Saving Face/Saving Grace: the Buildings of Penzance


Is Penzance a dead parrot on a pirate’s poop deck?

First published 2015

Is Penzance really at the end of the line – strategically and economically? Or, is this small, modest seaside town, which is rather more blessed in its geographical location and outlook than say, Aberystwyth, Morecambe, Blackpool, Brighton, (Oh, go on then… London too) simply  economically moribund?

Is Penzance, like a multitude of  small towns and communities throughout Britain, simply poleaxed by austerity and deficit delirium, those current good old market-force cover-ups for the cataclysm created by the incompetence of bankers, self-styled ‘entrepreneurs’, and career politicians (and more recently, Covid)? Will this charming, end-of-the-line town ever regain its historic status and style within the context of massive economic, social, and cultural changes?

Of course it will…


Meanwhile, given that nothing truly revolutionary is going to happen tomorrow…or next week…, consider this: Penzance is a cracking little town as it stands, and cracking little towns such as Penzance offer a richer currency than the often slavish focus on retail and loadsamoney investment and the ludicrous posturing of celebrity snake oil artists such as  Mary Queen of Flops.

There’s been far too much mooning and moaning about how rundown Penzance has become. How Market Jew Street has lost it. How Chapel Street is a half-empty marketing possibility. How the good hamburghers of the town are ever ready to flog another few slices of heritage currency and civic identity in order to entice yet another Mausoleum of Munch to suck even more life out of the civic heart of the town.

Penzance people are certainly doing their best to keep the town alive with numerous initiatives.  But Economics is as much about attitude as it is about cash and candy.

When a small town falls foul of national macroeconomics and bad planning decisions, its citizens need to refresh their connections with what that town has at its heart, its iconography, its aesthetic, its other currency of townscape, micro as well as macro. You cannot eat architecture and townscape of course and, other than as a tourist draw, you cannot make too much money from a town’s architectural  heritage. But, the fabric of a town like Penzance, its ‘ornamentation’, its design features, its motifs no matter how old and forgotten, no matter how much has already been lost, can give citizens satisfaction, civic pride and sense of place.

OFF CAMERA 759                                                                 Ionic iconic: Market House 1838 (Pic: Hannigan)   


Deconstruct Penzance into its parts and you’ll find a fascinating stylebook of architectural templates. True, the town was kicked rather brutally backwards by the infamous Spanish raid of 1595 when, it is assumed, a great deal of the medieval heart of the port area was destroyed. (Had it survived, there’s no guarantee that ‘medievalism’ would have survived the later vandalism of home grown Philistines.)

2DSC_1594No 67 Chapel Street: Pilaster Paradise (Pic: Hannigan)  

Old photographs reveal fascinating Penzance buildings that are long gone. But the town still thrums with interesting façades and facets, furbelows, finials and features to catch the eye. It’s not enough to repeat endlessly the usual publicity leaflet blurb about ‘historic Chapel Street’. Start looking at the roof lines, the stonework, the entire history book that wanders, intriguingly up and down the street past such obvious features as the technicolour dreamcoat façade of the Egyptian House, the Wesleyan Chapel’s lurking Italianate glower, the unassuming, yet satisfying Georgian and Regency terraces that leap-frog their way over the street’s quirkier outliers; the side streets that slip away to quiet corners.

Delve into the history. Are the red bricks of Chapel Street’s ‘Rotterdam Houses’ and the famous ‘Bronte House’ laid as Flemish bond instead of English bond because 18th century Dutch traders who used to offload brick ballast at Penzance influenced building styles? Probably not – Flemish bond was an all-British preference for brick patterning at the time.


Flemish Bond – The ‘Brontë House’, Chapel Street (Pic: Hannigan)  

Beyond the bricks, granite, the great vernacular building stone of Cornwall, sets Cornish town’s apart not least Penzance. Look at granite forms and facades, of churches especially and match them to the features of the great cliffs of Bosigran, Gwennap Head and Land’s End and the relationship between the built and natural environments is palpable. Check out St John’s Hall for its monumental stonework some of which was plundered from the Iron Age settlement of Chun Castle on the lonely moors of Penwith’s north coast. The walls of Chun were reputedly over fifteen feet high in the original form. Granite from Chun was also used for paving Market Jew Street’s splendid Terrace where there is a unique little art form in the intricate scoring of the slabs underfoot.

image9 Photoshop the cars out and admire the stonework (Pic: Hannigan)


The secret of appreciating townscapes is to look up. (STOP FIRST! – or you’ll wrap yourself round a lamp post or another skygazer.) Most of the surviving architectural features of towns and cities start above the ground floor. Years of trading have turned the street line of most towns into a palimpsest of shop façades that increasingly become functional and bland. It is the upper stories where a roll call of old features survives and where strange little motifs and quirks languish under the grime.

