A poet in Highgate and Cornwall

IN 1916, A FAMOUS poet, TS Eliot (1888-1965) taught at Highgate School in north London. I was a pupil at this establishment much later, between the year when Eliot died and 1970. One of Eliot’s pupils during his short spell at Highgate was to become one of Britain’s Poet Laureates: John Betjeman (1906-1984). Betjeman wrote (quoted in https://bradbirzer.com/2015/07/06/john-betjeman-remembers-t-s-eliot-as-teacher/):

“In 1914-15 I spent two unsuccessful terms at Highgate Junior School. Mr Eliot was a tall, quiet usher there whom we called ‘The American Master.’ Some of the cleverer boys from Muswell Hill (I was from Highgate) knew he was a poet. How? I have often wondered, for I cannot imagine him telling them or anyone that he was a poet, and I did not know that he had published any poems in England as early as that.”

Betjeman’s association with Highgate where he lived as a child briefly and was educated for less than one year was much shorter than his association with the county of Cornwall.

Betjeman’s family had a house in Trebetherick, near Polzeath in Cornwall, where many holidays were spent. In later life, the poet resided there. The small church of St Enodoc is about 930 yards south of Trebetherick. In the middle of a golf course overlooking the sea, the church dates from the 13th century. Much of it was built by the 16th century. Over the centuries, St Enodoc has often been submerged by drifting sands from the nearby beaches. Between the 16th century and the mid-19th century, the church was completely submerged. In 1863-64, the church was freed from the sand and restored under the supervision of James Piers St Aubyn (1815-1895).

When staying or living at Trebetherick, Betjeman visited St Enodoc regularly. In 1945, he published a poem “Sunday Afternoon Service in St Enodoc Court, Cornwall”, in which he describes his impressions of the church affectionately. Author of much poetry and several books about Cornwall, Betjeman died in his home at Trebetherick. He was buried in the small graveyard that surrounds St Enodoc, a building that still appears to be partially buried in the hillside. His grave is marked by simple stone with a beautifully carved inscription. Born in Lissenden Gardens, now in the Borough of Camden, Betjeman lived briefly in Highgate’s North Road in a house opposite Highgate School. However, it is with Cornwall rather than Highgate that most people connect with the former Poet Laureate. As a former pupil at Highgate School, I was pleased to pay my respects at Betjeman’s grave in Cornwall.

Up and down Molesworth Street

YOU CAN BYPASS the small town of Wadebridge in Cornwall by speeding along the A39 road, which extends from Bath in Somerset to Falmouth in Cornwall, but that would be a pity because it is a charming town. Wadebridge thrives because of its fine bridge across the River Camel. The great writer Daniel Defoe (c1660-1731) wrote about the town and nearby Padstow in his “A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain”, published 1724-26, as follows:

“Padstow is a large town, and stands on a very good harbour for such shipping as use that coast, that is to say, for the Irish trade. The harbour is the mouth of the river Camel or Camal, which rising at Camelford, runs down by Bodmyn to Wodbridge or Wardbridge [sic], a large stone bridge of eight arches, or thereabouts, built by the general goodwill of the country gentlemen; the passage of the river there, before, being very dangerous, and having been the loss of some lives, as well as goods…”

Defoe noted that the passage from Wadebridge to Ireland via Padstow could be achieved in 24 hours. Thus, Wadebridge and its river crossing, now much widened since Defoe’s time, was an important stage for vehicles carrying passengers and goods between England and Ireland. The route for this transport would have been to first cross over the Camel on the bridge and then to proceed north westwards up the slope of Wadebridge’s then main thoroughfare, Molesworth Street. During daylight hours, most of this road is closed to motorised vehicles and provides a pleasant pedestrian precinct.

Molesworth Street is lined with shops, eateries, and some pubs. The Molesworth Arms, a former coaching inn, has existed since the 16th century. It was previously known by other names including The Fox, The King’s Arms and The Fountain. It got its present name in 1817. Nearer the bridge, there is The Swan Hotel near the old bridge, originally named ‘The Commercial’, is much newer than the Molesworth Arms. It was constructed the late 19th century.

I cannot explain why, but spending time on Molesworth Street always satisfies me. The recently opened (late 2021) Dollies café provides good coffee and exceptionally wonderful English breakfast items; everything is prepared freshly after ordering. Up the hill, stands Churchill Bars. Housed in the premises of the still functioning Wadebridge Conservative Club, it comprises a bar and a small restaurant named Winston’s. Popular with locals, this eatery serves generous helpings of lovingly prepared, tasty food. Its speciality, which is well worth trying, is roast belly pork served with roast potatoes, gravy, and vegetables (not overcooked). Unlike so many other places serving food in Cornwall, this place is good value and not pretentious.

