Gurnard’s Head – Ancient Stronghold & Medieval Hermitage

gurnard's head

The jutting, rugged finger of rock known as Gurnard’s Head has to be one of my favourite places in Penwith. From its dramatic heights I have watched gannets diving for fish and seen sleepy seals bottling; sometimes I have picnicked on warm grass in golden, evening sunshine and sometimes hidden behind rocks slick with rain to escape a stinging gale of wind. There is a powerful duality here. as there is in so much of Cornwall.

“In the Gurnard’s Head the north coast has its own crisis. In the Head itself all the strength and beauty of this rugged, almost unapproachable shore are exquisitely blended . . .”

J. R. A. Hockin, Walking in Cornwall, 1949

And like so many similar promontories in Cornwall this place has attracted people to it since the earliest times. It has been a place of retreat, both physically and spiritually, and traces of that history can still be seen today if you know where to look.

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The Desolate Sphinx

“Cornish granite is not so much golden as reflective of sunlight . . . For the perceptive, the black faced cliffs of Zennor Head, Gurnard’s Head, Pendeen, Kenidjack and Cape Cornwall do not fit within the golden cliche. Such cliffs are composed of of sedimentary and volcanic rocks that are often much older then granite and that were greatly altered – metamorphosed – by the intense heat of the molten granite that erupted from deep within the earth’s crust.”

Des Hannigan, Altanic Edge, 1995

Gurnard’s Head is simultaneously breathtakingly beautiful and strangely daunting, the earliest known name for the headland in Cornish was ‘Ynyal’ which means ‘desolate’. And there is little doubt that the passing mariner would have once found that title ominously applicable.

Another more recent name – Trereen Dinas – refers to the promontory’s importance as a fortification or ‘castle’ during the Iron Age.

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Illustration by J. T. Blight

But this rocky spine of land famously takes on strange forms when viewed from different angles, inevitably the eye finds fantastical shapes in its towering boulders.

The naturalist W.H. Hudson spent some time here in 1911 watching the sea birds and noting the many wild flowers. He called the headland “my lonely castle by the sea” but he also saw something else.

“Seen from a distance, the promontory suggests the figure of a sphinx, the entire body lying out from the cliff, the waves washing over it’s huge black outstretched paws and beating on it’s breast, it’s stupendous deformed face composed of masses of granite looks out onto the Atlantic. I was often there afterwards spending long hours sitting on the rocks of the head and shoulders watching the sea and the birds that live in it . . .”

Hudson, The Lands End.
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However the name Gurnard’s Head, by which it is what this place is most commonly called today, is said to come from someone’s fanciful idea that its outline is shaped like the fish . . . I think I prefer the sphinx . . .

The Iron Age Cliff Castle

Like so many similar headlands on the coasts of Cornwall, especially on the north coast, the geology of Gurnard’s Head provided prehistoric people with a natural, ready-made stronghold. Wave battered on three sides, it was already almost impregnable; on the south side the sheer black walls of rock plunge some 200ft (60m) to the sea and these days are a favourite with daredevil climbers.

Across the narrow neck of the headland two ramparts and three ditches were built during the Iron Age to provide a defensive structure on the final forth side. Inside this enclosure, or promontory fort, are the remains of at least 16 hut circles, now mostly lost beneath the thick carpet of tough grass and, in the summer, the nodding heads of pink thrift, sea campion and sea carrot.

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Those huts that were excavated during a dig in 1939 were found to be from 20 to 30ft (6 to 9m) in diameter and many had central hearths from which the smoke of cooking fires would have escaped through the thatch roofs.

The excavation also provided a possible date for the occupation of the cliff castle – around 200BC. The discovery of pot shards from Brittany, as well as other high status pottery, has led to the theory that Gurnard’s Head may have been some kind of seasonal ‘trading station‘ with links to the Breton region of France.

When the cliff castle was finally abandoned isn’t clear but the next evidence for a human occupation of sorts comes from the 11th century.

Gurnard's Head

Chapel Jane

“On the isthmus are the remains of a small chapel; the altar stone, a flat slab of granite is still entire, there is a holy well nearby. Probably the hermits who occupied these sea-side cells selected such spots that they might be at hand to give succour and relieve the shipwrecked mariner,”

John Thomas Blight, A Week at Land’s End, 1861.

On the north side of Gurnard’s Head just above Treen Cove stands what remains of an ancient chapel built roughly a thousand years after the Iron Age cliff castle. From the coast path neat granite steps curve down to low walls where a huge altar stone seems to almost hang in the air over the cliff edge.

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The steps to Chapel Jane

The earliest reference to this chapel comes from an account in the Penheleg Manuscript of 1580 which refers to a wreck here in 1531 ‘at Senar Clyffe by Innyall Chappell within Reskymer’s Manor named Trethein’ (Treen). ‘Innyall’ is from the Cornish ‘ynyal’ which, as discussed above, means wild or desolate, and probably relates to Gurnard’s Head itself rather than to the chapel.

