Crantock’s hidden rock carvings & the mystery lady

A visit to the north coast of Cornwall brings you to a place of high cliffs and wild seas.  It is a favourite with surfers and holiday-makers now.  But in the past however it was the scene of many ship wrecks. Foolish bathers were often lost in fierce and unpredictable tides.

Crantock beach’s flat sand is backed by tumbling dunes at one end and dramatic black cliffs at the other.  The flatness of the sands mean that the incoming tide can be frighteningly quick.  The cliffs, which make an excellent home for nesting sea-birds, are as impassable as fortress walls to anyone caught below.  It would be a very dangerous place to find yourself.

Piper’s Hole

Hidden in a deep cleft in those rocky cliff walls there are numerous little caves. But there is one called Piper’s Hole which holds a beautiful secret. A woman’s face shines from the flat wet stone. Her lips almost smile. Beside her craved into the solid rock are these words.

Mar not my face but let me be,

Secure in this lone cavern by the sea,

Let the wild waves around me roar,

Kissing my lips for evermore.

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In Search of a name

The name of the woman at first alluded all my research. It seems that the man who fashioned her face in the stone and craved out the poem in her honour was once common knowledge in the area. Joseph Prater.  But who was the woman in this quiet cave? Water drips from the roof and there is sand and seaweed at her feet.

The story that is told locally is that sometime in the early 1920s a woman was riding her horse along the beach. For some reason she didn’t notice or couldn’t escape the incoming tide.  Sadly she and the animal were both trapped and drowned in this cleft in the cliffs.  Her heartbroken love was said to have craved her image here on the flat grey rock in remembrance of her.

How true this story I can’t be sure. I haven’t been able to find a newspaper account to verify the tale. 2016-04-04-14.28.58.png.png
However Joseph Prater was a real man.

A Lost Story Retold

Recently I have been contacted by Hannah Eustice who has been researching the family for years. She provided me with some fascinated insights that really bring the story to life.

Joseph Prater was an artist. Along with his brother William he rented a couple of wooden studio huts on the cliff top above the beach. Close to the old Crantock Bay Hotel. They were from a very large and artistic family. Eight brothers and one sister, Jane, all children of Joseph Prater senior and his wife Jane Harriet Larkin.

The two men made their living as artists and a number of William Prater’s paintings recently sold at auction in Penzance. Their father Joseph senior had been born in Crantock in 1820. And the family obviously maintained that close connection with the area as several Praters were laid to rest in the local graveyard.

Hannah tells me that there are a number of family stories about who the lady in the carvings might be. But that it is certain that Joseph Prater was responsible for them. Doris Thurley, the granddaughter of Joseph’s brother Henry, died in 2016 aged 107 but she remembered being told the story as a child.

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A Name for the Mystery Lady?

Joseph never married, he was born in London in 1862 and died in 1932. Very little is know about his personal life but we may know the woman’s identity. It has been suggested that the carving in Piper’s Hole may represent a lady friend that he met in Crantock.

As it is today the area was very popular with visitors and there were a number of drownings in the early 1900s. Hannah believes that with the family’s connections it is possible that they knew Ethel de Medina Greenstreet nee Spender who drowned on Crantock Beach in 1904. ” There was huge media coverage of the occurrence as Ethel was a journalist and member of the famous Spender family of authors and journalists. This could tie in with the Prater’s connection to London Society in journalistic and artistic circles. Could a blossoming romance have been cut short?

Another possibility is that the rock carvings are a tribute to Joseph’s only sister Jane who died at just 38 years old in 1895.

It is worth remembering that the horse is actually a later addition carved by local man James Dyer in the 1940s. Whatever the case perhaps it is the mystery that fascinates people the most and it leaves us free to imagine our own story.

Further reading

Cornwall’s Highest Cliff

Things to do in Boscastle

Trevalga’s King

Mermaids sighted in Cornwall (honest!)

Author’s Note

Special thanks to Hannah Eustice who helped me make the necessary corrections to this fascinating story. I had originally attributed the carvings to another Joseph Prater and identified the lady in the cave as his wife Lillie but Hannah set me straight. This Joseph was a nephew of the cave-carving Joseph.

27 thoughts on “Crantock’s hidden rock carvings & the mystery lady

  1. Hello. I’ve been to see the cave carvings many times but I have learned a slightly different version, I do not know where from, that the lady drowned because her horse being frightened wouldn’t leave the cave and instead of leaving herself, she stayed with her horse. She drowned and the horse survived. It all adds to the mystery. I’ve also read somewhere, that it was her father that carved. But the most intriguing thing to me is that surely someone must have re carved it or wouldn’t all the sand and rocks washed up in the tides, have worn it away? I was amazed when visiting the cave, a couple of years back after the big storms, that the while carving was covered by sand and we could almost touch the ceiling of the cave! I love the carving very much and the words of the poem bring a lump to my throat every time. I’ve also showed many friends the carving and everyone is moved by it. Also…….have you ever ventured in the amazing mineral well cave at Holywell Bay, with its natural basins of water that legend says, people used to dip their poorly babies in to cure them? That’s very bit as amazing as the Cave at Crantock!!!!! 😊

    1. Very interested to read your comment! Have corrected the spelling error! Not sure how that happened!! Your versions are interesting to know and if you ever remember the source let me know. I think whatever the truth it is a wonderfully moving place! Thank you for your thoughts!!

