Sunday, 3 September 2017

Of Walks and Crosses .. Cornwall pt 1

Our guide to the stones

I have a distinctly faulty memory of the book that is Ian MacNeil Cooke's "Mermaid to Merrymaid Journey to the Stones" (1996). If prompted I would have said that it has informed and engaged our walks and exploration for as long as I can remember we have travelled to Cornwall together? For as long as I can remember us taking an active interest in the archaeology and sacred sites of the Cornish peninsula? It is the go-to book and always travels West with us. I say always - I think I may have forgotten it once and felt bereft?

That my copy is the 2nd Edition (1996) 2000 Reprint - gives a certain lie to that memory - but the strength of the falsehood attests to the power of the book and it's hold on my attention over the intervening years. I now cannot tell you when I purchased it - it may have been on our honeymoon? Or before .. but surely not after? As the blog flies it could even be as late as 2008 - although I am sure it was much earlier?

This book provides a gazeteer of key Land's End antiquities, presented alongside a series of nine walks linking these often sacred places - with a description of sites, relevant maps, survey diagrams, author drawings; and interpretation both archaeological and spiritual in content. Reproduced within it's covers are some of the stunningly original artworks by Ian inspired by the spirituality of the landscape he has so singularly described. I can only find the briefest of author details on the internet to share:

Ian MacNeil Cooke - biography

This particular week in early Sept we arrived in Treen, placing ourselves just a footstep away from the coast, whereupon sits Treryn Dinas Cliff Castle and the Logan Rock. Penberth is a short walk east and in the opposite direction Porthcurno, St Levan and Porthgwarra.

The local pub is the Logan Rock Inn which serves the mighty double act that is the St Austell Brewery's "Tribute" Cornish Pale Ale; and "Proper Job" IPA. The pub food isn't bad either - and even at this point in the season, most of the tables were reserved for one if not two sittings each per night.

The Logan Rock Inn, Treen

Our first walk out on the Sunday was based upon "Walk Seven" in MacNeil Cooke (1996) - with only a minor detour added to the east - taking us out of the village, across the fields and down through the sunken wooded track leading to Penberth. The day was grey and heavy mist hung - obscuring the views and making us dress up against the wet air. However it was so mild that we were to find ourselves - steamed up and somewhat over-heated as the day progressed.

Penberth - as we were to find out from a local fisherman on a later walk - is a cultural hotspot at the time of writing - due to the regular location filming of the latest BBC Poldark series.

I "pished" for migrants in the garden bushes and scrubby woodland of the valley bottom, with scant reward of a single chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita) soft-calling "sooee" in response along with an inquisitive goldcrest (Regulus regulus) appearing from within a passing tit flock.

On the harbour-side rocks I noticed a couple of grey bush crickets (Platycleis albopunctata). I hadn't seen this species before - but instantly recognised that it was different from the similar dark bush cricket (Pholidoptera griseoaptera) due to its long wings - the wings are short on the dark bush cricket. The grey bush cricket is described as a "coastal species" according to the "iRecord Grasshoppers and Related Insects" mobile App - through which I was able to submit the biological record there and then!

hollow-way to Penberth

Penberth harbour in the gloam

Platycleis albopunctata

We turned west and followed the coastal path - to meet up with the line of the original MacNeil Cooke's walk, soon passing the great outer wall of Treryn Dinas, and squinting beyond its entrance for a hopeless glimpse of the mist-hidden Logan Rock. We would have to wait to see the Logan another day.

At Porthcurno the coastal path passes between two WWII pill boxes before a spur takes you down to Percella Point where a third defence directly overlooks Porthcurno beach. An open chamber at the back of this pill-box would have contained an anti-aircraft gun. In total there are six of theses boxes still standing at Porthcurno - remnants of the heavy defence of the Transatlantic Cable STN - which provided a vital communications link between Britain and America at the time of our greatest need (, no date).