Stop in Market Place at the junction of Queen Street, Chapel Street and Parade Street opposite the Globe Inn –  itself a fine little architectural accent – and then, crane your neck for a modest but fascinating cluster of upper storey and roofline features you’ve probably never seen before. Then, look for the red granite column – from Aberdeen, no less – on No. 3 Market Place – the original Devon & Cornwall bank of 1888.

Stay with the reds and check out the splendid terracotta motifs on the Art School façade in Morrab Road and on the old Lifeboat Station on Wharf Road courtesy of Silvanus Trevail whose name alone is splendour. Then check for the resident owl at the bottom end of Queen Street.

Penzance wriggles with ‘Lines of Beauty’, those serpentine elongated S-shapes or ogees that are essential ingredients of the visual aesthetic. Watch any model sashay down the catwalk and your watching a mobile ogee…or a basic wriggle. Look at the swooping edge of a hillside, the majestic curl of a big wave. You could say even, that the roof of Sainsbury’s is a line of beauty that’s fallen on its backside. (Sainsbury’s architects describe it as being ‘a high level canopy roof (with) a meandering curve to mimic a wave’. Or it’s a skateboard deck! Or the MOD’s latest land-based aircraft carrier.)


Penzance boasts a splendid iconography of building styles and features, not least in its Late Georgian/Regency/Post-Regency terraces – walk through Regent Square’s handsome cluster of early 19th century stuccoed buildings, all columned porches and scripted pilasters, and your feet are tracing a Line of Beauty otherwise known as a street.

DSC_1772Look at that canopy! Morrab Gardens’ Bandstand (Pic: Hannigan)

The lines of beauty wriggle onwards. The town’s flagship scapes include the handsome Morrab Gardens, Penlee Park, the Prom, or the Marine Esplanade as it was known originally with essential Victorian pomp. Choice enclaves include the fine cluster of Georgian and Regency Terraces to the north of Morrab Gardens and the uncrowded, light-filled complex that surrounds St Anthony Gardens; a splendid conflation of the Yacht Inn’s Marine architecture, the chunky Gothic of the old Sailors’ Institute, the vernacular granite of The Barbican, and the enduring Jubilee Bathing Pool.

 The lines of Beauty can lead you through a delightful maze of buildings if you have the eyes to see and the curiosity to care. All those scrolls, shapes and features of the townscape are the same templates that you see in wild landscapes, in the way fields and moorland and cliff and cove are multi-layered, in the multi-faceted patterns of waves and water. Look at the shape of clouds, how rain falls, how shadows fall, how we hear music even. And be prepared to be irritated or disappointed even by ugly features, failed façades or neglected littered corners.

image11Penzance Brutalism? or Beauty in the ipad of the beholder?  (Pic: Hannigan)


One minor disappointment, in my jaundiced view, is Chapel Street’s Church of St Mary (an opinion for which I may earn perdition). What a location! What a lofty leap of a tower! Yet, somehow, the rather constrained and cramped vital statistics of the church frustrate the eye; the dignified ashlar stonework is just a little too prim and unweathered.

St. Mary’s was built in the 1830s as a Commissioners Church of a type encouraged by the Church Building Act of 1818. The Act provided government funding as part of a scheme to gift Anglican churches of substance to rapidly developing small towns, partly to combat the growing popularity of Methodism. St Mary’s design may have been constrained because of the inevitable financial strictures that such schemes impose. The Commissioners wanted these new ‘preaching’ churches built quickly.

St. Mary’s rises above it all of course but, for my taste, an elegant spidery spire rather than the stolid Perpendicular Gothic tower of the church would have given Penzance, Mount’s Bay and St Michael’s Mount a more pleasing and dramatic complement. St. Mary’s triumph is its elevated position and the airy ‘deck’ of its churchyard above the sea, one of the most serene open spaces in Penzance never mind the old 1830s cholera burial pit in its north west corner.


                                          St Mary’s Church (Pic: Hannigan)

If three-dimensional landscapes and townscapes unscrew your head, fair enough. Stick with two-dimensional screens. But if you need some guidance in appreciating the built landscape of Penzance then there’s a fantastic amount of research and writing about the town, its history and buildings, that has been carried out over the years by local academics and enthusiasts. Head to the splendid Morrab Library (join up, in fact) and to the Reference section of Penzance Public Library for a swathe of books, treatises and documents on local history that give in-depth background to the built environment of Penzance – and of the Penwith district as a whole.

