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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.