WWII pill-box, Percella Point

We left Porthcurno by the seemingly near vertical ladder, of the stone steps up to and immediately beside the Minack Theatre, from there we crossed the theatre's Car Park and reconnected with the coastal path.

Our next stop would be St Levan's Holy Well AKA Porth Chapel Holy Well - this three sided structure atop a granite slab, part covers the opening to a natural spring beneath. On appearance the water looked dark, still and uninviting. I did not venture a taste despite being at this point both hot and thirsty from the prolonged walk in such warm and damp weather.

Hoyle (2007) suggests that the structure is difficult to date due to its history of restoration, and by being only first mentioned by the Cornish Antiquarian W. Borlase in the 18th Century. Historic England (1) 2017) goes further to suggest that the structure of the Holy Well is presumed to be 18th Century - although overlying an earlier site / well. MacNeil Cooke (1996) describes the Holy Well's water as having been previously, deemed a good remedy for eye and tooth problems, perhaps due to a level of naturally occurring minerals including fluorine?

St Levan's Holy Well

Between the Holy Well and the beach of Porth Chapel lies possibly "the oldest Christian building in Cornwall" (Hoyle S. 2007). St Levan's Chapel is the remains of two small buildings. Probably a hermitage and chapel dating to the 7th or 8th Century which are now associated with St Levan (Historic England (2) 2017).

Out of interest Hoyle (2007) gives an etymological description for the origins of the Saint's name which is first recorded as Selevan AKA Salamun i.e. Solomon - spelt Selevan within a Vatican text from 900AD - and thereafter probably corrupting to St Levan in the Anglo-Saxon tongue?

The path to the early chapel is eroded and a local sign requests the walker stop to save the path from further decay or falling onto the beach below. Stopping in compliance with this request I tried hard to make out the relevant archaeological features - and failed. Taking photos I hoped it might make sense later against a reference plan, but I am still unsure even now when reviewing the photographs as to what is natural stone setting or that of a stone placed by a hermit?

Part of St Levan's Chapel? I could go no further to investigate

Leaving the coast, we walked inland a short way to The Church of St Levan. Whereby, we were greeted with the warmth & welcome of this place - tangible, serene, spiritual and pragmatic.

The Church of St Levan

Shortly after entering the building I was directed by A to the southern aisle of the church - wherein a simple sign welcomed you to the "Walkers' Chapel" and offered - physical succour - small bottles of still or sparkling water along with a choice of "Gluten Free" cereal bars. A small donation being welcomed in return.

I felt a little overwhelmed by the timeliness of this thoughtful provision for our well-being. I had been thirsty for a while on this walk, and was bordering on the over-wrought having ill-supplied myself with provisions for the day. By the grace of this Church I was able to restore myself to equilibrium; and concentrate on exploring the church and its environs without physical distraction.

Walkers' Chapel, The Church of St Levan

My Christian upbringing was characterised by a noticeable lack of iconography - worshipping in a multitude of austere functional spaces dedicated to God - or alternatively in public assembly rooms or sports stadiums requisitioned by the day or weekend for wider fellowship. I was 17 years old before I stepped inside a consecrated building which held the ostentatious symbols of Christianity.

That place was Chichester Cathedral, and whilst I retain little recollection of the building itself - I do vividly remember the Piper Tapestry - depicting the Holy Trinity flanked by the Four Gospel Writers. Having never really experienced religious iconography let alone of a scale so intense - I was stunned by it. I felt compelled to buy a postcard of the tapestry. The postcard would subsequently travel with me throughout both my college and university years where it could be found hanging alongside the eclectic mix of rock band and protest posters which adorned my numerous bedroom walls.

The Piper Tapestry, Chichester Cathedral

At University, I would occasionally stride north on the Beverley Road / Hull Road to Beverley Minster. I could sit for hours in silent contemplation or as often in a desperate kind of prayer. I can still recall the sense of place and peace within its walls.

