Tucked away on one side of Porthcurno, one of Cornwall’s most dazzling beaches, there is a mysterious set of stairs leading to a door in the cliff. It’s boarded up now, but once upon a time this was a two-story beach front wendy house. It was built in the 1920s for the nephews and nieces of Rowena Cade, one of Cornwall’s most fascinating personalities.
A little further along the beach is an even more impressive set of steps, 90 of them to be precise. These too were built by Ms Cade, to access her biggest triumph – the thrilling Minack Theatre which perches on the granite cliff top and has kept theatre audiences entertained for 90 years.
Today the Minack attracts 186,000 visitors a year. They come to explore the historic site and watch shows by performers from all over the world. But Rowena Cade originally opened her gardens as a temporary performance space, thinking it would suit a local performance of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. It’s hard to think of a better location for this tale of magic and maelstroms than the Minack.
The master builder
With the help of her gardener, the ‘quick, strong, courageous and tenacious’ Billy Rawlings, Cade literally carved a theatre out of the rock with her bare hands. Over the course of several years they cleared the heather and gorse from the garden and moved tons of rock and granite slabs in wheelbarrows. The toil and passion that went into this labour of love translated into the venue. The lighting at early shows might’ve been provided by car headlights, but the backdrop, acoustics and atmosphere were pure Cornish magic.
The house on the cliff
After this early success, Cade continued to work on the site, making the theatre her life’s work. It probably wasn’t the path a well-to-do young woman from Cheletnham might’ve been expected to follow. But after her father was killed in the First World War, Cade’s family were impoverished and forced to sell their town house. Rowena and her mother bought a cliffside house and the headland for £100 and it wasn’t long before she got deeply involved with local theatre.
The theatre you can see today still retains the same essential form as the original. There are a few new additions – some of the terraced seats now have the names of various productions performed here over the years. Despite their appearance they aren’t carved from granite, but formed from cement and sand from Porthcurno beach. The intricate Celtic style decorations were Rowena’s handy work – carved into the wet cement with her trusty screwdriver!
Shows and more
Now celebrating its 90th year, the Minack is running an extended season of shows up until the end of October. But if the weather is looking a little tempestuous, you can simply look around the grounds and sub tropical gardens. There are also various workshops, a garden experience and activities for children running throughout the year.