I am fond of Downderry. I had never heard of it until I found myself toiling in the fields and polytunnels around this docile and fertile patch during a long summer.
Drop into from the Rame side and you will be met with a peculiar strip of a village. The road goes straight through, parrallel to the sea with most of the houses between the cliff and the beach, to Seaton (basically the same place, the houses of Downderry adjoin Seaton).
You might note Downderry and Seaton are linguistically out of place amongst the Cornish place-name corpus.
I have to admit, my curiosity drives me to tedium at times.
It seems I have given up my Sunday morning trying to figure out the history of Downderry based on etymological clues, poor quality internet research and a patchy knowledge of local history.
To get this anywhere near credibility would require an academic endeavour, involving libraries and local history books, which I might (won’t) undertake in the future but right now there’s a pretty brutal South Easterly trying to break my window and it’s Sunday. So, pure speculation it is!
Seaton is easy – Sea Ton – it’s a modern version of the Old English ‘Tun’ which means house or farm. So Sea-farm, there are indeed some ancient farmsteads in the area. This is common enough, there is Seaton in Devon and a veritable tonne of ‘tons’ all over England. Not many in Cornwall.
Downderry is slightly more anomalous. Both Down and Derry are traceable to Irish Gaelic, a different branch of the Celtic language to Cornish (which sits on the Brythonic side, with Welsh and Breton) which is why it is unusual to Cornwall. However whilst ‘Dun’ (‘Down’) means ‘fort’ or ‘castle’ in Gaelic it also means ‘hill’ in Old English.
So, if Seaton traces it etymology to Old English then it follows Downderry would too, there are , perhaps unsurprisingly, hills/cliffs around so the Dun fits here. The plot thickens when we learn there is a Cursus very nearby, lending itself to the Gaelic links as well.
If Old English, where does Derry come from?
I can find no explanation of Derry as a place name in Old English, only in Gaelic where it means Oak; Oak Tree or Oak Woodland.
There are oak trees here so maybe, as Cornwall has historic links to Irish proselytizing do-gooders, it is possible a wayward missionary found it and named it accordingly.
However the North Coast, for obvious reasons, was the standard entry point for these piously minded glory hunters and there’s no old church here (it’s Victorian at the earliest and the Normans tended to build on existing, Celtic Christian sites set up by missionaries) and there’s also no mention of it in the Domesday book.
After trawling through the oldest maps of Cornwall there is no mention of a Downderry until John Cary who produced his pompously titled ‘New and Correct Map‘ in
As the title of Cary’s map suggests though, cartography was not an exact science (it still is a bit off) for a long time, hence why the Tudor and Stuart maps of Claxton and John Speed resemble rather than represent.
On a side note, the accuracy of cartography and advancements in naval technology are linked, it’s pretty easy to see why this is so and equally as easy to see the evidence; compare the Speed map with Cary’s.
So, I reckon the evidence points to it being a relatively new village with a relatively new name and thus a super-imposition of an Irish name onto the expanding village, by either someone Irish or with a penchant for Ireland. Possibly someone linked to or from the Port Eliot estate. That’s the best guess I can do and I’m pretty damn sure I’m wrong. Correct me if so.
So, Downderry then. It’s charming in it’s way. I like it at least. Village-y, community-like and pretty welcoming. The pebble-shingle beach here stretches the length of the Village and in the Summer the sun bakes the south facing pebbles to warm up on after swimming. There’s a decent enough pub right on the beach too. Boody.
The water is pleasant here too, far better than the more popular Seaton beach. Generally, beaches at the end of a river valley have poorer water quality. When heavy rain hits – pretty often – it washes the agricultural chemicals and silage into the river from the valley slopes, which can be horribly visible as a brown smudge bleeding out into the ocean.
South East Cornwall lives up to it’s tourist moniker; ‘The Forgotten Corner’. Cawsand to Polruan.
There’s a hell of a lot to explore here in this part of the world, hell of a lot to show. I thought I’d start with another, lesser known beach. We just call it Shag Rock beach. Which is apt…
As this place is widely accepted as nudey beach. So whether or not that’s your bag or no you should be aware you’m likely to see naturists sunning themselves.
I’ve been down here a fair few times now and only once ever saw people other than the people I was with. It’s also massive. So, your call.
I hadn’t ever skinny dipped until I came here, dusty and sweaty from hoiking stubborn vegetables from hard ground all day, on one long balmy summer evening in 2014. I was with my girlfriend of the time and possessing English embarrassment thresholds, we checked the beach was empty, stripped and went in.
Skinny dipping is bleddy ansum but my experience turned into another of a different kind when I was stung in my newly freed privates by a jellyfish. Which was unfortunate in the scheme of things.
You get here by walking the coast path from Downderry. It’s not far. You can go the beach way at low tides too I believe.
There’s a metal gatepost facing back on the path with a little Duchy of Cornwall notice, absolving themselves of your death should you meet it here.
The path down to the beach is steep, snaking and pleasingly surreal, it is a wooded cliff face. There are some seriously old, twisted trees here and this is what a lot of the coast would have looked like for a long time. It’s quite primordial in places.
Also perched on the steep route down is a derelict hunting lodge, abandoned by the Port Eliot estate. Perhaps after all of the pheasants of Cornwall migrated to Caerhays.
This is the end result then. Shag Rock is the little stub of a sea stack at the far end, also called the Long Stone.
Lone males on beaches like this make a statement I didn’t want to make today so I didn’t go all the way down.
Tide was coming in too.
As I got back to the village, the last little section of coastpath skirts a property that is carefully hidden by large hedges from the eyes of the passing walker. This is irresistible to me.
So I clambered up the bank and, with a supporting hand on an elder sapling, looked into the grounds at a large, handsome Victorian three story house.
Until I hear;
“What are you doing?!…I say, you there, what are you doing there??” In a strong female, upper-middle class accent.
Down the coastpath a sturdy woman in a floppy hat is clutching a branch and craning her neck at me.
“Um, just avin a look..?”
“Bit nosey isn’t it?!”
“…Yes. It is.”
“…Well, come over here then and look properly.”
The dear old maid proceeded to give me a little tour of the garden and history of the place. Which she owns and is named Downderry Lodge.
Previously owned by the Port Eliot estate, again, built in the early 1800’s as a supplement to the aforementioned hunting lodge and sold off after the War apparently.
The lady told me she’d had it since 06 and that it was cold and difficult to maintain but they supplement this with letting out their extension.
It’s a grand old place in beautiful gardens leading straight to the sea. I didn’t ask to take photos (I always feel these people – who have evidently always been well off – have a personalised and complex nexus of manners that is alien to me) and she didn’t explicitly give me the go ahead, she was some bird though. Bustling, talkative and a little brusque but with a wry sense of humour lurking not very far away.