Apart from several charity shops, a good newsagent, two butcher’s shops, a hardware store, banks, and so on, there is a small bookshop on Molesworth Street. This independent bookstore stocks a superb range of Cornwall-related books, both fiction and non-fiction. In a backroom, there is a large selection of second-hand books. Small booksellers such as this one on Molesworth Street make a welcome change from the countrywide bookshops such as Daunt’s, Waterstone’s, and WH Smiith’s.

Not as ‘trendy. as places such as Fowey, Falmouth, St Ives, and Padstow, Wadebridge seems a more ‘normal’ or ‘real’ kind of place, not wholly dependent on tourism. It is well placed to make excursions to places all over the county of Cornwall.

Going up in smoke

CORNWALL’S COAST WITH its numerous, sometimes almost inaccessible, coves is perfect for smuggling. It is not by chance that Gilbert and Sullivan’s opera is named “The Pirates of Penzance”, rather than, say, “The Pirates of Suffolk”.  When we visited Falmouth, a Cornish seaport, in May 2022, I noticed a souvenir of an era of smuggling, now long past.

Next to the old customs house (now a pub) on the Town Quay, the old harbour of Falmouth, there is a tall brick structure. On a square base, it is built in four sections, each one slenderer than the one beneath it. The tall object bears a plaque inscribed with an anchor framed by a shield and above it a double-headed eagle. Below these symbols are the words:

“King’s Pipe. Formerly used for the destruction of contraband tobacco.”

According to the website historicengland.org.uk, the King’s Pipe was likely to have been constructed in about 1814, when the customs house was built. The tall chimney stands on a base that contained a furnace that was accessible from the courtyard of the customs house. Overshadowing the town and its harbour, I imagine that many of the townsfolk were far from happy when they saw and smelled the tobacco smoke, which they would have enjoyed creating in their pipes, being emitted from the King’s Pipe.

The double-headed eagle on the plaque affixed to the former chimney interested me. Two major families in Cornwall use this mythical creature in their heraldry: the Godolphins and the Killigrews. It is most likely the latter to which the creature on the plaque refers because in the early 17th century (1613), Sir John Killigrew (1583-1633), helped create the port of Falmouth.

Although we had spent several pleasant days in Falmouth a few years ago, we did not spot the King’s Pipe on that visit. It only goes to show that revisiting places can enhance one’s enjoyment of, and interest in, them.

Remembered in a Cornish car park

THE FORD CONSUL was made in the UK between 1951 and 1962, when I was 10 years old. As a young child, I used to be extremely impressed by this vehicle and was happy when I was occasionally driven in one. Recently, I was in a car park near the Art Deco swimming pool by the sea in Penzance (Cornwall) when I spotted a well preserved example of a Consul, which was still in use. Seeing it, brought back memories of many years ago.

A chiming pub in Cornwall

EGLOSHAYLE IS ACROSS the Camel river, facing the Cornish town of Wadebridge. The Earl of St Vincent pub is hidden away up a hill behind Egloshayle’s St Petroc church. It is housed in a building built in the 17th century as a boarding house for masons. Later, it became a pub. One of its many guests was Admiral Sir John Jervis (1735-1823).

The interior of the pub has timber roof beams and a delightful feeling of times long gone by. It is a great example of many people’s idealised vision of a typical ‘olde worlde English’ country pub. Soon after entering the dimly lit establishment, and your eyes adjust to the low light levels, it becomes evident that the pub is full of clocks, mostly differing in design. Most of them appear to be in working order, but not many of them show the same time. A great number of the clocks chime at least once an hour, but not all at the same time. This being the case, there is usually at least one clock chiming at any given moment. This produces a lovely background symphony of chimes.

I asked one of the pub’s staff why there were so many clocks in the pub. She replied:

“Some people like children. We like clocks”

Later, I asked the landlady about the clocks. She told me that when they took over the pub some years ago, there was no clock in it. She and her husband bought one clock for the pub, and this became the start of their collection. They could not stop buying timepieces. She told me that there are over 200 clocks in the pub and winding them up every day is quite a huge task.

Apart from the fascinating clocks, the pub can be recommended for the delicious, excellently prepared, unpretentious food that can be eaten there.

Eating ice cream in an old harbour

CHARLESTOWN IN CORNWALL should not be confused with the dance named after Charleston in South Carolina, as it is just south of the Cornish town of St Austell. The latter, named after a sixth century Cornish saint, St Austol, was first associated with the tin trade and then with the China clay industry, which burgeoned after the material was discovered in the area by William Cookworthy (1705-1780) in the 18th century.

In 1790, only nine families lived in the tiny seashore settlement of West Polmear, a fishing village just south of St Austell. A year later, much was to change in this little place. For, in 1791, Charles Rashleigh, a local landowner, began building a dock at West Polmear, using designs prepared by the engineer John Smeaton (1724-1792), who is regarded by many as ‘the father of civil engineering’. By 1799, a deep-water harbour with dock gates had been constructed. The water level in this dock was maintained by water that travelled in a ‘leat’ (artificial channel) from the Luxulyan Valley, some miles inland. The harbour was fortified against the French with gun batteries.

