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A Love Affair with Coasts

I was brought up in a cottage above Stratton in the North of Cornwall. From my bedroom window I could see from Trevose Head to Lundy Island. It was a view that has quite possibly moulded the direction of my life. The sight of ships passing on the horizon, often headed for exotic climes, helped me develop a curiosity about the great world beyond. 

Early evening on the South West Coast Path, just north of Welcombe Mouth Beach with Lundy Island visible in the distance. Photographer: Jonathan Garland.

In those days of the early 1950s, personal transport was still unusual so my mother ran an old Ford 8 van to remote rural areas selling things from the family’s shops. With different routes on different days, we often found ourselves in places on the South West Coastal Footpath; places such as Morwenstow, Duckpool and Sandymouth. I loved it and sometimes mum would drop me off at such places and I would walk home along the coast. At the time this seemed to me perfectly normal, but looking back it was extremely precocious, given that I wasn’t yet a teenager. It was the start of a lifetime love of coasts and the sea.

The Vicar of Morwenstow –

Stratton was also where Robert Stephen Hawker spent his childhood in the early 19th century. He went on to be ordained and in due course was made the Vicar of Morwenstow. He was an eccentric to be treasured and he left an indelible stamp on that stretch of coast. The church of Saint Morwenna is a wonderful building in a memorable location and, as a bonus, has one of the best tearooms in Cornwall next door. He built an exotic vicarage nearby with each chimney in the shape of the spire of a church with which he had been connected.  The area will now be everlastingly linked to ‘Parson’ Hawker.

Church of Saint Morwenna, Morwenstow, Photographer: Odd Wellies

Those were the days of the old prayer: Dear Lord; we pray not that wrecks should happen, but if they do, please bring them here for the benefit of our poor inhabitants!  This stretch of coast was extraordinarily hostile to ships anyway, and wrecks were treated with enthusiasm. Hawker, however, came up with the then revolutionary idea of saving the seafarers before pilfering the cargo. He would also give a Christian burial to those who drowned, and their bodies would be kept at the rectory prior to burial. Hawker hated that and stayed awake all night for fear of their spirits. As you enter the churchyard you will see the impressive figurehead of the brig Caledonia which marks the last resting place of some of its crew.

Hawker’s Hut –

Hawker was also a poet of some repute. To achieve peace and quiet to help his writing he built a hut on the clifftop out of wrecked ships’ timbers. It is in the most magnificent location looking out over high cliffs with the sound of waves breaking far below.  There he would get high on laudanum and write. Perhaps his most lasting legacy was in his Song of the Western Men which was to become the Cornish anthem:

A good sword and a trusty hand,

A merry heart and true,

King James’ men shall understand what Cornish lads can do.

Hawker’s Hut, North Cornwall. Photographer Christopher Small

You can readily visit the hut. It is the smallest National Trust property in the land.  A track leads past the church. When you reach the clifftops you turn south and follow the coast path, watching for a small sign showing you where steps disappear over the edge and a short zig-zag leads to the hut. When you get there you will be in the most august of company. Both Charles Kingsley and Alfred Lord Tennyson went there with Hawker.

I can only introduce you briefly to Hawker. His full life story has filled books.

Other lands, other coasts:

Since my early days on the coastal footpath I have gone on to explore other parts of the Coast Path and other coasts, often in remote places. They have all had their interest – wild weather, snakes and hippos, even gunfire; but for sheer magnificence this stretch of the South West Coast Path in North Cornwall is beyond compare. There is beauty and history at every turn. Why go on expensive overseas jaunts when this lies waiting for you at home?

Explore the area

Hawker’s Hut (2.2 miles)
Duckpool and Woodford (5.1 miles)
Sandymouth and Coombe Valley (6.8 miles)

Guest Blog written by Chris Marrow

Chris Marrow trained as a merchant navy deck officer but ended up office-bound in London. He hated it and instead went to Orkney and founded a new type of ferry service and went on to reopen the long dead route between Orkney and Shetland. Taken over by the local authority, he ended up sailing a 95-foot landing craft across the Indian Ocean where he had two such craft to feed people displaced by the civil war. When the war finished he undertook many projects around the world. One was to re-explore the old river route into Malawi, as first used by David Livingstone. It had been unused for a generation because of the Mozambique civil war. As a result he was asked to take over the shipping company on Lake Malawi from the Government and he ran it for some years.

Now back home in the UK, he is the lead for South West Business Council for maritime matters and for Africa. He has had the honour of being made a Knight of the Order of the Leopard by Queen Diambi Kabatusuila for services to Africa.     

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