(First published: The Cornishman, 12.1.1986)
On Christmas Day (1986)over half an inch of rain was recorded at Gwennap Head, on Penwith’s south coast. A few degrees less and we might well have had a seasonal white Christmas. As it was, between Christmas and New Year, at least one day of glorious sunshine revealed a pale dusting of white on the inland hills of the peninsula. Last Friday the night skies cleared to reveal a pale moon while an easing of the raw north winds produced what meteorologists call ‘nocturnal radiation’ leading to ‘sublimation of the water vapour’ – hoar frost by any other name. Such a frost cuts like a knife, breaks ground, and may even split granite. For a time, early in the day, it makes sodden ground fit to walk upon. Around Porthcurno and the Minack, there was thick ice on the sunless tracks, yet, on the beaches at Porth Chapel and Porthcurno, sheltered as they were from the wind, it was as warm as a Spring day in the bright sun.
Frost and Fire; the sun’s heat eased the iron-hard ground in places. Between the Minack Theatre and Porth Chapel Beach, the seaward edge of the track across Pedn-mên-an-mere, was overshadowed by bunched heather and gorse. Frosted trails of dead grass glittered like bridal veils. Here and there, the sun’s warmth had loosened the ice cover where thin trickles of water flickered beneath.
Fangs of ice hung from the dripping cliff and below the headland the granite walls shone like gold in the afternoon sun. Visibility was sharp and clear to the horizon. The cluster of rocks off Lizard Point, known as The Stags, seemed to float above the sea’s surface. Looking to the south everything was bright. Yet, on north-facing slopes inland, where the sun’s rays could not reach, cold shadows bred freezing air. The grass and bracken were stiff and brittle and a few campions hung their limp heads as if the frost had wrung their necks.
PEDN-MÊN-AN-MERE: PORTH CHAPEL/ST LEVAN: JANUARY 2016
Today, the beaches at Porthcurno and Porth Chapel are much as they looked all those years ago. The Minack has grown in sophistication while its core experience remains unchanged. Not much has changed either at Pedn-mên-an-Mere and Porth Chapel, although, directly below the headland, a massive rock fall of several years ago has reconfigured a sizeable section of cliff that was fairly unstable anyway. The unseen changes are often at sea level.
On the summit of Pedn-mên-an-mere you will still find the iron base of a radio mast that dates from 1902. This is all that remains of what was known as the Marconi Mast. For years, even locals thought that the mast was a legitimate piece of telegraphy equipment installed by the Marconi company. In truth, the mast was an early exercise in industrial espionage by the Porthcurno-based cable communications group, the Eastern Telegraph Company. The ETC , a commercial rival of Marconi, felt threatened by Marconi’s new ‘wireless’ technology that they feared would supplant undersea cable technology. The Pedn-mên-an-mere mast was fitted with radio aerials simply to eavesdrop on the experimental radio traffic from Marconi’s transmitting station at Polduh on the Lizard. It was dismantled on the outbreak of the First World War on the orders of the War Office because of its potential for ‘misuse’ and potential ‘espionage’ – by whom was not specified; an exquisite irony all round.
Porth Chapel has its own undersea memory for me. One summer’s day, in the distant nineteen-eighties, I jollied out of Penberth with two young local rascals in an eighteen-foot punt. We had borrowed a ‘mini’ trawl from those estimable cove men, Bobby and Teddy George. Complete with neat little wooden otter boards, it was a perfect miniature of the traditional Granton gear used by Newlyn sidewinder trawlers of the day. My companions were enthusiastic and intent; I was a touch sceptical. I worked on big boats; they were determined to impress.
It was a beautiful June day; the sea was calm and clear as gin beneath a cloudless sky. We shot the tiny trawl in the middle of Porthcurno Bay. I remember lounging in the bows as the sturdy outboard roared under the heft of the trawl that we could see through the clear water laid out perfectly on the sandy seabed astern. I kept one lazy eye on random landmarks and soon realised that we were not making an inch of progress and were, in truth, firmly anchored to all that golden sand.
Dismay and disgruntlement all round; but, hope sprang eternal and we tootled off round Ped-mên-an-mere and The Carracks to try our luck off Porth Chapel; in shallower water and close to an undersea reef known as School, or Shoal, Kelynack. The reef is said to be named after a local man who, many years before, had been a pilchard huer on the cliff and had mistaken the purplish colour of the reef for a shoal of pilchards. Derision and immortality, of a kind, followed. Our luck was no better. This time the mini trawl did move across the sand ground and we did haul a bulging bagful – of assorted seaweed, two dabs and, suitably, a mini crab. But, on such a day…in such great company…in such a paradise…
Small wonder the legendary St Levan set up shop here. His eponymous well above Porth Chapel beach survives (always a useful pitch for the devoted young newt hunter); and today the Church of St Levan at the head of the valley survives in one of the loveliest settings in Cornwall.