Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/St. Columb and the north-west coast of Cornwall

Once a Week, Series 1, Volume VII  (1862) 
St. Columb and the north-west coast of Cornwall
by George Frederic Jackson

Illustrated by Henry George Hine.


St. Columb,—in the language of the “Universal Gazetteer,” to which I have referred,—is a market town in the north-western district of Cornwall; “a place somewhat decayed and fallen now, though in ancient times of more than considerable importance.” “It takes its name (it would appear) from that Virgin of Sennes in Gallia,” Martyr of the Primitive Church, about A.D. 300, whose story, though omitted by Mrs. Jameson, in her volumes of “Sacred and Legendary Art,” may be found “enshrined in any of the old French books of the Saints.” I may add, perhaps, as of my own knowledge, that it is a very beautiful story; nor wanting (as very few of these stories are) in a deep meaning of its own; or, at all events, some moral, useful enough for every day purposes, which those who will seek for themselves, may easily find out.

It is probably out of respect for the legend above referred to, in commemoration of “the sacred bird” itself—the celestial carrier pigeon, not to speak profanely, who “comforted the maiden as she lay a-dying from hunger and thirst,”—bringing her messages, so it is said, from heaven, and beating “both at morn and eventide,” with pure white wings against her prison bars,—that the inhabitants of this little town cherish so many of the ornithological family of the Columbidæ among their household pets. I noted the fact as we entered it along the Bodmin road, one afternoon in the month of August last. I noted it less pleasantly, and in a less philosophical spirit of quiet observation, when my slumbers were broken in upon at an early hour on the following morning, by a low monotonous murmur, sounding in my ears, and repeated with dreary iteration over and over again, the origin of which, for a moment or two, I could not make out. But when I did, you may be sure that I thought it rather an additional aggravation of my discomfort, than otherwise, to remember that the murmur in question should be spoken of in poetry, as the “sweet voice” of the stock-dove, and elsewhere as “the pigeon’s soothing call.”

We had been to Castle-an-Dinas the day before—I, and the inevitable fellow tourist without whom I never travel. We had passed I know not how many hours, taking it out of ourselves after the most approved fashion: clambering about Cornish rocks and tolmens, and up and down Cornish hills: anon falling down steep places, and picking ourselves up again, and exhausting ourselves, by various adventures, along the Cornish roads.

This Castle-an-Dinas, you must know, is an old intrenched camp, with the ruins of a fortress or keep, in the neighbourhood of St. Columb. It is well worth a visit, if for no other reason, at all events because the common tradition of the country-side has associated it with the name of the Laureate’s hero:—

The selfless man, and stainless gentleman,

King Arthur. “It is seated,” says an old local antiquary, whom I have consulted, “on the top of a pyramidal hill. It consists of about six acres of ground, within three circles or entrenchments. The latter are composed of turf and unwrought stones, after the ancient British fashion,” the said fashion being that which may be seen in any common hedge. “These circles rise about eight feet above each other respectively, towards the centre of the castle, the area of this centre being about an acre and a half of land.” (Note the particularity of this description.) “In the midst appears the remains of an inner keep, as well as the ruins of some older buildings” (these are very ruinous “ruins” indeed now!), “and near these is a flat vallum, pit or tank, wherein rain or cloud-water that falls down from the middle regions abides more or less in quantity, as it falls one half of the year; which, I suppose, heretofore supplied the knights’ and soldiers’ occasions; as there is no fountain, spring, or river-water within a thousand paces distance thereof. There were, it appears, moreover,” my author goes on to say, “two gates or portals, leading up to the castle itself; the one on the east, the other on the west side thereof; which” (he meant, I suppose, the latter) “conducts you by a stony causeway, now covered with grass, up and down the hill towards Tre-kynging,—that is to say, the King’s, Prince’s, or Ruler’s Tower.” Now there is a malice prepense in that videlicet of the worthy antiquaries. The Tre-kynging here spoken of by him, and in this invidious manner, is a somewhat dilapidated village at the foot of the castle hill. The only thing interesting about it, in my eyes, being, I confess, the detached portion of rock lying near it, and which goes, even to this day, by the name of “King Arthur’s Stone.” The tradition indeed asserts that “certain marks resembling the imprint of four horse-shoes upon it,” were “the result of a leap taken by the courser of the monarch,” at the period when the latter “resided at Castle Dinas,” and “was accustomed to hunt each morning over the Goss Moor,” which, when seated on the green encampment, one sees stretching like an impalpable pale blue mist “beyond.” It was here, perhaps, that

