The Lizard peninsular is the southern-most point of the British Isles. It is located on the southern coast of Cornwall, the most south-westerly county of England – Britain’s chin, bottom-left, jutting out towards the Atlantic Ocean. We decided to go there for a camping holiday.
It took us much longer to get there than I had allowed. This is a characteristic of Cornwall in my experience. I had heard that the road beyond Exeter had been much improved (from a motoring point of view) since our last visit. And so it has. But the fact remains that Cornwall is further south-west from London than Manchester is to the north, and it takes longer to get to – by road or by train. Cornwall is also romantic and mysterious. It has its own peculiar (in both senses) myths, legends and place names derived from its ancient Celtic cultural and linguistic origins. Hence, The Lizard – from the Cornish Lys Ardh – meaning ‘high court’.
We put our tent up in the shelter of a hedge in the corner of the Wild Camping, Rose in the Valley (there was no valley) camping field at Ruan Minor (probably named after St Ruan, or Ronan, a sixth Century Irish missionary). I noticed at once that we had intruded into the territory of a pair of wrens (Troglodytes troglodytes). They protested at our presence with their customary quick-fire scolding rattle as they whirred and moused about the interior of the hedge. There was also a pair of robins (Erithacus rubecula). While the wrens stayed down, the robins were happy to sing to us from the tops of the hedge.
A Cornish hedge is not made up merely of trees and shrubs. Underneath the vegetation there is a wall of stones. The stones are banked with soil and the vegetation grows in the soil on the top of the wall and down its sides. This is characteristic of hedges in much of the West Country – the Counties of Devon, Somerset and Cornwall – and is made possible by the generally mild and wet climate which keeps the walls moist throughout the year. They may reasonably be described as wet-stone walls as opposed to the dry-stone walls of the north. Here the vegetation was a jungle of brambles, sallow, bindweed, nettles, willow-herb, hawthorn, gorse, blackthorn and bracken – and no doubt more I failed to notice.
The nearby farmyard hosted a flock of juvenile starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) – dull brown, not yet matured to glossy, iridescent black, still wearing the suggestion of a mask – like the Lone Ranger. They moved in rough unison – down to feed on the field; up to the wires or into a tree when disturbed. A party of house sparrows (Passer domesticus) occupied the same area and behaved in a similar fashion, but preferred the barn and outbuildings to wires and trees. Swallows (Hirundo rustica) skimmed across the field a foot or two above ground level, and hardly further away from my legs as I walked to fetch water from the tap. What they were after was not obvious, but presumably there were aerial insects about.
A quarter of mile from our campsite stood the remains of what was once a windmill. Now it is a stunted circular stone tower with a conical, slated roof which hovers above the stone-work on thin steel pillars.
Inside there is a galvanised-steel staircase which leads to a viewing platform. The tower stands at the edge of the Windmill Farm Nature Reserve, a 200 acre site jointly owned by Cornwall Wildlife Trust and the Cornwall Birdwatching and Preservation Society. From the platform we could see across the reserve and beyond, to the sea. My plan was that we would walk across the reserve and on to the heath beyond and so to Kynance Cove. This would mean – I had studied the map – that we would avoid having to walk a mile down the road to find the official footpath from Grochall Farm to Kynance. We would take a short cut instead.
The reserve was at first a rough, colourful mix of yellow gorse and purple heathers kept low by cutting and by the grazing of cattle. The edge of the reserve, towards the sea, was marked by a substantial wood-hedge, which we needed to get through if we were to fulfil my plan. After some searching we came to a gate. It was severely locked with padlock and chain – and beyond was a bog. It was clear that we were not supposed to go through. We kept going, looking for another way through. There was none. The paths faded and the heath became more or less abandoned pasture-fields with gates between – until we found ourselves at Grochall Farm. Or rather, the remains of it – including an old and decaying building which had been constructed with mud walls then rendered over with cement. I have seen traditional cob walls before – walls made of mud, pebbles and straw – but not with the addition of a protective layer of cement. But even then, all man’s works decay if you don’t look after them – as Shelly once nearly remarked and as this photo shows :
We took the official path from Grochall across the expanse of the heath to Kynance. Both the Windmill Farm Reserve and the more extensive heath beyond form part of the Lizard National Nature Reserve.
The heath was flat, bleak and worn. Half a dozen ravens passed over at some point. That was about it. However, the reserve is famous for its Marsh fritillaries (Euphydryas aurinia) – a butterfly which is one of the UK’s most threatened species.
We didn’t see any.
