A Grey Slate Stronghold

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.

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37 thoughts on “A Grey Slate Stronghold

    1. Alas, a day is not enough, Pseu. We have still not managed to see the folly tower, and the secret tunnel in the gardens. Hoping to fit a trip back there in a few weeks…I shall put the hand sculpture on my list of must-sees.

      1. The orchard has a wide range of old fashioned apple trees if I remember correctly. And in there, as if growing out of the soil, a huge hand. 🙂

  1. You’re a natural, and talented, story-teller, Kate, and what I particularly love, are some of your succinct, felicitous, poetic, turns of phrase, such as ‘Not slain, but wrecked.’ in the post above, For some reason, the Stevie Smith poem ‘Not waving, but drowning’ crossed my mind as I read that ;). Anyway, keep it up, it’s a great blog :).

  2. I, of course, had to go Googling after reading this post, Kate. Such an imposing, yet beautiful place you’ve visited. One of the descriptions I read referenced “a medieval dovecote and stewpond.” Stewpond? “. . . in which fishes were grown and fattened for the table.” So, farm-raised fish are NOT a scheme born in modern times, after all.

    My education continues. 🙂

  3. Thanks for the colorful history lesson, but this Yank would have appreciated seeing a picture of a mediaeval manor in Cornwall vs a mediaeval manor in Berkshire. I know, I know, “Google it.”

    1. The last days have been purgatory,not being able to post pics….curse WordPress and their dastardly featured image….however, two links would be best here I think because I didn’t take a front shot of the house while I was there….here’s a frontal Cothele: and here s Sutton Courtenay Manor in Berkshire. Not incredibly informative because of all the alterations which have happened over the years, but you get the picture.

    1. I’m back now, though we intend to return if we can later in the Summer, Andra. it’s a wild and enchanting place, everything they write about in the story books and more. Jamaica Inn has it down to a tee. You would, of course, adore it.

  4. So much of interest we haven’t set eyes upon!
    Interesting that the Plymouth Mount Edgcumbe is probably where our Mount Edgecombe near Durban got its name.
    I am wondering how Cotehele is pronounced – logic and spelling rules don’t mean a thing in so many parts of England. Origins are also ignored. Take Beaulieu, for example!

  5. When you write about Cornish strongholds, I start populating them with Dona St. Columb and the pirate Jean-Benoit Aubéry… I am, it seems, a hopeless romantic. I Googled Cotehele House, and it’s just exactly perfect…

    1. Cameron, I could just see your characters there. The wrecking stuff was just so exactly right…whale jaws and albatrosses…when you come back you must come to see it.

  6. I’m so glad I read the Du Maurier comments, Kate, because that gives me even further hooks with which to grasp the images of Cornwall. I have always gravitated to the combination of history, beauty and lore I imagine coming from this very special, to me almost magical, place. Thank you for sharing it with me! D

  7. I’d never really considered the differences in castles and why they exist. Fascinating info. A shame we don’t have castles of our own and the history that goes with them.

    Pictures would have been nice. Having trouble with the Featured Image thing? Have you visited the WordPress forums? So many helpful people there for almost imaginable problem.

    1. Alas, I was away from home and blogging from an iPad, and their app has no featured image provision. In addition one comment took about 10 minutes to upload, there on the edge of Bodmin Moor 😀 Home now: and I have uploaded some pictures if you fancy popping back and having a look at the post. PT.

  8. What beautiful, ancient stone and slate buildings, Kate – I love the natural quality that these materials bring and they blend in so beautifully with the English country surrounds. The albatross head is rather curious 🙂

  9. Dear Kate, I so enjoy these videos of the places you write about. They enhance your words and help me see all that you are telling me.

    I’ve only been to Cornwall once–in a 1977 four-week visit with two friends to Amsterdam, England, Scotland, and Paris. I took the train by myself down to Mousehole. (I hope I’ve spelled that correctly.) I hadn’t booked ahead and so got there about 11 pm. The train conductor was concerned and so did a great deal to help me find a place to stay. I remember him with gratitude.

    The next day I had an English tea with strawberry jam and clotted cream and felt so at home in that part of the country. My ancestors were Celtic and lived in and around Glastonbury and in Tenby, Wales, as well as in Ireland. Thank you for releasing these memories. Peace.

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