An artist in Germany, Norway, Scotland, Isle of Man, then Somerset

AN UNUSUAL CRUCIFIX hands within the church of St Mary in Bruton, Somerset. It is a sculpture typical of early 20th century German Expressionism, yet it was created in 1969, long after the heyday of this artistic trend. The creator of this religious sculpture was Ernst Blensdorf (1896-1976). He was born Ernst Müller in North Germany, but after his marriage to his first wife, Ilse Blensdorf, in 1923, he changed his surname to ‘Müller-Blensdorf’, then later to ‘Blensdorf’.

At first, Blensdorf became a seaman. After having been interned as an enemy alien by the British during WW1, Ernst travelled to Johannesburg in South Africa with a fellow internee. It was here that he made a table-top wood carving of an African village. On his return to Germany, this fine carving persuaded Ernst’s father that his son had a future as an artist and was willing to support him towards this aim. While in Africa, Ernst had seen African art first-hand and exposure to this certainly helped influenced his future creations.

After a brief spell at an art school in Barmen, he left to become apprenticed to a master joiner. By 1922, he had become a journeyman for a furniture company, which specialised in manufacturing luxury items. During this period, he was influenced by the Bauhaus artist Paul Klee and the sculptor Alexander Archipenko. The skill that Ernest acquired and developed whilst manufacturing wooden objects for the furniture company became useful as he moved from applied craftsmanship to artistic endeavours. In addition to other activities, he taught at the art school in Barmen during the 1920s. By the 1930s, he had become an established sculptor and had exhibited his works at various exhibitions in Germany, where he received both private and public commissions.

When the Nazis took power in Germany, Blensdorf became one of the first artists whose works were categorised as ‘degenerate’ by Hitler and his regime. This led to him losing his teaching post at Barmen and his studio being wrecked by the Nazi’s loutish followers. Ernst, his wife, and children, moved to Norway, where he was planning a giant peace monument to honour the Norwegian statesman and Nobel Peace prize winner Fridjtof Nansen. In Norway, he worked on this project and made a living creating and selling artistic ceramic works, alongside the Norwegian ceramicist Eilif Whist. 

When the Germans invaded Norway in spring 1940, Blensdorf and his children fled to Scotland. His wife, Ilse, remained behind, saying that she was a follower of Adolf Hitler. Following his arrival in the UK, Blensdorf was once again interned as an ‘enemy alien’. Along with many others, including a good number of men with artistic talent and German nationality, he was interned on the Isle of Man (from 1940 to 1941). His children were placed in a couple of orphanages. While interned, he, along with fellow artists, were allowed to satisfy their creative urges and even to sell their creations. Using whatever materials he could find during this period of scarcity, Blensdorf’s creative output was impressively large. For the first time in his life, he had plenty of time to undertake artistic work in the absence of anxieties such as he had experienced before arriving on the Isle of Man.

Blensdorf was released from internment in 1941. He went to live with an Austrian couple, the Schreiners, whom he had met in the internment camp. They lived in Charlton Musgrove in Somerset. With him, the Schreiners planned to set up an art school, but this failed for financial reasons. Ernst remained in Somerset. His first job was teaching pottery at a school in Bratton Seymour. It was here that he met his second wife, Jane Lawson. They married in 1942 and moved into a house near Wincanton, where they were joined by his children. Blensdorf taught in various schools in Somerset including the King’s School in Bruton.

In 1943, Blensdorf and his family bought a run-down 17th century house close to Bruton. Gradually, the house was restored and improved. It remained his home for the rest of his life. Although he exhibited often and in prestigious venues, Blensdorf never realised the great reputations that other artists, such as Henry Moore, Elizabeth Frink, Anthony Caro, and Barbara Hepworth, gained in the UK and beyond. For this reason, seeing his work for the first time during my first visit to the lovely Bruton Museum in July 2021, was a wonderful surprise and an exciting eye-opener.  In one corner of this small museum, there is a large glass cabinet that contains examples of Blensdorf’s sketches, ceramics, and sculptures. When I told the lady, who was looking after the museum, how much I liked what I had seen of his works, she told me about the crucifix in the local church, which fortunately I was able to see. She also sold me a copy of a well-illustrated catalogue of an exhibition of his works that was held some time ago in the Bruton Museum. It is from this publication that I have extracted much of the information above. Bruton is a gem of a town. Visiting its museum is a ‘must’ because not only does it allow you to ‘discover’ the works of Blensdorf but also to see a display of artefacts relating to the author John Steinbeck, who lived close to Bruton between March and September 1959 … but that is another story.

