Writer: Des Hannigan
Photography: Don Sergeant
Bosigran Great Zawn, Morvah
They came to Great Zawn’s rocky pleasure dome,
Drew back the granite veil,
And found a pocket Everest to scale.
Neither miners, these, nor mariners,
But climbers with their ropes and slings,
And clips of gear against ground fall.
They rose as if on wings,
By cracks and corners, flakes and folds,
A dance on fingertips and toes,
To Xanadu in Cornwall.
Is there really a Cornish Xanadu, “a stately pleasure dome… with walls and towers girdled round”?
There is certainly a line of beauty scripted along the Cornish coast through multiple twists and turns that unfold like the rough pages of an ancient manuscript. It does seem unlikely that such an exotic name as Xanadu should be found amid this most Cornish of coastal landscapes. Yet there it is, at the heart of the remote Bosigran Great Zawn on the north coast of the Land’s End Peninsula.
Great Zawn is one of Cornwall’s most inaccessible “yawns in a cliff,” where erosion of weaker rock has left deep chasms. For decades, the area of Great Zawn has been celebrated internationally as one of British rock-climbing’s most famous arenas. The zawn’s west-facing wall of golden granite hosts a clutch of extreme rock climbs with names such as Liberator, Zarathustra, and Desolation Row. Not to be outdone, the darker east-facing wall hosts an equally daunting climb known as Xanadu. The name we seek.
On a quiet October day, I turn seawards off the well-trodden coast path above Great Zawn and follow a little-known way through the drowned landscape of late autumn. There is an autumnal bonus of clear blue sky and a keen smell of summer’s damp decay salted by an onshore breeze. The vestigial path soon fades where steeper grass, wet and treacherous underfoot, drops down towards a granite pillar at the very edge of Great Zawn. This is one of only two abseil points into the zawn, although it is rarely used in wet winter.
With increasing sensation, the gaping chasm of the zawn unfolds below me. At the zawn’s seaward end, a restless sea surges in and out of a narrow channel. Gulls and fulmars glide through the air as if in some great roofless cathedral. And there, at the far end of the east-facing wall is Xanadu, a striking line of cracks, slabs and overhangs that snakes up the cliff for two hundred feet to uncertain grassy slopes above.
Great Zawn was first tentatively explored in the 1920s by the Edwardian climbers Arthur and Elsie Andrews, who lived at Zennor, but it is only since the 1950s that a handful of bold climbers have scaled various parts of the zawn walls. In 1968, two young climbers, Mark Springett and Stephen Young, eager pioneers of new climbs on the Cornish cliffs, abseiled into Great Zawn. Both were students at the Camborne School of Mines. The pair fought their way up the unclimbed line of the as yet unnamed Xanadu using metal pitons and other “aids”, the climbing methods of the time.
Springett, who led the climb, was a poetry lover and saw in the striking confines of Great Zawn’s “deep romantic chasm”, a ghostly reminder of Coleridge’s iconic work, Kubla Khan. Thus, a Cornish Xanadu was born, a conflation of a bold rock climb with one of literature’s great romantic poems, immortalised on a spectacular “page” of the Cornish cliffs.