Lelant that was: the reminiscences of Dorothy Meade from 1909
© Jennifer Shimon 2004
I have known Lelant all my life, but the first eight years of it were spent in St Ives. My father, Dr Charles Backhouse, had a surgery in Lelant, in Mrs Steer's front room [2 Fern Bank]. But in those days my knowledge of Lelant was limited to the fact that it was a beautiful and highly desirable village miles out in the country. My bosom friend was Irene Trewhella, with whom I went for nursery walks because our nurses were friends. She lived in St Ives and her parents owned a carriage, and had a coachman, Mr Sam Beckerleg (grandfather to Mrs Harry Chinn). Sometimes I was invited with my younger brother, Ivan, to go for a drive with Irene and her mother. This was of course a tremendous treat. We sped along, at about five miles an hour, up the road to Lelant. Sam would wave his whip to his family as we passed their cottage in the village. Then there was the thrill when the shoe brake was put on for the perilous descent of the hill, past the Abbey under the trees and beside the gardens, gay with lilac and laburnum, and then the wonderful copper beeches at Woodlands, and along past St Erth Station and Treloweth Farm where two magnificent peacocks strutted about the lawn in front of the rose-covered house. After that my heart beat a little faster. I knew we were presently to pass a house on the right which was owned at that time by a retired sea captain. He had a flagstaff on the sloping lawn and in front of it was a wooden ship's figurehead of a well-endowed lady with a dead white face, and blank eyeballs, who thrust her bosom out at the passers-by, and scared the daylights out of me! Through St Erth village and over the Causeway back through Lelant again with the sunshine fairly dancing through the canopy of trees, and home to St Ives. We felt we had ventured far abroad, almost to London no doubt.
My elder brother was at school in Lelant. Mr Bassett had a preparatory school in one of the houses by Riverside. His new house, Chygwidden, was in the process of building, and the school moved there as soon as it was ready. My brother was a weekly boarder, as were many of the local and St Ives boys. He hated to go back to school on Mondays, but the misery was greatly allayed by the engine driver, dear Charlie Mitchell, who would give him a ride in to Lelant on the footplate. Chygwidden is now a nursing home - incorrectly named The Manor.
We came to live in Lelant in 1909, spending the first six months in Rosedale. We thought its real name was Curnow's Cottage though I never knew who the Mr Curnow was. It had a flattened roof top surrounded by a white rail round the flat part, and you reached it through the attic, and were forbidden to go to it as it was not considered safe - however, you got a lovely view of the estuary from up there! We were waiting for our new house to be finished, and it was a huge thrill to go up and see how it was getting on. Progress had been slow because the same builder was doing the new Roman Catholic Church in St Ives at the same time. I loved to see the long beams and lathes of wood, leaning upright against each other like a huge roof, and getting thoroughly seasoned in all weathers. Nowadays they haven't the time for that and the wood just warps after you are in the house! The house, Penquite, was in three fields just above the wood through which we had right of way to the Station. Our neighbours, the Batchelors, at Arlyn also had their path and so did Lelant Hotel. Ours was the prettiest and we played games in it or strolled through it at leisure enjoying the lovely squelchy leaf mould. On Monday mornings I used to rush through it at the rate of knots, with a heavy weekend bag in my hand, and a satchel of schoolbooks on my shoulder, raincoat, and last minute left-behinds in the other hand, having left till the last possible moment the unpleasant duty of returning to school in Penzance after the weekend at home. I dream about it sometimes even now, floundering through the overgrown brambles at the end of the wood, the train puffing and snorting nearby, and the panic of reaching the kicking-kissing gate - always a puddle there - and suddenly -splash! down go two or three books out of a hastily packed satchel, it will take ages to pick them all up and stuff them back - all is lost - but no - dear Charlie Mitchell leans out of the engine and calls out, "That's all right me dear, I shan't go without you." Panic over! The railway carriage gained at last, with nothing worse than a reproving, "You left it a bit late again,"' from the guard. Vanishing Lelant? Well, there aren't many left now who would keep a train or bus waiting for a scatterbrained little girl who would be late for school.
