From Cornwall to Poland and the Himalayas

THE CORNISH VILLAGE of St Kew, though small, is an extremely attractive place to visit. Its name derives from that of a Welsh saint called ‘Cywa’ who might have been the sister of Docca, who founded a monastery near the present village of St Kew. In the centre of the village, close to a bridge crossing a stream, there is a lovely pub, The St Kew Inn, which was built in the 15th century (www.stkewinn.co.uk/). We stopped there for much-needed liquid refreshment on a hot afternoon in late June 2021. Close to, and on higher ground than, the pub, there is another 15th century edifice, the parish church of St James.

The church contains much to fascinate the visitor including fine stone and wood carvings, remnants of pre-Reformation stained-glass, a carved stone with ancient Ogham script, a carved gravestone bearing the date 1601 and a depiction of a lady in Tudor dress, and wooden barrel-vaulted ceilings. All of this and more makes St James one of the loveliest churches we have seen in Cornwall. Although I was highly enchanted by all this antiquity, it was one modern memorial in the church that intrigued me most.

The monument on the inside of the north wall of the church reads:

“In memory of Alison Chadwick-Onyskiewicz of Skisdon, St Kew. Born May 4th 1942.  Artist and Mountaineer. She made the first ascent of Gasherbrum III. 26090 ft. And died on Mt Annapurna, Nepal, on 17th October 1978.”

Well, I was not expecting to find this when I entered the church at St Kew.

From Alison’s obituary on the alpinejournal.org.uk website, I have extracted the following information about her. She was born in Birmingham but spent her formative years in Cornwall. Whilst studying at the Slade School of Art at University College, London, she became interested in mountaineering. Her climbing experience began in North Wales, before gaining experience in the Alps and rock faces in Devon and Cornwall.

In 1971, she married a well-known Polish mountaineer, Janusz Onyskiewicz, who was also a mathematician and twice Poland’s Minister of National Defence (1992-1993 and 1997-2000). In the 1980s, he was a spokesman for the Solidarity Movement. Alison lived in Poland after she married him in Bodmin, Cornwall. She and Janusz were two of the four members of the Polish expedition that conquered Gasherbrum III, which was at the time the highest yet unclimbed peak. The obituary notes:

“Alison’s climbing ethics were always of the highest standard and on high mountains she wished to compete with men on equal terms with the minimum of oxygen and Sherpa assistance. Perhaps it was for this reason that she chose to accept an invitation to join the 1978 American Ladies Expedition to Annapurna rather than accept a place on the more glamorous Franco/Austrian Expedition to Everest. On the Annapurna expedition Alison’s contribution was crucial, leading the ice-arete between camps 1I and III which proved to be the crux of the route. After the summit had been reached on 15 October, Alison and Vera Watson were killed in a fall while making a second summit bid.”

Although Janusz was in the Himalayas 40 miles away from the scene of the fatal accident, news of it took two weeks to reach him.

So, that is, in brief, the story of the lady commemorated by an oval slate memorial in St James Church in St Kew. I have yet to discover where she was buried and who placed the memorial in the church. Discovering this connection between St Kew and the Himalayas was yet another delightful surprise that enhanced my enjoyment of the southwestern county of Cornwall.

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