langarrow was no more.

Between Crantock and Perranporth there is a huge area of rolling dunes, walking along that part of the coast the sand undulates in great mountains for as far as you can see.  It makes for tough going on a hot day.

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Any evidence of this so called great city is hard to see but it was said to have had 7 large churches and legend has it that on a stormy night you can still hear their buried bells toll.

There is the ancient Christian chapel known as St Piran’s Oratory close to Perranporth.  This unusual place can be found out in the dunes, struggling to stay above the sand.  Whether this buried church has any connection to Langarrow isn’t clear but it is an interesting place to visit.

Sadly however it no longer looks like this early photograph, it has now been surrounded by an ugly concrete shell “for it’s protection”.

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Whether Langarrow truly existed, whether it was a great city full of riches or just a tiny hamlet of farming folk doesn’t really matter to me.  The story is enough.  And it gives me an excuse to get out and walk along this wonderful coastline looking for a church tower sticking up out the sand.

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Miles and miles of dunes viewed from Cubert

 

For more stories of the coast try: Mermaids sighted in Cornwall (honest!) or Cornwall’s Leviathan

A King and our Lost Cornish Gold

No one these days really knows what a collar stud is, let alone wears one but King George V certainly did and he is said to have kept his in a rather special place.

The county of Cornwall is not really known for its treasure troves, we live in hope of a discovery like Sutton Hoo to put the our long-forgotten kings back on the map of history  but as yet nothing so magnificent has come to light.  The county does however boast large deposits of precious minerals of all kinds, not least tin, and in certain areas in small amounts gold can be found.

I am not a person who gets excited by the razzmatazz, sparkle and bling for very long, as you might have guessed it is far more likely to be the small things that really bring the past to life for me. However the Royal Cornwall Museum in Truro does have one display which I love, they call it the Gold Cabinet and inside are some of the treasures of Cornwall.

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Peer through the glass and you will find 4000 year old gold necklaces and 3000 year old armrings and I try and imagine who worn such wonderful things.  In pride of place is an early Bronze Age gold cup known as the Rillaton Cup which was found inside an ancient burial mound (a barrow) on Bodmin Moor. 20160712_122511 And it is this cup that King George V used to store his collar studs in his dressing room in Buckingham Palace.

The Rillaton cup is extremely rare.  It is one of only 7 similar vessels found in Europe and is by far the best preserved thanks to who ever buried it. Luckily for us they stowed it inside a ceramic bowl which protected the soft gold.  This beautiful cup is skilfully constructed from one solid sheet of hammered gold and decorated with horizontal concentric corrugations.  The elegant etched handle is attached by rivets and with my nose pressed against the display cabinet’s glass I silently wish I could pick it up to feel its weight in my hands.

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So what about it’s strange provenance?  Well the cup was very nearly lost.  It was dug up from a stone burial cist inside a barrow by workmen in 1837.  A number of beads and a small metal dagger were also found but because the area of Bodmin Moor where it was uncovered belonged to20160712_122140 The Duchy of Cornwall everything was presented to King William IV.  After his death the artefacts passed to Queen Victoria and then to George V who had the cup on his dressing table.  The cup’s value and importance had been completely forgotten.

Fortunately when Edward VIII inherited it Queen Mary apparently realised what it really was and decided to give it to the British Museum for public display.

And perhaps now is the right time to admit that the pictures I have here are of the copy of the real cup which is all the museum in Truro has of this county’s most rare and magical ancient find.  The real thing has never come home to Cornwall.

There is one more little thing to relate about this 2000 year old treasure.

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A big sky on Bodmin Moor

 

Before it was discovered there was a local legend that a golden cup was hidden in the exact burial mound where it was found.  A coincidence no doubt but wouldn’t it be amazing to think that an ancient memory could have been passed down a couple of hundred generations?!

For more treasures try: Seaglass and other treasures and for more ancient stories try: Cornwall’s Oldest Road

Those Ruined places: Merther

Old buildings, I feel, always have a certain presence but ruined places somehow even more so.  There is a special kind of mystery in a ruined place and I find myself drawn in and pisky-led.  My rather over-active imagination can fill these ivy-clad, tumble-down spaces with life and lives that are entirely of my own invention.  Maybe that is their attraction.

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The church of St Cohan at Merther is one of those places.  To begin with to find this little nowhere place leads you down a long, winding and dead-end lane.  I saw a grazing deer on the road here once, that is how infrequent the traffic is. When you step out of the car there is no sound but the wind and the birds (maybe a tractor).

The tiny hamlet stands at the far reaches of St Clements Creek just a few miles from the buzz of Truro though you would never know it. The original building on this site is said to date to around 1370 but it was only named for Saint Cohen (Coan) in about 1480 when the poor chap was murdered in his hermitage near here during King Athelstan’s conquest of Cornwall.

And after that, well, it seems the life of the church continued peacefully as with each generation birth was followed by marriage, followed by death, followed by birth.

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According to Henderson’s Cornish Church Guide Merther church fell into disrepair in the 1920s when a larger, smarter church was built at Tresillian a couple of miles away.  Eventually that church took Merther’s 3 bells and its statue of Saint Cohen and the building was left to crumble.

 

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But if you are looking for somewhere to take a walk with ghosts or perhaps get some atmospheric photographs then find Merther on a map (or try your Sat Nav but I am not promising) and hunt it down.

