I have overlooked Pentewan, the small, quiet village on the south coast that grew up in. Taken it for granted, as we seem to do, purely because it has always been there for me.
So I have been reading into it and in doing so uncovered quite a bit more than I anticipated. Pentewan has a serious abundance of significant history linking a few of Cornwall’s prominent families and figures as well as historical themes, also, unusually, there is a real wealth of material to research from.
These days Pentewan is probably most well-known for the busy, well-developed campsite with its chlorinated pools, arcades and burger bars. The campsite in my youth had a much more raffish feel, with a big, dated big wooden clubhouse, cheap John Smiths bitter, bingo nights and awful circuit entertainers in waistcoats. We would venture over, cause trouble with the security, smoke as many Superkings as humanly possible and try to entice the northern girls to the beach with cans of Oranjeboom. It is a much more polished place these days. A little pop-up town of strange transient neighbours. Hemming the campsite is a large strip of sand that makes for a large, accessible and relatively safe beach. ‘Big Beach’ as it is known locally as opposed to the more local ‘Little Beach’ of the previous post.
The village doesn’t really fit any traditional Cornish-coastal-village mold with its relatively orderly streets and terraces, houses and homes are nestled into the valley sides facing away from the sea sheltered by the arm of the cliff. Most Cornish seaside villages have the sea as the focal point, facing it down, as most were first and foremost fishing ports making their living and reputation directly from the sea so the eyes of the village needed to be turned upon it. Pentewan’s collective gaze is on the now disused harbour, a glorified pond now, left to the rudd and eels.
The amphitheatre-like geography gives us several clues as to it’s history; it compounds the fact that it was not historically a fishing port, the dunes that were once here made that not worth the effort – although some low-level domestic fishing would likely have occurred. It tells us also that Pentewan’s short zenith as a clay – and to lesser extent tin and stone – port exporting around the world was in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The village nucleus was mostly expanded in this industrial period and this was a time of great pride in our industrious achievements and the artificial harbour was victory of engineering and ingenuity over nature. Hence the focus upon it as the locus of trade and wealth.
Pentewan is a product of its history, the village and landscape has been absolutely changed by humans, various families and their endeavours to make a living and possibly a fortune. Whereas other villages that attracted such an entrepreneurial spirit flourished then expanded, Charlestown, Par, Fowey or Falmouth, Pentewan enjoyed a brief heyday and then foundered. After World War Two all industrial, larger scale businesses were abandoned.
We can go back much further with Pentewan, which is of particular satisfaction to me. I have developed a fairly intense interest in prehistory over the years, the Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Ages ignite a curiosity in me that is hard to sate. Most of our ideas about the people and culture of them are interpretations of the enigmatic things they left behind on and in our landscape, which sharpen in focus and detail – but not by a lot – as we progress into the early Middle Ages. Well my digging has unearthed a few things and solidified a few more.
If i were more superstitious I could assert that my interest could be connected to the fact that I grew up on what is locally known as ‘The Round’. My childhood home is set on its slopes and from the terraced and tiered back garden you can step out on to the grazing land and reach the summit in a few steps. I lost my first kite here actually, it had a big, mean pirate face on it, grimacing down at me as I watched it sail off to freedom, never to be retrieved. Losing a kite is a lesson in permanence and responsibility for a kid, I remember not quite wrapping my mind around the fact that it wouldn’t come back, the finality of it was quite incomprehensible and I remember being rather put out about it, begging my Dad to chase it. I was only 23 at the time.
The Round is a very hill-shaped hill, dominating the village from a commanding position. There have been no excavations of course – the land is owned by a biblically ancient and curmudgeonly farmer named Enoch of Towan Farm – but the general consensus is that this was the genesis of what is now Pentewan village. The Round has evidence of an entrenchment, most likely fortified and hut circles. Iron Age at least (800 BC to 100 AD), it is a fine example of a ‘Cornish Round‘, hence the rather un-inventive colloquial name – a running theme in Pentewan it seems. It is worth noting that The Round now stands at least 400 metres from the ocean, these days its slopes bleed out into woods, gardens, village and valleys. However before campsites and harbours, the sea here, mostly sheltered from the Atlantic swells by the colossal buffers of the Dodman and the Lizard, would have lapped up around what is now the village square and at high tides to where the main road now runs to Mevagissey. Thus this ancient settlement would have been much closer to the tides.
Sites that show indications of such things, ancient things, are often on sites of significance, spiritual, geographical or strategic (sometimes all three) and thus run farther back into history than we might think. The Round may have been a Bronze Age site and thus may have been Neolithic or perhaps even further. Whilst it is not a headland promontory it would have been rather close to one a millenia and a half ago. Headland forts are ubiquitous in Cornwall, being very obvious place really for fortified villages, the majority of the hard work already done by formidable and easily defensible sea cliffs, the only part that needs effort to build and manage being the landward side. What is worth noting however is that the only example in Cornwall systematically excavated, Treryn Dinas way down west, shows evidence of Bronze Age (2500 BC to 800 BC) activity too.
