The home of my ancestors was beyond my imagining.
The town of St Just in Penwith, Cornwall was a hub of the tin and copper mining industry which dominated the south western coast of Cornwall from ancient times until the mid-twentieth century. Research into my own family tree revealed that my ancestors had lived in and around St Just for centuries and only left for Australia, New Zealand and the United States less than 200 years ago.
I wanted to see the rugged, natural majesty of the Cornish coast, I wanted to know if I’d feel any affinity with my ancestral home and I wanted to know more about why they departed for Australia in the 1850’s.
So, adding a week’s holiday to a London business trip, my husband and I seized the opportunity, hired a car and went to find out. After a night in Bath and a stop at Glastonbury Abbey, we found ourselves becoming quickly immersed in one of our most beautiful adventures.
St Just is located on the south-western coast of the UK, not far from Land’s End. At nearby Cape Cornwall the steep cliffs of the dramatic rocky coastline form a background to silhouetted ruins of the characteristic Cornish mining engine houses with their tall chimney stacks. Old mine buildings still cling to their once industrial clifftop sites, now largely returned to original lush green pastures, dotted with spring wild flowers.
We hiked from our Airbnb (cosy, with awesome views of Cape Cornwall) along the coastal paths, through fields, coves and old mine sites up the hill to the Cape. It felt like the edge of the world. It took my breath away.
“Why would you leave here?” I asked the ghosts of my ancestors.
This was their home and it’s so beautiful.
Across Cornwall, Neolithic barrows and henges are not difficult to encounter on a rambling hike and their presence in the rugged landscape invokes a sense of connection to those ancient people. I felt connected to the now and then in equal measure, which gave me a sense of comfort and equanimity as we hiked the landscape under blue spring skies. It truly felt like finally finding the essence from which I was made, standing amongst miles and miles of it, watching the sea forming and reforming it around me.
So yes, I did feel at home on those grassy slopes and on the granite cliffs beside the crash of the sea. But I doubt that experience is limited to a wannabe Cornish lass like me. The ancient beauty of the place, the spectacular scenery juxtaposed with an industrial past and evidence of ancient human history, awakens the soul with mystery, wildness, rawness and yet perhaps strangely, belonging.
The spirit of the earth is close to the surface there and easy to feel.
The life of mining families was uncompromisingly tough and unrelenting. The men working underground and the famous bal maidens, the mining women processing ore on the surface, were made of stern stuff. I know it must have been so hard here, but I doubt the nineteenth century Australian goldfields were much easier. It cost my ancestors everything to take that risk to leave, never to return. They weren’t adventurers. They must have been afraid and as I moved through their beautiful homeland, I wondered if I was their first direct descendant to return to St Just in almost two centuries.
Walking the south western coastal path from Sennen’s surf beach to Lands End is a dream of windswept majesty. Parking at Sennen means you don’t have to encounter the tourist tackiness further into Lands End. You only see the wildness. The palpable feeling of being on the very edge of Britain is magical.
“Why did you leave all this, knowing you could never come back?”
I asked them again as I gazed at the endless sea and sky. I asked their timeworn gravestones in the St Just churchyard.
Post hike, our coffee tip in St Just, and the most Melbourne-like coffee I found in all of Cornwall, was from Lucy at The Square Café in the town centre, Market Square.
I liked the Cornish pasties from Warren’s Bakery, also in Market Square, although I stuck to the cheese and potato deliciousness. My husband claimed the greatest pasty he tasted in Cornwall was the house-made meat and veggie one he got at McFadden and Sons Butcher in Market Square. (Australians, the Cornish don’t tend to offer tomato sauce with pasties but there is usually some ‘ketchup’ and ‘brown sauce’ hiding somewhere around if you ask).
The St Just pubs, The Commercial, The Wellington and The Kings Arms all serve their own variations of fresh local fare. The Star Inn tends to serve up live music and drinks.
At the Wellington they told me on which boat, by which fisherman and at what time that very day, my dinner was line-caught. It was easily the freshest fish I’ve ever tasted.
We explored other villages of the southern coast — the fishing towns of Mousehole (pronounced Mowzall), Newlyn and Porthcurno. At Porthcurno we climbed the cliff stairs to a spectacular view and the Minnack Theatre, an amphitheatre above the sea.
The view from the café while you have your pasty or cream tea, is truly one of the great views — nothing but wild-flowering cliffs down to pristine sandy Porthcurno beach with its flawless crystal waters. Out over the sea…forever.
The Minnack is the life’s work of one woman, Rowena Cade, and a few friends. Their legacy — this epic art space, presenting open-air performances since the 1930s.
We drove through tiny, magical St Buryan, visiting its eighteenth century church and rickety graveyard, and saw the mysterious Neolithic Merry Maidens stone circle standing forever in its grassy meadow.
In divinely quaint Mousehole we ate dinner at one of the loveliest restaurants we found in all of Cornwall — 2 Fore Street. Run by locals, the feeling was European and modern but utilised local ingredients including just-caught seafood.
Took us north along the coast road from St Just to The Tate Gallery in St Ives for a jolt of artistic modernity. Loved the juxtaposition of the wonky old gravestones on the hill right by the fresh, clean Tate.
Then it was onward to picture-perfect Boscastle, a fishing village nestled amongst wooded hills with its incredibly beautiful sheltered cove.
