The year is 550 A.D. (give or take). A Celtic princess, young and beautiful (all princesses are beautiful – this one probably red haired with the redhead’s transparent clarity of skin) is dying in her monastic cell on the top of a wild Cornish cliff. “Lift me up, so that I may see the hills of Wales,” she says. Her companions, possibly some of her twenty-three brothers and sisters do so and she dies. They bury her by the little wattle-and-daub chapel she has built, close to the sparkling clear waters of the Holy Well. And she’s still there. The princess was Morwenna, one of the vast family of the Welsh princeling, King Brychan (from where Brecon gets its name). And she gave her name to Morwenstow, Cornwall’s most northerly parish.
Morwenstow is remote – this is not the Cornwall of azure water and bobbing white boats, nor is it the holidaymakers’ chips ‘n’ disco Cornwall. There is no village, just a few scattered cottages. Strung out along a winding, high-hedged lane there is a chapel, then a post office, then a pub. Then, finally, the church. The church is set on the southerly side of a deep coombe, about three fields from the cliff edge.
Morwenna’s church has long since gone, as has the Saxon one which followed it. The present building is a typical Cornish church. It has a three-stage tower at the west, a porch on the south side and the three-gabled east end which is so characteristic of Cornish churches. Before going in at the south door, look up at the sundial which tells you that “life is like a shadow”. The entrance to the porch is Norman, though the porch itself is some 400 years later. The explanation of the puzzle is mediaeval conservation – when the church was enlarged about 500 years ago, the original Norman doorway was retained but its three concen-tric rings of carving split into two and one. The outermost order was put round the porch doorway and the inner ones round the door from porch into the church. Inside, the visitor is conscious of the still darkness, the smell of wood, the muted howl of the wind and the ponderous tick of a clock somewhere. It doesn’t take much imagination to travel back to the times when the church was used to store smugglers’ contraband and music for the few and infrequent attenders ‘‘ as provided by a church band of two flutes, a bass viol and a pitchpipe. For those who study church architecture, Morwenstow makes a good primer. The first three arches of the north arcade (the row of arches which separates the nave from the north aisle) are typically Norman. Short, immensely fat pillars support round arches, decorated with geometric zigzags. Then the next two arches, going towards the chancel, demonstrate the growing confidence of 13th century church builders to slim down pillars and create pointed arches. On the south side, the arches show how far the builders had come in three hundred years. This arcade, dating from the mid-fifteen hundreds, is of tall slim fluted pillars and elegant pointed arches. On the left, just inside the door, is another stone history lesson – the font. This one is primitive. Small and irregular, it is approximately oval in shape, with a waistline girdled by a carved cable motif. It may well have been Morwenstow’s font for a thousand years, for experts disagree over its age. Some say it is early Norman, carved by Saxon craftsmen, others that it is a survivor of the Saxon church, already here when the Normans arrived. Fifty generations of Morwenstow babies may have been baptised in that simple crude font in water from the well just down the hill.
Remember the parish chest – the great oak box in which deeds, baptismal and marriage registers and all other papers of great local importance were kept? Well, Morwenstow has two, at the west end of the north aisle, below the plain windows through whose latticed panes the great swelling of Hennacliff, is visible, frequently through driving rain. The bench ends are oak, too, dating from the mid fifteen hundreds, when seating was first put into the church.
Before then worshippers stood, bar the frail who made for the stone benches round the walls – hence “the weak shall go to the wall”. Mention Morwenstow and most people will think of its remarkable nineteenth century vicar, Robert Stephen Hawker. Whenever Cornish expats are gathered together, be it in Vancouver or Wisconsin, Ballarat or Bournemouth, someone will sit at the piano and they’ll start singing. One of the first songs they will sing is Trelawny which they will belt out with the fer-vour of a national anthem. Well, Hawker was the man who wrote it. Not a Cornishman (he was born in Plymouth) he was a vicar of this wild and remote parish for 40 years. There are many stories of his apparent eccentricity – taking his nine cats to church, and excommunicating one for mousing on Sunday, taking his pet pig Gyp on parish visits (when he was curate at North Tamerton), dressing as a mermaid and singing from a rock in the middle of Bude bay. Some may be true; many probably are not. What is more important is his courage and humanity. When he came to Morwenstow, in 1835, the parish was little more than mediaeval. It was poor, harsh country and its people were primitive and barbaric – he described the parishioners as a “mixed multitude of wreckers, smugglers and dissenters of various hue”. The practice – celebrated in Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn – of deliberately wrecking ships had long since ceased but that did not mean that the parishioners of Morwenstow did not welcome the sea’s benevolence in casting up “barrels of beef and bales of linen” from wrecks. Hawker saw it as his duty to give Christian burial to the bodies – and bits of bodies, known as “gobbets” – of drowned seamen.
Alongside the lych gate is a small building called a lych house. This was a sort of mortuary where the recovered bodies were laid until their burial. Hawker reports that sometimes the bodies were so putrefied that his helpers had to be anaesthetised with gin to deal with them. The top bank of the churchyard is where the bod-ies were buried and there are dozens of them there. There is little to mark their burial place – upturned boats and oars formed into a cross have been used but all have rotted away. But one relic remains – the figurehead of the Caledonia. She was a 200-ton Scots brig, homeward bound to Arbroath from Odessa in September 1842 when a gale threw her on to the savage rocks of Sharpnose. Nine of the ten crew died and are buried beneath her white-painted figurehead. It is said that, at certain times, the figurehead walks about. When you look carefully, you notice that the grass round it is trampled flat into a circle, but that has been caused by people circling it to get a good photo… hasn’t it?
Go out on to Sharpnose or scramble up to Hennacliff. Look out over the grey heaving sea and ponder on the vessels which have gone to their doom on those rocks. Proud Austrian barques, American steamers, Frenchmen, Dutchmen and Italians, little Channel Island traders and numerous Bude ketches – they’re all down there, below Morwenna’s cell, but they can’t see the hills of home.