The mining coast from Carn Vellan to Kenidjack Castle is cross-grained to the north west where the cliffs are cut off at the sea’s edge in shattered breaks. The cliffs rise in steps from the shoreline; their faces are sheared like coal seams. Where zawns penetrate the coastline, they are deep, narrow and sunless.
Botallack Zawn is accessible only at low tide, but only if there is no swell. Even when the sea is slight, you can still get a faceful of the Atlantic if you mistime the final steps. The zawn lies between a soaring north wall that is over 150 feet high, and a shorter overhanging south wall. Polished boulders, as big as barrels, rumble about the floor of the zawn during big storms. There are scooped-out basins in the rock floor. These have been formed by the sea spinning the boulders like quern stones before tossing them higher into the zawn, from where they tumble back in the biggest pinball game in Cornwall.
These boulders and the lower halves of the zawn walls never catch the sun. At the back of Botallack Zawn, where the walls narrow and are a bare ten feet apart, the restless boulders have scooped out an undercut cave. A small bed of coarse sand covers the floor of the cave. No ferns or lichens grow on the walls and a constant stream of fresh water cascades onto the black rocks down a deep jagged crack known as The Dungeon. A huge boulder is jammed halfway up the neck of the zawn. From its base, a line of silvery quartz like trapped lightning stitches its way down the back wall
This is a hard place, hooded and crowded by its dark walls. Yet, on a clear summer’s day, the green slopes above the zawn shine in the light from the sun. Deep grass and wildflowers carpet the slopes; ruby-red stonecrop drapes the ledges and outcrops of rock; the air is full of the scent of wild carrot and scurvy grass. Yet, two hundred feet below, in the heart of the zawn, it is always midnight.
BOTALLACK July 2016
Botallack hooked me into Cornwall in the summer of 1965 when I first walked down a dusty road to the famous Count House Folk Music Club. The club was just getting on its feet. The ‘resident’ singers were John the Fish and Tel Mann. The club was owned and managed by Ian Todd and John Wood who lived with their families in the adjoining mine captain’s house of the old Crowns Mine. I walked through the door of the Count House one sweet summer’s evening and walked into several years of fun as a resident folk-singer. I had barely a dram of talent. Irish blarney and Scots brass saw me through. I could manage three shaky guitar chords on a good night. I recycled about a dozen songs, told stories and smiled a lot.
During those early years of the original Count House, a stream of leading folk performers showed up, often out of nowhere. They included Ralph McTell, Bert Jansch, Jacqui McShee, Gerry Lockran, Hamish Imlach, Noel Murphy, Derek Brimstone, Alex Atterson and even Donovan. Local talent emerged. A sometime resident was Ranald Handfield-Jones (Handshake) who played excellent 12-string guitar and dressed as if he was on his way to the grouse moor. Regular local guests were Iris Gittins and Pete Chatterton from St Ives, and John Sleep and John Hayday (later of Folk Cottage fame) from the Newquay area. Of those talented performers who came through the doors, Mike Chapman was a main man.
Mike materialised from the dark mist of a Poldarkian evening dressed like a cross between Dylan and Donovan. Ian Todd and I groaned – lookalikes were regular. We suggested Mike should do one number. This was our insurance against untested ‘itinerant’ performers. Mike, of course, blasted the roof off, and, in his always-modest way, started to leave the stage after his one number. The packed Count House went wild. I had to crowd-surf back to the front to tell Mike to keep going. He did, and the rest was Count House and Cornish folk music history. Mike went on to become an international performer, though he remained always his cool unassuming Yorkshire self; the Todd and Wood families sold the Count House; Brenda and John the Fish picked up the baton big time; I got fed up singing sea shanties and songs about shoals of herring and disappeared off to the real thing. No one sang at sea.
