A while back I wrote a series of posts about ruined places. Ruined churches, cottages and farms. There is something endlessly interesting, something that sparks my imagination, about broken down, forgotten buildings. How they came to be there. How they once looked. Who touched their walls, walked their halls. How they fell into disrepair. Old Kea Church Tower is one such place. It’s position, surrounded by farm land, was all at once it’s downfall and a reason now to seek it out.
An Isolated Position
The ruin of Old Kea Church Tower stands at the head of Churchtown Creek. Even today in the age of the car as you drive down miles of single track lane to reach it this church feels a long way from civilisation.
In the past it’s position, so far from the centre of Kea parish, meant that worshippers had miles to travel, on horseback or on foot, to attend a service. Very inconvenient. And Kea was a large parish, covering some 7000 acres, from Kenwyn to Chacewater, Baldhu to Scorrier.
So why build a church in such an isolated out of the way location? Blame the tides and another of Cornwall’s buoyant saints.
“Kea, anciently called Landage, is a large straggling Parish abounding in mines.” – The History of Cornwall, Rev J. J. Daniel, 1880
Variously known as Kea, Che, Langegea or Lanteke, Saint Kea was the son of a wealthy family who gave up all his worldly possessions to become a hermit. He was distraught when he learnt he had been left behind in Ireland when his brother monks went off to spread Christianity in England. Kea prayed so hard he fainted. And when he awoke he was drifting in the Irish Sea on a floating rock.
Kea and his rock eventually landed at Churchtown Creek near Tolverne Pool on the River Fal. (Of course the name of the creek came after.) It was here that he decided to build his chapel after receiving a sign that he should.
Saint Kea died in around 495AD. But a monastery is known to have existed here since at least 500AD and one is also mentioned in the Domesday Book.
There are a couple of other things that Saint Kea was also known for. He is thought to have been a descendant of Paternus, or Padarn, an ancient King of Cornwall. And Saint Kea is the saint that you need to pray to should you have a toothache.
An Annoying Inconvenience
The monastery at Kea flourished and with the parish of Kea covering such a large area a large church was required. And it was built, although its design isn’t clear. The only remaining indication is the impressive 15th century tower that still stands today. Some restoration work was carried out on the church in around 1500, but by this time it appears that the parishioners were already growing tired of the church’s inconvenient position.
In 1531 the community petitioned King Henry VIII and were granted a license “to build and edify a new church in a more central position”. However for some reason it wasn’t until 1802 that work actually began, by which point the old church had fallen into a ruinous state.
Prisoner in the Tower
A very strange episode of the church’s history was recorded in a local newspaper which I feel should be recorded here. On 29th October 1886 a man called Thomas Cragoe sent a letter to the editor of the Royal Cornwall Gazette, in it he wrote:
“Our elderly neighbours . . . within living memory had a crazy brother chained in the old tower at Kea.”
A shocking statement for which I can find no further evidence, but horrid to imagine, should there be any truth in it!
In 2021, Duncan Hill wrote to me to add another layer to this strange story. He wrote:
“A. L. Rowse tells the story of “The Lunatic of Landegey” in his collection “Night at the Carn”. I’ll précis it: In Georgian times Michael Dungey, a labourer on the neighbouring estate, had a dream that if he dug under a stone at the cross-roads he would find gold. He dug at dead of night, under a waning moon, and found his box, full of coins. The squire, a Scawen, got to hear of this, and claimed the gold for himself, saying it was found on his land, and used it to buy a nearby parcel of land to round off his estates. Michael Dungey, wronged and bent on revenge, once and again menaced the squire until he though it safest to shut Michael up in the tower at Old Kea. Michael had his revenge – from within the tower he put a curse on the land bought with his gold – no cattle, oxen, or sheep could be kept on that land unless it be marked with a cross, and not only a cross but cross-keys.”
The new church was designed and built by James Wyatt in the centre of the parish near Killiow Estate. It was not, however, to everyone’s taste. A contemporary description called it “a small and hideous church”. By 1895 it too had been pulled down and replaced by the present All Hallows Church.
Some of the original features from the Old Kea Church were reused in All Hallows, such as the font and pulpit. But the old church itself was let fall into complete ruin.
In time most of the remaining stones from the body of the church were used to build a parish poor-house and a small chapel in the churchyard.
But today it is the austere remains of the tower that makes a visit so atmospheric.
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