By the time we find the next mention of the ruined chapel in the 17th century the name ‘Chapel Jane’ is in use. William Hals writes: “In this parish [Zennor] are the ruins of an old free chapel called Chapel Jane, that is, the narrow chapel”.

The reference to a “narrow chapel” reveals that Jane is in fact likely to be a corruption of the Cornish word for narrow – ‘ynn’. And what remains of the building today certainly indicates a long and narrow structure.

gurnard's head chapel jane

Between 1964 and 1966 an archaeological excavation was carried out at Chapel Jane. This work concluded that the ruin building was almost certainly a medieval chapel dating from between c1100 to c1325, despite it not being mentioned in any early ecclesiastical records for Cornwall.

The dig showed that the chapel had been extended and altered over the centuries and may at one time have had a small tower perhaps with light to act as a warning to shipping. It is said to have been in use up until the 16th century.

“The position of the site is inconsistent with its having been either a chapel of ease or a domestic oratory . . . Chapel Jane could possibly have been a votive chapel commemorating an escape from shipwreck, but seems more likely to have been associated with fishermen.”

Vivien Russell & P. A. S. Pool, The excavation of Chapel Jane, 1966

The excavation also revealed a large depression close to the altar stone that, although no evidence of a burial was found, the published archaeological report refers to as the ‘grave’, perhaps in reference to the local legend that the stone marks the burial place of drowned mariners.

gurnard's head chapel jane

The holy well (which I haven’t seen) is said to be more of a spring emanating from the cliff face somewhere below the chapel. In 1897 the writer John Lloyd Warden Page refers to a old tradition of the people of Zennor making an annual pilgrimage to this well. It is also said that local fishermen would go to Chapel Jane to pray for fine weather and a good catch before they went to sea.

Final Thoughts

Today Gurnard’s Head is cared for by the National Trust and it makes a wonderful place to visit whatever the season, whatever the weather.

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The headland is flanked on either side by what Cornwall truly does best, endless views of a jagged coastline that must have changed very little in the passing millennia . . . since those Iron Age folk made this place their home or certainly since those 12th century fishermen came to pray beside the altar in Chapel Jane.

Walking Opportunities

Zennor to Gurnard’s Head Walk

Further Reading

Zennor Head

Maen Cadoar – The Battle Stone of Camborne

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7 thoughts on “Gurnard’s Head – Ancient Stronghold & Medieval Hermitage

  1. How lovely to read of home! Thank you from a temporarily exiled Cornishman! I’ve always wondered about the site of the holy well – whether the holy well at Chapel Jane was below the chapel or to the side. The north side is fairly precipitous and I’ve seen no sign of a well, from land or sea. It might have fallen away perhaps, but there is a permanent small watercourse that crosses the coast path c. 30m to the East – which I’ve always thought might be the most likely candidate.

  2. There are so many Welsh sounding names and place names etc in Cornwall I am Welsh born in Wales in the Rhondda Valley and a proud Welsh man especially when we beat England at Rugby football. There is a Celtic connection between Cornwall and Wales besides Male Voice Choirs I lived not very far from Treorchy where The Treorchy Male voice Choir comes from. And one of my cousins played the cornet in the Cory Brass Band which still plays in Concerts and competitions and practices or rehearses in a hall not far from where I used to live in the Rhondda.

  3. Thank you for another beautifully observed and sensitive revealing of this special landscape, very enjoyable to read

  4. The Gurnard’s Head picnic that never was
    My great-grandfather’s brother, Thomas Reynolds, became Mayor of Penzance in the 1890s but fell ill and died in office in early 1897. A lengthy obituary in The Cornishman of 25 February 1897 includes the following intriguing paragraph:

    “In public, Mr Reynolds became known as a prosperous man who had bought house property shrewdly. He added, by rental or purchase, to his land, and few things gave him greater pleasure than to stroll off to his fields and flocks and to mark, as we have often heard him delightedly explain, the generous return Mother Earth gives to those who treat her liberally and dumb creatures yield to all who care for them. Bye and bye his acquisitions were more distant. They were found at Zennor, among whose people he soon added to his friends, and culminated when he bought that beautiful promontory, the Gurnard’s Head, to which he was, in the summer of 1897, to take the Town Council for an inspection picnic, with some unusual attractions and unstinted hospitality.”

    Sadly, the picnic never happened and I don’t know how Thomas disposed of his land and property. Whatever, it is far better that the site is in the care of the National Trust and available for all to enjoy.

    1. I wonder what route it took to the National Trust? I think the Trust bought it from Ken and Sonya Berryman who used to live at Treen Farm. These days the Trust are grazing ponies which are doing a good job of keeping the grass short which benefits local choughs.

  5. This is so interesting! I first came to Gurnards Head 40 years ago as a child and fell in love with it. Have come back regularly ever since and have known about Chapel Jane (shared name) for a while now, but not in the detail you shared. Thanks ao much for this and all your other blog posts

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