The first time I encountered Morwenstowe on Cornwall’s north coast I was alone. It was early spring and the church wore a fresh skirt of primroses. As I crossed the stone stile next to the lych-gate, the churchyard inclining before me, I glimpsed beyond the sturdy grey church tower a triangle of greenish blue, a patch of sea tantalisingly held between the sides of the combe. The faint but undying roar of the Atlantic rolled in across the pastureland. Here was a scene of raw beauty preserved by isolation, a fortuitous harmony of landscape, architecture and perspective where something of the spiritual, the poetic undeniably lingered. Now in early autumn I return, greeted by rooks loitering by the gate like bored pall-bearers.
The name Morwenstowe breathes history; ‘stowe’ is old English for ‘meeting place’ and Morwenna — meaning fittingly ‘waves of the sea’ — was a Welsh saint who settled here in the 6th century. Her church is enclosed by sycamore and scrub oak, sculpted into smooth elongated shapes by the relentless winds driving inland. A sheep track leads invitingly west. Suddenly the greenish blue triangle is an ocean, flecked with white tufts of surf where the heads of black rocks pierce through. Towering cliffs to north and south bear intriguing names like Henna Cliff and Higher Sharpenose Point. Between them are the ‘mouths’, Marsland, Welcombe and Spekes Mill, with their primeval waterfalls. On the point, walkers are seen bent under the weight of their towering packs, like Sherpas or brick-bearing Roman slaves. This is the untamed ‘wreckers’ coast’, whose lines of shark’s teeth rocks would slit the hulls of unwary merchant ships. Sailors were forewarned. ‘From Pentire Point to Hartland Light, a watery grave by day or night.’
R.S. Hawker (1803-1875), Anglican vicar and poet, is a name synonymous with Morwenstowe. Parson Hawker dressed in strange and colourful garb, black reserved for his socks alone. He adored birds, gave his ten cats freedom of the church and led a tame black pig called Gyp on a rope. This eccentric clergyman, who once dressed up as a mermaid, championed the poor and personally hauled the corpses of drowned sailors up from the rocks for Christian burial. Hawker’s anthemic ‘Song of the Western Men’, impressed Dickens and his Arthurian infused verses attracted Tennyson, who even paid a visit in 1848.
Hawker left us the attractive rectory whose charming folly-like towers he modelled on his former churches. But his finest heirloom to posterity must be his hut, a simple cabin embedded in a nook of the sheer furze-clad cliff, which Hawker constructed himself from driftwood and timbers from wrecks. Here he would relish the sunset in solitude, smoke opium and write poems. I descend the deep cut steps, free the sea-worn latch of the stable door, and perch on the old wooden plank seats whittled with long dead names and dates and varnished by generations of use. Hawker’s oceanic sunset is still there, ever-changing yet eternally pristine. I gaze in silence at the bridge of amber forming across the sea’s darkening surface: a Coleridgean vision, even without the opium.