A History of St Loy Cove, Penwith

St Loy

“I doubt if anyone could find a warmer spot in England during the winter than this little St Loy Cove . . . it is a regular suntrap where even in the severest winter the warm sea water keeps Jack Frost at bay.” Folliott-Stokes, 1928.

The boulderous bay between Merthen Point and Boscawen Point, is known as St Loy Cove on one side and Paynter’s Cove on the other. Not far from the villages of St Buryan, Lamorna and Penberth it is unusual geologically and fascinating historically.

The secluded wooded valley leading to St Loy, is reputed to have the warmest winters in Britain and is said to be the place where the signs of spring arrive first! And as such the area, along with the Isles of Scilly, produced early flowers and vegetables for sale in the cities.

“It is truly a romantic valley and affords a striking contrast to other portions of the coast . . . the trees extend to the verge of the cliff, a strange combination of luxuriant foliage with wild and savage rocks against which the waves are ever beating.” Blight, 1861.

The cove is also bursting with history, mystery and misadventure, like every inch of Cornwall’s coast it has a tale or three to tell!

Saint Loy’s Chapel

The saint from which the cove gets its name was actually a French man called Saint Eloy or Saint Eligius. Mentioned by Chaucer in the Canterbury Tales Eloy was the patron saint of goldsmiths, blacksmiths, farriers and horses. After his death he was also made the patron saint of the poor and poorhouses. It isn’t clear which facet of the saint’s miraculous reputation the Cornish were venerating but they built a chapel in his honour and the cove became known as St Loy.

The chapel once stood above the beach and was sketched by Blight in the 1850s before it was destroyed.

St Loy

Blight describes the building as standing very close to the edge of the cliff. It was apparently 37 feet (11m) long and 14 feet (4m) wide with a large altar stone at the east end.

By the time Blight wrote his book A Week at the Lands End in 1861 the chapel had been destroyed:

“A few years since the remains of this little building, with its stone altar, were to be seen; they have since been toppled into the sea, that a few feet of land might be gained for early crops. How forcibly does this act of destruction contrast with the meekness and piety which raised the structure . . .”

In his notes Blight continues to say that the chapel had been removed without the permission of the landowner, the Paynter family, but doesn’t elaborate as to who was responsible.

St Loy
The stream which runs onto St Loy beach, it rises in St Buryan two miles away.

Historic England places the site of the St Loy chapel next to the stream on the Boskenna side. A 19th century summerhouse was supposedly built on the site. Strangely another chapel, St Dellan’s was said have stood on the opposite side of the stream but little to nothing is known about this building or the saint it was dedicated to.

Pirate Raids

In the 18th century anyone who lived close to the shore in Cornwall was in danger of raids from foreign vessels. This fear was not unfounded as on the 29th July 1711 a French privateer landed at St Loy and robbed Boskenna house.

According to contemporary reports the pirates landed again a little further down the coast at Penberth on the same day. Here at the little fishing village the Frenchmen made off with two boats, some sheep and two men from the village. They also apparently took some women of Penberth hostage and a ransom had to be paid for their release. The French ship then sailed away with the goods and the men still on-board, coming ashore one more time at Porthgwarra to steal more livestock.

The Paynters & St Loy’s Ghost

“The little bay of St. Loy, a more or less sheltered sun trap full of dense vegetation and elders and tall rushes and daffodils. Above is a wind-matted wood that in the course of centuries the Paynters have tenderly reared to protect their Boskenna and the same family must also be largely responsible for the privacy of this stretch of coast which reveals itself to the walker alone . . .” J. R. A. Hockin, 1936.

Nine generations of the Paynter family lived at Boskenna House above St Loy beach from around 1630 onwards until it was sold in 1957. A well on the cliffs above St Loy is said to have been haunted by Miss Ann Paynter, youngest daughter of Francis Paynter and his wife Mary. The well became known as Miss Ann’s well because she would supposedly sit there for hours watching the ships go by.

Born in 1722, Ann is said to have died young and broken hearted after forming an unsuitable attachment to a man who was ‘beneath her station’. After her sudden death legend has it that Ann’s beloved nurse furiously cursed the Paynters saying “There will never be another daughter in this family!” And there wasn’t for the next three generations. Miss Ann’s ghost has been seen, all dressed in white, walking on an avenue near the house and near to the well. And it was said that no one could drive a horse and carriage to Boskenna house because the animals were too terrified to go near.

There is no sign of Ann’s well, or her ghost, today but two streams do run on to the beach from the cliffs forming invisible rivers gurgling loudly beneath the boulders.

(However much I love this story a quick search of parish records and several holes start to appear . . . for instance, Ann Paynter appears to have died as a baby and her brother Francis may have had a daughter soon after marrying . . . Sorry, am I being a killjoy?)

In Cornwall as you know you are never very far from the site of a shipwreck, and of course St Loy is no different. But the events of 1912 were particularly unusual, it has to be said.