What we saw instead were a number of very annoying butterflies which insisted on sitting with their wings closed so we could never get a good look at their uppersides. Nonetheless, I identified them as Grayling (Hipparchia semele), one of the Browns, a spot on the underwing, and known for the habit of sitting with wings closed. Presumably because they sat wings-closed none of us took a photo of them. A Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) was more accommodating :
Painted Ladies are summer visitors from North Africa and sometimes arrive in huge numbers. In the great invasion of 2009 I even spotted one from the window of a Docklands Light Railway carriage somewhere in east London, sunning itself on the track ballast.
After the heath we came at last to Kynance Cove. Its name is from the Cornish keynans and means ravine.
I knew it well. That is, I have been hearing its name since I was a child. A strange and romantic name – like Polperro, Penzance, Zennor, Marazion. The sort of west-country destination that Rupert Bear went on his summer holidays and met talking crabs and sea-serpents, mer-boys and pirates. My mother had been on holiday to Cornwall when she was young,with my grandparents and Cornwall was therefore part of the family’s collective nostalgia. We also went to Cornwall when I was about seven, which added to the familial remembrance.
In any case, Cornwall is – and has been since the invention of the railway – a favourite holiday destination for the English – advertised by the Great Western Railway as The Cornish Riviera :
It is warm, romantic (smugglers, shipwrecks, blasted heaths, rugged cliffs) – and not properly English. This is because it is still Celtic – the place names, the landscape, and even some of the people. It is in fact, from much of England, one of the nearest faraway places.
At the top of the cliff (we are back at Kynance) there is a car park. It was very full. Half way down to the sea there are public toilets and a café with a sitting-out area which clearly commanded fine views of the cove below and the sea beyond. We didn’t check it out ourselves as it was also very full. We descended to the beach. The beach is made of grey sand, fragmented rock and a number of dark, eroded stacks worn from the surrounding cliffs. There is a shallow cave in the Western corner of the cove. The waves poured in and rose between the stacks and then stalled on the slope of the sand. There were no crabs – talking or otherwise – and no mer-boy. Not even a pirate. There were lots of people though, and like them we also enjoyed climbing the stacks and paddling between them as the waves rushed in.
From Kynance we walked to the village of Lizard, a distance of a couple of miles. On the way we chose to take a footpath across fields grazed by cattle. It started at ground level, as footpaths tend to do, but we then found ourselves walking along the top of a hedge-wall. There was vegetation on either side but we enjoyed unobstructed views over the pastures at a height of some six feet – plus our own of course.
From the village we walked down to Lizard Point, passing a gorilla and a dodo, and then the Lizard Lighthouse on our left.
We soon came to the National Trust’s Lizard Point visitors’ centre. It was a modest, wooden building but it displayed an impressive list of recently spotted wildlife. Birds included shearwaters, skuas, and a puffin; marine animals listed were porpoises, seals, whales and a sunfish. Sunfish are enormous – 6 feet long by 8 feet deep ( no really – they are bizarre) – but how do you spot them ? The answer is that they have a habit of lying sideways on the surface of the sea, all 6 by 8 of them.
We could see some seals, hauled out on low rocks and one or two in the water, but it was otherwise impossible to compete with such an overwhelming list of sightings. Except that I then spotted a company of gannets (Morus bassanus) passing low across the water, left to right, east to west, far out at sea. Gannets were not mentioned on the list. I reported my sighting to one of the National Trust volunteers at once.
The next day we picnic-lunched on the beach at Marazion, opposite the island castle-priory of St Michael’s Mount. I had been there before. In August 1961 we left Paddington Station late one evening behind a sulphurous steam locomotive. We traveled in an ordinary compartment and I remember clearly the unpleasant smell of the smoke, and the pleasure of leaning on my Dad to sleep. We awoke in the morning to find ourselves pulling in to Penzance. We rushed down the platform to get a good look at the engine that had transported us – only to find that it had been replaced en route by a diesel. I remember my disappointment. However, I also remember the diesel. Research suggest that it would have been a Class 41 Warship Diesel-Hydraulic, the standard west-country locomotive at that time. It was not. I remember it clearly – it had a bonnet, a substantial bonnet, and a double windscreen above. It was an English Electric Type 3 – now generally known as a ‘Growler’ on account of its old-fashioned diesel engine’s deep, sonorous and splendid throb. Further research confirms that these locos were also sometimes used on this run. 
We holidayed in a British Rail Camping Coach parked on a siding beside the beach at Marazion. In those days there were BR camping coaches – i.e. carriages fitted out to stay in – all over the country. Ours was green as I recall. That’s about all I recall. I was only six at the time.
