The Lizard has some of Cornwall’s most picturesque fishing villages. Coves that bring to vivid life the salty past of this almost island. Kynance, Kuggar, Coverack, Cadgwith. But there is one more I’d add to the list. Church Cove.
Most people who visit the UK’s most southerly point pass through Lizard village. They usually see no need to deviate from the main road that leads you to the famous lighthouse.
But it’s a short walk from Lizard village’s wide green to St Wynwallow’s Churchtown and then on towards the sea to this timeless cove.
The journalist Charles Lewis Hind spent some time walking in Cornwall in 1906. His discription, published in 1907, still stands more than a century later. Hind found himself at Church Cove looking for a boat to take him to Cadgwith.
I asked the fisherman if there was time before the return of the crabber to walk up to the village and inspect the church. He supposed so; so I ascended to Landewednack, passing a charming group of Cornish cottages. Whitewashed walls with trailing roses and thatched roofs. Two girls were seated on camping stools in the lane producing watercolours of the cottages. It was a miniature Surrey in Cornwall.
In the harbour
Church Cove was once known as Perranvose or Parnvose or simply as Lizard Cove. Parnvose roughly translates from Cornish as ‘cove with the bank/wall’ and probably refers to the Balk, a precipitous cliff close by.
Although all the buildings in the cove have now been converted to domestic use, you can still make out the old pilchard cellars and Lifeboat station. The lifeboat house was built in 1885 at a cost of £300. The money had been donated by local cousins in memory of their parents.
The inscription above the door reads: “Erected and presented to Royal National Lifeboat Institution in memory of T and H S Chavasse and Rev and M C Chavasse.”
But sadly the station was closed just a few years later in 1899 when Polpeor cove received a newer, bigger vessel.
The Lifeboat house was then sold for £40. A bargain these days!
In the 19th century the cove began to attract more tourists than fishermen. From about the 1870s onwards, until well into this century, small steamships carried day trippers from Falmouth to Church Cove. These tourists and bargin hunters would walk up the hill to visit the lighthouse and purchase the serpentine souvenirs on offer in Lizard village. And there are still shops selling serpentine gifts to this day.
The unique geology of the Lizard peninsula makes the coastline around Church Cove some of Cornwall’s most beautiful and dramatic. The geological map of this area is a fantastical jigsaw of complex pieces. Spillite, Kennack Gneiss, Crousa Gabbro, Traboe Cumulate . . . In fact, there are at least 10 distinct types of rock beneath the feet of anyone travelling from Helston across to Gweek.
But the cliffs that surround Church Cove are made of Schist and Serpentine. They are full of watery caverns, tumbling zawns and sea-polished boulders.
Those Thatch Cottages
With its thatched, whitewashed cottages walking through this little valley today, towards the steep slipway and its small gaggle of wooden boats, is truly like taking a step back into the past.
The little houses – Parnvoose Cottage, Cove Cottage, Angel Cottage, Church Cottage and the Mariners – seem immune to the changing world outside the temperate climes of this idyllic corner of Cornwall.
The Mariners, the closest thatched building to the sea, was once three seperate cottages.
And it is said this impossibly picturesque building was the inspiration for Noël Coward’s best-known song, A Room with a View, written in 1928.
The Mariners only has one room that faces the sea. Only one room with a view. Noel Coward regarded the time he spent at Church Cove as some of his happiest. He even carved his initials, along with a sailing boat, into a wooden staircase of the cottage.
But before Coward’s stay the Mariners which was built in the 17th century had a whole other life. In 1834 it was being used as a public house, or more precisely a kiddlywink. Kiddlywinks were beer houses. Often just the front parlour of someone’s house. Often illegal. After the Beer Act of 1830 you could purchase a license to sell beer for just two guineas. It was a government initiative that hoped to curb the appetite for gin by making beer more freely available. The license did not cover the sale of spirits but these were just brought in by the local ‘freetraders’.
The Lizard was a hotbed of smuggling in the 18th and 19th centuries. Locals even say there was a tunnel leading to the Mariners from the cliffs beside the cove but there is no real evidence of this. And the smugglers keep a watch for the customs men by posting lookouts on the tower of St Winwallow Church just up the hill.
St Wynwallow Church
The history of this church is a story all of its own!
The church is perhaps most famous in Cornwall because of a sermon preached there in 1678. Rev. Robinson, the rector at the time, supposedly gave the last sermon to be preached in the Cornish language here.
The church is dedicated to St Wynwallow (or Winwolaus or Winwaloe). Winwaloe (460 – 532) was the son of Prince Fragan of Dumnonia (ancient Cornwall). His family fled to Brittany to avoid an outbreak of the plague. There are a number of churches dedicated to him in Cornwall and Wales.
The oldest part of the church still standing is the 12th century Norman archway. The stocky tower is made of alternating granite and serpentine blocks, making it pretty unique. The font and pulpit are both made of serpentine.
Plague visited the parish in 1645 claiming a number of lives in the already tiny population. But according to local legend that wasn’t quite the end of the story:
About a century afterwards when part of the churchyard in which the persons were buried who had died of it was opened for the internment of some shipwrecked Mariners the plague reappeared though in a mitigated form in consequence of this that portion of the churchyard was fenced off and has never been used since.
Another one of those little bizarre notes that history (and we) choose to remember about this church is . . . Thomas Cole, the rector in 1683, was famous for living to a magnificent 120 years of age. He is also meant to have regularly walked from Landewednack to Penryn, 13 miles away.
***Note: Church Cove in the parish of Landewednack is not to be confused with the Church Cove a few miles away in the parish of Gunwalloe. The other is, of course, equally beautiful and has many a tale to tell though . . . so why not visit both!