Lelant was one of the prettiest stations belonging to the GWR. In fact I believe it won the prize for the prettiest and best kept station in the county. The Stationmaster was an elderly gentleman called Mr Hosking. He had a long white beard and looked, and indeed was, very benevolent. He was a keen gardener and a devout Methodist. The platform had a few palm trees and beds of gaily coloured flowers all the year round, and there was never so much as a squashed matchbox or a bit of chocolate paper to be seen. After Mr Hosking retired he used to do a bit of gardening for us. This was during the First War, when our gardener Mr Albert Gregory (father of Frank, Ivan, Lewis, and Jack, and two daughters) and my father had both gone to the War. I remember Mr Hosking sitting on one of the shallow frames in deep meditation, then saying to me, "Well, Miss Dorothy, the dear Lord said, 'In my father's house are many mansions' and I'm hoping to get into one of them one day." Mr Hosking was succeeded by another keen gardener, Mr Martin. It was a pleasure to sit on the station bench surrounded by flowers, waiting for the 2.36 into St Ives - return fare 3d if you were under twelve, 6d for grown folks!
Our next door neighbour, Mr Batchelor, was the proud owner of the first motorcar in Lelant, a De Dion Bouton. In spite of the fact that it was continually breaking down, my father was so fired with enthusiasm that in 1910 he yielded to temptation and acquired a Darracq. They cost only some £250-300 in those days. This vehicle was quite beautiful with its outside brake lever and Stepney spare wheel and a heavy canvas hood held in place when not in use by leather straps. The car had a nasty habit of bursting into flames from time to time. My father got used to this and he would stop the car, calmly remark, "Dammit, she's on fire again," climb out and smother the flame with the passenger's car rug. I loved it when he came to fetch me from school sometimes on Fridays and, if I had missed the train back on Monday morning, he would be persuaded to drive me in. I got a lot of face from my school mates - by being driven up to the front door of the school in a cloud of smoke and a great deal of noise in a scarlet monster glittering with brasswork and looking like a brand new fire engine.
Another great joy of my childhood was a ride on the ferry boat with Tommy Whatty (Auntie Dolly's father). Like Charlie Mitchell he was a man beloved of all the children and would say "Hop in"if any of us happened to be around and looking hopeful when a hail, accompanied by much arm-waving from the Hayle side, would bring him rowing across to fetch passengers at 1d a head. That was hard-earned money! In the days before the Causeway was built, when people had to walk all the way round over the old bridge in St Erth Churchtown to get to or from Hayle, the ferry was a very flourishing business. There were, I believe, three generations of Whattys all in their time well-love ferrymen. When we first came to live here, cars were seldom seen and the ferry was constantly on the go, and fascinating to watch, especially when there was a light load and the chance of an invitation to "Hop in."
The next man to have charge of the ferry was Mr Whatty's brother-in-law, Mr Tom Pomeroy, and he held the post from 1911 to 1932. The ferry was pretty busy during the 14-18 War, but after that there were many more cars, passengers began to fall off, and the advent of buses in the 1930s caused a further slump.
However, the heaviest part of the ferryman's duties was the lighting up of the guiding lamps as soon as the tide was high enough to allow steamers to ride over the sand bar and the channel was deep enough for them to make their way into the harbour of Hayle. Back in the old days, when it was the harbour of Lannant that they were making for, it is said that was a chapel on Anyer or Angel Point, belonging to a Guild, whose members had the charitable duty of lighting the lamps or torches as soon as it was safe for ships to come in, and to use the chapel to hold offices of prayer for "those in peril on the sea." During Mr Pomeroy's incumbency, he built himself a bungalow, the site of which can be seen between what is now the Beach cafe and the black sheds on the modern wharf. His Dorothy Perkins roses still bloom there in the summertime. He lived there with his wife and daughter so as to be near by and save the long walk from the village when it was time to light the lamps. These were oil until, during his time, the Electric Supply Station came into being and eventually the lights were set to come on automatically. Still, at first some supervision was necessary. Electricity was a new thing for Lelant and such newfangled contraptions were not altogether to be trusted!
The summertime brought few visitors, you practically had the beach to yourself and could undress for bathing wherever you liked. The little train puffed busily back and forth on the line and if Charlie caught sight of any of his friends, regardless of our state of dress - or undress - he would give us a toot-toot on the whistle and wave a red, spotted handkerchief, and you waved back with any garment that came handy. The summer holidays were sheer joy. There were the usual expeditions to the beach, armed with a huge black square tin box containing a spirit kettle to make the tea, and a thumping children's tea in baskets laden with splits and cake. We thought nothing of carrying all this, and of course our bathing bundles, through the village, generally walking on the wall where now Fairfield Close has replaced the pasture and anemone fields of yesterday, across the links, and over the right of way, and the old wooden Black Bridge, along a now obliterated path to Angel Point where the gun sight of the last (1939-45) War was set on the spot where the chapel once stood, and down the sand slope to the beach. Sometimes one could just lie in the soft bed of sweet smelling bedstraw enjoying the gentle prick of the marram grass which saved the towans from obliteration, and watch the lovely black and scarlet day moth and try to spot the skylark that was singing its heart out up there.
