The Spirit of Morwen, Pilgrimage & a Witches Brew of Memories

The Spirit of Morwen, Pilgrimage & a Witches Brew of Memories

Sea dragons, merry maids, sea witches and tempestuous seas are part of the lure of the otherworldly North Cornwall coastline. Artists, writers & poets have thrived and taken inspiration from its raw, and sometimes terrifying beauty. Its wildness & unpredictability is not for everyone but for myself it is part of that westward pull that has taken me from St Kilda to Kerry, from St David’s to St Just.

Searching for Morwen, Duckpool Beach, N Cornwall

November storms are sometimes exhilarating, often brutal, air howling as the elements boil in a brew of violence and confusion. According to local lore the sea witches once sold wind charms in a three knotted cord and danced high above the shrieking sea.

They tie three knots on a string at a whip. When they loose one of these they raise tolerable winds. When they loose another, the wind is more vehement. But by loosing the third, they raise plain tempests, as in old times they were accustomed to raise thunder and lightening.’ R. Eden. 1577

The day after one such maelstrom three friends made a long journey west, seeking respite and rest away from politics and pandemic. And maybe they found it for a while along the rocky coastline of North Cornwall amongst the rocks and high cries of seabirds.

Of course the open fire in an old mill cottage, books, welsh gin and sea-salt chocolate helped…

The three friends settled down to wandering and wondering along the lonely valleys and cliffs of this place their feet following unseen footsteps from the past…

Many have walked and dreamed in the wind soaked mists of the northern coastline of Cornwall. Each had their reason; seeking inspiration perhaps, maybe solace and solitude. Saints, artists, poets, writers, pilgrims and storytellers have walked here but the dark sea is also a graveyard. Sailors, fisherfolk, victims of wrecked ships and those who could not bear to live in this world. (The phone number of the Samaritans is etched onto a rock high on the cliffs above St Morwen’s well at Morwenstow, a poignant reminder of those who have jumped or who have felt like it).

Cliffs above St Morwenna’s wellhouse

In the Middle Ages pilgrims passed this way on their journey to Santiago de Compostela. They sailed from St David’s in Wales to Clovelly in North Devon, travelling along the coastline before travelling south to the port down at Fowey. Here they boarded a ship to Spain. Along the way they found rest and food at hostelries run by the local monks such as the Bush Inn near the church at Morwenstow. The present building dates from the 13th century complete with ancient piscina behind the bar, and a small window thought to be a lepers squint.

Hundreds of years earlier tales tell how Morwenna, the patron saint of this parish, sailed here from Ireland. The Cornish lists of saints say that Morwenna, or Morwen, was one of the many daughters of the Welsh King Brychan Brycheiniog. Morwenna (in Welsh, Morwyn) is said to have been born c 480 CE leaving Wales to take religious instruction in Ireland. She then crossed the Severn Sea and built a hermitage at Hennacliff (the Raven’s Crag) now known as Morwenstow (OE ‘The holy place of Morwenna).

In certain weather conditions you can see Wales from the cliffs at Morwenstow. One story tells how Morwenna’s brother, St Nectan, lifted her head on her deathbed so she could look across the sea to Wales.

High above the still raging sea the three friends spent an afternoon in the wind and salt sullied air searching for Morwenna’s well.

The coastal path is undulating and rather terrifying in places and the medieval well house of Morwenna is inaccessible now due to cliff erosion. A path climbs back up along the little stream coursing down towards the cliff. This clearly feeds the old well. Ash and hazel line its banks amongst twisted oaks bent by the wind. Fronds of bracken and soft lichens add to the luminous otherworldly glow of the sunlight that reflects through the autumn leaves above. The path climbs upwards leading directly to Morwenstow Rectory.

The three friends were walking in the footsteps of the old rectory’s famous occupant, the Reverend Robert Stephen Hawker of Morwenstow.