      1. Hi I have recently visited Crantock and a man told me about the poem and showed it to me. I took some photos and when I got home noticed something in them. I looked up on google and saw your post so thought I would share it with you. Further down on the right there is a faint outline of a figure that appears to be leaning one arm on a rock. You can make out some fingers too. If you could send me an email address I will send it to you.

  2. CARVING IN PIPER’S HOLE
    This story is shrouded with many theories – and there are a number of Joseph Prater’s [A father, a son and a grandson] all within the sane family does make it rather confusing!
    The Joseph Prater to whom the carving is attributed was born in London in March 1862 and earned his living from painting [he died in 1932 aged 70 and in buried at Abney Park Cemetery, Stoke Newington].
    We cannot accurately date the carving but it is generally suggested to be in the early 1900’s. It is said that Joseph Prater lost a lady friend through drowning [however, to date a great deal of research has failed to discover who this lady was] and it was he who carved the head of the lady in the cave at Piper’s Hole on Crantock Beach along with the poem.

    The horse was added in the 1940’s by Mr James Dyer of Crantock. Mr Dyer has been unwell and off work at this time was looking for something meaningful to do – so he set to work carving the horse which actually had no tail until Sarah Stewart – Smith added it when she redid the poem and removed some graffiti in 2011.

    His father [also Joseph!] was born in Crantock to Francis and Elizabeth Prater, but went to London to find work sometime before the 1841 census and married Jane Harriet nee Larkins. Joseph and Jane had a large family – 8 boys and 1 girl [including Joseph the cave carver].

    Several of the Prater brothers were artist and illustrators, and Joseph cave carver’s two eldest brothers Francis moved to Crantock in later life is buried in Crantock with Julia, and William moved to Crantock and painted in a studio opposite the Old Albion [the studio has long since gone!] and is buried in Crantock Churchyard.

    The Joseph Prater mentioned in the blog was Joseph Henry Prater known as Harry. Harry was the son of Francis and Julia nee Stephens [of Treago Mill, Crantock]. He was born in London around 1890 and was the nephew of Joseph the cave carver. In the 1911 census he was living in Cornwall on Rosewarne Farm, Camborne and working as an agricultural student. He married Lillie Jenkin and they both lived and farmed at Halwyn Farm, West Pentire until the 1950’s.

    I have more detail I can add to his story – but this is the rough outline

    1. Oh gracious thank you, that is a lot of info to take in, I will have a proper look at it in the morning I promise, I have just finished work so a little cross eyed to get my head round all the Joseph’s! Thank you for taking the time to contact me though!

  3. Fascinating . I’ve only once visited Crantock beach and enjoyed a breezy tramp along the sands with my dog … If I’d known this I might have taken a peep . Lovely to get feedback on the background story … maybe it will never be unravelled !

  4. I have all great great uncles unfinished watercolour paintings, Joseph and William Prater. I was brought up in Crantock by my grandmother Frances Lauder nee Prater at Halwyn and Seaview.

    Frances was the daughter of Julia and Headley Prater, all related to Joseph and William both buried in Crantock churchyard. Julia and Headley are buried in the Methodist chapel in crantock.

      1. Hi Elizabeth

        All I can tell you is the carving was done I was told by Joseph but which one I am not sure as there were brothers an uncles with the same name.

        I was as a child taken to the caves to see josephs carvings and knew mr Dyer who lived in the village. It was always presumed the lady was something to do with both families.

        All my paintings are of crantock, penpol, Newquay, and polly joke.

        The Prater family lived and farmed at arundle west pentire crantock and built the crantock bay hotel, and the Bowgie was the farms pigstyes!

        I have many albums of the family Prater and some family tree going back to 1500 in Madron Penzance .

    1. Hi Nick I have been contacted by someone from Crantock who is researching the Prater family and would like to contact you, would you considered giving me your email to pass on to them? You can send it to me at percy68@hotmail.com if you prefer. Many thanks and look forward to hearing from you, kind regards Elizabeth

      1. Brilliant – let’s hope it works!

        Thank you

        On Tue, Jan 30, 2018 at 8:47 AM, cornishbirdblog wrote:

        > esdale77 commented: “Hi Nick I have been contacted by someone from > Crantock who is researching the Prater family and would like to contact > you, would you considered giving me your email to pass on to them? You can > send it to me at percy68@hotmail.com if you prefer. Many thank” >

    1. I have compared the signature to that on a copy of the wood engraving ‘On the Gannel, near Newquay’, and it looks to be that of Henry Prater [known as Harry] born London 25 May 1855 died London 25 Dec 1931 and buried Abney Park Cemetery London. Harry was one of the talented Prater brothers which included William, Joseph [of Crantock Beach Piper’s Hole cave fame] and Ernest [who was probably the most famous of the Prater brothers].
      One of Harry’s wood engravings was on show at the Royal Academy in 1923 [see below]. West Briton and Cornwall Advertiser May 1923 ‘On the Gannel’ – Respecting the recent revival of wood engraving, a charming specimen of the art is hung in the “Black and White Room” at the Royal Academy Exhibition by Harry Prater, of London, brother of Mr William Prater of Crantock. This little picture illustrates the scene at the Old Quay at Penpol and is named ‘On the Gannel, near Newquay’. The subject is treated in a manner the brings to mind the work of Beswick, the “Father of Wood Engraving”. Only 100 mounted impressions from the block will be taken and sold.

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