Writer: Sophie Gordon
Photography: Steve Tynan
And be lured
Not by mermaid song
But by a whisper
Like the waves
If you’ll only listen.
Beyond the legends
Revival and reinvention
Stories being written
As much as retold.
From A to Z
Zig and zag through a landscape
Strewn with silver
But not to The End.
It’s just beginning.
The granite tower of St Senara’s sits proud as you approach Zennor from the zig-zagging B road. This stone reminds me of my parents and their fondness for the “Silver City” where they met, but we are about as far from Aberdeen as you could travel on this island, both geographically and alphabetically.
The church’s namesake gives the parish its name too – with the softer-sounding, exotic-looking “Z” of Zennor evolving over time. Zennor’s Cornish name Eglossenara could be mistaken for the whisper of nearby waves. But is in fact a combination of eglos, meaning church, and the saint’s name.
Legend goes that a mermaid was drawn to the church by the sweet singing of a local man who then fell in love with her and followed her out to sea, never to be seen again. Parishioners immortalised the tale by having one end of a seat carved with a mermaid design, now over 600 years old.
The church echoes another voice too. By one of the porches is a memorial to John Davy, considered one of the last Cornish speakers. He died in 1891, taking his knowledge of the language with him.
Entering the church, I’m greeted by row upon row of brightly stitched kneeling cushions – sitting to attention, as if ready for a service to begin. Sarah Burton of Alexander McQueen took inspiration from these very kneelers for her autumn 2017 show at Paris Fashion Week.
With designs ranging from church motifs to maritime scenes, they are a reminder that while this church and its parish are rooted in history, there is a living, breathing community here and now. Caring for their past, and their future.
A small but vibrant clutch of local businesses are defining Zennor as much as its history and legends. While visitors might come to catch a glimpse of the mermaid or venture to the megalithic burial sites, they’ll stay a little longer for a scoop of ice cream from the Moomaids, a perfect pour at the Tinner’s Arms, or local wares from Zennor Wayside.
People often talk about history and innovation in opposition to each other. But this unassuming village at the end of the alphabet is a place of new beginnings too.
Local businesses can rub shoulders with legends without being defined by them. When a community is able to flourish and see a future for itself, they’re also more able to look after their history, share it and conserve it. This forward-looking sense of can-do may be less tangible than the mermaid chair, but it’s just as precious. It also deserves to be admired and protected.
Over the years, notable figures, writers and artists have gravitated towards Zennor. Just as the mermaid was drawn from the sea by a beautiful voice, they were beguiled by this place. As everyone from top designers to tourists like me continue to visit, it’s up to us to look closer, to listen harder, and to find the real magic.