On a day, he sitting high in hall,
Before him came a forester of Dean,

The name is common enough in the neighbourhood—

Wet from the woods, with notice of a hart,
Taller than all his fellows, milky-white,
First seen that day: these things he told the king.
Then the good king gave order to let blow
His horn for hunting on the morrow morn!

Dilapidated as Tre-kynging is, however, our friend would see in it the remains of a royal city—perhaps even, despite all the received opinions upon the subject, of Camelot itself, for is not the river Camel “within walking distance?” (All antiquaries are not necessarily good pedestrians, but the present one seems to have been such.) His chain of argument, deduced from his own interpretation of the appellative above mentioned, is something like this—“Was it not the custom in early times for towns to spring up in the neighbourhood of the great man, the ‘chief ruler’s’ residence, who in fact gave the townspeople his protection in return for sundry other advantages? Even Blackstone, in his Commentaries, states so much of their origin. Well then, if having stated the signification of Tre-kynging to be what it is, I further add, from what particular study of what particular philology I do not choose to say, that Castle-an-Dinas means no other than ‘the Palace of the King,’ is not that, to say the least, a singular coincidence?” Now you see what I meant by calling that former interpretation of his invidious. Peace to his ashes, the amiable enthusiast! not less interested in the records of Lyonnesse than is Alfred Tennyson himself. Peace to his ashes, I say; for I find, on consulting his title page, that he must have been dead—become converted into a subject for antiquarian research himself—a hundred years and more ago now. Yet I think if he had been alive in these days—which you will observe is not my expression, but one of Carlyle’s, applied to his own peculiar Dry-as-dust—I could have helped him with some little additional information, or at all events, to some new suggestions, I do not say whether valuable or not, in this matter.

Bedruthan Steps, near St. Columb. (See p. 532.)

In the old romaunt of the Life and Death of King Arthur (and my readers may refer to the English edition which Mr. Wright has recently so ably edited), Sir Dinas is the knight who is described as the “Kings Seneschal or warder”—Constable of the Tower, in fact, to his Majesty, as we now say. If then the ghost of our worthy inquirer takes a pleasure in such discussions, in whatever region of the departed he may abide, I would respectfully suggest to him—may not the title of Castle-an-Dinas have meant simply the Castle of Dinas and no more? the place in fact bearing the name of the knight who was its ex-officio governor? And in that case I may be permitted perhaps to mention another not unimportant circumstance. The more famous Castle of Tintagel,

Of dark Dundagil by the Cornish sea,

is only a few miles distant, about nine or ten, according to the Ordnance map. In the romaunt, after the Duke of Cornwall has received, at the hands of the Prophet, the notification of the circumstances which are to precede the birth of the great mediæval hero, it is said “When the Duke had this warning, anon he went and furnished and garnished two strong castles of his, of the whilke the ane was Tyntagell, and the other called Terrabylle. So his wife, Dame Igrayne, hee put into the Castle of Tyntagell, and hee put hymself into the Castle Terrabylle, which had many issues and posterns out. Then in alle haste came Uther withe a greate hoaste and layde a siege about this Castle Terrabylle,” whose locality Mr. Wright professes himself unable to identify. And a little further on it is added that Merlin being at the latter place with the King, speaks of Tintagel as “but ten miles hence.” What is the inference then, the one which as distinguished from any others I have referred to, I am anxious should be drawn from these passages, but that this “old entrenched camp near St. Columb” was originally the “fortresse hight Terrabylle” itself? known only in later times, as I have suggested, by the name of the seneschal or governor who ruled it after “this whole Kingdom of Cornwaille” had fallen into the “king’s” hands?

