“All the grandeur of the North Cornwall coast is here . . . It is truly a superb bit of scenery combining grand and fantastic rocks with a sea constantly varying in its blues, greens and purples . . . Those that stand above these cliffs must acknowledge that even Cornwall has not a finer spectacle to offer.”Arthur L Salmon, 1903
These five enormous stacks scattered along the foreshore of Cornwall’s north coast are one of our most famous sights. The Bedruthan Steps, as they are now known, have become an icon of the Cornish countryside. But what are the stories that have formed about this particularly beautiful part of the coast – it’s strange rock formations, the legends and tall tales, and the mining and wrecking history?
A contrived legend
The name Bedruthan has evolved a little over the centuries. The earliest written record comes from 1335 when it was spelt Bodruthyn. According to Craig Weatherhill, in his book about Cornish place names, it means ‘Ruthyn’s dwelling’. In fact the ‘steps’ part of the name didn’t enter common usage until the 19th century.
There is an oft-told legend that the line of huge rocks were the stepping stones of a Cornish giant named Bedruthan. But it may surprise you to learn that this tale has no basis in tradition. It was entirely a Victorian invention, a ploy in the 19th century to encourage more visitors. With the arrival of the railways Cornwall found itself now well and truly on the tourist trail. The competition to become a top attraction was on!
However, the names given to each of the five islands or stacks does give us more of a clue to the history of this stretch of coast. They are known as Queen Bess, Samaritan Island, Redcove Island, Pendarves Island and Carnewas Island.
The Carnewas Mine and the Steps
The Bedruthan Steps are within the ancient parish of St Eval and according to William Lake in his 1867 book, a Complete Parochial History of the County of Cornwall, the Bedruthan Cove was then owned by two men. Mr. Humphrey Williams, Esq of Carnanton and Mr. Drew of Canhewas.
A cliff top mine called Carnewas Mine was opened by Drew in 1855 but there had been some mining activity on the beach for several years before that. The first lode was reportedly dug near the low water mark and was then followed by three more, cropped out below the sand. These produced silver mixed with copper but the mine also gave up iron, lead and antimony. The workings required access, of course, and two staircases were cut into the rock to allow the miners to get down to the beach more easily.
Between 1868 and 1874 Carnewas Mine raised 6025 tons of iron ore. It was then abandoned but of course the mine now lends its name to one of the stacks.
The first mention of “the steps” was made in the West Briton in February 1847. From this time on the whole beach became known as the Bedruthan Steps. No real trace of the mine remains but the National Trust, who acquired the beach in 1930, have their shop in what was once the mine’s Count House and their café was the stable for the ponies.
Queen Bess Rock
The rock known as Queen Bess is now much eroded but hopefully the following description will give you an idea as to how she came by her name.
“It is called Queen Elizabeth and the resemblance to the Virgin Queen is certainly very striking. Her ample skirts from the base of the crag, then come the figure and face, aquiline nose, and all on the top of the head, eighty feet above the water, a tiny crown.” John Lloyd Warden Page, 1897.
(I personally think she looked more like Queen Victoria.) The elements have taken their toll however and the queen has unfortunately lost her head!
That said the beach is still a playground for the imagination. The rocks here are so varied and fantastically shaped, and the caves at low tide are wonderful to explore! Watch that tide though. As Rev. H Breton, another vicar of Morwenstow, points out in his little pocket guide to the North Coast published in 1926, the tide rushes in fast here and there is a real danger of being cut off, especially when exploring the caverns.
The Wreck of the Samaritan & Smuggling
In time of storm the spot is one of awful solemnity. Arthur L Salmon, 1903
In October 1846 the West Briton newspaper reported the wrecking of an East India Company ship, the Samaritan. It’s from this incident that another of the islands gets it’s name. The Captain, Thomas Davies, and eight crew were lost but the wreck itself became infamous for another reason.
At the time the Samaritan came to grief Cornwall was struggling through a period of sever deprivation, known as the Hungry Forties, in part due to the infamous potato famine.
Within hours of the Samaritan, which was carrying food, silk and cotton goods, coming to grief it had been stripped of anything that the local people could carry away.
“The iron bands around the bale goods burst, and gaily printed cotton silks and calicos curled away among the pools and islets or bannered from the brig’s shattered timbers. Kegs, barrels and boxes bobbed in the shallows, while best-quality dresses, shirts and linen stuck wetly to the rocks or convorted around the Sands”. – Clive Carter, Cornish Shipwrecks, vol.2.
There is no indication, as was rumoured, that the ship was deliberately lured on to the rocks but it was said that every household in the area had some part of the ship’s cargo hidden by break of day.
Even the threat of imprisonment or transportation was not enough to stop the looting.
In fact a song was written to mark the occasion.
The Good Samaritan came ashore
To feed the hungry and clothe the poor,
Barrels of beef and bales of linen,
No poor man shall want a shillin’.
Four months later on 12th February 1847 the West Briton also reported the sale of the remaining wreck.
“To be sold by auction, on Friday, the 19th February instant at Bedruthan Steps in the parish of St. Eval, the bottom of the wreck of the ship Samaritan with 2,000 lbs of bolt and sheet copper, 10 tons of casement, nail rod and other iron, and about 50 boxes of tinplate. Together with sundry other articles, which will be sold in lots to suit the convenience of the purchaser”.
The author S. P. B. Mais, who wrote The Cornish Riviera in 1929, implies that the nearby coves, known as Butter Cove, Wine Cove and Pepper Cove, got their names from the plundered cargos that washed up on their shores. In fact in 1879 the West Briton implies that the original use of the steps was not for mining but that they were used for a more clandestine activity. Smuggling. The paper suggests that the zigzag path was “originally formed to facilitate the conveyance inland of wreckage and contraband.”
The Redcliff Castle
There are some interesting ancient remains close to the Steps which speak of its more distant past. Six barrows, a fallen menhir found close to the coastal path in 2009 and the Treburrick Standing Stone about a mile or so away.
The most impressive however is the Redcliff Castle. This Iron Age cliff castle consists of a set of two ramparts and ditches that cross a small headland.
What remains of the castle is thought to be just the outer edge, the further inside edge and interior lost to the erosive power of the sea.
John Lloyd Warden Page suggests in his book on this coast that the position of the castle was carefully chosen. He writes:
It seems to have commanded one of the few places this side of Mawgan Porth where an enemy might have scaled the cliffs.
A fete and the new steps
On 3rd October 1879 there was a huge gathering of people on the cliff tops. The occasion was the grand reopening of the Bedruthan Steps. At Christmas time in 1878 a strong gale caused the sea to undermine the cliff face and a large section of ‘the Steps’ had collapsed. According to the West Briton that day more than one thousand people from Newquay, Wadebridge, Padstow and the surrounding area came to see the steps, built by the mine owner Mr Drew, repaired for public use.
There have been many times in the years that have followed that the Steps have been closed for safety reasons. In 1973 the National Trust received a gift of £25,000 to help rebuild the staircase after numerous closures in the 1960s. There were however more closures, in 1990 and in 1995 when 20ft of the steps was washed away. It is an ongoing battle with the sea but well worth it so that we can continue to access this wonderful beach.
This stretch of coast is one of my favourites and below you will find links to other posts I have written about the area, as well as a link to a guided walk at Bedruthan. Enjoy!