Beverley Minster

More recently I found myself entranced by St Nonna's of Alternun - to which I would return several times over a week spent chasing stones on Bodmin Moor.

St Nonna's of Altarnun

St Levan's Church is steeped in a Millennium and a half of history. The chapel being founded in the 6th Century by St Levan. The original church of simple construct was later replaced by a pre-Norman Church, then rebuilt again in the 12th Century in cruciform. The building was then expanded in the 15th Century to its (almost) current form (Burr J.C. 2003).

The church contains some beautifully carved pew ends varying in date from the 16th to the 20th Century and a rood screen consisting a Victorian restoration of an earlier Tudor screen (Hoyle S. 2007). I will return to the pew ends in a later blog entry; and have only a slight confession that the rood screen did not attract my attention during the course of these visits.

Unlike the rood screen, the Celtic style crosses did not fail to grab my attention! Beside the southern porch is a large Anglo-Saxon cross (Hoyle S. 2007) standing tall at approx. 7 feet. This cross is thought to be older than the church itself and may be the earliest marker of the Christian site (MacNeil Cooke I. 1996). That it stands so close to the split rock known as "The St Levan's Stone" (Burr J.C. 2003) is not a coincidence? But perhaps a deliberate attempt by the Christian Church to neutralise the power of a pre-existing pagan site of female fertility worship (Hoyle S. 2007)? Credence can be given to this theory of blatant appropriation and subjugation, MacNeil Cooke (1996) refers to a letter from Pope Gregory to an Abbot Mellitus in the first year of the 7th Century. The Pope instructs the Abbot that on his travels to Britain he should preach from the pagan places of worship having first destroyed their idols - and by doing so maintain a strong connection of worship amongst the locals. At St Levan - the Cross overshadowing the Split Stone stands as a less than subtle metaphor for Christian Patriarchy's triumph over the Pagan Goddess.

Early Churchyard Cross & its proximity
to The St Levan's Stone

The St Levan's Stone
or pre-Christian fertility stone?

The Christian re-cycling of an earlier pagan site may also explain the motive behind the legend that St Levan himself split the rock with his bare hands (or staff) before exclaiming:

"When with panniers astride
A pack-horse can ride
Through St Levan's Stone
The world be done"

(McNeil Cooke I. 1996; Hoyle S. 2007)

Another churchyard cross of note stands beside the coffin rest stile on the eastern side of the churchyard - whereby the path heads out to / from Rospletha. Hoyle (2007) indicates that this cross has broken off its original shaft and later remounted on a square plinth. A second coffin rest stile is set in the northern boundary - but, somehow lacking the grandeur of its eastern cohort?

The coffin rest stile

Cross looking west

Further information about the Church can be found at: St Levan Church

Having explored St Levan's we turned back east - through the coffin rest stile and headed back to Treen - passing our final Cross of the day - situated just outside Rospletha in a field called "Churchway" (MacNeil Cooke I. 1996).

The path to Rospletha

Rospletha Cross (South face)
Bibliography (no date) ONLINE Defence Area 28 - Porthcurno Available at: Retrieved 16th Nov 2017

Biological Records Centre (no date) iRecord Grasshoppers and Related Insects App V 2.1.4 (215) Available to Download at: iRecord Grasshoppers and Related Insects Retrieved 16th Nov 2017

Burr J. C. (2003) St Levan Church church pamphlet

Historic England (1) (2017) ONLINE Holy Well of St Levan Available at: Retrieved 16th Nov 2017

Historic England (2) (2017) ONLINE Medieval chapel and hermitage called St Levan's Chapel Available at: Retrieved 16th Nov 2017

Hoyle S. (2007) The Church of St Levan A Guide and History Hypatia Publications Penzance Cornwall

MacNeil Cooke, I. (1996) 2nd Edition Mermaid to Merrymaid Journey to the Stones Cornwall Litho Redruth

No comments:

Post a Comment