A weekend at Land’s End

The other day, WordPress told me that Surrey Medieval had reached the ripe old age of two. Born on an uncomfortable leatherette sofa in a terraced house in Liverpool (that wasn’t meant to sound so graphic), I suppose if this blog was a child it would be toddling about and finding its voice now, which doesn’t sound all that far off the reality.

I’m not certain when the big day was exactly as I was preoccupied preparing for a short holiday down in far western Cornwall ahead of an operation I’m now laid up in bed recovering from. Basing ourselves in beautiful St Ives (see above), the “itinerary” took in the other two key sights/sites of the locale: Land’s End and St Michael’s Mount (no points for originality, but you try getting to Chysauster on public transport). I wasn’t thinking all that much about its medieval history but, as was inevitable, ended up finding out some interesting things and snapping some photographs that I thought would repay posting here.

Looking out for the fishermen of St Ives – the chapel of St Nicholas with the modern coastguard station in the background.

St Ives’ reputation precedes it, particularly its distinguished artistic lineage. Though we didn’t visit the Tate gallery, I did insist on a quick look around Barbara Hepworth’s exquisite studio and garden which are also in its care. We also made it up to the top of The Island, capped by the diminutive chapel dedicated to St Nicholas. Appropriately for a foundation dedicated to the patron saint of fisherman (and oodles of other groups besides), from the chapel we looked out over the fishing boats returning to harbour after a day out at sea. Keep a look out for more about Saint Nick on this site in the coming months as I get around to writing up last year’s presentation on the chancel of Compton church (and some of the realisations I’ve had in the months since).

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The above photo tries and largely fails to capture the very distinctive landscape of the Land’s End peninsula, a patchwork of tiny granite-walled fields giving way to rough heather-clad hills. It’s unlike anything I’m familiar with, steeped in history, from standing stones to the ruinous engine houses of tin mines. Indeed, I seem to recall reading – probably in one of Brian Roberts and Stuart Wrathmell’s pioneering works on regional landscape categorisation – that it’s a landscape quite unlike anything else extant in England today.

The relative shoddiness of the above photo leads me to impart the following piece of advice – don’t sit on the upper deck of an open-top bus driving into the winds blowing straight off the Atlantic Ocean. They are relentless, nowhere more so than at Land’s End. It’s a funny place, where the raw beauty of land and sea meets British seaside schlockery. Mercifully the latter has been just about kept in check, the usual high prices much in evidence (£9.95 for a photograph with the very flimsy New York 3147 miles that way sign, anyone?) but little in the way of the stereotypical tack, that is unless you count the Arthur’s Quest experience narrated by Brian Blessed, which unsurprisingly was clearly audible from outside…

Brian Blessed’s voice – the only thing that can be heard above the roaring winds of Land’s End

The concept of sense of place, the way the inhabitants of and/or visitors to a particular place or area perceived what was around them and articulated this through various media, is to be encountered more and more in works in the sphere of landscape studies (see for instance last year’s Sense of Place in Anglo-Saxon England collection and the related website). There can be few place-names which encapsulate this more evidently than Land’s End. I had assumed that the name was of modern (by which I mean post-medieval) coinage, so was more than a little surprised to discover that it’s on record by 1337 – and earlier in the same century as Inglendesende, “England’s End”. What I find interesting is how it was determined to be the very end of the land rather than, say, Cape Cornwall a few miles to the north. Presumably this sort of thing was determined by sailors rather than landlubbers like me – I feel like a bear of very little brain all of a sudden.

Pilgrims – ok, people who weren’t willing to pay the normal entrance charge – on the way to St Michael’s Mount

Our sunny, if blustery, afternoon at Land’s End was followed the next day by a wet and still blustery date with St Michael’s Mount. We first caught sight of it the evening before, bathed in the golden light of a wonderful spring evening and, high tide aside, worried we’d missed a trick by leaving our visit until the next day. It turned out to be a shrewd move, since it happened to coincide with a day of free entrance to the castle, church and gardens PLUS assorted choirs, morris dancers and harpists…

Marazion’s best (check out the keyboard player and her dutiful umbrella holder)

There’s no disputing St Michael’s Mount is a very special place, a dream-like combination of castle, priory and mansion perched on top of a precipitous granite peak overlooking gardens and flower-filled woodlands running down to the shores of the island – I half expected one of the Lost polar bears to emerge from the undergrowth (appropriately, its Cornish name is Karrek Loos yn Koos, “grey rock in the woods”). The island has a rich history (and prehistory – part of a Bronze Age founder’s hoard, including an extraordinary buckle, is on display in the castle), with the first monastery perhaps being established there as long ago as the eighth century. It was gifted to the abbey of Mont Saint Michel at some point in the Conquest era (the online sources I’m lazily using differ as to whether this was the work of Edward the Confessor or a Norman successor), though the present priory church is an early fourteenth-century rebuild of a structure reputedly destroyed by an earthquake in 1275. On at least three of the four cardinal points of the priory-cum-castle complex stand chunky granite crosses, a means of delimiting (sacred) space that I haven’t come across in any other monastic sites I have visited – was this a “Celtic” practice? Or merely some much later imaginative landscape gardening?

The best surviving medieval fabric is to be found in what was the priory refectory, now known as the Chevy Chase room (timely since Community is jockeying to be my new favourite show on the box), intermixed with features in the “Strawberry Hill Gothic” style, of which I find myself a massive fan. There was a great storyteller in there at the time we shuffled through, too.

The Chevy Chase room with carved frieze showing scenes from the medieval poem, not ‘National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation’

St Michael’s Mount has been home to the St Aubyn family for countless generations. Over the years, scions of the family have picked up all sorts of nick-nacks, but I find it hard to believe any of them will be able to trump a piece of the coat Napoleon wore at Waterloo and a lock of his hair (what was it with locks of hair?), the sort of trinkets that would get everyone on the Antiques Roadshow all of aflutter.

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So there you go, Cornwall is class. Proper job, as they say (and sing) way out west.

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About Robert J S Briggs

Back to being a part-time early medievalist; Surrey born, London based, been known to travel
This entry was posted in Archaeology, Architecture, Art, Castle, Cornwall, Landscape, Phenomenology, Place-Names, Religion, Sea and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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