Albion, ancient sites, Art, TOLL, travel

A Thousand Miles of History: The chapel on the Cape

We drove through St Just this time, looking for a site we wanted to see before the day was done. Fortuitously, we took the wrong road out of town and ended up on the hills above the sea at Cape Cornwall. The headland juts out into the Atlantic and, on a sunny day with time to spare, would have been the perfect place for an afternoon’s exploration. As it was, our visit was necessarily brief, and our main aim was to locate the place we really wanted to see.

Even so, the Cape warrants a mention. It is, above all, incredibly beautiful. The old Cornish name for Cape Cornwall was Kilgoodh Ust, which means the “goose back of St Just” and that is a perfect description of the shape of the land. Below us Priest Cove welcomed the waves. Beyond its shores are the Brisons… twin islets known as An Gribow, the reefs, in Cornish. The islets are a sanctuary for many seabirds but may be best known for looking like the reclining profile of General Charles De Gaulle.

The Cape has human history dating back to the earliest times. Burial cists dating back to the Bronze Age have been found there and yielded fragments of early pottery. The nearby headland of Kendijack is home to a cliff castle and indicates that the area was significant in the Iron Age…possibly for the ores that were found here and which provide the link to more recent history. The monument wreathed in mist that stands upon the summit is actually the chimney of the tin mine that closed in 1883. The mine was bought by the Heinz company in 1987 and donated to the nation. The chimney was left as both a memorial and a navigation aid to shipping, as more that a few ships have been wrecked on the rocks in Cornish waters… not all of them entirely by accident, as we would later find.

On the landward end of the headland are the remains of a small chapel which stands on a site of Christian worship thought to be one of the earliest in Cornwall, dating back to the Romano-British era. Little now remains of St Helen’s Oratory, the medieval chapel that replaced the earlier building and whose mysterious hollowed stone ‘font’ stands beside the font of the church in St Just. The empty shell is open to wind and weather, yet it still bears an ancient cross on its gable. It is not the original cross… that was lost long ago. A stone, possibly from the earlier chapel, was found there in the middle of the nineteenth century by the vicar of St Just, John Buller. The stone was carved with the Chi-rho symbol and dated to the fourth or fifth century. He took the stone back to the vicarage, but his successor, for some unknown reason, threw it down the well in the garden…and it has never been recovered.

Here too, though, is more recent history. The gravestone visible in the chapel precinct marks the grave of Donald Arthur Payne, who was a farmer at Nanpean Farm. He was responsible for building the Cape Cornwall Golf Course and was buried here in 1995.

Much of Cornwall’s coastline remains unspoiled by modern tourist attractions and money-making facilities. Here it is the air and the sound of waves, the profusion of wildflowers and the cry of gulls that attracts the visitor. It is the beauty of an azure ocean, the silent sea-mist that engulfs the land and the life in the rocks that calls to the heart. There is never enough time. Were I to spend the rest of my life there, I would not have enough time, enough words or skill to do it justice. All you can do is be there and feel the place and its peace. For us, the day was coming to a close… our first day in Cornwall… but there were still places to see before the day ended, and one was just over the next hill. As the mist rolled in once more from the sea, we were back on the road, seeking a fairy mound and an unexpected adventure…

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