Named after nearby Mount Charles, the Charlestown harbour was used first for loading boats with copper for export, and then later with China clay, also for exportation. Charlestown prospered during the rapid expansion of the Chana clay industry that lasted until the start of WW1. By 1911, the former fishing village, by then Charlestown, had a population of almost 3200. Between the end of WW1 and the 1990s, Charlestown continued to be a port for exporting clay, but rival ports and the use of ships too large to be accommodated, led to its gradual decline. Now, the lovely, well-preserved 18th century harbour has become a tourist attraction and a home for a few picturesque tall ships. It is also used occasionally as a film set.

We visited Charlestown on a warm, sunny, late June afternoon. After exploring for a while, we homed in on an ice cream stall, a small hut with a pitched roof tiled with slates, located above the northern end of the dock. After queuing for what turned out to be first class ice cream, we sat at a table near the stall to enjoy what we had ordered. It was then that I noticed that some of the tables and chairs were standing on a vast cast-iron plate, which was covered with geometric patterns and some words, which I examined. My suspicion that this plate had once been part of a weighbridge was confirmed when I noticed the words: “20 tons.  Charles Ross Ltd. Makers. Sheffield”. I checked this with the ice cream seller in his stall. He told me that his stall had been the office of the officials who used the weighbridge and pointed out that there was another weighbridge nearby. I found this easily. Its metal plate bore the words: “Avery. Birmingham-England”, Avery being a well-known manufacturer of weighing machines. And the hut that used to be used by the officials now sells a range of snacks.

After eating our ice creams and examining the former weighbridge plates, a trivial thought flashed through my mind: by consuming ice cream at this stall, we were putting on weight at the weighbridge.

A recycled telephone kiosk

RURAL TELEPHONE BOXES (kiosks) are often used (re-purposed) to house AED defibrillators and small book libraries. Occasionally, they still contain coin-operated telephones. We were driving through rural Cornwall between Bodmin and Luxulyan, when we took a wrong turn and drove along a small lane. After making a three-point turn, I spotted an old telephone box partly covered with vegetation. Its original glazed door had been replaced by a wooden one that was quite out of keeping with the box’s elegant design. The present owner of the telephone box has been using this as the entrance to his or her garden. I was pleased to make find this quirky modification of an old telephone kiosk.

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.

Overlooking the harbour that was attacked by the Spanish

THE CHURCH OF St Mary’s in Cornwall’s western town of Penzance overlooks the harbour and much of the town. Its site has been a place of worship since at least 1321, when there was a chapel on the spot. Between the 2nd and 4th of August 1595, Penzance, along with Newlyn, Mousehole, and Paul, was sacked by Spanish forces under the command of Carlos de Amésquita. After causing much damage, Carlos celebrated mass in the chapel of St Mary at Penzance, an edifice he had spared from destruction.

The chapel was enlarged in 1662-1672 and then again in 1782. Until 1871, when a new parish was created, the enlarged chapel had been a ‘chapel of ease’ for the parish of nearby Madron. Reverend Thomas Vyvyan began replacing the old chapel with a new church in 1832. Its architect was Charles Hutchens (c1781-1834), of Torpoint near Plymouth. In August 1832, the old chapel was demolished, and worshippers used a temporary wooden building whilst the new church was being constructed (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1220507). The new church, gothic revival in style, was ready for use in November 1835.

The church’s interior was damaged by fire caused by an arsonist in 1985 but was restored the following year.  Being built of granite, the church looks older than it is at first sight. However, the design of its windows is typical of gothic revival. Inside the church, there are features that exemplify the very best of the gothic revival style, which reminded me of that masterpiece of the style, Strawberry Hill at Twickenham (near London). Having been restored after the fire, they are looking in superb condition.

I am glad that I climbed the several staircases that ascend the steep slope from the seashore near Penzance’s art-deco Jubilee Bathing Pool to the church. For those who prefer not to climb, the church can also be accessed by walking down Chapel Street from the central shopping area of Penzance. However, after seeing the church you will have to climb back up to where you started, but on the way, you might pause to look at the Chapel Street Methodist Church, with its odd but harmonious mixture of architectural styles, built in the mid-19th century. Or, if you have had enough of ecclesiastical architecture, you could drop into The Turks Head Inn for some refreshment spiritual or otherwise. The pub’s name reflects the fact that Cornwall used to be raided by Moorish pirates, who captured some of the locals and made them enter slavery, but do not let that put you off entering the place. Oh, and whilst you are on Chapel Street, do not miss seeing the unusual Egyptian House near the top of the thoroughfare.