John Lloyd Warden Page described his visit to Boscastle in 1897. The romantic harbour, the flashing stream, the tortuous cliffs. And Willapark Lookout standing above it all.
The entrance is guarded by the low headland of Pelly Point, crowned by a rock bearing a curious resemblance to a tortoise with head uplifted. The towering height of Willapark, on which stands a weather-beaten lookout tower, commanding the coast north and south for miles.
Boscastle is certainly one of Cornwall’s most picturesque fishing villages. The narrow winding harbour hidden in a deep ravine makes a delightful place to spend time. But, like all of Cornwall’s north coast it is the dramatic natural geology as much as the man-made additions that make this area of the world so special.
The little tower known as the Willapark Lookout was built in the early 1800’s. It has been described as a ‘summer house’ and ‘prospect house’ because the site affords stunning views and was an ideal place for bringing the family for a picnic.
But according to local gossip it is possible that the local landowner, and its architect, Thomas Rickard Avery had some rather more risqué and illegal uses for it.
While visiting the lookout last year I got in to conversation with one of the Coastguards stationed there. He told me about local rumours tell of drinking, gambling and contraband. Among other things, Avery is said to have invited his friends for night-long parties of excess and women.
These ‘ladies of the night’ were brought to the little tower by mule along the dark coastal paths. A good time was had by all, far away for the eyes and ears of the village.
Avery was also thought to have used the tower to hide smuggled goods. And to watch and signal to ‘fair traders’, as they were known, along the coast.
Mr Avery, or the “Squire”, is described in detail by William Francis Allen Burnard, an elderly resident of Boscastle. He was told that Avery, in his time, was a remarkable business man who employed many local men. Avery was Lord of the Manor of Boscastle and owned practically all of the nearby Delabole slate quarry.
According to Burnard although Thomas Rickard Avery was an outstanding man of business, he was known as ‘a notorious wrecker of ships and a receiver of contraband goods’. He had his own ships, that were built in Boscastle harbour. And these were some of the fastest sailing ships of the day.
Avery would use the lookout at Willapark to watch all the comings and goings from the harbour’s tidal inlet and beyond. Burnard wrote:
I am led to think that the man was the head of a smuggling gang. I don’t think that Avery was altogether liked or beloved by the inhabitants of the village but they were more or less somewhat afraid of him. When he was spoken of, it was “Old Avery”. They had to show a certain amount of respect to him or else he could show himself to command respect, being the lord of the manor and a magistrate. But I expect he was like many others; he had his good points which are not always spoken of. I well remember an old man when I came to Boscastle 51 years ago who told me that he worked for him as a boy . . . I don’t think the squire was ever married but he was a great lover of the fair sex.
To the outside world Avery was a wealthy merchant. It does seems strange that he should lower himself as a gentleman and allow himself to be associated with smuggling and the wrecking of ships.
Jabez Brown’s Journal
The diary of Jabez Brown, which I have seen in Cornwall’s Record Office (ref: X383), also tells a strange tale involving Thomas Rickard Avery’s death. On December 27th, 1858 Jabez writes:
T.R. Avery was buried on Christmas Day aged 74. I have recently been reading about the weather conditions at Boscastle, how strange and terrible they have been, thunder, hail, rain, storms of wind, lull and storms again and people have become very excited and have connected them, or the happenings with the death of Squire Avery, the wrecker.
Jabez Brown claimed that the night Avery died a bright fiery light was seen in the sky. The sailors and fishermen who also saw it said that it seemed to glide over the house where Avery lived. From there it passed inland up the valley. The light then went on to the church where his family vault was and where he is buried. Jabez was so astonished he wrote an account of it to The Times newspaper.
The Black Pit
The cliffs beside the lookout are precipitous to say the least! And the great chasm on the west is known rather fittingly as the Black Pit.
There is a gloomy abyss, at the bottom of which the waves break into foam upon black and jagged slate rocks. It is appropriately called the Black Pit. . . Upon the right of this fearful looking place the land rises rapidly and pushes out some distance into the sea terminating in a perpendicular descent. . . The summit bears the remanent of an old tower. This is called Willapark Point and the view from its shattered walls is truly sublime. But not unaccompanied with fearfulness when the dizzy precipice, but a few feet off, meets the sight, and perpetually draws it away from surveying the surrounding scene by the involuntary apprehension of danger. The choughs, with their vermilion legs beaks and jetty feathers, fly sportively along the face of the rocks. . .
Beyond the Black Pit, after the curve in the shore made by that gloomy ocean inlet in which the waves continually boil and fret, a rocky point goes down to sea level. The sides nearly perpendicular and it may almost be said ‘the dizzy eye aches with contradiction, and grows dim in vain, to search the unsounded bottom’. Cyrus Redding. 1832.
More Recent Times
Ironically, given its past, the Willapark Lookout was later leased to the government. The Board of Trade used its excellent position to keep watch on the coast in a bid to prevent smuggling. Then it was used by the coastguard up until the 1970’s. It then fell into disrepair.
In recent years Willapark Lookout has been maintained as a folly by the National Trust. It was painted its distinctive white and became a focus for visitors to the coastal path.
But in 2003 it was taken over once again by the National Coastguard Institution. A team of local volunteers and the NCI worked to restore the building and it now functions as a lookout station. The Lookout still welcomes walkers. And the view alone is worth the climb up from Boscastle harbour.