Writer: Caroline Palmer
Photography: Roger Thorp
The heart of the Lizard
Standing upon the headland
Atlantic air steals breath,
For the price of an ancient canvas.
Shadows of ghosts bathe in ethereal light.
Above the cove, where the churchyard weeps,
Religion is the sea.
Heart amongst the cliffs,
Worn the long winters out.
Resting wings shelter.
The bell rings.
Safe in the essence of bygone days.
Gunwalloe is a hamlet on the Lizard Peninsula that juts out from Cornwall’ south coast. In Cornish it is Pluw Wynnwalow – the parish of Saint Winwaloe, though some claim that the name may also signify “open land”. In the Domesday Book of 1086, the King’s manor of Winnianton at Gunwalloe is the first entry for Cornwall, and it remains an area of archaeological interest.
Today the hamlet still preserves the essence of Cornish history and folklore. One of its few idyllic cottages, Toy Cottage, was once home to the novelist Sir Compton Mackenzie. Nearby is the Halzephron Inn, built in 1468 from the timbers of wrecks. From here ran two tunnels, one to an old belfry and the other down to Fishing Cove. Smugglers used them to transport brandy, rum and tobacco between the cove, belfry, and inn.
The path from the hamlet leads me down to Church Cove Beach and the medieval church of Saint Winwaloe. The son of a prince of the ancient kingdom of Dumnonia, which once covered both Devon and Cornwall, and a Breton holy woman known as Gwen the Three-Breasted, Winwaloe was an extreme ascetic who reportedly wore only garments made of goatskin, and under these a hair shirt. The site dates back to the 6th century, but the church I visit today was built around 1332 and is one of very few in Cornwall that stands upon the sands.
Walking around the churchyard I am transported to a world of wrecks and lost souls. The path weaves around to the entrance, where a somewhat forbidding statue of the saint stands in a posture that might be welcoming or warning. I hear the sea call through leaves on the trees that stand as if in worship. The sign above the door reads “The church of storms”.
The area around Gunwalloe lies within the Penrose estate (the Cornish surname Penrose means “head of the moor”). To the east stand the cliffs of Halzephron (from the Cornish als yfarn – cliffs of hell), a name that tells of shipwrecked vessels and unmarked graves.
The waters that lie just off Fishing Cove, nestled beneath the headland, are the final resting place of the 17th-century armoured cargo vessel, English East India. But the most famous wreck is the St Anthony, a Flemish ship owned by King John III of Portugal that was driven ashore by horrendous waves on 19th January 1527. The ship was laden with a cargo of silver, plate, and bullion, and the locals spent day and night salvaging the bounty.
On the headland, I am captivated by the changing colours of the Lizard. I watch as a cormorant dries its feathers upon a desolate pinnacle. Looking towards Porthleven, I notice the erosion of the cliffs has left a heart-shaped crevasse. The Atlantic swell is alive today, as gulls battle for a meal. I walk upon the beach, where I’m enticed into caves that seem to glow with autumnal colours. I am gratified by these wonders and the peace the day brings.