The ultimate guide to Cornwall

A review of Cornwall, by Peter Beacham and Nikolaus Pevsner. Uniting two classic guides by Pevsner and John Betjeman, Beacham has left no fernbanked lane or secret drive unexplored

19 July 2014

9:00 AM

19 July 2014

9:00 AM

Cornwall Peter Beacham and Nikolaus Pevsner

Yale University Press, pp.800, £35, ISBN: 9780300126686

Before writing this review I spent an hour looking for my original Pevsner paperback on Cornwall, published in 1951 (the first in the ‘Buildings of England’ series). It was falling apart, but I always took it with me on an architectural jaunt, together with my father John Betjeman’s Shell Guide to Cornwall, of course. The two books were good companions. The Pevsner was littered with notes in the margin, made by my dad, like ‘absolute balls,’ ‘what?’ or ‘wrong’ underlined. (I did not find the tattered book and can only conclude that some light-fingered book dealer has stolen it within the last year.)

Admittedly there were inaccuracies but with no official buildings ‘list’ at the time, Nikolaus Pevsner was out on his own. His chief interest was always the churches and he never presumed to write much about ‘place’. If a village had no noteworthy buildings he would simply leave it out, however picturesque it happened to be. In the amended and scantily revised 1970s edition, the
hitherto unmentioned village of Polperro, for instance, was given two column inches using my father’s Shell Guide description in quotation marks — a tacit acknowledgment that the two guides served different purposes. Pevsner was architectural dates and details, Shell more mood.

While revering both Pevsner and Betjeman, what Peter Beacham has done with the latest Cornwall is to perform magic: he has brought the two together. In consequence it’s a wonderful guidebook and I’m not just saying that because I know and love the county so well. Yale University Press made an inspired choice in Beacham. Not only is he a lyrical and sometimes funny writer with a true gift for evoking place, but he also cares passionately about architecture and about doing full justice to Cornwall. From his home in Exeter he has left no fern banked lane or secret drive unexplored; no farmhouse, manor, church, chapel, village or town unvisited and, 60 years after Pevsner’s original Cornish exploration, he has brought a fresh eye to everything.

It has taken him ten years. Beacham worked at English Heritage for over two decades and ended up being head of the listing of buildings: he is also an Anglican priest with a deep knowledge of ecclesiastical history. In consequence, he has greatly enriched Pevsner’s original guide, which gave short shift to Victorian churches, for instance, and missed out whole swathes of hidden Cornwall. Beacham said that he felt my father was sitting on his shoulder
everywhere he went. Well, I can certainly feel him around the place. The original Pevsner sums up St Endellion as ‘a beautifully kept church by a main road’. But Beacham writes: ‘The church stands sentinel over its coastal parish, low-roofed against Atlantic gales, and imbued with a profound serenity.’

The fact that English Heritage’s catalogue of listed buildings is available online, and serves as such a miraculous tool for architectural historians, should not detract from Cornwall’s value. Beacham has taken his own stance and revealed obscure and unregarded places. In Penzance, for instance, one of his favourite and in his view underrated towns, he singles out the 1935 Jubilee Pool: ‘It rests sleekly like a liner at anchor projecting into the sea between the quay and the promenade.’

But of all his revelations what thrilled me most was in the village of Tintagel, whose castle, old post office and quaint gift shops are all the thousands of tourists ever visit. Secreted at the back of Trevena House (remodelled from 1928 to 1933 as the headquarters of the Fellowship of the Knights of the Round Table of King Arthur) is the ‘spectacular’ Hall of Chivalry, which sports 73 stained glass windows in the Arts and Crafts style as well as a rich variety of Cornish building materials — polyphant, red porphyry and the cross of the knights in white elvan. At the end of the hall King Arthur’s throne is approached up steps of different Cornish granites.

Pevsner omitted it, but to be fair he probably didn’t even know it was there, and however sketchy his first guide was, he was a brave pioneer who left a lasting and invaluable legacy. I know that in the end there was a mutual respect between him and my dad. The latter lies in St Enodoc churchyard now, with a Delabole slate headstone bearing a ‘wonderfully spirited Gothick inscription, surrounded by entwined flora and fauna, exquisitely executed, and lovely in all weathers’. If anyone understands and loves Cornwall, Peter Beacham does.

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  • pedestrianblogger

    My grandparents were close neighbours of Sir John (in Trebetherick) and close friends. My mother still has a number of his books, personally dedicated to them and inscribed by him. When I was a very small boy (a very long time ago), I fell over in the playground of my junior school and lacerated my knees very badly, just as the summer holidays (which we always spent at my grandparents’ house, “Boskenna”) were approaching. As a consequence, when we arrived, my knees were a mass of grey blisters which, it was decided by those who had a say in such matters, should be lanced and the pus allowed to drain. A local doctor was summoned and the procedure was carried out and Sir John, who had made a social call in the anticipation of a convivial evening in the company of three generations of my family and with the prospect of downing a few glasses of the excellent gin my grandfather kept, turned green in the face and fled from the room. Happy days!