St Agnes


Something whimsical as winter draws in.

The ocean swells rise from the dark, cold depths of the Atlantic, rolling eastward from the shores of Newfoundland for two thousand miles before making landfall at last on the north coast of Cornwall. The waves unleash the energy built up in their journey on the sheer cliffs that fringe the village. There are sporadic breaches, where the ocean booms and froths in the eyeless sockets of sea caves. On either side of the fortress of St Agnes head, the sea has found other weak points where the rock is softer, grinding out narrow, knife-sharp coves. But these are small victories and the ocean’s assault on the coastline is mostly futile. This is not the gentle, undulating, south coast with its broad river valleys carved by the sea from its soft sedimentary under-belly. No; here are unyielding granite walls rising sheer from the sea, walls which, thousands of years ago, were underwater. The land will not easily relinquish what it has won from the sea.

Inland, the massive granite outcrop of the Beacon stands, sentinel-like, over the village. The view from its summit reveals a place encircled by sea on three sides, moulded and shaped by geology. Level ground is rare here and the village proper lies on one of the few flat areas, the granite spine of St Agnes. The secular and spiritual institutions have taken possession of this scarce resource. Mammon has its shops, pubs and hairdressers. God too has staked his claim; the square, sober, pugnacious Methodist chapel faces off with the older, altogether more reserved Anglican church, which squats close by. The houses here are all Victorian middle class respectability, reflecting the new confidence of a rising commercial elite.

But this island of flatness is the exception, and topography quickly re-imposes its authority. From the village centre, the land drops away sharply, the houses spilling down steep hills to the coves, clinging to the valley sides like limpets fearful of sliding into the sea. Down Town Hill to Peterville and then on to Trevaunance Cove where, on a summer’s day, all is idyllic bucket and spade seaside charm. But next to the café and the pub is the RNLI station with the orange snout of the lifeboat poking out of its house, a dog sniffing the air for the scent of danger. There is a lifeboat here for a reason. Down the beach, visible at low tide, is a mass of scattered granite blocks, remnants of three centuries of futile attempts to build a harbour here. A harbour that was built, destroyed, rebuilt, destroyed again and finally abandoned. Three hundred years of human endeavour reduced to a jumble of broken rocks by the remorseless sea.

With the granite that encircles the village came the deposits of copper and tin; they, in turn, brought life and death, riches and hardship to the village.  Above the beach, dominating the hillside, are the skeletal remains of the engine houses that once contained the machines engaged in the endless task of pumping water out of the mines. St Agnes’ ‘hard-rock men’ burrowed into the earth in the hope of striking it rich, but were more often rewarded with a dirt-poor life and an early death. Wheal Kitty, Wheal Charlotte, Wheal Ellen, Wheal Harriet: the prospectors liked to name the mines after their wives, daughters and mothers, as if invoking the names of their women would somehow soften the reality of the dirty, dangerous, dispiriting business of wrenching metal from the bowels of the earth.­­­

Here, the past is never very far away. It’s under our feet, burrowing through the mine-workings under our houses while, above our heads, the jutting fingers of the engine house chimneys pierce the sky. And, in case we are inclined to forget, from time to time, an old mineshaft opens up, swallowing a careless sheep or unlucky dog. The past, it seems, won’t let us go.

The names of the places and highways themselves seem like voices from another time, when Cornish, not English, was the mother tongue here. Follow Goonbell down past Gooninnis and Goonlaze, down to Trevellas; or go down Penwinnick Road onto Goonvrea, over to Polbreen Avenue and on to Trelawney Road. A traveler could cross the village from one side to another without encountering a name recognisable on the other side of the Tamar.

I walked on those north coast cliffs early one winter’s morning, breathing air cleansed by its journey across the ocean from the New World. Meanwhile, here in the Old World, the battle between the sea and the land continued as it has ever done.

Leave a comment


  1. Brock

     /  December 7, 2012

    That’s all very well but where is the mention of badgers? Not a single reference.

  2. CornwallNow

     /  December 7, 2012

    I’ll bear it in mind next time.

  3. Brock

     /  December 7, 2012

    You better or we’ll be burrowing under your house.

  4. CornwallNow

     /  December 7, 2012

    I think you may need to get out more. Or possibly less…

  5. I enjoyed this.We were upalong the beacon this morning being blown away! 🙂

    • CornwallNow

       /  January 1, 2013

      That’s very kind – thanks. Yes, it’s been incredibly windy these last few days. My dogs almost got blown off the top of the Beacon when I walked them up there a couple of days ago!!


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