|Tales from Cornwall’s wild side
by Sarah Shuckburgh
Bude’s modest exterior hides a
bizarre history involving a dotty vicar and a famous
inventor, discovers Sarah Shuckburgh.
heard of Gurney stoves, and always assumed that harvest
festivals were an ancient tradition, but until this week, I
had no idea that both were invented by eccentric Cornishmen
living on a remote stretch of the county’s wildest and most
The Cornish have always seen themselves as separate from the
English, and the county is indeed almost an island - the sea
or the river Tamar surround all but two miles of its
borders. For Anglo-Saxons, these two miles, in the parish of
Morwenstow, provided an important crossing point, but today
they form one of the most beautiful and unspoilt parts of
Britain. Here, narrow lanes with high stone walls are dotted
with primroses in spring and foxgloves in summer, and lead
into steep wooded valleys and over rolling maritime
grassland. The coast is rugged and treacherous, with
spectacular rock formations - barrel-shaped folds of rock,
diagonal strata, zigzag chevron patterns, stripy layers of
pale sandstone and dark siltstone.
Cornish side of my family has farmed on this coast for 200
years, and the non-Cornish side has been coming here on
holiday since 1900, but I had no idea that harvest festivals
were invented in the 19th century at Morwenstow church.
Stephen Hawker arrived in 1834, Morwenstow’s first vicar for
more than a century. He devoted his life to converting local
smugglers, wreckers, looters and dissenters into a
congregation of lifesavers, who warned ships away from the
rocks, gave drowned sailors Christian burials – and
celebrated local harvests.
Parson Hawker was delightfully dotty, dressing in red coat,
pink fez and yellow horse-blanket poncho, posing on rocks in
mermaid costume, inviting his nine cats to church services
(excommunicating them if they moused on a Sunday) and taking
his pet pig for walks. He had two happy marriages, at 19 to
his 40-year-old godmother, and then at 60 to a girl of 20.
Morwenstow churchyard and Hawker’s turreted rectory, I
strolled through a steep-sided valley, gouged during the Ice
Age, and joined the coast footpath. Far below me, Atlantic
waves churned and crashed against the rocks. Farther out,
swirls of glittering blue-green faded to a fuzzy horizon
that my Cornish grandmother would say heralds fine weather.
Soon I reached the National Trust’s smallest property,
Hawker’s Hut, perched on a cliff and built entirely of
driftwood. Here Hawker composed sermons, watched for
shipwrecks and wrote romantic poems such as The Song of the
Western Men, now adopted as the Cornish national anthem. He
also smoked opium and conversed with Saint Morwenna, the
fifth-century princess who built a church with her own
hands, and gave her name to the parish.
The next day, the wind got up and the incoming tide looked
perfect for surfing. I headed for Bude’s beautiful
Summerleaze beach with my ancient plywood surfboard.
Old-fashioned as my board my look, it is streamlined
compared to the coffin-like box on which my grandmother rode
the waves before the First World War.
up after my swim, I visited Bude Castle, built on
Summerleaze sandhills by Sir Goldsworthy Gurney. Few have
heard of this Cornish genius, a contemporary of Parson
Hawker (they both died in 1875). To prove that it was
possible to build on shifting sand, Gurney designed a castle
on a specially-invented concrete base – and it is still
standing 178 years later.
Sir Goldsworthy Gurney was an extraordinary polymath –
architect, agriculturalist, surgeon, scientist, pianist and
prolific inventor - but he veered between success and
bankruptcy, and he regularly failed to gain credit for his
inventions. Gurney’s oxyhydrogen blowpipe, which produced
limelight, was used for theatres by Drummond, and became
known as Drummond light. In 1829, his Gurney Drag steam-carriage travelled by road from London to Melksham,
averaging 15 miles per hour – the first long-distance
steam-powered journey - but the government backed
Stephenson’s Rocket and imposed crippling road-tolls.
Gurney’s ingenious plans to ventilate parliament by sucking
sewage smells up through Big Ben were never implemented.
Gurney’s best-known invention during his lifetime was Bude
light – a mix of lime and magnesium so bright that one lamp,
reflected through prisms and mirrors, illuminated his entire
castle. These lights soon lit Trafalgar Square and Pall
Mall, and three Bude lights replaced 280 candles in the
Houses of Parliament, lasting until electricity was
installed 60 years later. Sir Goldsworthy’s system of
flashing lighthouses is still in use, and his Gurney stoves
survive in several cathedrals to this day. Sir Goldsworthy
Gurney, knighted in old age by Queen Victoria, invented
blastpipes, steam engines, mine ventilation, fire
extinguishers, musical instruments, heating, lighthouse
flashes, electric telegraph and theatrical limelight, but
was never in the limelight himself.
I explored the Bude Canal, which has been dredged and
restored to make a lovely inland walk. Away from the wild
coast, Bude’s hinterland is calm and peaceful. Sir
Goldsworthy contributed to early designs for the canal, a
revolutionary project to link the Bristol and English
Channels via the river Tamar. The canal never reached the
Tamar’s navigable stretches, but was a superb feat of
engineering with sea locks and basins, a breakwater to
protect the canal from the sea, and six sloping stretches of
canal powered with steam and a unique system of
counterbalanced buckets, each containing 15 tons of water.
Today, the canal’s nature reserve contains Cornwall’s
largest reed beds, home to otters, dormice, and a host of
rare birds and plants. Much of the surrounding countryside
is designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
While Parson Hawker and Goldsworthy Gurney were living their
extraordinary lives, and my Cornish relations were farming,
Bude turned from a fishing harbour and small port into a
fashionable Victorian seaside resort. In 1847, Tennyson
visited this romantic Watering Place of the West and was
inspired to write his Cornish Idylls of the King. Later, the
Atlantic Coast Express railway brought my non-Cornish
relations and other well-heeled visitors direct from London,
and Bude’s attractions included a sea pool, art deco cinema,
three golf courses, and a series of huge hotels.
However, Bude’s economic decline had begun, with
agricultural depression, the First World War, mass
emigration to the New World, and, in the 1930s, the closure
of the canal, lifeboat station and port. A final blow came
with the closure of the railway, in 1966.
Bude today may have lost its classy clientele, but it is a
friendly, low-key little town filled with the mouthwatering
aroma of hot pasties. Summerleaze beach is a beautiful sweep
of fine sand, with fishing boats pulled up on the tideline,
children playing with buckets and spades, and wet-suited
surfers riding the rolling waves.
As gulls squawked overhead, I wandered past whitewashed
cottages with grey slate roofs, along modest terraces of
pebbledash and palm trees, and into small locally-owned
shops. I stopped for elevenses at the Falcon Hotel,
established in 1798 as an inn for sea captains. The waitress
confided proudly that Tennyson broke his ankle here in 1847.
Chapel Rock, on the harbour breakwater, is all that remains
from the days when Bude was just a chapel on a rock, where a
bede, or holy man, lit lamps to guide ships in from
Cornwall’s wildest and most treacherous coast. But today the
town is taking renewed pride in its unique cultural and
Sir Goldsworthy Gurney’s eccentric castle-built-on-sand has
been restored, and now houses an excellent museum, and a
restaurant where I had lunch. Over coffee, I read one of
Parson Hawker’s bloodthirsty ballads - Croon from Hennacliff
- about shipwrecked bodies washing up at Bude. The next time
I go to a harvest festival, or visit a warm cathedral, I
shall remember these two inspired Cornishmen, and the
beautiful landscape that was their home.
First published by the Telegraph