Twin Shipwrecks

At 1.30am on 13th March 1912 a steamer, SS South America, came ashore at St Loy. She had been on her way from Hamburg to Cardiff under the command of Captain Alfred Bowling when they had encountered heavy fog off Penzance. Two local men, Mr James “Jimmy” Richards and Mr C. Trewern who lived in cottages above the beach, were alerted by the ship’s siren and the rockets fired by the crew. The two men dressed, grabbed lanterns and made their way to the sea.

Richards was the first to arrive he found the enormous steamer already on the rocks only 50 yards from the shore. He waved his lantern and was able to hail those on board. In the meantime Trewern began to cycle to Mousehole for the horse-drawn Life-saving Apparatus – Trengrouse’s Rocket. Richards, who of course knew the coast well, shouted instructions to the crew who managed to launch a lifeboat. Guided by Richards and his lantern they pulled for shore. They navigated sucessfully between the rocks and landed 16 crew and Mrs Bowling, the captain’s wife, safely. Another lifeboat was launched soon after saving the remaining 22 crew.

All the men were found beds for the night at Boskenna house or in Mr Richards’ home. Mrs Bowling stayed with a local woman, Mrs Annie Jones. The South America it was decided was only fit for salvage and the locals were able to help the crew to save some of their personal belongings the next day. Captain Bowling published a letter of thanks in The Cornishman newspaper.

But months later, just as everyone was getting used to seeing the massive wreck on the rocks, and work had began to salvage the steel hull, the tempestuous sea had other plans.

A bizarre coincidence drew the attention of the papers to St Loy just seven months after the grounding of the SS South America. The French steamer Abertay, bound for Barry with pit props on board, went ashore at St Loy cove, again in thick fog, on the 13th October 1912.

The Cornishman reported:

“Curiously enough the circumstances surrounding the wreck of the Abertay are precisely the same as those attending the stranding of the South America just seven months ago. The Abertay has run right alongside the South America just as if she was berthed in a dock!”

The crew were astonished to find themselves alongside the large deserted steamer. They shouted to see if anyone was onboard but when they had no answer the Abertay‘s crew climbed on board the South America, as they felt sure that their own ship was about to sink and roll over in the waves.

Again Jimmy Richards and Mrs Jones were awakened by strange noises from the beach and raised the alarm.

As dawn broke a lifeboat arrived from Newlyn, towing a salvage steamer the Lady of the Isles, and the Mousehole life saving apparatus was also sent for, but there was little hope of re-floating the ship. Fortunately the crew were able to climb down ropes from the South America onto dry land. Mr Jimmy Richards and Mrs Jones again received recognition in the local newspapers. It must have seemed like history repeating itself! And now St Loy had two wrecks, side by side!

Ice Age Cornwall

Without any previous knowledge of the various episodes of history described above perhaps the first thing that strikes you about St Loy is the enormous boulders that cover the beach. This piece of coast is part of the ‘Boscawen Site of Special Scientific Interest‘ because of its unusual geology.

“Boscawen is a nationally important site for Quaternary geomorphology and Quaternary stratigraphy. Coastal exposures at the site show a sequence of granitic shore platform overlain in turn by raised beach deposits and head deposits. The site demonstrates the facies variations within both the raised beach and head deposits and the stratigraphic relationships which exist between the two. The incised and fragmented granitic shore platform is immediately overlain by a raised beach comprised of boulders derived from the granite bedrock.” – Natural England citation.

While it is generally believed that the glaciers of the last ice age never reached as far as South West Cornwall the area did however experience an extended period of extreme cold. The resultant lack of erosion, often caused by the abrasive advance of ice sheets elsewhere, means that the early sediments here in Cornwall can give a detailed and uninterrupted record of life in the Quaternary era, around 2.5 million years ago. The sediments, known as head deposits, formed during this period can often be found in coastal lowlands and build up on bedrock platforms. If these layers of sediment remain preserved, and relatively undisturbed, it is possible to deduce all kinds of information about the distance past from the pollen and other deposits discovered there.

At St Loy the raised boulder beach sits on top of the natural bedrock – a granite platform. In places the cliff behind comprises of the Quarternary deposits. The organic-rich layers, termed the St Loy bed, are only exposed on the western side of the cove. Analysis of pollen samples taken here by J.D. Scourse in 1999 suggest Cornwall had a frozen tundra climate around 2 million years ago. There is also evidence of periods of rapid freeze and thaw.

(The reports on this discovery are very technical and given geology is not my strong suit I hope I have explained the basic idea correctly! Please feel free to do further reading for more information . . .)

The Giant Orange Tripod

And a little mystery to finish.

DSC04875

This massive piece of metal is a recent, well in the past few years, addition to the beach. After extensive enquiry and asking for online opinion everyone is pretty much agreed it fell off the back of a ship . . . and landed up on the rocks . . . any further details that anyone can add would be gratefully received!

*Note: parking near the entrance to the woods is very limited, it is easier to walk to St Loy along the coastal paths, see below.

Further Reading:

Alsia Well & some history of Wishing Wells

The Prehistoric beach of Porth Nanven

Walking opportunity:

Circular walk from Lamorna to St Loy

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