VISITORS TO ZENNOR, FAMOUS AND INFAMOUS
Pytheas the Greek merchant and explorer left the first foreigner’s written account of Cornwall about 330 BC, describing the people as civilised farmers, usually peaceable but ferocious in battle. That sounds accurate for Zennor over 2000 years later!
It’s likely that, after the Romans and Phoenicians ceased to trade tin and copper, few people visited Zennor, inland transport being extremely hazardous. However the village had it’s own indigenous poet, Henry Quick (1792 – 1857) who wrote all his life, mostly about crimes and calamities. In 1836, he published ‘Life and Progress’ in 89 verses. These, he said were “rugged verses for the countryside. However, the magical attractions of the landscape and ancient monuments in this particular bit of the countryside always drew scholars to even so remote a spot. John Thomas Blight, (1835-1911) Cornish artist, archaeologist and writer made an exquisite illustration of the mermaid bench end in 1859 for his book, ‘A Week at the Lands End.’ Its publication coincided with a visit by the famous Shakespearean scholar James Orchard Halliwell (1820 -1889) who, with his family dried his rain-soaked stockings by the furze fire next to a baby in its wooden cradle in a house in Zennor Churchtown. He later published ‘Rambles in Cornwall by the Footsteps of the Giants.’
What allowed a trickle of scholars like Halliwell to visit Zennor in ever increasing numbers, was the opening of the Tamar Bridge in 1859 providing a direct link between London and Cornwall for the first time. The railway’s ‘trickle’ in the mid- nineteenth century became a positive flood with the coming of the motor car in the early twentieth.
W. H Hudson, (1841 -1922) writer and naturalist, stayed in Zennor in December- January 1906-7 gathering material for his book ‘Land’s End – A Naturalist’s Impressions of West Cornwall’. He gave a memorable account of a winter storm across Zennor Hill – “Now it seemed to me, out there in spirit on the hill that the darkest imaginings of men… was not so dark as this dreadful unintelligible and unintelligent power that made us, in which we live and move and have our being.”
The critic and mountaineer Sir Leslie Stephen (1832 – 1904) owned Talland House in St Ives from 1881 – 1896. He played host to many literary friends and was often to be seen, “gangling and prehensile,” climbing at the Gurnard’s Head. Several of his circle began to gravitate to Zennor. In December 1915, the poet and novelist D. H. Lawrence (1885 -1930) came to live in the village with his German wife Frieda, initially at the Tinners’ Arms before renting three cottages at higher Tregerthen for four shillings a week. He completed ‘Women in Love ‘ there. Lawrence loved Zennor. He wrote: “It is a most beautiful place, a tiny village nestling under high, shaggy moorhills, a big sweep of lovely sea beyond, such lovely sea, lovelier than the Mediterranean… It is the best place I have been in.”
Lawrence hoped to found a Utopian farming and writing colony with writer Katherine Mansfield and the critic, John Middleton Murray at Higher Tregerthen, which Lawrence called ‘Rananim’. They, and other bohemians like Cecil Gray (1895 – 1951) and Philip Heseltine (a.k.a. Peter Warlock) (1894 – 1930) and their mistresses came to try it out, but arguments and disharmony erupted between the couples. Katherine wrote in a letter, “ I hate games where people lose their tempers… it’s so witless… And I shall never see sex in trees, sex in the running brooks, sex in stones and sex in everything.” Mansfield and Murray soon moved to Mylor. “It (Zennor) is not a really nice place,” Mansfield wrote… “so full of huge stones.”
Meanwhile local people were deeply suspicious of the Lawrences. It was wartime and Frieda was related to the German air-ace, the ‘Red Baron’. Thought to be spies, after two years they were forced to leave, following police searches in October 1917. The trauma of their departure influenced the nightmare chapter in ‘Kangaroo’, (1923) Other works Lawrence wrote in Zennor were ‘The Rainbow’, ‘Manifesto, and ‘Look, We Have Come Through’. Frieda described his sadness at leaving: “His very soul seemed to have sunk into that Cornwall, that wild place under the moors, and now he must tear himself out.”