In 1991 I went on holiday to Cornwall again. Only this time it was with my wife and children rather than with Mum and Dad and siblings. Nonetheless, we visited Marazion just to see. Two brown and cream Pullman coaches stood rotting on the shore. Their chassis and springs were thick and bursting with rust. Their coachwork and paint were broken and faded. They were clearly immovable and had not been in use for years. Deceased in fact. Now they were gone. The sidings on which they had been parked were gone. As far as I could make out they had been replaced by a car park. It was difficult even to know where they had once been.
As we relaxed on the beach, picnicking on pork pies, sandwiches and packets of crisps, we were suddenly and loudly disturbed by a flight of RAF Eurofighter Typhoons. They arrived from behind us – swept wide across the bay in fine formation and then turned and disappeared again in-land. Lord knows how much it had cost us to finance this foray – through our taxes , you understand – but it was a treat.
The windmill tower also looks out over what appeared to be an abandoned airfield as well as the nature reserve. I could see a couple of ancient Harriers and some other curious airframes in the distance, but there was no sign of activity. An information board on the viewing platform told something of the airfield’s history; a little research revealed more. RAF Predannack was opened in May 1941 and variously hosted Hawker Hurricanes, Bristol Beaufighters, Westland Whirlwinds and De Havilland Mosquitoes, plus Vickers Wellingtons and Consolidated Liberators on U-boat patrol. American aircraft also used the airfield, both as a handy emergency landing place and as a re-fuelling stop before heading South across the Bay of Biscay and on to North Africa – including Douglas C47 Skytrains (i.e. Dakotas) and Bell Airacobras. At the time of Operation Overlord – D-day – a wing of Mark IX Spitfires was stationed at Predannack, whose job was to protect the assembling invasion convoy at nearby Falmouth. This list means of course that during the Second World War The Lizard must have been among the best places in Britain to be a small boy. Predannack had, if not everything, certainly a selection of the best.
In 1946, with the war over, the airfield was more or less closed, until it was taken over by the Royal Navy in 1958. The Navy continue to use it even now, as a satellite airfield to nearby RNAS Culdrose – but only for fire-extinguishing and aircraft-crash-rescue practice. Hence the old Harriers and the curious airframes. RNAS Culdrose lies at the top of the Lizard peninsular and the main road runs beside its imposing military fence for some distance. We glimpsed a few of its helicopters as we passed. Exactly what types they were I couldn’t say. My helicopter identification skills are minimal, and I didn’t have a field guide. Probably Sea Kings; maybe Merlins. I would have spent more time there myself, observing, but the family preferred other to do things.
At the end of our holiday, on our way home, we visited the city of Truro, Cornwall’s County Town, and only city. In the days of my Airfix kit childhood I constructed a City of Truro, but this was the steam locomotive, not the town. It is famous for being the first steam engine to achieve 100 miles per hour – on a run from Plymouth to Paddington, in 1904. It now resides in the National Railway Museum in York. The original, I mean, not my Airfix kit. Anyway, never having been to Truro, and knowing that it possessed a cathedral, I insisted we visit.
England’s gothic cathedrals are among its most precious jewels. Begun by the Normans, constructed and reconstructed through the 11th to 13th Centuries, they still dominate their cities, from Canterbury to Durham, from Exeter to Carlisle. (I should also mention Winchester here, as that’s our ‘home’ cathedral. Salisbury’s pretty good too). I never fail to check out a cathedral whenever the opportunity arises.
It was a surprise to discover that Truro Cathedral was only begun in 1880.
Fortunately this was at the height of the Victorian Gothic Revival and the Cathedral is faithfully modelled on its mediaeval predecessors. Its entrance façade sports two spired towers and a magnificent rose window. Its central tower and spire, as is customary, reach for the heavens. The interior is fan vaulted throughout. Its greatest glory, however, is its main organ (oddly, it has three) – the Father Willis Organ of 1887. The great assemblage of its pipes hang high above the choir stalls beneath the rise of the great perpendicular arches, echoing the piping of the colossal cluster columns that support the central tower.
Church organs are, of course, a specialist subject. This is evident from the Wikipedia description of the instrument. It apparently has ‘tierce mixtures on Great and Swell, characterful gedackts on the Choir, and a small but telling pedal division’. I am not in a position either to confirm or deny this description.
The organ was restored in 1963, by Mr Willis’ grandson. He kept his restoration to the minimum, but one significant thing he did do was move the organist’s console from up in the gods and among the pipes to a position where the organist could actually hear what the choir were up to. Well there you are. You can’t get everything right first time.