Ertach Kernow - Cadgwith and the Cornish parishes of Grade-Ruan

Cadgwith Cove (courtesy of

Cornish parishes were originally ecclesiastical in nature and as now number over two hundred. Now and again we look at these, often one of the smaller ones less known to many people living in Cornwall. Grade-Ruan is a small parish on the Lizard Peninsula with a current day population of about 1,100 people. The civic parish was formed through the merging of three ecclesiastical parishes of Grade, Ruan Minor and Ruan Major in 1934. The main settlements are the well-known village of Cadgwith, Ruan Minor and the smaller hamlet of St Ruan.

This merged parish is not one full of archaeological heritage although there is a smattering of barrows, crosses and early medieval settlements. Chyheira was first recorded in 1416 when it is spelt ‘Chyheere’, now a farm Worvas was named in 1382 and Brugan originally named ‘Bodrogan’ existed in 1300. Many folk may recognise the later name to the family called Bodrugan who were a notable Cornish family from the 13th to 15th centuries. Did the family begin here taking their name from this settlement before going on to greater things around the Goran area?

Grade-Ruan (showing earlier ecclesiastical parishes)

As always click the images for larger view

Grade Church in Grade-Ruan Parish

Due to the merging of three ecclesiastical parishes Grade-Ruan has three churches, the two at Ruan Minor and Ruan Major are dedicated to St Rumonus and Grade church to St Grada. The vast majority of Cornish parish churches seem to be dedicated to obscure saints many unrecognised by the pre-Reformation catholic church. Although St Grada isn’t listed as a catholic saint, St Rumon is. These churches were linked to a former Benedictine abbey in Tavistock, the Abbey of Saint Mary and Saint Rumon. This abbey before its fall in 1539 was one of the richest in the west of England owning a several manors throughout Devon, There were also lands in Cornwall around the three Ruan parishes and more so in south-east Cornwall with manors at Sheviock, Antony, Rame, Tregrenna, Penharget and Tolcarne. This provides an example of the wealth and authority the pre-Reformation church and connections to some of Cornwall’s medieval churches, most of which survived their former owners.

There is a Grade II listed 15th century building enclosing a holy well just outside the village of St Ruan. It was restored in the 19th century with Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch reporting in 1894 as it being 'altered by restoration, but its former venerable and picturesque condition has been well preserved'. The small granite roof gable cross removed prior to 1894 is located at St Grada Church. Unfortunately like many holy wells this often festooned with unnatural tealights blackening the internal space, although I’m sure flowers would be most acceptable.

Perhaps one of the best-known natural features of this coastline is what is known as ‘The Devil’s Frying Pan’. This is where a large cave has collapsed leaving a deep cavity into which the sea enters through an arch, originally the cave entrance. Often used by swimmers on calm days the waters inside the arch become a boiling cauldron when the weather is stormy. Like the Cheesewring it became somewhere to visit for early travellers and one of the earliest known sketches was by Sir Henry Cole in 1834 who was later instrumental in developing the Victoria and Albert Museum. The Illustrated London News wrote about the Devils Frying Pan in 1874 including an illustration.

St Ruan's Holy Well near Cadgwith by Ann Preston-Jones
The Devil's Fring Pan near Cadgwith [Illustrated London News 1874]
Capstan house, Poltesco, Grade-Ruan

The Lizard area is well-known for serpentine a metamorphic rock now best known for ornaments, with serpentine works within what is now the wider merged Grade-Ruan parish. Possibly the best surviving is at Poltesco, a hamlet close to the shore at Carleon Cove. This cove was originally a place where pilchard fishing was the main occupation from the 14th century, later the earlier fishing related buildings were repurposed to form the serpentine works. The Lizard Serpentine Company started production from 1855 and later from 1870 resurrected as the Poltesco Marble Company. This area is now owned by the National Trust.

The small village of Ruan Minor is one of the places that benefited from the work of the charity ‘Cornwall Community Land Trust’. This recently provided six homes for families who according to the trust needed to prove they had ‘very strong links to the village’. This is the type of project that needs far greater support throughout Cornwall providing really affordable homes for Cornish families. The CEO of the trust Andrew George, former St Ives and west Cornwall Liberal Democrat MP, and current candidate, said ‘it showed people don't have to use developers to make housing happen…. Ruan Minor is an example of how a community can do it for themselves.’

The village of Cadgwith or Porthkajwydh in Kernewek was first mentioned in 1360 as Porthcaswith. Like many of Cornwall’s coastal settlements the ‘Porth’ placename element indicates that it was a harbour, cove or haven for boats or shipping. Primarily a place that relied on fishing, no doubt from the earliest of times pilchards would have been one of the most important catches.  