The ultimate guru of architecture is Nikolaus Pevsner, whose Buildings of England series is essential reading for the façade fancier. But a better champion of Penzance’s townscape was Peter Laws whose Review of the Architecture of Penzance is an intriguing appendix to P. A. S. Pool’s masterly History of the Town and Borough of Penzance. Peter Laws’ Review is certainly required reading for a fine overview of the town’s buildings that overwhelms Pevsner’s sometimes sniffy dismissal of the provincial.

The Penwith Local History Group’s excellent publication, In and Around Penzance During Napoleonic Times, is a comprehensive and evocative record of Penzance in the early 19th century and includes numerous references to town buildings.  There are several Photographic Memories books full of intriguing records of what Penzance looked like, not so long ago. You see the ghostly outlines of their pictures in the modern streetscapes of Penzance today. Delve into the archives and you’ll find much more.


So…What’s your view..? What’s your favourite ‘Scape’? Is there a corner of Penzance that attracts, intrigues or repels you? The second storey façade of a building you haven’t noticed before? A cluster of features in a roof line, perhaps? A glimpse between buildings of oddly layered features? A curious juxtaposition of roofs or gables? A really, really ugly fragment of a building that is still somehow intriguing?

Here’s a gloriously glaringly obvious Penzance ‘Scape’:

The Egyptian House, Chapel Street

‘Glaringly’ is used with purpose here because this familiar and striking Penzance building really is ‘glaring’. Its gleaming frontage shares the same in-your-face colours, and poster-paint slather of fairground rides, ships’ figureheads and Disneyland. But that’s its point; a one-off splendour, frothing with corded pilasters, lotus buds, swags, swithers and ornate glazing bars that together add style to the building’s harlequin facade. The Egyptian House owes its provenance to a nineteenth century ‘Egyptian Revival’ in architecture and design that was sparked off by Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt and Nelson’s triumph at the Battle of the Nile. The exotic motifs of Egyptian buildings, pyramids, obelisks and temples inspired a fashion for Egyptology throughout Europe.

image12                                       image13
LH: Egyptian House – Poster (paint) for Penzance (Pic: Hannigan)
RH: The Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly London (built as an exhibition venue 1812. Demolished 1905) (Out of copyright use image)

The first Egyptian Revival building in Britain was the Egyptian Hall in London’s Piccadilly, built in 1812 as an exhibition space. It is the archetypal building that was the template for Penzance’s Egyptian House, built in 1834 for the bookseller, John Lavin and used as a lucrative outlet for the sale of stationary and maps and for the exhibition and sale of minerals. Penzance’s Egyptian House languished beneath fading paintwork until restored, superbly, by the Landmark Trust in 1970.


So: Is Penzance a dead parrot on a pirate’s poop deck? Or, a dead pirate on a decked parrot? No. It’s just one of many small provincial towns with a terrific back catalogue of fascinating buildings and micro features that are not just space-fillers between the ‘retail outlets’. Buildings may not launch Penzance into the trickle down economic miracle promised by the snake oil salespersons, but such buildings give the town its soul. No profit in your pocket, but definitely a sense of optimism and civic pride. And the more of us who recognise the saving grace of Penzance the better chance there is of saving the face of this splendid little town and saving it from being turned into a car park, a warehouse, a giant retail shelf, or one big concrete block…


                                               Pheonix House: Penzance restored (Pic: Hannigan)

Once you’ve ‘read’ your way round Penzance’s open book of buildings, keep going. Keep stopping short in any Cornish town and village and look up! Try Newlyn. Try Redruth (any small town that boasts a 19th century Florentine Romanesque clock tower has something to preen about). And Helston? Take a stroll around the Cross Street area of Helston for superb examples of 19th century Cornish town houses and stable courtyards and granite façades and features. Falmouth? Land and sea conjoined in a delightful mixing of building styles that have one foot on land, the other in the sand. And, of course, Truro; well favoured, crammed with fine buildings; touch of Bath at its best and almost French in places. Truro Cathedral looks handsomely French, when seen from the river, just round from Malpas. Its spires are Normandy Gothic, of a kind that would have enhanced Penzance’s St Mary’s. But never mind. And Boscawen Street should have traffic banished to turn its cobbled expanse into a proper Place du Marché. Then, there’s Launceston, Lostwithiel, Fowey, St. Ives, Hayle, …You’ll never stop.

Gazing at buildings is a harmless and fruitful pastime. But, people often live behind the intriguing façades that you may be gazing at. Discretion is advised. Photographing a private house may be seen as an intrusion by its occupants.


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  1. Great article, Des. I read Pevsner on Penzance and thought he hadn’t really looked hard enough. Thanks for putting him right.


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