Visiting a mediaeval manor in Cornwall is nothing like visiting a mediaeval manor in Berkshire.
In Berkshire, the builders of such places built to swank. They decorated it lavishly with fancy brickwork because there were many brick making settlements around. They included a vast number of rooms because, let’s face it, some king could so easily stop by.
But in some parts of Cornwall, you built your house like a castle stronghold, with impregnable walls peopled with the tiniest windows. Rather than precious brick, it was hewn out of local stone, rough grey granite and the slate of that wild part of the world.
All the civilised living went on inside, in inward looking courtyards of charming beauty. Outside was designed to repel people who wanted to steal your stuff away from you.
Because down there, it was finders, keepers.Cornwall in the 14th and 15th centuries was a very long way from London; It was a wild old place.
Phil struck up a conversation with a steward at Cotehele, a stunning stronghold high above the banks of the Tamar somewhere near Saltash, the ancient seat of the Edgcumbe dynasty.
“Lawless, was it, in Cornwall then?” he asked jovially.
“Ar, ” the steward replied with a thick Cornish accent and a wide grin, “we were a wild lot then, and we’re still wild. You want a quiet life, you go back over the river to Devon.”
Bit of an exaggeration, I thought, recalling endless hours of pottering through quiet villages and munching cream teas.
And then I recalled the tractor racing I had seen, just the day before. Tractor racing: how far can you drag a heavy load up a hill. Countless obsessive farmers straining wildly as the tractors did wheelies to the delight of the local crowd.
The steward might have a point.
As always in politics, what you gained depended on who you backed. Bosworth Field was no exception: the proprietor of Cotehele was a Henry man; he did not hold with Richard III. He fought alongside Henry and when he won, he inherited the most extraordinary trophy. For Richard’s emblem was a fat white boar, and the family of Cotehele acquired it to sit atop their coat of arms.
There it sits in the great hall, alongside all the other trophies.
Which are odd, to say the least.
An albatross head jostles with suits of armour and ceremonial weaponry. And at one end of the hall are the great jaw bones of a minky whale. Not slain, but wrecked.
A whale washed up on the beach could make you a lot of money, what with the meat and the oil and suchlike. This one had found its unfortunate way up the Tamar and beached at the bottom of the river valley where the grey house of Cothele stands.
Which brings us to wrecking rights. The people of Cotehele were accorded them; they could take anything which landed up on the beaches in the surrounding areas and use it to their advantage.
Another lucrative, if idiosyncratic, moneyspinner.
Not that it needed it: this became a businesslike self sufficient place with a watermill and a quay, flanked with lime kilns. It must have been an orderly, businesslike place, though today the grey buildings, each with its function, is irresistibly picturesque.
They tired of it, it seems, Cotehele people; and built a fancy place at Mount Edgecumbe in the great metropolis of Plymouth. Cotehele became a place to store the old family stuff and entertain the odd important guest.
But its a tough, swarthy old building built for wild times.It stands eyeing the Tamar shrewdly as it always has and, it seems, always will.