The etymology of place-names, again, gives us some image of the Pentewan of millenia ago. The word can be broken down into ‘Pen’ and ‘Towan’ which means ‘end’ and ‘dune’ in Old Cornish, giving us some idea of the landscape.
I love imagining the Pentewan valley prior to the Industrial period, it would have been estuarine possibly up as far as London Apprentice or even what is now an unromantic retail estate comprising McDonalds, Travelodge and other such bland franchises on the outskirts of St. Austell. It is certain that Nansladron, some way up the valley has telling evidence of maritime activity. The name itself means ‘Thieves Valley’ and the tin streaming works there – the first real mining works near Pentewan – uncovered canoe-like boats and shells. Also the Trewhiddle Hoard, unearthed further up the valley (at Trewhiddle) by more industrious workings yielded Saxon era treasures deposited by fearful Pentewanites – possibly monks as I will discuss below – who were understandably anxious about increasingly frequent Viking raids. Indicating that perhaps this was as far as possible one could reach via boat. The Trewhiddle Hoard itself is a wonderful find, found in the 18th Century and now housed in the British Museum, large parts of it are lost but what remains is curious. There is a silver wired flail or scourge – for painfully whipping unruly folk – that is uncommon in Saxon finds. The hoard comes from a time when Cornwall had only just become fully subjugated to Saxon Wessex so the objects may have roots in the Iron Age/early medieval period in Cornwall, when it was the fully independent Brythonic Kingdom of Dumnonia.
So there is quite bit more to the village than meets the modern eye. It is possible that this quiet village has Bronze Age roots, perhaps earlier but definitely we can see evidence of Iron Age settlement. That the landscape once looked radically different. What is now campsite, road and woodland was once sea and estuary.
There are other curiosities. Cornwall was, along with Wales, Ireland, some Scottish Isles and northeast England, one of the first areas that Christianity took hold after the Roman departure. There is some tenuous but I think interesting evidence that Pentewan was the site of a monastery. The Trewhiddle Hoard is one clue. Another is anecdotal; there is a legend about a Breton Prince – named Tewan – being shown great kindness by some religious folk here after a shipwreck who then named the village after him. Myths and Legends contain spectres of folk memory, which is laughably unreliable in an academic sense but often hold kernels of truth.
Lastly the peculiar church here is unlike any other in the Cornish villages that I know of, it is built like a monastery and is very un-churchlike with no towers, spires or cruciform shaping (see the picture below) situated at the end of cell-like buildings now converted into small but quite beautiful terraced houses. I think this is an architectural ghost of a memory. The present building dates to 1849, but according to the church record there is a much older back wall, probably Norman in origin, and there is also apparently a norman-era cell in the basement of the big white house at left hand side, visible in the picture below.
After the conquest of 1066 we start to come into some more solid records of Pentewan. The Domesday Book notes that the Manor of Pentewan, centred on what is now Barton Farm – opposite Mill Garage – was ultimately owned by a fellow named Robert de Mortain, who happened to be William the Conqueror’s brother and who was bequeathed nearly the entirety of Cornwall for his loyalty to William during and before the conquest. There are other minor Tenant – Lords named as Oswulf and Algar. Saxon names. The Manor was then known as Bentewoin athough this could have been a French-Latinisation of the Cornish.
The manor house became the seat of the Wyse Family in the 13th century, it was passed through various familiesand marriages, including the Dart, who may have been a branch of the previous and the Robartes (presumably of Lanhydrock). The manor burnt down in the 15th century and was rebuilt only to be burned down again in the 17th century.
This manor would have been neighbours with Polrudden farm, still extant and with whom it shares some similarities of fate.
A large farmstead on the cliffs above Pentewan on the Porthpean side. The family at Polrudden had a bit of trubulent time, despite living in apparently rather elegant house the eldest son of John Pulrudden was dragged off by French Pirates in 1423 and never heard of again, this was when the tide of the Hundred Years War was not in English favour and the south coast was frequent victim to raids. It also burnt down in the 15th century – it seems likely it was part of a French raid that also probably burned down Pentewan manor and perhaps stole some sons. It was rebuilt in 1600. The traceries in the windows of the Terrace come from this version of the farm. It was subsequently burned again in 1734. The farm then changed hands and seemed to be where the wealthy mercantile families who eyed Pentewan with vision and ambition settled. The Church Record says that the Tyzzer family (of West Cornwall) came to Polrudden and built the first incarnation of the harbour here. Although I can not find any other information to support this.