Is this speaking not merely in the cause of “old romance” itself, but of the history of which it is very doubtless, as Arnold has taught us, the foundation—altogether an unprofitable inquiry? At least I am sure that the beatified opponent whom I am more particularly addressing at this moment, will admit my references as valid, if not my deductions from them; for does he not himself appeal on one occasion, and in these very pages before me, to “the unimpeachable testimony of the Romaunts of the Round Table?”

Meanwhile I am telling you nothing of my reasons for visiting St. Columb in the first place. It was not, let me state, that I might be enabled to give my readers this theory about Castle-an-Dinas, which is not a pet one, and of which, indeed, I had never thought until this present moment. Neither was it to speculate, or in any way to concern myself, about the histories of any other of the many interesting antiquities which are scattered at random in the neighbourhood. Mysterious rumours had reached us up yonder in the great Babylon of glorious coast scenery (which some more daring adventurer in this terra incognita of the extreme west had stumbled upon by accident) within three or four miles of “St. Columb Town;” scenery surpassing, so it was said, anything we had yet seen, either at Ilfracombe or the Land’s End; of which latter place I notice, by the bye, that it has got itself as much written about of late as even the Oberland and Chamouni have done, or even the haunts of Baden-Baden.

On the morning of the day succeeding our visit to Castle-an-Dinas it had been arranged accordingly that our first visit to the coast should be paid. I was stirring so early, however, in consequence of the circumstance I have before narrated, and of the restlessness resulting from it, that I had time to visit the stately house amidst beautiful grounds, built by the present rector of St. Columb for the future Bishop of Cornwall (whenever Lord Palmerston may consent to his appointment), and be back at the breakfast-table before my companion made her appearance. Finally, it was about nine o’clock—the “harvest-ripening sun” shining out of a cloudless sky—when we started. The road from the town for a mile or two wound through deep lanes differing, as we found, somewhat from those which we had recently been traversing of the sister county. Oh, the pleasantness of the latter! may it be permitted to a modest Devonian, loving his native soil not the less though he treads it now so seldom, to observe? Oh, the delight of following their devious ways, purposeless, as he has done ere now, for the whole of a live-long day in the summers which are no more; ways that led past queer little villages and quaint homesteads, and skirted round patches of heather, and ran through brooks, and dived deep down into plantations of fir and pine, in the most absurd and eccentric manner; now running right up on end with distant glimpses of field and churchyard and meadow, and the great moor, mounted up against the far grey sky, like the waves of a silent sea, ridge after ridge cut sharp against the clear, cold light, and rolling away in glorious curve after curve, crested with foam-like granite, till the eye lost in looking at them all sense of boundary or distance; or anon tumbling precipitously down into cuttings of dark red clay, where it was almost twilight at three o’clock in the afternoon, and the red leaves (if it were autumn) dropped silently on the rain-flushed brook, that seemed to take them up very tenderly and carefully, and conveyed them away with a low dirge-like music, and a chant which no man could understand, over beds of grey lias and shale, to a grave in some quiet solitude or far-off western sea. Such are the lanes of Devonshire—such as I the present writer remember and know them—such as, surely in no spirit of cynicism, they are compared to matrimony’s “most holy and comfortable estate.” Those of Cornwall, as I have said, are of somewhat different characteristics—or, at least, those were with which we became acquainted on the present occasion. Somewhat unvarying, I should say, in those characteristics, and in the even tenour of their way not without a certain monotony. Yet pleasant enough, nevertheless; shut over by towering elm and tall cedar—places, at any rate, cool and calm, and of a very grateful depth of shade. It may be true, indeed, as my companion remarks, that these green tunnels through which we are passing will become mere ruts on the country-side in winter, and as such hateful alike to horse and man; but, doubtless also, they have their charm now, in these summer hours, with that faint under-murmur which ripples through their arches—the stir and rustle and hum which is coupled, in my mind at least, with the sweet sense of all that manifold change and growth, and life as various as the stars in heaven, which is going on around us. Here and there on the deep hedges are patches of the white wood Orchis lingering still, and the rarer bunches of the great Campanula—rarer, that is, in Cornwall—stand up,

Pealing soft incense from each pendent bell,—

the birds—surely I saw the pied fly-catcher (Muscicapa atracapilla) among them—flit in and out amidst the foliage; and, through the twisted branches, fall, now and again, wreaths of the sunlight at our feet; while, listen, for the best part of the way, a little brook steals on singing to itself by the roadside, half hidden in graceful masses of the tall Osmunda, which in such profusion I have never seen before, and the no less graceful though slighter fronds of the delicate lady-fern.