Nearby is the ancient cliff fort ruin of Tintagel Castle, often associated with Arthurian legend. Nothing could’ve prepared us for the majesty of that vast, mysterious clifftop site on a still sunny afternoon. Mind-blown in every limitless direction; ocean as far as the eye could see.
Being a geologist, my husband was keen to take in some of the unique Cornish rock formations, he’d heard about at Millook Haven. He was not disappointed in what he found — massively contorted strata and exposed faults in the rock formations, as dramatic and clear as he’d ever seen before.
The entire beach is composed of pebbles and as I stood and looked at the formations above in the cliffs I heard the strangest noise, repeating, repeating. I had to go down to the shore, stand and look at it to comprehend the hugeness of what I was hearing — the chorus of thousands of pebbles tumbling against each other with every wave.
As the sun receded we stopped briefly to walk the dunes of Holywell Bay. Like gorgeous Porthcurno beach, Holywell is one of the filming locations for the series Poldark. With its iconic rock formation offshore Holywell is empty, rugged and romantic. A surfer, brave, crazy or both, wet-suited for the cold; passed us, heading into the late afternoon mist, dangerously alone.
After a huge day sucking in the history and majesty of the northern Cornish shores we ate at Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen Watergate Bay, a cool surf beach, and cocktails with views on your views. Well worth doing and an initiative worth supporting with diligent bright sparks everywhere.
As we drove through the stone cottages of Zennor, waiting for cows to cross the roads and mists rolled across St Just’s Market Square from the sea, I asked the ghosts again,
‘How could you leave this beautiful place?’
On our last day in Cornwall I had to see St Michael’s Mount — a fifteenth century home, church and fortress in Marazion, to the east of Penzance. St Michael’s Mount is a tidal island, just off the mainland, accessible via a causeway at low tide and by boat at other times. Apparently, the historic owners still live there and the place is really worth a visit to see the ancient architecture, gardens and geology. The chapel windows are a gallery of incredible stained glass.
Next we visited Porthleven, unable to get our fill of idyllic fishing villages, and this one didn’t disappoint. Lunch at The Corner Deli Porthleven was delicious — think great baguettes, Portuguese tarts and a range of take home boutique Cornish gins with labels like Tarquin’s “crafted on the wild Cornish Coast with rhubarb and raspberry”. Heaven.
I was keen to see an intact Cornish castle and Henry VIII’s Pendennis Castle fortress at Falmouth was just the ticket. The 500-year-old rooms, towers and dark stairwells were spooky and heavy with collective human experience. Pendennis guarded the important seaport of Falmouth for centuries, including during the wars of the last century, so it drips with military history.
On a tangent, I loved the palm tree lined streets of Falmouth, like the aptly named Dracaena Street. The subtropical plants bear testament to the effect of the Gulf Stream current generating a milder climate for Cornwall, compared with northern England.
Our final Cornish dinner was at the quirky Admiral Benbow pub in Penzance. The Admiral Benbow is so cool and decorated in a unique, crazy vintage, seafaring style with very nice food and more of that delicious Cornish gin with fancy tonic.
It was with mixed feelings we boarded the sleeper train for London from Penzance railway station, dropping our trusty hire car so conveniently, at the time we requested, at the station carpark depot.
The train was fun, but the single bunks were rather small, making for less sleep than we would have liked. I had imagined just a little more comfort, but the train was good value, a new experience, and meant sleeping and reading instead of driving hours back to London.
Dozing as we travelled out of the land of my ancestors and towards the city, I reflected on what I had come to understand had taken my family from Cornwall.
We’d visited historic Levant tin mine to see original underground areas and the only still operational steam engine, our guide giving us an intricately described picture of what mining life was like in the heyday of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
In the 1850s metal prices started to collapse, he told us, and with it, employment. Mines reduced their workforce from hundreds of miners to a skeleton staff and hundreds of families who depended entirely on the mines for their livelihoods were forced to leave.
They left to find employment overseas, risking all they had in the hope of finding better prospects for the future. Staying in Cornwall meant the possibility of starvation over coming winters. For those who knew nothing but mining, there was little other option but to find somewhere else to mine. Somewhere reputedly rich with ore. They did not necessarily leave because they wanted to, but because they had no other viable choice at that time.
I’d looked at my husband and he at me, and we said it together
“Perhaps they didn’t want to leave”.
I had my answer, an answer that made sense. For as far back as we knew, they’d never been the travelling kind. True to form, when they arrived in Australia they stayed put, until once again economic circumstances forced them to move.
I wondered if my direct ancestors, those who ended up in the Victorian high country of Harrietville, searching for gold, thought of St Just and Cape Cornwall as I now did.
Far from the coast, did they yearn for the crashing sea and the rocky cliffs?
I am certain they did.
London was brilliant of course, forever one of the most wonderful of cities in the world, but as I walked its brilliant, iconic monopoly board, I thought often of Cornish skies and sea.
Back in Australia again, I smile when I think of St Just and I gaze longingly at pictures of Porthcurno’s beach.
Go, feel it, but beware…when it’s in your blood, Cornwall’s in your blood forever.
Visit me online at www.drdebracampbell.com.
(P.S. I have not been paid to endorse any of the places I’ve mentioned here, they were just really good!)