LAMORNA: TATER-DU April 1985/2016

First published: The Cornishman, 4.4.1985

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The mile or so of coast between Carn Barges and Boscawen Point, west of Lamorna, has more than its share of wrecks and writers. Romantic fancy may be tempted to grant the black cliffs at Tater-du a strange magnetism; inspirational for the writer certainly, but fatal for the seagoer.

The cliff is unique to this part of Penwith’s south coast. Its faulted mass of cool dark greenstone brings a welcome change after so many miles of sun-baked granite. To east and west of Tater-du, the granite reasserts, most impressively at Tregiffian and Boscawen whose hard, uncompromising zawns are linked forever to the names of the lost lifeboat, Solomon Browne, and the coaster, Union Star.

Yet, the black cliff of Tater-du has a friendly atmosphere. It is wide open to the south and its great   walls rise to summit rocks that are stained pale-gold with lichen. Few seabirds nest here, perhaps because it has long been the haunt of ravens, as black-winged as the cliff itself. For many years, there has been a raven’s nest on a high, canopied ledge in the middle of the cliff. It seems huge and extravagant, almost like an eagle’s perch, and is happily slum-like; a rough basketwork of bare twigs randomly stitched together with scraps of binder twine and rags.

Smooth ledges and terraces descend to the sea below Tater-du lighthouse. Offshore, lie The Bucks, twin tidal rocks that are set far enough into the seaway to pose a hazard even for local vessels. The lighthouse was opened in 1965, two years after the loss of the Spanish coaster, the Juan Ferrer, which ran aground in a south westerly gale at Tregiffian Cliff to the west of Tater-du. Dense fog hampered the searchers ashore and afloat. The main effort was concentrated towards Land’s End mainly due to a brief Mayday call from the stricken Juan Ferrer stating that the vessel had run aground ‘in the vicinity of Land’s End’.  The search proved so fruitless that it was called off. Wind and sea eased to a near calm, although the fog remained as dense as ever.

Only the instincts and local knowledge of Penberth men, Bobby and Teddy George, brought resolution. After the official search was  suspended, the pair drove to Tregiffian Farm on a hunch. As they walked down the lane towards Tater-du they could smell the diesel fumes leaking from the stricken vessel.  When they reached the coast, they met three Spanish sailors struggling along the top of the cliff.

Eighteen years later, in 1981, sixteen others were lost nearby from the Solomon Browne and the Union Star. Now, only the scarred and rusted wreckage that litters the zawns and chanks at Boscawen reminded us of the sea’s great indifference, although, today, such bleak tragedy seemed hardly possible in the April sunshine, when even the resurgent ravens sounded at ease with the world.

Lamorna: Tater-du: April 2016

During the 1980s, I had the good fortune to work a small wooden mackerel tosher called the Fairlight. It was owned by John Nicholls of Newlyn. John worked for Trinity House and maintained as part of his duties the unmanned Tater-du lighthouse. The Fairlight had a fascinating history of its own, linked to Tater-du and to the Juan Ferrer. The Fairlight had been one of the lifeboats on the Juan Ferrer. It was launched during the wreck but eventually drifted away unmanned. The pattern of inshore tides round the Land’s End Peninsula is complex and the little lifeboat is said to have drifted round Land’s End on the vagaries of wind and tide. It was salvaged by a St Ives fisherman who renovated it and equipped it with a bow dodger and cuddy and a trim little engine.  It was christened the Fairlight and eventually came into John Nicholls’ ownership.

I was a raw novice at sea in the 1960s, but I loved the Fairlight and with the help of Tim Knight, another Trinity House man, I slowly, painfully, and at times, hilariously learned the basics of the trade while earning very little money. Soon, I moved into the serious world of longlining as a deckhand aboard the sixty-five foot Kilravock, a terrific vessel, Scots-built (of course) and owned and skippered by Michael Hosking of Porthleven. From dawdling days between Mousehole Island and Porthcurno, I was soon rocking and rolling fifty or so miles southwest of the Bishop Lighthouse on week-long trips, hauling skate, cod, haddock and ling.

Today the Tater-du lighthouse still does its work, although its original 72 Tannoy foghorn units have been replaced by a ‘Pharos Marine Omnidirectional electric emitter’ to coin a phrase…The lighthouse may not always do its duty, however, as the future of some shore-based units come under review. (Fancy a seaside home with a view?). The lighthouse is still guarded like a fortress. Access from the coast path is down a long flight of steps, edged to either side by wheel ramps for service vehicles. A padlocked gate bars the top of the steps. It is an offence for members of the public to use these steps or to go within the immediate area of the lighthouse.

Fortunately, the great cliff of Tater-du itself falls just outside this cordon and there are other ways to the sea level ledges at its base. During the 1950s, members of the then Commando Cliff Assault Wing pioneered several classic rock climbs at Tater-du with such characteristic names as Marine Parade, Commando Special and Sentry Box; a rare precedent. Civilian climbers have added numerous routes over the years and the cliff is a popular climbing venue still – a fabulous ziggurat of complex slabs, walls and sea-ledges on which huge sculpted boulders lie, all of it commanding Mount’s Bay and the beautiful south. Cliffs and sea – none better…Cornish cliffs and sea – better still.

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Climber and geologist, Sam Salmon, gets to grip with the classic climb, Martell Slab, at Tater-du (Photo; Raj Tewson)


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Cornish Landscapes

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