Shifted to Somerset from London

EVERY YEAR SINCE 2000, excepting 2020, The Serpentine Gallery in London’s Kensington Gardens has erected a temporary summer pavilion. Each pavilion is designed by a different architect or group of architects. What they have in common is that their pavilion is the first of their designs to be constructed in London, or maybe the UK. They stand in front of the Serpentine Gallery during the summer months and into early autumn. They are always fascinating visually and always contain a café with seating. Over the years some of them have been used as event spaces.

At the end of the season, the pavilions are dismantled and are never seen again in Kensington Gardens. Some of them might be sold and others re-erected elsewhere, but until recently I have never seen one again.

A few years ago, a contemporary art gallery, Hauser and Wirth, which has a branch in London’s West End, bought a farm on the edge of Bruton in Somerset. They have used some of the farm buildings and constructed some new ones to accommodate another branch of their gallery. In addition to the exhibition spaces, there is a superb restaurant, an up-market farm shop, and a wonderful garden created by the Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf (born 1944).

The garden slopes upwards from the gallery. At the top of the slope, there is something that at first sight looks like a giant hamburger patty or the profile of an oversized bagel. I recognised it immediately as being one of the former summer pavilions that once stood next to The Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Gardens. It is the 2014 Serpentine pavilion designed by Smiljan Radic (born 1965 in Santiago, Chile).

When I saw it in London in 2014, I was not overly impressed by it. However, seeing it at Hauser and Wirth in Somerset, it looks great. My description of it as an oversized bagel is not too far from the truth. It is, basically, an annular structure like a ring or a bagel, but it is far more interesting than that. Supported on rocks, the ring is not in one plane, but it undulates gradually. Irregularly shaped holes in its translucent skin provide intriguing views of Oudolf’s garden, which looks good in all seasons, and the surrounding hilly Somerset countryside.

A visit to Hauser and Wirth in Somerset makes a fine day out even if you have only a scant interest in contemporary art. The food served in the restaurant is of a high quality and not unreasonably priced. The buildings on the estate are lovely and the garden is hard to beat for its beauty.

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.

Gone for a barton in Bruton

BRUTON IN SOMERSET lies along the River Brue. Most of the old town is high above the river on its steep banks. Narrow passageways run along the steep slopes, connecting the High Street with the riverbank below. These steep passageways in Bruton are called Bartons. The word ‘barton’ means ‘farmyard’ in Old English. However, why these passages are called ‘bartons’ in Burton is a bit of a mystery despite the fact that there used to be farmsteads close to the town.

Sexey in Somerset

THE RIVER BRUE flows through the Somerset town of Bruton. In the Domesday Book (1086), its name was recorded as ‘Briuuetone’, which is derived from Old English words meaning ‘vigorously flowing river’. In brief, this small town is picturesque and filled with buildings of historical interest: a church; several long-established schools; municipal edifices; an alms-house; shops; and residences. On a recent visit, we drove past a Tudor building that was adorned with a crest labelled “Hugh Sexey” and the date “1638”. At first, I thought it was a sort of joke, rather like ‘Sexy Fish’, the name of a restaurant in London’s Berkeley Square. I walked back to the building after parking the car.

I looked at the sign, and my curiosity was immediately aroused. The crest bears a pair of eagles with two heads each, double-headed eagles (‘DHE’). Now, as some of my readers might already know, the DHE is a symbol that has fascinated me for a long time. This bird with two heads has been used as an emblem by the Seljuk Turks, the Byzantine and Holy Roman Empires, Russia (before and after Communism), the Indian state of Karnataka, Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, and some people in pre-Columbian America, to name but a few. In the UK, several families employ this creature on their coats-of-arms. These include the Godolphin, the Killigrew, and the Hoare families, to name but a few. Each of these three families has connections with the county Cornwall, which, through Richard, Earl of Cornwall (1209-1272) and King of the Germans, had a strong connection with the Holy Roman Empire, whose symbol was the DHE.  Until I arrived outside the building in Bruton, Sexey’s Hospital, I had no idea about the existence of the Sexey family nor its association with the DHE.

