A visit to the north coast of Cornwall brings you to a place of high cliffs and wild seas. It is a favourite with surfers and holiday-makers now, but in the past it was the scene of many ship wrecks. And foolish bathers were often lost in the fierce and unpredictable tides.
Crantock beach is backed by tumbling dunes at one end and dramatic black cliffs at the other. The flatness of the sand here mean that the incoming tide can be frighteningly quick. The cliffs, which make an excellent home for nesting sea-birds, are as impassable as fortress walls to anyone caught below. It would be a very dangerous place to find yourself.
In those rocky cliff walls there are numerous little caves. Hidden in a deep cleft is one called Piper’s Hole, and this small cave holds a beautiful secret. A woman’s face shines from the smooth wet stone. Her lips almost smile. Beside her, carved into the solid rock, are these words.
Mar not my face but let me be,
Secure in this lone cavern by the sea,
Let the wild waves around me roar,
Kissing my lips for evermore.
In Search of a name
The name of this woman at first eluded all my research. It seems that the man who fashioned her face in the stone and carved out the poem in her honour was once common knowledge in the area. Joseph Prater. But who was the woman in this quiet cave?
The story that is told locally is that sometime in the early 1920s a woman was riding her horse along the beach. For some reason she didn’t notice or couldn’t escape the incoming tide. Sadly she and the animal were both trapped and drowned in this narrow zawn in the cliffs. Her heartbroken love was said to have carved her image on the flat grey rockface in remembrance of her.
How true this story I can’t be sure. I haven’t been able to find a newspaper account to verify the tale.
However Joseph Prater was a real man.
A Lost Story Retold
Recently I have been contacted by Hannah Eustice who has been researching the Prater family for years. She provided me with some fascinated insights that really bring the story to life.
Joseph Prater was an artist. Along with his brother William he rented a couple of wooden studio huts on the cliff top above the beach, close to the old Crantock Bay Hotel. They were from a very large and artistic family, eight brothers and one sister, Jane, all children of Joseph Prater Senior and his wife Jane Harriet Larkin.
The two brothers made their living as artists and a number of William Prater’s paintings recently sold at auction in Penzance. Their father Joseph senior had been born in Crantock in 1820 and the family obviously maintained that close connection with the area as several Praters were laid to rest in the local graveyard.
Hannah tells me that there are a number of family stories about who the lady in the carvings might be. But that it is certain that Joseph Prater was responsible for them.
Doris Thurley, the granddaughter of Joseph’s brother Henry, died in 2016 aged 107 but she remembered being told the story as a child.
A Name for the Mystery Lady?
Joseph never married, he was born in London in 1862 and died in 1932. Very little is know about his personal life but we may know the woman’s identity. It has been suggested that the carving in Piper’s Hole may represent a lady friend that he met in Crantock.
As it is today the area was very popular with visitors and there were a number of drownings in the early 1900s. Hannah believes that with the family’s connections it is possible that they knew Ethel de Medina Greenstreet nee Spender who drowned on Crantock Beach in 1904.
There was huge media coverage of the unfortunate event as Ethel was a journalist and member of the famous Spender family of authors and journalists. This idea could tie in with the Prater’s connection to London Society in journalistic and artistic circles. So, could a blossoming romance have been cut short?
Another possibility is that the rock carvings are a tribute to Joseph’s only sister Jane who died at just 38 years old in 1895.
It is worth remembering that the horse is actually a later addition carved by local man James Dyer in the 1940s. Whatever the case perhaps it is the mystery that fascinates people the most and it leaves us free to imagine our own story.
Special thanks to Hannah Eustice who helped me make the necessary corrections to this fascinating story. I had originally attributed the carvings to another Joseph Prater and identified the lady in the cave as his wife Lillie but Hannah set me straight. This Joseph was a nephew of the cave-carving Joseph.
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