Smuggling would have taken place here and confirming this is a report that in 1825 Lieutenant Roberts was appointed as head of the coastguard at Cadgwith. It was said of Cadgwith in 1778 ‘it is common for the inhabitants.. to take in and secrete smuggled goods for capital smugglers who frequently land cargos’, it seems that this practice continued for a further fifty years or more. Gradually as throughout Cornwall smuggling came to an end as the reduction of duty on goods no longer made the practice profitable and coastguard were deployed for other duties. This included shipwreck rescue and prior to the lifeboats being positioned at strategic points, including Cadgwith, this was through rocket brigades using rockets and ropes to bring sailors back to shore. Perhaps the most notable was following the wrecking of the naval transport ship Czar where many of the crew were saved by the rocket brigade, although the captain and his family were drowned. Following this funds for the first Lizard lifeboat was donated by Mrs Agar of Lanhydrock.

Launching the Guide of Dunkirk at Cadgwith - Background show historic fishing buildings recently saved.
Cadgwith harbour with fishermen, fishing boats and a tucking net full of pilchards.
The Manacles

The Lizard is the most southerly part of the British mainland and as such the headland projects out into the path of ships entering the Channel. It is the scene of probably more shipwrecks than any other place on the south coast of Britain. This coastline is renowned for the dangerous rocks that lie upwards of half a mile seaward from the shore. Further up the coast beyond Coverack is Porthoustock with the infamous Manacle Rocks lying not far offshore. Despite the dangers and loss of life it wasn’t until 1859 that a lifeboat was stationed at the Lizard but because of the frequency of wrecks it had become clear that the Lizard lifeboat station required support and on 3rd January 1867 it was agreed that a lifeboat would be stationed at Cadgwith. The Cadgwith station holds the United Kingdom record for the largest number of people saved by its lifeboat. The ‘Minnie Moon’ which arrived in 1898 rescued 277 lives from the liner SS Suevic between 17th - 18th March 1907, which had gone aground on the Maenheere Reef, off Lizard Point. Three other lifeboats from Lizard, Coverack and Porthleven were part of this rescue saving a total of 456 people with no lives lost. These lifeboats were open large rowing boats crewed by men with immense courage as were all the lifeboats at that time. The last Cadgwith lifeboat was the ‘Guide of Dunkirk’ and named following her return as one of the now famous Dunkirk vessels which saved troops during the evacuation from France in 1941. The only motorised Cadgwith lifeboat she survived there until 1963. In 1961 a new station was opened at Kilcobben Cove known as the Lizard-Cadgwith Station, now renamed the Lizard Lifeboat Station.

Many people who enjoy a good rousing Cornish song will know of the ‘Cadgwith Anthem’ also known as ‘The Robber’s Retreat’. ‘Come fill up your glasses and let us be merry, For to rob bags of plunder it is our intent.’ First printed in 1901 it became well-known in Cornwall and was translated into Kernewek. It was later to become far better known when the popular folk-rock band Steeleye Span released it as part of their 1976 album All Around My Hat. Links to words and music can be found in the online article.

It's sad for Cornish people who appreciate their local heritage to see developers ripping the heart out of their communities through the destruction of historic buildings and replaced by something often poorly constructed and totally inappropriate. Cadgwith folk faced this and by joining together and appealing to a wider community raised funds to preserve buildings that were part of their local history. Protection of these buildings began with the ‘Cadgwith Fishing Cove Trust’ acquiring the lease on Winch House for 125 years followed by purchase of Steamers House and finally buying Fort York. The appeal was well supported by local radio and national television, then following inclusion on BBC Two’s ‘Cornwall: This Fishing Life’ received massive crowdfunding support. First starting this preservation project was through local Grade-Ruan Parish Council purchasing the Winch House and leasing it to the trust. It really is wonderful to see a local council so supportive, unlike many others which seemingly have no Cornish heritage interests whatsoever.

Listen to The Cadgwith Anthem sung by Oll an Gwella one of many videos on the Kowethas Ertach Kernow YouTube Channel Playlist. Click the Oll an Gwella image below.

Oll an Gwella
Fort York - Cadgwith Fishing Cove Trust

Like most other coastal areas of Cornwall this area suffers from the scourge of second houses and Airbnb’s with the subsequent hollowing out of communities. But through proactive people there is fortunately much of Grade-Ruan’s historic past and cultural heritage that is being preserved for future generations of Cornish folk.

Cadgwith and the Cornish parishes of Grade-Ruan
Cadgwith and the Cornish parishes of Grade-Ruan
Ertach Kernow - 12th June 2024 - Scything Workshop, Cornish Memories, Festivals at Rame & Saltash
Ertach Kernow shared in VOICE, Cornish Times, Cornish & Devon Post newspapers
Ertach Kernow shared in VOICE, Cornish Times, Cornish & Devon Post newspapers