Entrance to Cavern, near St. Columb.

Soon we quit the lanes, however, and leaving the beautiful valley of Llanherne, with its convent embosomed in the quiet of century-old trees, on our right hand, come out on a broad patch of moorland, with the pink and white and purple Erica piled up on the low sandy banks, which are the only boundaries upon either side of the track way; the Blechnum shooting its green spikes in profusion, and long trails of the honey-suckle drooping from no one can say where. A few steps further and a lifting of the horizon, with a breath of fresher air coming at the same moment—a filling as it were of new vigour—suddenly ensued, and at once the sea bursts upon our view, gleaming, rolling, fading far away into the distance, of that deep pure beautiful colour, the true ultra-marine tint, which only a Cornish sea, so far as I know, possesses, and which Mr. Hook, as I think, alone among artists, can paint. The day, it should have been stated, has been hot and sultry enough hitherto, and, with a sort of obstinate patience of its sultriness have we been toiling for the last hour along the buried lanes; but now, as if cheered at that prospect, it is not only at an accelerated but with an exhilaration in our pace that we make through an enclosure or two for the open downs beyond. Across the beds of sea-pink, decaying generation upon generation for these hundreds of years past, our feet sinking deeper in its soft cushions at every step we take, until we stand at the cliff-edge. A most glorious coast truly, glorious and more glorious (exclaims the more enthusiastic of the two), and then we gazed in silence. Have I not said, or at least hinted, that we were both of us somewhat of experienced voyageurs, had travelled and seen much, and read of a great deal more? yet I grant the most patriotic Cornubian at once that nowhere, at no time, had we looked on a scene like this. Twenty miles of cliff, a hundred of rolling water outspread before us—a score or more of lesser bays, each with their own golden sands and gleaming promontory indented within the embrace of the one noble bay. Let me particularise a little. Far away to the left as we gaze is Newquay—quaint little fishing village, or town is it?—perched far out on its own headland, its whitewashed walls shining as even the “body” . so loved of Churchwardens will shine in the sun. Then comes another headland between us and it, but this time bare and lonely, and with nothing of the feeling of humanity which even those distant houses give; and then the same, or what looks like it; each enclosing the same quiet space of water, and each with the same “wild sea-light” about its feet. Then these are repeated over and over again, I know not how many times, in the sweeps, (lessening towards us gradually,) of that grand curve in the centre of whose arc we stand. This is the view on that side. We turn—and again the coast line rushing outward in the same reckless, abrupt way:—rugged, weather stained, beaten; of every imaginable line it spreads before us—point after point sinking in softer and softer outline; the view bounded at last, on this hand also, by one long, low, grey cape, on which is a lonely lighthouse seen like “a white-winged angel,” says my companion, against the deep, pure blue sky. Behind that latter point are Padstow and Tintagel, for these are the “thundering shores” not of “Bude” but of “Bos,” which lie before us. “A glorious coast”—Yes! and almost ceasing to be terrible in the peaceful quiet which is over it all now. Peaceful, pleasant enough truly, with the waters gleaming in the sunlight yonder, rippling with a faint, low music around the level sand; the soft shadows, purple, fleeting, and mysterious, chasing each other adown the precipices; the purple, crimson, and cream-coloured “lady’s fingers” (varieties known only in this county) blooming on the tall cliff edges; and the not less beautiful living flowers of the Antheacereus and crassicornis blossoming in the crystal pools down on the shore by the sea, while here and there the stately ships go softly gliding on into the distance, and the sailor lad is singing to himself in his boat far out on the quiet bay.

