|"...fair as the sea...."|
St Morwenna and Reverend Hawker
July 8th is the feast of Morwenna, patron saint of the most northerly parish in Cornwall. Morwenstow lies six miles north of Bude and close to the source of the River Tamar. The story of Morwenna is, like so many of the Celtic saints, one of pilgrimage and the sacredness of place. Morwenna was born during the early part of the 6th century in South Wales. She is listed as one of the many children of Brychan, which would mean that she came from Brecon.
|Holy well of St Morwenna|
Her name is thought to be cognate with Welsh morwyn, meaning “maiden”, and poetically as “fair as the sea”. Her legend states that she trained in Ireland before coming to North Cornwall where she built her cell on the cliff top. The story goes that Morwenna carried all the building stones needed to build her hermitage from the beach far below. One day she dropped one large stone on her way back up the cliff path. Where the stone fell a miraculous spring gushed forth. The holy well of Morwenna can still be seen half way up the cliff, perched precariously overlooking the wild and stormy ocean. Morwenna is said to have died here, and her body was buried close to where the Norman church now stands. No story of Morwenstow is complete, however, without the mention of folklorist, antiquarian, poet and eccentric, the Reverend Robert Stephen Hawker, composer of the Cornish anthem, “Song of the Western Men” and remembered for re-introducing the harvest festival into the church calendar in October 1843, where bread was made from the last wheat harvest for the communion, and food was given to the poor.
Hawker has become part of the folklore of Morwenstow, and indeed he completely championed St Morwenna as patron of his parish. Sabine Baring Gould once called to question the reality of the story of Morwenna, and Hawker replied:
“What! Morwenna not lie in the holy place at Morwenstow! Of that you will never persuade me, -- no, never. I know that she lies there. I have seen her, and she has told me as much; and at her feet ere long I hope to lay my old bones.”
|St Morwenna's church, Morwenstow|
Hawker arrived in Morwenstow in 1834 and spent the rest of his life in the parish. He earned a compassionate but eccentric reputation and he regularly attended ship wrecks at the nearby coast, where he helped the unfortunate sailors and buried the dead in the churchyard. The figurehead of the ship Caledonia, which foundered in September 1842, marks the grave in Morwenstow churchyard of five of the nine-man crew. There are two landmarks that are particularly associated with Hawker. He built a small hut on the cliff top from driftwood and wood from the wrecks of the Phoenix in January 1843 and the Alonzo in October of the same year. Here, in his look-out retreat, he would smoke opium, write poetry and entertain guests. He also built the beautiful and unusual vicarage behind the church with chimneys modelled on the towers of the churches in his life: Tamerton, where he had been curate; Morwenstow and Welcombe; plus, that of Magdalen College, Oxford. The old kitchen chimney is a replica of Hawker’s mother’s tomb. He often conducted his church services in an unorthodox way, walking among the parishioners, muttering the liturgy and allowing his many pet cats entry to the church to attend services, though he excommunicated one of them for catching a mouse on a Sunday. He had a strong sense of the supernatural, and frequently referred to his belief in demons, many of whom reputedly haunted Hawker. One famous account records a demon, who leapt out of the sea at Marsland Mouth, at twilight during a wild storm. Hawker put his horse to a wild gallop to escape from his demonic pursuer. Interestingly the stream that drains across this remote beach, called Marsland Water marks the far northern Cornish border and a small wooden sign stands proudly by the stream marking the Duchy’s most northerly point. Another occasion at Marsland Mill, Hawker’s path was crossed by a small brown demon who appeared from under the gorse. Hawker pursued the demon, but it quickly slipped out of sight and into the river. And he described the event as “a nameless and indescribable sensation”.
|Rev. Hawker's vicarage|
He also used to communicate with St Morwenna, and regularly saw her inside the church, around the graveyard and on the cliff-top at Morwenstow. Hawker also had a vision of an angel in the church, by the rood screen door, whilst conducting a baptism. After some delay, Hawker announced that the angel had communicated that he was now the guardian angel of the child he had just baptised.
|Hawker's hut on the cliffs at Morwenstow|
In his younger days, Hawker is said to have dressed as a mermaid and sat on the rocks at Bude, he continued this practice until a local man threatened to go out and shoot the mermaid dead.
With all these tales in mind, it is easy to walk the ancient pathways around Morwenstow church and still feel the mighty presence of the Reverend Robert Stephen Hawker, and I for one am glad, as he was an eccentric visionary and a man of the people he served, who was always willing to help the poor and needy of the parish and beyond.
| Reverend Robert Stephen Hawker|
Article first published in Meyn Mamvro no. 96, Summer/Autumn 2018, as part of my regular Cornish Folklore column
© Alex Langstone
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