October. The word fills some people with dread. ‘Oh no, the end of summer and the start of a long dreary English winter.’ Not us though! OK, it’s always a shame when the summer finally disappears, (although this year it has managed to remain most of the way through September) but October heralds the start of another lovely season here in north Cornwall. Dog owners rejoice at the arrival of ‘The Glorious 1st’ when dogs are once again permitted on all the beaches (as opposed to a select few).
An autumn holiday is a time to bring your walking boots, waterproofs, a few warm layers, and to get out on the cliffs and experience the real, wild Cornwall. Our country pubs light their open fires and wood-burners; the towns have room to park; shopkeepers and restaurateurs have time to talk and everything is much more relaxed than in the peak months. Out on the cliffs and footpaths, once away from the car-park, the chances are you’ll have the place to yourself!
Here are a few photos from one such October walk around Duckpool and Morwenstow. Duckpool is a ten minute drive from the Beach Haven but at an extreme low tide can be walked to from Bude along the three-mile stretch of beach. This area does contain a few steep climbs and is not for the faint-hearted but as you can see, it is a spectacular stretch of coast. Along the way is passes the ominous dishes and domes of GCHQ Morwenstow, known locally as Cleave Camp (harking back to its wartime role as RAF Cleave when all the accommodation was in canvas tents!) Today it is a nerve centre for monitoring communications by suspected terrorists and national security generally.
On the clifftops at Morwenstow you will find the National Trust’s smallest property, ‘Hawker’s Hut’. The Reverend Hawker was the eccentric parson of nearby Morwenstow church from 1834 – 1875 and was an extremely colourful character! He was notable for a wide variety of reasons. Amongst other things he was the originator of the Harvest Festival; writer of the Cornish anthem ‘The Song of the Western Men’; he had a pet pig which he used to walk on a lead; he excommunicated his cat for ‘mousing on a Sunday’; smoked opium; and aged 60, a year after his first wife died, he married a girl of 20 and had three children with her! Anyway, his hut: he build it out of of driftwood and would spend hours in there writing his letters. It is now a testament to graffiti through the ages. See if you can find the oldest inscription!
A few years ago I had the pleasure of working with the late Bill Young on his series of local books and here is one of his accounts of the Rev. Hawker.
When the eccentric poet-vicar Robert Stephen Hawker arrived at Morwenstow in 1834, he found his church half in ruins, the vicarage used as a contraband store and the parish peopled by wreckers, smugglers and ‘dissenters’. Smuggling had been regarded as an honourable profession for centuries, but although it was being slowly killed judicially and morally, wrecking was still very much in evidence. Cleaning up the beach after a wreck was a job that only the strong-nerved could tackle. But Hawker who did much to change the ways of his looting parishioners insisted that it be done. He was appalled to learn from a notorious wrecker that any man who fell into the sea while plundering would as like as not be ignored by his comrades. It was, said the vicar’s informant, a ‘Cornish custom’! Hawker, who despite his peculiarities, was a deeply sincere Christian, set about reforming the very black sheep among his flock as well as caring for sailors whose ships were wrecked beneath the cliffs of his parish.
The year 1843 brought several of the great storms which made the north coast of Cornwall so dangerous for sailing ships. At dawn on January 13 the topmasts of the St Ives schooner ‘Phoenix’ stood above the waves below Morwenstow cliff. A man had seen her fighting to keep off the shore the previous evening but instead of raising the alarm had gone home for his supper. The body of one of her crew was discovered jammed by the waves under a great boulder close to the wreck. Hawker and many other local men tried unsuccessfully to free it and several tides had passed before workmen from Bude breakwater managed to lift the great rock with a windlass and the broken and disfigured body was removed for Christian burial. Such grisly incidents were by no means exceptional. After a wreck the vicar was apt to send one of his parishioners to the beach to collect up pieces of flesh and limbs, known locally as ‘gobbets’, for burial. A body seldom stayed intact on the razor-sharp ledges around Morwenstow. Despite Hawker’s attempts to convert the wreckers, there was still much plundering on the coast.
When the Truro schooner ‘Morwenna’ was wrecked during a great north-easter in August 1852 she was abandoned by her captain, crew and a passenger off Tintagel and eventually drifted ashore at Morwenstow. Hawker found her at dawn and hastened on board. A crowd had already begun to gather on the rocks and knowing his parishioners all too well, Hawker ordered his manservant to haul up every trailing rope and throw down any piece of wreckage which might serve as a convenient ladder. This done, the parson hailed the disappointed crowd and told them that anyone who wanted to help was welcome, but that if looting began he would personally see the culprits committed to Bodmin gaol. An effective threat for any who had seen the inside of that grim fortress-like prison. A path was cut down the cliffs and donkeys brought the cargo up in side panniers. Parson Hawker again showed his compassion by making sure each animal was watered and fed at appropriate intervals throughout the arduous work.
The wrecks, the rescues and sometimes the wrecking did not end with the days of sail. But Hawker, and men like him, had done much to change the attitude of people who lived on the coast. The Cornish reputation for gallantry and comfort to the wrecked sailors had steadily increased. Nevertheless, with life saved and the danger over, Cornish men and women were still not averse to doing a spot of ‘beach-combing’ after a wreck and carrying off some of the cargo.