Of quite other aspect, however, in those dark December days, when “the storm has come up like a lion refreshed” out of the Atlantic which lies beyond and in under that faint sky line; and when the cruel north-easter is blowing inwards, scattering the wet shore-grasses and tearing the bindweed in its wrath. Nothing but a picture of the most metallic of “iron-bound coasts” then; mile after mile of its dark dreary length peering through grey glooms of the fog, and tracked only by the flying gleam of the cruel foam at its feet; with no perceptible break in the long unwavering sternness for those who watch it from seaward, and no hope for the mariner who sees it lying on his lee. No hope, I say, for at the height of the tide, or when such a north-easter is blowing, the water reaches and climbs far up the cliff foot. But the tide is falling now. We can walk for miles along these sands, which we see stretching like a strip of yellow light between the blue of the sea and the darker shadows cast by the rocks themselves. Let us go down and see the “mighty being”—who, for all he wears so smooth a face now, toying with the shore yonder, is yet

And doth with his e——awake,
And doth with his eternal motion make
A sound like thunder everlastingly,—

closer. There has a rude path of steps been cut out of the solid rock just here. Take care as you round this corner of foot-broad rock, however, at about a third of the descent, for if you slip you will fall 150 feet to the beach below. We are down without accident, and I know not from which point of view the cliffs look the nobler. Their front is all torn and seamed and ragged from the action of the sea. You can see where it has reached a great wave here in one place, and has torn the smooth face of the slate as if with a tiger’s claw. Fierce and stern as seem these giant walls guarding the green lowland pastures we came through this morning, they are gradually falling before these attacks. The soft rocks, slate, and the less vitreous composites—of which for the most part they are composed—are worn into honeycombs. There are caverns, dark clefts, and curious “blow-holes” undermining them; passages penetrating hither and thither amidst their most seeming fastnesses, interlacing in tortuous bends and courses, and “running,” so says our guide (whom we purchased for sixpence in paper covers, illustrated), “in every direction.” Here and there, moreover, are lofty natural arches, Nature’s own glorious gothic, where the promontory has been worn quite through; and looking through and beyond these we catch beautiful vistas of heaving water and quiet sky. Here and there too, stooping our heads beneath some grey rock portal, or creeping on all fours through a rift, we find ourselves in lofty halls lit by a pale green reflected light from the entrance, or from crevices in the sides; halls so dim, so cool, so quiet, out of the glare and heat of the garish sun. That beautiful ever-green fern, the Asplenium marinum, we found growing in one of these, where it must be covered deep in salt water at every returning tide. But how to speak of the pools—isolated though profound enough some of them—which lie in these recesses, scooped only an hour or two ago, as is manifest, by the action of some current out of the clear shining sand? Or you may say, if you like, and are poetical, graven by old Oceanus himself, as a delicate compliment to the local Nereids (if there are any) ere he ebbed away this morning on his visit to other shores. Fit baths at least, I will grant you, they seem for these chaste ones—mulier formosa superne only—their waters so clear, so icy cold; so safe, so guarded, moreover, in the dim half light, and silent, save for that distant echoing thunder. For my part, though I am neither Nereid nor Triton, I know I would like to have such an exchange for the usual “tubbing” apparatus at hand on every morning of my life.

Natural Bridge, near St. Columb.

And so we wander on beneath the grey precipices, in the full sunlight, in the falling shadows, of a glorious August day. Sometimes, as we get further out towards the point or horn of the half-circle of coast which we have been traversing, we have to watch for such opportunity as the retreat of a wave affords us, in order to get round the outermost rocks of all. It is a critical moment when, the last smooth, oil-like flow of the preceding wave waxing thinner, the white curls of the next already beginning to be glassed in the moist sands below, we make our venture. Once or twice I, who am over-adventurous, am caught by the hissing water waist-high, but I cling to a rock till the feeling as if hundreds of pounds weight were pulling at my feet has passed away; and, in fact, I think I rather like the excitement of the situation than not. These essays have to be made as often as we reach a spot where the tide has not fallen far enough to suit our purpose, and nature has bored no arch for us, no crevice which we can creep through to the beach beyond. Now we discover the Maiden-hair growing far up in the rift of a detached mass of rock, and now we come upon the track of a seal at the mouth of one of the caves. In one place, the only point we have found a break, the central portion of the cliff opens back, on either hand, into a low alluvial valley; where the marigolds, as we are informed, in spring time burn like fiery stars amid the rank marsh-grasses; and out of this a famous trout-stream comes gliding, slipping down from musical waterbreak to waterbreak, and then away quietly over the yellow sands to the sea. This is Freshwater Bay. I wish I might venture another illustration, or indeed that I had it in my power to give you a series of careful “studies” by some more “eminent hand,” of the whole coast.