Sir Leslie Stephen’s daughter was the novelist, Virginia, (1882 – 1941) who became Virginia Woolf by her marriage to the eminent scholar, Leonard Woolf. Her childhood holidays at Talland House made a profound impression on her, and in 1919 they rented Lawrence’s cottages from a Captain Short, but it isn’t clear how long they stayed there. They certainly lodged with a Mrs Hoskings in Zennor in 1921. Virginia wrote – “This is the loveliest place in the world. It is so lonely.” Her acclaimed novel, ‘To the Lighthouse,’ though written in the Hebrides, is all about St Ives Bay.
One of Woolf’s closest friends in the glittering Bloomsbury Group was Katherine (Ka) Cox (1887- 1938). She had endured a turbulent and tortured love affair with the poet Rupert Brooke that was finally terminated by his death in 1915 on his way to Gallipoli. In 1918 she married Will Arnold-Foster (1886 – 1951) and they moved to Eagle’s Nest, Zennor. Will, a great-nephew of Matthew Arnold, was an idealistic politician, painter, writer and gardener. At Eagle’s Nest he created a magnificent garden, planted with rare specimens from all over the world – from white grass from New Zealand to lantern trees from China. His book, derived from his work in Zennor, ‘Shrubs for the Milder Counties,’ published in 1948, is still considered a horticultural classic.’
1938 the famous stage and film actor Robert Newton, who had grown up in Lamorna, bought a dwelling on Gear Farm in Zennor, intending to do it up. The start of the Second World War put the renovation on hold and the unwelcome attentions of the Inland Revenue forced him to sell the bungalow at the end of hostilities. It’s not certain how much time he spent at Gear, but his colourful presence is gleefully remembered and it surely boosted the takings of The Gurnard’s Head and The Tinners’ Arms.
During the war, Eagle’s Nest continued to play host to other more unexpected, celebrities, including the Emperor Haile Selassie, forced from his throne in Ethiopia by the invasion of the country by Mussolini.
While the conflict put lives everywhere on hold, the late ‘forties and ‘fifties saw the flow of artists and writers to Zennor speed up again.
Many people have been exhilarated by the wildness of Zennor, but the poet John Heath Stubbs (1918 – 2006) found no peace here, writing of a “wicked country sloping to hateful sunsets and the end of time.” Stubbs lived in a coastguard cottage at the Gurnard’s Head in the 1950s, with friends including the poet George Barker. Another arrival at Treen in 1955 was William Sydney Graham, (1918 – 1986) originally from Greenock. He had just published a major volume of poetry, ‘The Nightfishing’. He and his wife Nessie were desperately poor, often surviving on whelks and mussels from the cove below the Gurnards Head. His reputation as a poet has continued to grow since his death in Madron in 1986.
Meanwhile, on the visual front the poets were joined by several artists. Bryan Wynter (1915 – 1975) was a friend of W.S. Graham, and at the beginning almost as poor, struggling to make a living from his vibrant paintings. He settled at Carn Cottage. In 1960 the painter Alethea Garstin (1894 -1978) moved to the house next door to Eagle’s Nest and painted there until she died in 1978. Patrick Heron (1920 – 1999) called her “the greatest living Impressionist painter.” Heron had worked at the Leach Pottery and had spent many summers in Cornwall, and had, in 1956, moved with his family to live permanently – at Eagle’s Nest where he had stayed as a child in 1927 and 1928. From this majestic position overlooking Zennor, he not only painted great paintings, but worked tirelessly to protect the landscape and heritage of West Penwith until his death in 1999.
A very large collection of books relating to Zennor can be found in the Celtic Collection of the Morrab Library in Morrab Gardens, Penzance. It is an independent library founded in 1818. Annual membership is £25.00.
Selina Bates & Keith Spurgin, 2006. The Dust of Heroes. The life of Cornish artist, archaeologist & writer John Thomas Blight
Cornwall County Council, 1992. Cornwall’s Literary Trails
C. G. Harper, 1910. The Cornish Coast (North)
R. Thurston Hopkins, 1926. The Literary Landmarks of Devon & Cornwall
Paul Newman, 2005. The Tregerthen Horror
The Peninsula Voice Interviews, 1993. Eighty from the Eighties.
Mark Penrose, 2014. Apologise Later: The Biography of Robert Newton
P.A.S. Pool, 1977. A Cornish farmer’s Diary
Maurice Smelt, 2006. 101 Cornish Lives
Peter Stanier, 1992. Cornwall’s Literary Heritage.
Alison Symons, 1992. Tremedda Days
C. E. Vulliamy, 1925. Unknown Cornwall