Hawker was an antiquarian, an eccentric, writer, folklorist and a lover of nature. He collected folklore and local traditions, dressed in purple and took his cats to service with him (except for the puss he excommunicated for bringing a mouse into church). Hawker once dressed up as a mermaid appearing upon the rocks down at St Bude one evening. He sang and wailed while reflecting moonbeams off a mirror, according to antiquarian and writer Baring Gould. After a few nights he got bored so he stood on a rock, gave a rousing chorus of God Save the King to the astonished onlookers and swam off.

Much has been written and said about Reverend Hawker. Not all is true, some is exaggerated and some forgotten. Nevertheless this man made a huge impact on his congregation and the local community. He was compassionate and kind man who kept a look out for ships in trouble and gave drowned sailors a Christian burial (sailors were often left where they washed up). he is still known for his poems and hymns including Cornwall’s ‘Song of Western Men‘. Hawker introduced a church celebration of harvest, the ‘harvest festival. This replaced the more ‘traditional’ revels which were increasingly frowned upon due to the drunken disorder and general mayhem that accompanied them but that’s another story.

Reverend Hawker had a long and personal attachment to saint Morwenna who he said he spoke with on occasion. When Baring Gould disputed her burial at Morwenstow Hawker replied

‘What! Morwenna not lie in the holy place at Morwenstow! Of that you will never persuade me – no never. I know that she lies here. I have seen her, and she has told me as much; and at her feet ere long I hope to lay my old bones.’

S. Baring Gould, The Vicar of Morwenstow, p. 27.

The Church of St Morwenna and St John the Baptist at Morwenstow is ancient, captivating in its otherworldliness. Its origins are possibly Saxon and is important for the richness of the remaining Romanesque sculpture. Some of the church dates back to the 12th century.

Amongst the chevrons and other geometric designs inside the church are finely carved beakheads and animals heads. They would once have been bathed in colour and candlelight as the Atlantic roared and slammed into the cliffs below. The incense and litany curling and twisting around them, the eyes of the saints glittering as they watched the congregation while sea serpents arched their backs as their sailed past Boscastle on the north wind.

Today it still retains a strange and liminal atmosphere.

So they walked silently around this ancient place of life and death wrapped in dense memories of dust and time passing…

There is certainly a strong sense of place here. It feels powerful, ancient, mysterious and profound. It can also feel inaccessible which is maybe part of its allure. Hawker was clearly moved by this landscape. High on the edge of the cliff he built a hut from wood salvaged from shipwrecks. Tiny and secluded, here he would look out for any ships in trouble, smoke opium and write his poems. There it remains today covered in graffiti and belongs to the National Trust.

A little further down the coast is the hamlet of Coombe. Coombe lies in the lea of two sweeping hills that seem to cradle the valley beyond the distant bellowing sea as it crashes onto Duckpool Beach.

Just down from Hawker’s Bridge there is a mill in the valley where the three friends made their home for a few days.

It was to Coombe that a group of artists came to stay last century along with their families. They came each summer and stayed at the old mill cottages. This was the Brotherhood of Ruralists, a group of British painters inspired by the British landscape and their love of nature. Some of these painters were dear to one of the three friends and she held their memory close to her heart in the old orchard by the old silent mill.

Because here you can breathe.

We could breathe. The three friends slipped between the pages of old almanacs and reminiscences, sipping warm chocolate, smelling of wood smoke. Here they retreated after mornings beachcombing with sea salt in their hair, draping windows sills with mermaids purses, sea shells, bladder wrack and sea stones. And in the evenings the gin tasted smoother and the songs sounded sweeter than at home in a witches brew of memories, pilgrims and the spirit of Morwen.

The Brotherhood of Ruralists at Coombe by Ann Arnold (1977). in the orchard by the mill at Coombe, North Cornwall

For further information on the Ruralists see

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MDL_7jqb40E&ab_channel=LostMeadowGallery

For more information about Hawkers Hut see

https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/morwenstow

Also see

The Vicar of Morwenstow by S. Baring-Gould, First in print 1899

King of Dust by Alex Woodcock (Little Toller Books) 2019

From Granite to Sea. The Folklore of Bodmin Moor & East Cornwall by Alec Langstone (Troy Books) 2018

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