Then there were the garden fetes - will these ever be things of the past? One every year, with marquees, in Trevethoe Park where we acted plays in the walled gardens, seats 1s, and Lelant Brass Band played vigorously all the afternoon. Walking home one summer evening after one of the fetes, I was overtaken by an elderly gentleman who said as he passed by, "Well, Miss, all I can say is that many's the time I've paid a shilling and seen a worse concert." And that was praise indeed! At the coronation of King George V in 1911 we had big doings of celebrations up Trevethoe Park. A competition for the best decorated donkey cart or jingle. Our entry was a small donkey called Spider, drawing a clumsy garden cart all dressed up in flowers with a pillar in each corner supporting Canterbury bells, and my brother aged seven standing up in it dressed in. of all things, a white drill sailor suit! There were sports for the children and a coronation mug of milk or tea and a large penny bun, saffron of course, for each child.
Every May Day we had a big bonfire on the space between the Station and the wood. Why the wood never caught fire I can't imagine. And of course there was Lelant Fair on 15 August every year. Stalls were set up on the grass outside the Church gate, where nowadays at that time you can't put a pin between the parked cars. More stalls on the grass splat below the hill and, in a good year, all down the road under the trees of the farm. There were all sorts of shies and side shows, and the real Fun of the Fair consisted in leaden tubes of water at 2d a piece which, on skilful squeezing, emitted a thin but reasonably powerful jet of water which you aimed at your friends, or even at strangers. This was considered the epitome of wit and made the evening for adolescents and courting couples. There were splendid fairrings too and prizes to be won. I remember winning a truly fearsome ornament they assured me was an overmantle, made of varnished shells and mirrors and small pillars. I thought it was just lovely and proudly presented it to my mother when I got home. She, wisely, put it in my bedroom "for safe keeping" where it remained until I was married and went away.
In the early Thirties the Fair moved to the field on the St Ives Road just above Tyringham Row where at one time Mr Paul Roach had his smithy. This was inherited by his son Maurice who converted it into a garage and repair shop and later moved to Longstone Hill. The fair became more sophisticated and far less fun than the old and simpler one. It had a roundabout which often stuck, generally in the middle of a bar of its music. Even then, there would be one stall on the old ground, just to preserve the rights of the old Charter. It dwindled away and was abandoned during the War and another tradition and village custom disappeared and has already been forgotten.
Lelant Band was a truly splendid affair. Ruritanian uniforms, brilliant brass instruments, and, of course, a Big Drum. It officiated on all occasions and it competed, with good success, in the ciunty contests on bank holidays. I used to love leaning out of my bedroom window on a moonlit summer night when our Band, or other expeditions on their way home, clattered across the Causeway in their wagonettes. There was the clopping of the horses' hoofs on the macadam road and the voices rising above it, singing in perfect harmony Abide with me and other songs, sacred and profane, perhaps depending upon how many pubs had been patronised on their way. The sound carried far over the high water and the effect was very moving and nostalgic. One night one of the Band members fell through the Big Drum, an expensive mishap, but beer was a lot cheaper and stronger in those days.
Before we had the Dump on the Saltings, the Trendreath stream, running through the underway near the path, passed through one of the bridges which was then under the railway to let the tides in and out. Just short of the bridge it flowed into a deep, round saltwater pool which contained some excellent bass, and my father spent many happy hours down there with rod and, hopefully, basket. That was long before the pollution era and we used to have great days catching prawns in the seaweed on the weir or against the modern quay.
Out of the back window [of Penquite] I watched Maydene being built and their cabbage fields being transformed into two bungalows, Penrose and Talwyn.
It was not until Squire Tyringham sold the estate in 1920 that we had a village hall. He donated the disused chapel in the middle of the village for a hall to be administered by trustees, of whom the late Mr Alfred Olds was the last surviving original member. It was never very beautiful to look at, inside or out, but it certainly filled a longfelt need and was used for meetings, dances, etc, as at present, also Band practice and plays. Up to then all such activities were held in the School. Trestle tables were put together to form a very precarious stage for variety concerts, tableaux, or plays. We were unsophisticated in those days for we had no buses and even the St Ives cinemas, when at last they came to Cornwall, were very primitive, and we had no Women's Institute, no county drama festivals, no wireless let alone television, and we had to make our own fun, using our push bikes for transport and we were very easy to please.
