Morwenstow’s eccentric vicar

Before we left Cornwall we visited the Norman church at Morwenstow, situated on a wild and remote stretch of the north Cornwall coast, on the track of one of the lovable eccentrics that the English seem to treasure.

Simon Jenkins captures the atmosphere of this place in his England’s Thousand Best Churches guide:

…a no-man’s land of cliffs, windswept fields and isolated farms.  To the west lies only America.

Even today, as Jenkins writes, the place is infused with the spirit of one man, Robert Hawker, who wrote of his parish,

So stern and pitiless is this iron-bound coast that within the memory of one man upwards of 80 wrecks have been counted within a reach of 15 miles, with only here and there the rescue of a living man.

From 1834 to 1875 the vicar at Morwenstow was the eccentric, outstanding Oxford scholar and poet, Robert Hawker.  Hawker’s parishioners must have seemed to him as wild as the coastline: smugglers, wreckers and Dissenters.  He, by contrast, was very High Church, converting to Roman Catholicism on his deathbed. But the locals recognised in him a deep compassion: he insisted on giving Christian burials to shipwrecked seamen washed up on the shores of the parish. Prior to this, the bodies of shipwrecked sailors were often either buried on the beach where they were found or left to the sea. In the church is the figurehead of the ship ‘The Caledonia’ which foundered in September 1842. The figurehead once marked the grave of nine of the ten-man crew (a replica stands there now). The single survivor, a French-speaking Guernsey sailor, wept at the burial service for his comrades and Hawker later wrote that the cry of the stranger was ‘the touch that makes the whole world kin’.

Nearby stands a granite cross marked ‘Unknown Yet Well Known’, marking the mass grave of 30 or more seafarers who Hawker insisted should be buried in the churchyard.  The epitaph on the tomb (above) is inscribed with the quotation, ‘They came in paths of storm, they found this quiet home in Christian ground’.

Much of the original Norman church survives – there are Norman beasts in the doorway (above) and the font is the oldest known Norman font (below), with a cable decoration around the waist.  Simon Jenkins describes the hollowed bowl as being like ‘an open hard-boiled egg’.  The church is dedicated to Saint  Morwenna, an early 6th century Cornish saint who had a cell at Morwenstow.  She was the sister of Saint Juliot, who had a cell and founded the church near Boscastle that we visited yesterday.  Hawker wrote:

Welcome, wild rock and lonely shore!
Where round my days dark seas shall roar,
And thy gray fane, Morwenna, stand
The beacon of the Eternal Land.

A path leads from the church down to the cliff edge where the National Trust’s smallest building, ‘Hawker’s Hut’ is built into the face of the cliff. Here, Hawker spent many hours in contemplation, looking out to sea towards the island of Lundy, writing poetry, and smoking his opium pipe. He entertained guests here, including Alfred Tennyson and Charles Kingsley (whether they joined him in a drag on the opium pipe is unknown).

Other eccentricities included dressing up as a mermaid and excommunicating his cat for mousing on Sundays. He dressed in a claret-coloured coat, blue fisherman’s jersey, long sea-boots, a pink brimless hat and a poncho made from a yellow horse blanket. He talked to birds, invited his nine cats into church and kept a huge pig as a pet. He married twice, the first time a woman twice his age; then, after her death, a Polish woman a third his age.

The view from Hawker’s Hut

Inside Hawker’s Hut

Hawker’s Hut

Hawker built himself a remarkable Rectory (above) next to the church, with chimneys modelled on the towers of the churches in his life.

Hawker is also renowned as the author of  ‘The Song of the Western Men’, also known as ‘Trelawny’. He wrote the song in 1824, telling of events that took place in 1688, when James II, used the royal prerogative to suspend the operation of legislation directed against those who did not worship in accordance with the rites of the Church of England by issuing a Declaration of Indulgence towards Catholics and ordering it to be read in every church.  The song was inspired by the story of Jonathan Trelawny, one of  seven bishops who refused to read out the Indulgence and who  were  imprisoned in the Tower of London.  Hawker played around with the historical truth: the march on London described in the song only reached Bristol, before Trelawny was acquitted by a jury in London and released.

A good sword and a trusty hand!
A faithful heart and true!
King James’s men shall understand
What Cornish lads can do!

And have they fixed the where and when?
And shall Trelawny die?
Here’s twenty thousand Cornish men
Will know the reason why!

And when we come to London Wall,
A pleasant sight to view,
Come forth! come forth! ye cowards all:
Here’s men as good as you.
‘Trelawny he’s in keep and hold;
Trelawny he may die:
Here’s twenty thousand Cornish bold
Will know the reason why

By the end of Hawker’s time as vicar the church was in a ruinous state of disrepair.  The wooden roof was rotten and let in streams of water.  The pillars were green with lichen and the side of the tower bulged.  Storms had torn out the glass in the windows.  Before his death, Hawker had tried, unsuccessfully, to raise enough money for repairs.

Later, back in the churchyard, I pondered the nature of this man, Oxford-educated and culturally far-removed from his parishioners, who came to this wild and isolated place and dedicated himself to the lives of the villagers and the souls of shipwrecked sailors.

There are only two buildings in the vicinity of the church – the Rectory and the 13th century Rectory Farm, which is now a tearoom where everything is homemade.  We sat in the garden enjoying the unexpected warm sunshine while a wedding party assembled at the church across the road.

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