Each year, for many years now, Mike Chapman and his wife and manager, Andru have come to Botallack in July, for performances at the Count House, which is now owned by the National Trust. Gone is the damp smell of salty sea fog in the dimly lit-building. Gone too are the flaky whitewashed walls strung with redundant pilchard nets and glass fishing floats. Yet, the old place still resonates with its history of true mining, folk music, its short period as a disco and then as a restaurant. Things move on and Mike Chapman’s final Botallack shows are a fitting conclusion to an era.
My later connections with the Botallack cliffs were at close quarters. For perverse reasons, over many years as a rock climber, I’ve pioneered a number of climbing routes on the black killas and greenstone cliffs of the mining coast. Pendeen, Trewellard and Kenidjack Castle Headland were favourite stamping grounds. I was always on the lookout for unexplored cliffs that might render up new rock climbs.
In the early 1990s I was crewing offshore on the crabber Matthew Harvey, skippered by my old mate Roger Lewis. (A few weeks later I lost a fingertip, caught in the winch; just as well guitar playing had given me up…) We were a fair few miles off the north coast at the end of a long day and were heading for Land’s End. It was a glorious June evening. When the sun is low in summer, it highlights the cliffs in a fascinating ‘cubist’ way, like a Picasso painting, or more fittingly, like a Peter Lanyon abstract. Facets show clearly, but confusing masses of darker colour confuse the eye.
I was sure that I had spotted a big ‘open-book’ zawn on the Botallack coast but could not work out its position against the chaotic background. Back on shore, it took me months to locate what I had seen. But when I did, it was a very big zawn indeed. It lay about three hundred yards beyond the Crowns Mine Engine Houses and was reached along a narrow rattly path that led to the whim platform of the old Wheal Button Mine, a seriously shaky place. A few steps further on and, suddenly, there was the zawn. Two fearsome unclimbed sheets of rock stood at right angles to each other. The facing cliff was starred midway by a massive intrusion of snowy-white quartz – a ‘White Spider’. It was a scary place. Perfect…
Over the next few months, I crept down to the cliff with various climbing mates to look at the potential. It seemed beyond me although I managed once to get within a few metres of the top of the West Face on a line through the quartz spider, but could not make the final moves. My mate and I had to retreat ignominiously in the face of a rising tide. I came back with better and younger climbers and we managed to forge two hard lines, but only to a halfway point on the North Face. Then, in 1994 I went back to the zawn with a climber called Mike Raine, another Yorkshireman with the same unassuming ways as Mike Chapman. (I’ve always felt that, in other lives, Chapman would have made a great rock climber or fisherman. But, better he looked after those magic fingers instead…)
Mike Raine was teaching in Camborne at the time. He was a terrific climber with great experience. Over a two month period, I followed Mike up nine serious and technical new routes in the zawn, which we dubbed Freedom Zawn. I was happily terrified most of the time. Not many climbers repeat those routes, but Freedom Zawn is nicely populated with great rock climbs now, with names like The Hood, Nelson (after Mandela) and the Flow Country. Yet no trace of us remains.
Sixteen years later, in 2010, I was still at it, following another fine climber, Andy March, up a scary new line that started from sea level below the seaward side of the upper engine house of the Crowns. We called the climb Rin Tin Tin. You can see it clearly in popular photographs of the Crowns, a shadowed recess directly below the grass that drops steeply from the upper engine house. Getting up the grass was fun…
As we finished and were coiling our ropes and sorting gear on the path beside the engine house, a group of visitors appeared. Understandably, they thought Andy and I were off our heads. They told me they were going to see Mike Chapman at the Count House that evening. I told them to pass on regards from an old friend who just happened to be hanging around outside.
Now, this weekend, Mike is playing his farewell concerts at the Count House. It’s fifty years since he first wandered out of the Botallack mist and into the original Count House and showed us all what unassuming star quality was all about. I’ve been lucky to follow star quality in the Botallack bailiwick for half a century, both on and off the cliffs. You cannot be more blessed than that.