Nobody visiting Zennor should fail to take the path leading to Zennor Head. Sunk at first between highbanks, it soon gains its freedom and superb views open out. The sea beats furiously against the feet of the massive headland and the lichen covered rocks, heather-topped hills and the endless succession of coves and forelands to the north and the south combine in splendid beauty. – S H Burton, The Coasts of Cornwall
One sunny evening a few weeks ago I took that walk out onto Zennor Head. On either side of the winding path wild flowers were jostling for attention and space in the hedgerow. Campions, fox gloves, sea-carrot, buttercups.
After a while the stone strew path narrows and crosses that invisible line from inland to coastal. Now bright pink Thrift and indigo blue Sheeps-bit bob their fluffy heads next to rocky outcrops stained with patches of mustard yellow lichen. Giant stone castles for viewing the jagged coast.
The history of this headland is a story of geological peculiarities, witches, lost mines, mermaids and giants.
A wild coast of greenstone and zawns
The north coast of the Penwith is not gentle. And it is rarely still. It is, however, stunningly beautiful.
The coastline from St Ives to Zennor head weaves in and out of those narrow rocky chasms called zawns once described tellingly as ‘yawns in a cliff’. The rock here is not the ubiquitous golden granite of the tourist brochure. Igneous intrusions transformed the more ancient country rock into dark multihued sheets of slate and greenstone . . . The sea here is rarely at ease. – Des Hannigan, The Almost Island
The lofty Zennor headland rises just over 300ft out of the restless ocean. The rocky finger of land jutting out into the sea between two wave-worn coves. Pendour and Porthzennor.
This is the edge of the Atlantic. Looking out from this cliff at the wide horizon the next landfall is St. John’s in Newfoundland, Canada – 2,134 miles away.
Zennor Head lies on the edge of the mass of granite that makes up most of the Penwith and Lands End penisula. Beneath the surface, just 200 metres inland, this rock, which Cornwall is so renowned for, begins. You can see the weather-worn out crops in every direction. But Zennor Head is different.
The intense pressure and heat caused by the close intrusion of the granite caused the surrounding rocks to be chemically modified. Zennor Head is made up of greenstone and slates known locally as Cornish killas.
We think of prehistoric tools as being made of flint or even bronze. But greenstone reacts in a similar way as flint when struck. It too can be used to make a wide range of tools.
Greenstone, also known as elvan in Cornish, has a special place in Cornwall’s ancient history. Some 7625 prehistoric axe heads have been found in the UK, around 1000 made from greenstone. Of those around 400 where quarried in the Mounts Bay area, and many more are from other sources across Cornwall.
Early neolithic greenstone axe heads from Cornwall have been found all over the country. As far away as Yorkshire, Wessex and East Anglia. One was found buried at the 5000 year old Grimes Graves in Norfolk, along with two antler picks and a tiny bird skull.
Since the dawn of time the people of Cornwall have been trading in the natural resources of the ground beneath their feet.
The Story of ‘Old Margaret’ the witch
Living in a cottage close to Zennor Head was an old woman known as An’ (aunt) Marget or Old Margaret. She was thought by local people to be a witch. Both Bottrell and Hamilton-Jenkin tell her story in their books on the area:
The witch belonged to one of the decayed ‘poor and proud’ families of the West. But had been disowned in her early years because of her marriage with a young sailor, who had subsequently been killed in an engagement onboard the privateer, or pirate ship, which he commanded. At his death she had taken up her habitation in a tiny cottage situated amidst the rocks of Zennor Cliff.
Here on two or three particular anniversaries, which she kept in each year, she might be seen attired in a blue silk gown. . . The open front showing a quilted petticoat of white satin, half concealed by an apron of muslin skillfully embroidered with her own needle. On her arms she wore long netted silk gloves reaching to the elbows, and there met by lace ruffles which hung far below her waist. Her silver-grey hair was crowned with a lace cap like a fairy web. Around her neck lay a chain of amber beads, diamond rings bedecked her fingers. Whilst a magnificent pair of silver buckles shown on her velvet shoes.
The hut in which she lived, with her lambs, kids, cats, tame hares and poultry . . . was only just large enough to hold her ‘turn’ (spinning wheel), table, high-back carved oak chair, a few stools and opposite the door her dresser. Which was the pride of the old lady’s heart . . .
Over the fireplace might be seen a large bright warming pan, and an hourglass. Together with foreign shells, coral and many other fancy things, which had been brought to her from distant lands by the young mariner for whose love she had forsaken her home and proud kinsfolk long ago.
The Witches Rock
For generations witches, often just single elderly women, could be blamed for the ills of an entire village. And Zennor was always a poor and superstitious parish. The land there is harsh and unproductive – ‘the place where the cow was so hungry it ate the bell-rope’.
The Witches Rock, between Nancledra and Zennor, is said to be a witches meeting place. The place they gather for their dark deeds. Everyone knows the stories of witches calling up storms to wreck ships or casting curses to make crops fail. Zennor Head seems the perfect place for such undertakings.
Tin Mine at Zennor Head
The Zennor farmer James Stevens (1847-1918) kept a fascinating diary of his life. From 1853 he and his family lived at Eglosmeor Mill on the brink of Pendour Cove.
The mill house was the home of the Stevens family for 31 years. The mill was their main livelihood, and its ruins can still be seen. But the family also kept cows, bees and grew so vegetables. The closeness of the cliff sometimes resulted in them loosing animals but the sea also brought them compensation in the form of wreakage.
For extra money James spent some time working in Wheal Grylls on the headland.
In fact there has been a tin mine on the headland since at least 1666. Wheal Grylls, at the time James Stevens worked there, was under the management of Captain Retallick and then later Captain Dunstan. The shafts that James and his father worked on were called the Lucky Lace and the Sherriffs. There were nine stamps and a horse whim on the cliff top.
Them both shafts had rich bunches of tin in them and two donkeys were employed to carry the tin stones to the top of the cliff through a road called the donkey road. From there I used to cart them to the stamps . . .
Its likely that the winding path leading to Zennor head which has now become part of the coastal path is James’ donkey road.
There is one more tale of Zennor Head I should like to tell.
Pendour and Porthzennor
From Treveal, the coast traces a wonderfully chaotic line towards Zennor head where sheer cliffs plunge for three hundred feet into the sea. The cliffs are draped with lichen, the lime-coloured sea ivory on the upper walls, the lower face stained with the saffron-coloured Xanthoria that illuminates the dark rock in the bronze light of summer sunsets. – Des Hannigan, Atlantic Edge, 1995.
Pendour Cove is where you can hear the Zennor mermaid sing. I see no need to tell the story of the famous Zennor mermaid here. But Pendour the rocky, wild cove, on western side of the headland, is the setting for the story. The name translates simply from Cornish, pen – head; dour – water.
Between the headland and this cove is a high rocky ridge known as the Horseback. It’s said that the giant Trencrom would straddle the ridge like a horse. His right leg dangling in the vast zawn into the breakers. His left leg swinging above the little sandy cove.
Porthzennor is the cove on the opposite, eastern side of the headland. This beach like the village, the quoit and the headland gets its name from St Senara.
Senara was said to be a Breton princess. Her husband suspected she was adulterous and put her in a barrel which he then threw in the sea. She survived, floated all the way to Cornwall and washed on the shore near Zennor. She was said to have founded the community there. The parish church is dedicated to her.
**Note: these days Porthzennor is often used by nudists.