First published: The Cornishman, 28.5.1986
The cliffs that lie below and to the west of Pendeen lighthouse in West Cornwall are composed of ancient ‘country’ rock that was crushed and cleaved by powerful earth movements millions of years ago. It was then baked by molten granite that welled up from deep below ground. Hard treatment in anyone’s book. As if this was not enough, the whole was later submerged for a time beneath an ancient sea. The result is a chaotic mass of dark variegated rock that is shot through with quartz, pillow lavas and mineral traces and shaped into a wilderness of gullies, zawns, pinnacles, ridges and rock islands that delight and confuse the eye.
Country rock lacks the warm friendly colours of granite and the sea level ledges and chanks at Pendeen are often stained and smeared with silt from the mine outfalls of the adjoining Geevor and Levant coast. In clear sunsets, however, colour seems drawn to the surface of the upper cliffs. Then, the dark facets are transformed to bronze and ochre, as if the ancient heat still lingered.
On the seaward edge of the headland, a sequence of huge blocks and corners pitch to the north. In places they are capped by fierce overhangs that look as if they are merely glued to the main cliff by licks of mud. In other sections of cliff, the rock is honest and solid and is a delight to climb on.
On the summit of the Watch stands Pendeen Lighthouse with its big stocky tower and its twin tuba-like foghorns. The lighthouse was designed by the Trinity House engineer, Sir Thomas Matthews and built by Arthur Carkeek of Redruth. The headland was blasted flat to accommodate the sizeable lighthouse complex. Once a year, during the early 1900s when the lighthouse first came into service, Trinity House employees would empty containers of whitewash down a large area of the seaward cliff at Bosigran, to the east. Bosigran is about a mile from Pendeen and the huge whitewash stain served as a rough gauge of visibility. When they could not see the stain, the lighthouse men started the foghorn at Pendeen; a rough old measure that says much about the changes in attitudes to scenery and the Heritage Coast today.
PENDEEN WATCH: May 2016
The cliffs of Pendeen Watch are old stamping grounds for me – or climbing grounds rather. Directly below the lighthouse is the dark and gloriously gloomy Horn Zawn into which the old-time lighthouse keepers used to tip every piece of rubbish going. When I first abseiled into Horn Zawn in the 1980s, the tidal ledges at the base of the zawn had been swept clean of detritus by the sea, but rubbish still lay snagged on ledges on the upper cliff and paint stains from dumped paint pots still spattered the rock. Old items of clothing, broken glass, dented pots and pans lay about the scree slopes above the zawn . Even today, broken cable and wire still hang in loops down the back wall. All of this is from the days when the Cornish cliffs were seen as ‘wasteland’, fit for little other than whitewashed fog-warning indicators and rubbish tips. Even the great cliff of Chair Ladder at Gwennap Head boasts a feature known as ‘Ash Can Gully’ down which the ash and cinders from the lookout’s stove were once dumped.
My fondest memories of Pendeen, apart from rock climbing adventures, relate to magazine articles I wrote featuring the headland and its lighthouse. One was a profile of the great Handel ‘Andy’ Bluer, long-serving lighthouse man and genuine larger than life character. Handel was principal keeper at Pendeen during the 1980s, although he had served on many lighthouses. His stories were legion. He served on the Bishop Light during his long and varied career and, famously, was photographed by the national press, tee-ing up on the helicopter deck of the Bishop for a golf shot ‘to America’.
A particularly eye-watering story of Handel’s concerned an innovatory ‘eco’ loo that was installed on the Bishop. It required grass cuttings as part of its recycling process and Handel and his workmates had to bring bagfuls of grass back from shore leave. The loo became quickly redundant, in favour of the old-style thunderboxes, when the men realised that part of the eco process involved a series of meshing blades that chopped and churned the mix…’during action while seated’.
‘Not worth the cut,’ said Handel.
Another wonderful local man was the late Rushworth Harry, longstanding conductor of the Pendeen Silver Band. The annual Band Week at Pendeen began with Band Sunday at the Lighthouse when the compound was given over to a great tradition; the band seated beneath the dazzling white tower, the compound walls hung with colourful signal flags and the green, freshly cropped grass speckled with young and old Pendeeners in bright summer clothes in the brilliant Cornish sun. The music rang out under Rushworth’s vibrant, impassioned conducting, filling the air with the sounds of Arnhem or the lovely Colne, the lively Aces High or Super Trouper, or such formidable test pieces as A Malvern Suite.
A particularly fond memory of Pendeen for me concerns the work of the one and only David Kemp. In 1992 the advertising company Ogilvy & Mather commissioned David to create a piece of art to be the centrepiece of their new headquarters at Canary Wharf, London. This was the Vox Populaire, ‘The Voice Thrower’, a masterpiece of Kempian invention and wit. I ran a piece in several newspapers about the Vox Pop. The story caused great interest, especially when a leading newspaper failed to publish the editorial disclaimer that had been attached – always necessary when an irresistible spoof story is filed.
So convincing was the report, without the disclaimer, that even Trinity House, the great institution that manages the British lighthouse system, contacted me with a request for further information and old photographs of the Vox Populaire. They got the joke – eventually, loud and clear…
David Kemp’s website is: http://www.davidkemp.uk.com
Pendeen Silver Band’s website is: http://www.pendeenband.co.uk/sounding-out-the-band
Reproduced below is one of the editions that ran the Vox Populaire story, with the disclaimer.