Morwenstowe is Cornwall’s most northerly parish. Here the cliffs are at their highest and the seas rolling in from their long journey across the Atlantic can be merciless. Named after the Welsh saint, St Morwenna, it is a place of dramatic and wild beauty which was once renowned for shipwrecks.
The tiny hamlet of Morwenstow which huddles just inland from the waved-battered cliffs was home to one of Cornwall’s most famous sons, the man who wrote the Cornish anthem ‘Trelawny’, the Reverend Robert Stephen Hawker. A highly unconventional character he was vicar in the parish for 40 years from 1834 to 1875 and did a great deal of good in the surrounding poverty-stricken community including building the local school, a new vicarage and repairing bridges in the area.
Although he was born over the border in Devon Hawker was passionate about Cornwall and its heritage. As well as writing ‘Trelawney’, or ‘Song of the Western Men’ as it is also known, he penned a number of poems and books about Cornwall. He is said to have been a friend of Tennyson who visited the area while writing his famous work about King Arthur. The two men are said to have had long discussions about the myths and legends of the area.
The famous Hawker’s Hut
Hawker famously built himself a little hut from driftwood on the cliffs not far from the church where he would apparently spend hours contemplating, writing and allegedly smoking opium. The hut still exists and is the smallest National Trust property in the country! Sitting inside, sheltered from the wind, with a wide view of the sea filling the view from the tiny door it is easy to understand why he loved it so much.
Parson Hawker was also instrumental in changing local attitudes towards the victims of shipwreck. In the past it had been tradition for the bodies to be buried on the clifftops near to where they had been found but the vicar insisted that all should be given a proper burial in the churchyard at Morwenstowe. On one occasion the wreck of the Caledonia left nine men drowned at the foot of the cliffs near Hawker’s church. Each was buried in the churchyard and the rather spooky figurehead from the ship still marks the spot where the captain, Peter Stevenson, was laid to rest.
Ever the eccentric it is said that Hawker had around ten cats that would follow him to the church for services and would unceremoniously career about the aisles during his sermons. On one occasion it is claimed that he even excommunicated one for catching and killing a mouse on a Sunday.
Morwenstowe makes a wonderful place to visit, for the walks that Hawker so loved along the dramatic clifftops and for the beautiful Norman church where he preached so many sermons. And if that’s not enough to tempt you there is also the award-winning Rectory Farm Tearooms where delicious cream teas are served on vintage china in the 13th century farmhouse.