Lost and found … in Cornwall

MY COUSINS IN CORNWALL live not far from a place called Withiel. The mainline train from London to Penzance usually stops at a station called Lostwithiel. The latter is just over 7 miles southeast of Withiel as the crow flies. Yesterday, the 26th of July 2021, we decided to visit both Withiel and Lostwithiel. Despite its name, Lostwithiel on the River Fowey is much easier to access than Withiel, which is deep in the Cornish countryside.

Mediaeval arch in Lostwithiel

The ‘lost’ in Lostwithiel has little if anything to do with being unable to be found. There is agreement that ‘lost’ is the Cornish word for ‘tail’. It is likely that Lostwithiel derived from the Cornish ‘Lost Gwydhyel’, meaning ‘tail end of woodland’. The village of Withiel is known as ‘Egloswydhyel’ in the Cornish language. This means ‘church in woodland’. Having found out that Lostwithiel is not actually lost nor ever has been, I will compare the two places.

Withiel, far smaller than Lostwithiel, is small village with a fine old church, St Clements and a few, about twenty at most, houses arranged around a rectangular open space. The parish church, which I have yet to enter, originated in the 13th century. It was rebuilt in granite in the 15th and 16th centuries and looks far too large for such a small village and its neighbouring communities including one called Withielgoose. The rebuilding was instigated by Thomas Vyvyan (late 1470s – 1533), the penultimate Prior of Bodmin before the Reformation. He was a Cornishman educated at Exeter College (Oxford), who was instituted in the rectory of Withiel in 1523,  and then at St Endellion Church in 1524.  Withielgoose, which is tiny place that includes the word ‘withiel’, has nothing to do with geese. The name derives from the Cornish words ‘gwyth’, meaning trees; ‘yel’, of unknown meaning; and ‘coes’, meaning ‘wood’.

Tiny Withiel has at least one interesting historical figure apart from Thomas Vyvyan, Sir Bevile Grenville (1594/95-1643). Educated at Exeter College (Oxford), he was a Member of Parliament and a Royalist. He was killed at The Battle of Lansdown (5th of July 1643) in the English Civil War. The historian of the Civil War Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon (1609-1674), who served the Royalists during the conflict, wrote of Sir Bevile:

“…to the universal grief of the army, and, indeed, of all who knew him. He was a gallant and a sprightly gentleman, of the greatest reputation and interest in Cornwall, and had most contributed to all the service that had been done there.”

From small Withiel, we move to the town of Lostwithiel, an attractive place that seems not to have become as great a tourist attraction as have many other picturesque places in Cornwall. The town was established in the early 12th century by Norman lords, who constructed Restormel Castle nearby. It was a stannary town, which meant that it could manage the collection of ‘tin coinage’, a duty payable on tin mined in Cornwall. Most of what was collected entered the coffers of the Duchy of Cornwall.

In the 13th century, Edmund, 2nd Earl of Cornwall (‘Edmund of Almain’; 1249-1300) built both the Great Hall in Lostwithiel and the town’s church tower. Edmund was son of Richard of Cornwall, 1st Earl of Cornwall and King of the Romans (king, not emperor, of the Holy Roman Empire) between 1257 and 1272.  The tower is still standing as are also the remains of the Great Hall, built between about 1265 and 1300, making it one of the oldest non-ecclesiastical buildings in Cornwall. It was a large complex of buildings, which was badly damaged during the English Civil War. What remains is an interesting set of mediaeval buildings and the old Exchequer Hall, now known as ‘The Duchy Palace’. Later used as a Masonic Hall, some of its windows contain six-pointed stars as used by the Masons. A crest on one of its walls is the earliest version of that of the Duchy of Cornwall, which has long since been replaced by the plume of feathers used today. The Cornish born (in St Austell) and world-renowned historian Alfred Leslie Rowse (1903-1997) wrote that in the mediaeval era:

“… the real centre of Duchy administration was Lostwithiel; here the various offices, the shire hall where the county court met, the exchequer of the Duchy, the Coinage Hall for the stannaries’ and the stannary jail, were housed in the fine range of buildings built by Edmund, Earl of Cornwall…”

So, Lostwithiel was once important as an administrative centre, but it has now lost this role.

The River Fowey flows through Lostwithiel, passing meadows where people picnic, and children play. The river, though wide, is shallow enough for youngsters to play in safely. The river is crossed by a magnificent multi-arched, stone bridge, which is so narrow that it is only wide enough for one single motor vehicle. The crossing has six pointed arches. It was constructed in the mid-15th century. Its parapets were built in the 16th century and an additional flood arch was added in the 18th century (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1327324).

We wandered around Lostwithiel for a while and saw many fine old buildings apart from those already mentioned. One of them is the Museum, housed in the former Corn Exchange (a Georgian building), and the former Grammar School. We also spotted an ancient Cornish cross in the parish churchyard. Lostwithiel is a place to which I hope to return to spend more time there. In comparison to Withiel that is far more lost from sight, Lostwithiel has plenty to interest the visitor.

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