Sir Hugh Sexey (c1540 or 1556-1619) was born near Bruton. He became royal auditor of the Exchequer to Queen Elizabeth I and later King James I, and amassed a great fortune. After his death, much of his wealth was used for charitable purposes in and around Bruton. Two institutions that resulted from his money and still exist today are Sexey’s Hospital, outside of which I first spotted the crest with two DHEs and Sexey’s School (www.sexeys.somerset.sch.uk/about-us/the-sexeys-story/). The school, which is now housed in premises separate from the hospital (now an old age home), was first housed in the same premises as the hospital.

According to the school’s website:

“…a two headed spread eagle is taken from the seal used by Hugh Sexey later in his life which can be seen on his memorial on Sexey’s Hospital …”

The article then considers the DHE (‘spread eagle’) as follows:

“Traditionally the spread eagle was considered a symbol of perspicacity, courage, strength and even immortality in heraldry. Prior to notions of medieval heraldry, in Ancient Rome the symbol became synonymous with power and strength after being introduced as the heraldic animal by Consul Gaius Marius in 102BC (subsequently being used as the symbol of the Legion), whilst it has been used widely in mythology and ancient religion. In Greek civilisation it was linked to the God Zeus, by the Romans with Jupiter and by Germanic tribes with Odin. In Judeo-Christian scripture Isa (40:31) used it to symbolise those who hope in God and it is widely used in Christian art to symbolise St John the Evangelist. An heraldic eagle with its wings spread also denotes that its bearer is considered a protector of others. Sexey’s seal and crest may have included the spread eagle to symbolise the family’s Germanic heritage.”

Some of this is in accordance with what I have read before, but I need to cross-check much of the rest of it, especially the Greek and Roman aspects. The final sentence relating to Germanic heritage seems quite sound, as the DHE was an important symbol in the Holy Roman Empire.

There is a sculpted stone bust of Sir Hugh Sexey in the courtyard of his hospital (really, almshouses), which was built in the 1630s. This portrait was put in its position in the 17th century long after his death. Above the bust, there is a carved stone crest bearing two DHEs, which was created by William Stanton (1639-1705) from London. According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (‘DNB’):

“ Later in the seventeenth century a stone bust of Sexey, together with a coat of arms (that of the Saxey family of Bristol, with which he had no known connection), was placed over the entrance hall…”

The plot thickens as I now wonder whether the DHEs are related to the Sexey family or that of the above-mentioned Saxey family. A quick search of the Internet for the coats-of-arms of both the Sexey and the Saxey families revealed no DHEs except on crests relating to Bruton’s two Sexey foundations.

One family that was involved in the history of Bruton and whose crest bears the DHE is Hoare. They took over the ownership of the manor from the Berkely family in 1776. This is long after Hugh Sexey died and is therefore unlikely to be the reason that William Stanton included the DHEs on the crest above Sir Hugh’s bust. So, as yet, I cannot discover the history of the DHEs that appear all over Sir Hugh’s hospital and neither can I relate them to any other British family that uses this heraldic symbol. But none of this should mar your enjoyment of the charming town of Bruton.

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.

A viaduct in Cornwall and a man who died for his country

THE SMALL CORNISH village of Luxulyan has a fine old parish church, which is dedicated to Saints Ciricius and Julitta, both of whom are new to me. This edifice was built in the 15th century and restored in the 19th (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1158407). The northern aisle of the church was filled with used books for sale when we visited it.  A weathered Cornish cross stands close to the west end of the church. During the 19th century, this was brought to its present location from Three Stiles (near Consence). The church and its churchyard, along with the tiny village are charming, but what caught my eye and raised my curiosity was a building bearing the name ‘Captain TC Agar-Robartes Memorial.’

Treffry Viaduct near Luxulyan in Cornwall

The name Agar-Robartes intrigued me. My interest in it increased when I saw a small stone memorial near the River Fowey in Lostwithiel. It bore the words:

“Royal British Legion, Lostwithiel Branch, 1932-1997. Opened by Lady Robartes.”