 

For another atmospheric ruin try: Those Ruined Places : The Vacant Farm

For more tales of ancient places try: A Lostwithiel home: Yours for 3000 years! or The Singular Mr Daniel Gumb & his house of rocks

In Launceston, Throwing Stones at Mary Magdalene

Living as I do in Mid Cornwall sometimes it can feel that I am a long way from anywhere in either direction.  If I take a trip ‘down west’ then I like to make a day of it and take a picnic and the same must be said for the other direction too.   There would be very little point in going ‘up the line’ to North Cornwall for just a couple of hours.

Yesterday however I did just that, I found myself with a couple of hours to kill in North Cornwall before an appointment across the border in Devon, so I took the opportunity to stop in the pretty town of Launceston.

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Launceston,  I think, has a lot going for it. The pretty narrow streets, old gateway, a lovely market square and a wonderful Norman castle looking down on it all.

The church however is truly something special.  It was built between 1511 and 1524 and has hardly been altered since.  I think it is the prettiest in the county!  And I understand from the information booklet I purchased on my visit (I like a booklet and aim to get one from every church I go in!) that it was voted in the top 100 churches in the whole country!

As I wandered around listening to the almost deafening organ practice I have to say I fell in love all over again.  Magical.  But while I was taking another look at the outside something caught my eye.

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The exterior of the church is really wonderful, the detail and extravagance of the sculpted granite is truly fabulous.  There are plants and flowers, pomegranates, George and a scary looking dragon, saints, dogs and griffins.  So much detail.  But why was that reclining statue lying in a niche at the east end of the building littered with small stones?  I referred to my handy information booklet. . .

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It tells me the statue is the Mary Magdalene after whom the church is named.  She is lounging on a cushioned bed, surrounded by choristers and minstrels, clearly Launceston quite liked this so called fallen lady.20160705_162129  But why then the stones?

I read on . . .

The tradition continues among children and some adults in Launceston, that if you throw a stone that lodges [on Mary Magdalene] you will shortly have new clothes given to you.

Well, that has to be worth a go! . . .  Luckily Mary’s face is very worn by time and weather so I can’t really see her expression.  I wonder what she thinks about having pebbles lobbed at her by a 38 year old woman?!  Sorry Mary!

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For more stories of Cornish churches try: The Centre of Cornwall & a rather Mysterious Tail or for more interesting ladies try: Celia Fiennes: Through Cornwall, side-saddle! or Hannah Jory: Mother, Prostitute & Convict

 

Newlyn: The Last Port for the Mayflower

We all know a little of the story of the Mayflower. Every schoolchild is told something of that famous fleet of ships that sailed to America in the last days of the summer of 1620.  And in the US I am sure that many would hope to perhaps trace their roots back to those 102 intrepid travellers who journeyed to

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The Memorial on The Barbican, Plymouth

the new world and became part of our human history.

 

The history books tell us that the fleet of 11 ships left from Plymouth, in Devon, England, and against great adversity crossed the vast, wild Atlantic ocean in a journey that took 66 days. When they reached their new home they named the colony New Plymouth in honour of their point of departure.

But there is a small, insignificant part of that famous story that the history books leave out.

It’s not really important in the grand scheme of things, it really adds nothing to the tale other than connecting my small part of the world to that great adventure.

You see Plymouth may not actually be the final port-of-call from which the Mayflower and the Pilgrims set sail.  After her departure from Plymouth she was unexpectedly forced to make one final stop before heading for the Americas.  It is thought that she dropped anchor one last time at a tiny port in Cornwall called Newlyn.

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Newlyn was and is a small fishing community on the southern side of Mounts Bay not far from Penzance.  It is one of the last places in Cornwall to maintain a fishing fleet of any size and many of the crabs, lobsters and fish served in Cornwall’s popular sea food restaurants comes from this little harbour.  But Newlyn is hardly a well-known place and, apart from one small plaque high up on the wall of a house, it’s connection to the Mayflower is almost entirely forgotten.

When the Pilgrims left Plymouth as well as stocking up with the necessary dry goods the Mayflower had taken on barrels of fresh water. But their journey had hardly begun before they realised that this water was contaminated.  Fearing cholera it became vital that they find a new supply and, according to the research of historian Bill Best Harris, finding themselves just off Mounts Bay, the Mayflower decided to stop at Newlyn.

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The Old Quay which still stands at Newlyn is said to be of Medieval construction and there is little doubt this is where the Mayflower would have moored up while they took on the clean water that they desperately needed.  I can’t tell you whether any of the Pilgrims came ashore to stretch their legs or how long the Mayflower remained in port.  In all likelihood the transaction would have been completed as swiftly as possible so that they could catch up with the rest of the fleet.

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But, as the actual departure point at Plymouth was destroyed long ago, when you walk on that rough old quay at Newlyn it is possible that it is the last place that these pioneers touched ‘home’ soil before heading off to become the stuff of history!

For more sea adventures try: Who was Pirate John ‘Eyebrows’ Thomas? or Cornwall’s Leviathan or even Shipwrecked

Just a little side note, while researching this story I visited the Mayflower steps in Plymouth which are so named in20160625_185846 commemoration of the ships departure.  While there I took a photograph of this wonderful Health and Safety notice.

And although I realise these are not the original steps it still tickled my childish sense of humour to think of those brave people setting out on an journey filled with so many unknown dangers passing a sign warning them of slippery steps and how to stay safe at sea.  Some times the past is another planet!