In many ways the communities on the Lizard are the most isolated in Cornwall. As wild and as sparsely populated as Bodmin Moor the peninsula has an added sense of otherness and seclusion that comes perhaps from being encircled by the untamed sea.
In the early 19th century the Lizard was notorious for its lawlessness. It was a renowned haunt of highwaymen and footpads (the name given to bandits without horses!) And an isolated area of the downs near Landwednack was home to a band of thiefs and sheep rustlers.
The Old Lizard Windmill
“The finest and most romantic of all Cornish windmills”. – Charles Henderson, 1935.
We are getting used to seeing the white blades of today’s modern wind turbines on the horizon but there was a time when more traditional windmills dotted the Cornish countryside.
They were mostly stone built structures with wide wooden cloth-covered sails to catch the Cornish winds. Some were used to power the pumps used in mining and others for grinding corn. Usually they were found in places where wind power was a better option than water.
Although always rarities in the county there are more than 50 known windmills sites in Cornwall. But in most cases all traces of those mills has vanished completely. However, a handfull do still survive. Windmill towers can still be found at Maker, Fowey, on the Isles of Scilly, at Padstow, St Minver and near Landwednack on the Lizard.
There’s even a little book about them, packed with fascinating information, Cornish Windmills written by H. L. Douch published in the 1970s.
The Lizard Windmill
The Lizard Windmill, which stands near to the Lower Predannack Downs, was built about 400 years ago. It was a manorial mill used to grind corn for Trethevas Manor and was in regular use until 1840. Built entirely of Serpentine block it had three storeys and a thatched, and then later a slate, conical roof.
It was originally known as the Mount Herman Mill and appears as a landmark on most maps of the area. It is marked on the famous Lanhydrock Atlas of 1695 as ‘the Old Mill’, leading to the belief that it was built in about 1600. Another map c1770 depicts the ‘Old Windmill’ with the tops of the walls already crumbling and some rather tattered sails still in position.
It was possible that the Lizard Windmill was used in times of water shortage to protect the Lord of the Manor’s milling rights and it is described as being in working order in 1828.
When those sails finally disintegrated completely isn’t clear but by the mid 19th century the mill was deserted and being used as a store.
A Gang of Miscreants
The area around the Lizard Mill is said to be haunted. As recently as 2000 the local farmer reported his animals behaving strangely. He had planned to use the old mill house as a shelter but his stock became agitated and point blank refused to go inside. Some put the atmosphere here down to dark deeds committed around 200 years ago.
For several years past, the district of Meneage, and the neighbourhood of Helston, have been infested by a gang of thieves, who have carried their system of plunder to an extent which has been seldom if ever equalled. Scarcely a farmer but what has been robbed; and such has been the terror in which they have been held, that they chose rather to submit to be robbed with impunity than run the risk of an unsuccessful search, which would have brought upon them the vengeance of the miscreants. – Royal Cornwall Gazette, February 1829.
The isolated mill was the hideout for the notorious Windmill Gang in the 1820s. This band of robbers, footpads and sheep stealers terrorised the area. And were probably murderers to boot. Local legend has it that a field near to the windmill is the final resting place of the unfortunate Oliver Tucker. Tucker was murdered by the gang when he foolishly threatened to give evidence against them.
The Last Days of the Windmill Gang
In 1829 the Lizard Windmill was the scene of a rather strange incident reported in the local papers. Four prize rams were stolen from Mr Silvester, a farmer near the town of Helston. The police, who probably already had an idea of who the perpetrators were, undertook searches of premises in the villages of Grade and Landwednack.
Henry Harris, Alexander Hocking of Grade and James Jose, of Landewednack were singled out. At Jose’s 82 lbs of mutton, cut up in small chunks and salted, was found, hidden in a ‘bed-tye’. At Hocking’s, a bankrupt butcher, two legs and some skins were found. Both men were arrested and Hocking soon started informing on his friends. He said that the men had taken the rams to the windmill in the dead of night and butchered them inside.
Armed with his confession the police then went on the hunt for Stephen Jose, brother of James, William Harris, and several others.
After a fruitless search for many hours, a hue and cry was raised, in which about forty persons joined, to search the cliffs, in some of the caves of which they were supposed to have concealed themselves. Mr Andrew, the active
constable of Helston, so disposed of the party as to cut off all retreat.
On crossing the open common near Kynance cove, Stephen Jose and William Harris were discovered and identified. Although at a great distance. A chace immediately took place, and finding their retreat towards the country cut off by two young men (farmers) called Hosking and Hendy, they made towards the sea. Hosking arrived on the beach just in time to see them plunge into the water. He called and begged them not to drown themselves, but they paid no attention to his entreaty, and after swimming about twenty minutes they were seen to sink, and rise no more. – Royal Cornwall Gazette, 1829
The men’s bodies were never recovered. And many locally believed that the men, who were expert swimmers, were merely evading arrest by hiding in one of the sea caves they were known to use. In the coming days several other members of the gang were arrested. Although only Jose and Hocking were ever actually charged.
The Windmill Farm Nature Reserve
Windmill Farm Nature Reserve is managed by the Cornwall Wildlife Trust and covers roughly 185 acres.
The Trust has numerous small reserves around the county and this one comprises of grassland and heathland as well as a bog and some ponds. The varied habitats, together with arable crops, provide lots of opportunities for bird watching. The adult marsh fritillary butterfly can also be seen here on the wing from spring to mid-summer.
By 1965 the roof of the old mill house had been blown off in winter storms and the building was in serious need of preservation. Fortunately Cornwall Wildlife Trust was able to purchase the land and the mill with help from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Lewis Forst Memorial Fund.
Lewis Frost was a botanist, born and bred in Norfolk. He developed an interest in the Lizard area of Cornwall in the 1950s. Frost’s passion for the area lasted the rest of his life and he would visit the Lizard two or three times a year. In 1956 David Coombe and Lewis Frost published a paper on the heaths of the Cornish serpentine. Frost raised considerable funds for the Cornwall Wildlife Trust and was actually made an honorary member.
Visiting the reserve
Apart from the Lizard Windmill the reserve contains some old farm buildings, one of which is used as an information centre and dedicated to Lewis Frost. There are also some Bronze Age barrows and Second World War pill boxes. (The windmill tower found another incarnation as a look out tower for the Home Guard in the 1940s.)
These days, after extensive restoration, visitors can climb the windmill for wonderful, expansive views across the Lizard landscape. There is also a self-guided walk and some fascinating information boards.
Above all the Windmill Farm Nature Reserve is a secluded and unusual place to discover. A great place to take in the quiet of the heath, watch the wildlife or grazing cattle and absorb the peaceful atmosphere. As long as you don’t believe in ghosts perhaps!
Parking is limited, I tucked my car in the wide entrance to the lane that leads to the reserve.
*Note: there are no dogs allowed on the reserve and LOTS of adders sightings in the summer months.