Things became clearer after visiting the magnificent Lanhydrock House, originally constructed in the 17th century, and reconstructed quite faithfully after a huge fire in 1881. The house was created by John Robartes (1606-1685), 2nd Baron Robartes of Truro, 1st Viscount of Bodmin, and 1st Earl of Radnor. One of his many descendants, Anna Maria Hunt (1771-1861) married Charles Bagenal-Agar (1769-1811). One of their three sons, Thomas James Agar-Robartes (1808-1882), assumed the surname ‘Robartes’ in 1822 and tacked it on to his Agar surname. One of his ten grandchildren was Thomas Charles Reginald Agar-Robartes (1880-1915), the ‘TCR Agar-Robartes’, whose name is on the building in Luxulyan.

Thomas was educated at Eton and Christ Church College, Oxford. He was elected to represent the South-East Cornwall constituency as its MP in 1906. However, he was unseated a month after the election because of infringing some electoral regulations. He had been found guilty of bribery and other offences. Nevertheless, he was re-elected in 1908. His election campaign was based on support of free trade and reform of temperance laws. In August 1914, Thomas signed up as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Royal Bucks Hussars, and then in 1915, wanting to see action on the battlefront, he left for France as an officer in the 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards. In June 1915, he was promoted to become a captain. During the Battle of Loos in September 1915, he was shot in no-mans-land and never recovered.

The building, a working man’s institute and reading room in Luxulyan, which bears Thomas’s name, was first conceived in 1913, but only began to be used as such in 1924, when the edifice was completed. Naming it after Thomas is explained on a website page about the building (www.luxulyanpc.co.uk/Luxulyan_Memorial_Institute_32056.aspx):
“ Tragically, as we know, young Tommy Robartes of Lanhydrock died after receiving wounds rescuing a comrade from one of those fields of battle. He had been well known and liked in the village, often coming to visit, accompanying the land agent dealing with tenants. The village picked up its interrupted thoughts on the Institute and Reading Room idea; whether the idea of a Memorial to Tommy, or just asking the Lanhydrock estate for a piece of land came first, is not clear, but it was agreed that a piece of land from the estate for a Memorial Institute was acceptable to all.”

Having already offered £50 towards building the Memorial institute, Dr Nathaniel T Coulson then offered a further £100 on condition that Thomas Agar-Robartes’s name was on the hall. Dr Coulson, who is described in the website, interested me because of his profession:

“He was born in Penzance in April 1853, abandoned by his drunken father at the age of 10 years and bound over to the farmer at Penquite Farm, Lostwithiel. He then spent some years in the British Navy and first arrived in San Francisco in 1875. For a while he worked for a stock-broking firm and wrote for several daily newspapers. In 1884 at the age of 30, he became a student at the dental department of the University of California, where he graduated after two years, receiving his degree as a Doctor of Dental Surgery. He was a member of several fraternal organisations, and generous with donations to many worthy causes. Among others in England, he helped finance the establishment of Coulson Park, Lostwithiel, in 1907. He travelled back here on several occasions, also visiting India after his retirement…”

So, that explains the hall that we saw in Luxulyan. I am not at all sure which ‘Lady Robartes’ is the one whose name appears on the British Legion monument in Lostwithiel, which bears the words “Opened by Lady Robartes”. If a Lady Robartes opened the branch in 1932, who was she? Only one of Thomas’s brothers married, Arthur (1887-1974). His wife, Patience Mary Basset, whom he married in 1920 might have been the ‘Lady Robartes’. Alternatively, she might have been one of Thomas’s sisters: Mary Vere (1879-1946) or Julia (1880-1969) or Edith (1888-1965) or Constance (1890-1936). If on the other hand the words refer to the inauguration of the monument in 1997, then I cannot offer any suggestions.

Luxulyan is worth visiting not only to see the things I have already mentioned, but also the impressive, massive, granite combined aqueduct and viaduct near to the village. It carries water and a railway track over the River Par. Known as the Treffry Viaduct, it was completed in 1844 and designed by the engineer and mining entrepreneur Joseph Treffry (1782-1850).

Until we visited Luxulyan, I had never heard of the Agar-Robartes family. Once again, visiting Cornwall has resulted in finding places and persons of great interest. The more I see, the more I want to know.  

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.