At last we reach that point, however, which is to be the ultimatum of our explorations for the day. This is Bedruthan Steps—why so called I know not; the bay which, among the aborigines of the district, at all events, is more famous than all the rest. Its peculiarity, its chief beauty, in fact, in the country people’s eyes, consists in the tall pinnacles of rock, which the sea, wearing away the softer strata in by-gone ages, has left standing isolated upon the sands here and there.

We sit down here at the foot of the cliff to rest after our scrambling, and to study the singular appearance of these pinnacles at our ease in the shade. We are alone; we have this wide expanse of rock and water all to ourselves. Nothing moves near us. Only a wide-winged cormorant comes dropping down the face of the cliff, and at our shout starts seaward, beating with grey wings against the horizon, and rapidly lessening to the view. The old thunder that we spoke of—the same, not changed from what it was when we were children and played with our playmates upon the shore, and frolicked and laughed, and built our castles, not in the air, but of sand, and which we heard, calling to us, it seemed, as we lay awake in the early morning in those very cramped lodgings at the glorious “sea-side”—is in our ears. And this sea? I have spoken of its depth, nor merely of its depth, the purity of its colour before. Not the deep-sea green of the Atlantic; nor the limpid blue of the Mediterranean, where it breaks on the Ionian Islands; nor the golden waters—golden as of sifted sunlight—of the Bosphorus, are so noticeable in this respect.

We smoke quietly while it draws near and ever nearer, for the tide has turned now—stealing with stealthy footsteps across the sand. With it the wind is rising, and drives shorewards the foam and spray. Those anemones in the cleft of that rock near us feel the touch of the salt brine, and begin to open their gorgeous petals. Look! the sea has reached our “pinnacles,” and is flashing and whirling about their bases now. From point to point there is a broad band of water rolling ten feet deep across the mouth of every one of the coves. Our retreat is cut off in the way by which we came. Fortunately there is a path here also which leads to the downs above. Between this and the point where we descended there had been little hope of escape had we been caught by the advancing tide. As we turn at the summit and look along the shore, we see the whole range of promontories standing like giants knee-deep in the amethyst brine, and lit by the reflected light of that sun which is low down now in the summer sky. With my mind still running upon the “Morte d’Arthur”—I think it has been so ever since I came into this part of Cornwall—I cannot help repeating aloud the Laureate’s lines:—

All down the lonely coast of Lyonnesse,
Each with a beacon-star upon his head,
And with a wild sea-light about his feet,
We saw them—headland after headland flame
Far on into the rich heart of the West.

We are going westward now. We have made up our minds not to return to St. Columb, but to take up our quarters at Newquay for the night. Picturesque it is surely, the grey little town yonder, crowding down with all its houses to the sea, beaten with the Atlantic winds and dashed with the Atlantic spray of these hundreds of years past—the golden clouds drooping over it, and the quiet sun going down beyond to his rest Pleasant it is beyond a doubt to lie, as we do a little later, on the fair green downs above it while the last embers of the sunset are smouldering in the west—the orange misting into violet, and the violet into grey—and out of the deepening twilight and far mysterious murmur of the seas the fishing-boats flit, one by one, softly inward, to rest with folded wings in the great cliff-shadows.—

The bay is oily-calm; the harbour buoy
With one green sparkle ever and anon
Dips to itself; and we are glad at heart.

G. Frederic Jackson.