On Polrudden Farm there remains a quarry, cut out of the clifftop above Poldhu cove. It was here that a type of Elvan was mined, once again inventively named ‘Pentewan Stone’. Pentewan Stone is/was one of the finest building stones in Cornwall and was very much sought after. It is durable but relatively easily sculpted and capable of very fine detail. It is yellowish when freshly cut – not unlike Bath Stone – but weathers to a silvery-grey colour . It can be seen at Place House in Fowey, Trelowarren and Anthony House in Torpoint and on the ecclesiastical facades of Bodmin and St. Austell churches. Pentewan Stone, along with Tin, was one of the first exports of Pentewan. It is also of note that Cornwall’s first copper smelter belonged to Polrudden and was established between 1693 and 1697.
There seemed to have been a rudimentary harbour established around the 15th and 16th centuries – possibly by the Tyzzer family – from which the Pentewan stone was shipped but also tin from the tin streaming works at Nansladron.
The Pentewan valley and its River, the River Clissey (known as the White River also as it use to run milk-white with clay sediment after heavy rains, even in my childhood this would occur, it doesn’t anymore, which is good for everyone and everything around it and is now teaming with trout) had been utilised for tin streaming for millenia, tin being a vital part of Bronze manufacture. William Borlase, the Cornish antiquarian called the Pentewan Valley one of the richest seams in Cornwall. The Polgooth mine was enormously successful for a time and modestly dubbed ‘The Greatest Tin Mine in the World’ but by 1780 there were two larger scale streaming works working the river with the peculiarlarly optimistic and pious names that mining works have – Wheal Virgin and Happy Union. These much more intensive workings quickly exhausted the supply and were closed down by the 1850’s.
We have reached the period of history that Pentewan came under the scrutiny and hegemony of the Hawkins family of Trewithen, a monstrously large estate centred around Grampound and owning large swathes of central Cornwall.
Baronet Christopher Hawkins was an interesting character, embodying a particular strand of Cornishness. He was arrogant, obnoxious, mean-spirited and greedy. A collector of rotten boroughs and land, found guilty of bribery in relation to this habit (so he really must have been spectacularly guilty), he tore down potential dissenting electors houses that happened to be on his land so they could not vote and was generally unpleasant to be tenanted to, work for or be around at all: The following verse was said to have been fixed to his gates at Trewithen.
- “A large house, and no cheer,
- A large park, and no deer,
- A large cellar, and no beer,
- Sir Christopher Hawkins lives here.”
However, through his zealous land grabbing he had acquired clay pits, a rapidly expanding industry in the late 18th century, on the St. Austell moor and his quite fantastic wealth coupled with a greedy yet undeniably prescient entrepreneurial vision caused him to settle his eye on Pentewan and change its fortunes considerably.
It is thanks to the Hawkins family that the Harbour was built, the first in 1744 and was then rebuilt by Christopher in 1826 – it must have been a whacking great undertaking – furthermore the genius idea of a tramway was alighted upon by Hawkins and constructed in 1827. This linked the new harbour to St. Austell town which was recently wealthy thanks to the abundance of China Clay, the viability of which owes itself to the industry and experimentations ofWilliam Cookworthy, himself an interesting figure and quite the antithesis of Mr. Hawkins. The faster cargo movement meant more bucks for Mr. Hawkins and more trade for Pentewan. This tramway was upgraded to a smal steam railway a few decades later.
So Pentewan flourished. By the mid -19th century it was a bustling port and had expanded considerably. The village had a school, church, forge, butchers, grocers, pubs, coopers, boatbuilders, masons, carpenters and all the various things one thinks of when conjuring a delightful bucolic idyll of a village. To be fair though the village, according to its records at least, appears to have been a friendly and prosperous place in the years of peace after the Napoleonic wars. The records of Pentewan from here are well documented and there are many pictures to bolster the evidence. They are plenty of very nice sepia photographs of iron hulled three-masted sailing boats of the Victorian era moored in the harbour. Various pictures of Pentewanites squinting with suspicion into the unfamiliar contraption that was the camera.
It is here, to be honest, that my interest wanes. The historical documentation on this period is even more prolific and I urge you to seek it out if you’re interested. The excellent ‘Past in Pentewan‘ by Robert Evans and Maureen Prettyman is a good place to go. As is this report.
The village can lay claim to other random things, apparently it is the proud owner of some of the first conrete bulidngs in Britain as the industry turned to exporting concrete briefly after the war. The harbour finally closed in the 60’s as the silting became too much and the industry too little to make the constant dredging worth it. There is some talk of reviving it to a working harbour. This could be a great thing, it could also be a financial black hole, although the silting was largely an industrial by-product of tin streaming and clay mining. The latter of which is on its last legs and the former completely dead.
Pentewan is an interesting little village that’s for certain and it is also home.