The new hall had long narrow windows eight feet from the ground and a gallery at the entrance, approached by a narrow, steep, winding stair. Beneath it was a small partitioned space where the Band kept its instruments , people hung their wet coats etc, and things were dropped for the next jumble sale. At the other end was the "apse" of the chapel in the form of a high platform some six by six feet in area and about five feet from the floor. It was approached by nothing; if you wanted to get up there you fetched a bench or a chair. The only exit was a narrow door under the gallery, opening inwards. When I put on a simple play of Aladdin, with a cast of twelve or so, the old trestle tables came out again. The tiny spaces on each side between stage and the outer wall formed both dressing rooms and wings; they were half-filled by orange or tea boxes borrowed from the shop across the road [at the Old Bank House] to serve for steps up to the stage. We rigged up the cotton curtains for stage tabs and a row of candles fixed into cocoa tins cut in half for footlights. These, and a rather drippy oil lamp hanging over the stage, provided all the lighting we could have. You can imagine four somewhat substantial fairies dressed in stiff muslin tarleton, dancing like enthusiastic baby tanks across this uncertain stage, every plank of it squeaking in agony, and the whole contraption shaking and pitching like a ship in a storm. And nobody ever once thought of fire. It makes me quake now when I realise what awful risks we took. But, before we had the relative safe electricity, and strict precautions were rightly made compulsory, one just never thought about danger. But we really did enjoy ourselves.
I would love to tell you about some of the outstanding personalities and characters we were lucky enough to have in Lelant during these years. Perhaps one of the most colourful was Miss Sealy with her large raffia hats, heavily decorated with incredible gardens of broghtly coloured raffia flowers. She was always to be seen, and heard, striding through the village followed by two or three poodles and a minute but noisy Yorkshire terrier, panting in their efforts to keep up with her. She lived in the early years in Elm Cottage at the turn of Abbey Hill. The cottage faced up the hill and had red roses all over it and also had a well-kept gay garden. Her very chatty green parrot used to stand on a perch by the gate and greet the passers-by with a shrill, "Good morning, nice day," in the exact tone of his mistress. My father was quite annoyed one day when he politely took off his hat, expecting to see Miss Sealy, only to find it was "That damn bird again."
There was Mrs Beckerleg, who stood at her gate under the porch [at Cedar Court], looking very like Sir Henry Irving who she referred to as Harry Broadribb; she was related to him. There she stood for hours on end, keeping a presiding eye on the village and its doings. She had a sense of humour and was always good for a chat and a laugh. Next door to her [Badgers Holt], was at one time the Ranee of Sarawak, one of the best amateur pianists in the country, I was told on good authority.
She was a big woman, very handsome, bright blue eyes, generous to a fault, very friendly to everybody, and immensely good company. She often had interesting guests such as Mr John Galsworthy, Sir Edward Elgar, Mrs Belloc Lowndes, and WH Hudson. She would have what she called a brain wave and nothing would stop her. She gave an annual supper to every man who drove a horse and cart in St Ives, she started a Men's Club in Lelant, and then took to rescuing ancient Celtic crosses from places where road widening would have destroyed them. Two of these are in Lelant, one on the wall under the copper beeches at Woodlands and another on the wall on the turning to the Links Hotel.
There was Mrs Hogg, a charming and very vague lady who ran a little private school. She always left her stick or her bag or something behind wherever she went, and arrived for a funerals at the right time but a day too soon, and came again the next day but by then she had forgotten the time and turned up as the people were streaming out.
There have been so many real characters here, and I hope there always will be, but it seems to me that nowadays characters are not encouraged. We are all expected, if not obliged, to toe the line. Individuality is considered rather a nuisance in these days, be it people or places. That old mounting block - what did we call it, 'epping stock - you can't park cars with that old thing there, it must be destroyed. That's where the hepping block outside The Ship went, when generations of travellers had used it to mount their horses after having a refresher at The Ship Inn, and the same fate would have befallen the block near the Church if Mrs Magor had not pleaded for it, repaired the damage done to it by a passing lorry, and kept the surrounding grass tidy for many years.
Vanishing Lelant! It is no longer a village. Time has reduced it to a suburb of St Ives rather than its mother parish. Its future is in your hands.
[Written by Dorothy Meade and given as a talk to Lelant Women's Institute 1972]