Writer: Chris Alden
Photography: Gary James
In another world, an underworld, Sisyphus heaved his rock with mortal might – then watched it return, nightly, back toward shore.
That was before. This morning, though, another comes. She lifts her boulder, climbs, and marks her shrine: Morwen’s stow.
The faithful draw from the well; they give thanks to the saint.
But look: far beyond, a ship, soul-laden, drifts toward the crag.
In saint country, every shrine needs a foundation story. Morwenstow’s is the tale of Saint Morwenna – a figure who has inspired devotion across centuries but, like all legends, seems out of reach.
She was, it is said, of royal blood; a daughter of Brychan, a 5th-century king of Wales in Christian tradition. She arrived from Ireland or Wales and founded two shrines on this hilly coastal ground in north Cornwall: a well and a church. According to a 17th-century source, Saint Morwenna carried a rock from the shore, uphill, to be the church’s font.
That is the summary, but there is a swirl of symbolism to unpack.
First, the name. A stow is a meeting place, or holy place. As for Morwen, there are links to, or confusions with, other saint names: Marina, Merina, Merrin, Moorin, Minver, Mwynen, Monynna, Modwenna and Marwenna among them; the latter has her shrine at Marhamchurch, just down the coast road. Morwen itself seems to derive from the Welsh for “maiden” – or mor (sea) + wen (white), referring perhaps to the “white sea” where Atlantic waves meet the shore.
White sea spells danger, and this coastline has its history of wrecks. Victorian poet Robert Hawker, vicar of Morwenstow, famously gave burials to the corpses of lost seafarers. The English name of the cliff, Raven’s Crag, evokes the reputation of these fatal coasts.
In the legend (which seems to have fascinated Hawker), Morwenna selected a rock from this shoreline – a wild coastal zone with jagged striations and rockpools. She would have climbed, steeply at first, up a short cliff. There, she rested and put down her stone, and a spring burst forth: Morwenna’s well.
Uphill, though, the landscape changes. Morwenna would have taken a less steep route between gorse-covered cliffs. Here the wind died down, the land became less rocky – until she stopped amid a woodland glade. There she laid down the stone: the site of the church.
Today, in Morwenstow, as you step through the lychgate leading to St Morwenna’s church and graveyard – to see the figurehead of the Caledonia, wrecked in 1842, and to read stone-carved records of private loss – you realise that for generations here, death, like Raven’s Crag, was a close neighbour. Was this the gift that early Cornish Christians sought in Morwenna: triumph over the oldest enemy?
There is, after all, an older story of a royal bearing a stone uphill. In Greek myth, the tyrant Sisyphus was condemned to push his rock in perpetuity. His crime: to chain Death, or Hades. To carry a rock uphill and leave it there seems to reverse that myth: death rechained.
Leaving the church, you can walk down to the coast path, and up to Hawker’s clifftop writing hut; but Morwenna’s other shrine, the well, is inaccessible. Erosion has made the cliff dangerous, so there’s no path down. Only a tiny sign marks its grid reference.
These days, however, the well is thought to be dry. A saint’s gift, perhaps, only extends so far.