Updated: Jan 16
I got in the elderly green Vauxhall Victor, with its angle forwarded front side windows and American chic glistening metal steering wheel. It was packed high with bedding, books and other stuff. I was about 7 or 8 years old. An adventure was about to begin. My parents had rented a chunk of a Victorian fort in my Cornish father’s home town of Cawsand. Cawsand Fort, a brooding limestone edifice, widely mocked as one of Palmerston’s follies, had been built as part of a ring of steel of such buildings around Plymouth to protect its globally important navy and naval base. It was to be my home for many weekends and summer holidays for the next few years in the late 1960s. In this blog, I’ll try to capture a little bit of what it was like to be a town boy roaming free in a Cornish fort and an idyllic Cornish fishing village.
Tunnels, monsters and ghosts
Cawsand Fort was built in a commanding position over Cawsand Bay. To my eyes this was a medieval castle with moat, parapets, arrowslits and dungeons. Full of danger and excitement. Teeming with secrets yet to be discovered. And based on some real history too. The first fort on the site had been rushed up in 1779 after narrowly avoiding a Franco-Spanish attack on Cawsand, repelled not by battle but (as ever) by British weather. The next – and present - fort was built as recently as 1863, the date on the cornerstone pictured above probably a later extension. Lord Nelson and his notorious lover, Emma Hamilton, stayed in the Ship Inn, not far below us, where doubtless the fort’s garrison would have drunk too. This was the fort we were to holiday in. In their time, these forts must have been a pretty unwelcome intrusion into the lives of this premier smuggling village, already irked by having had a customs officer based in its midst. Were any contraband spirits moved under the watchful eyes of the garrison? Did the soldiers have qualms drinking in local hostelries where items of dubious provenance might have been on sale? Were there romantic tensions between the soldiers and village men for the attentions of the Cawsand “maids”? But at least the villagers didn’t have to worry about too much intrusive military activity. Whilst the Fort contained a formidable arsenal of guns, they were not fired often, the village houses could not cope. My grandparents - Frank and Winifred – were married in 1926 and bought a cottage that would have been directly under the line of fire too but fortunately for them the very same year the Fort closed for military purposes!
We’d reach our flat by climbing a metal staircase high up the front wall of the Fort and passing along a balcony that led to a large conservatory above the garage on the corner of the fort. It had windows on 180 degrees, the rest of the room covering over the old stone fort walls. It overlooked the beauty of Penlee Point. The views were truly spectacular, presenting an endless sequence of changing tides, moods of the sea, fishermen putting out to sea, yachts arriving. When the weather was stormy, the wind would whistle past, it was quite scary. I would watch out to sea secretly hoping to see a shipwreck (and racing down to the beaches when there was any flotsam and jetsam to see).
The author with his yacht on the flat’s balcony
On the left hand side as you entered the conservatory was a tunnel, piercing the thick limestone wall into the heart of the fort. I slept in the tunnel, made of limestone blocks with arched ceiling, in an area partitioned with old church stained glass in wooden surrounds. The tunnel smelt of limestone, from the ceiling small creamy stalactites descended. The light would cast eerie shadows into this strange subterranean world. The far end of the tunnel descended into darkness, the perfect place for a monster or a ghost to hide and jump out at me? I really did think there would be ghosts in the fort, surely there must have been some prisoners gruesomely dispatched in the dungeons? What if I needed the toilet, I would have to go around the bend in the tunnel, past two massive wooden doors leading to disused barrack rooms filled with old stores, before getting there? I curled up in my bed, covered myself in my favourite Cowboys and Indians blanket together with my pile of Swallows and Amazons books by Arthur Ransome.
To the right of the tunnel there was a large limestone archway and storage area with steps leading up to a small garden with slits in the walls to fire upon any invaders. I had a small desk there where I could sit to do my homework. We stored fishing nets, rods and yachts here. The garden was full of delicate tea roses. It was where our dog, Snowy, a Jack Russell, played. I’d known Snowy from a puppy, she was part of a litter born at the village policeman’s house. Deeper in, the paths were overgrown but with some effort it was possible to progress along the battlements until you came to a small turret, all the while passing more arrow-slits. The views were stunning and unspoilt. On the one side we could see past Picklecombe Fort towards Plymouth, on the other side Penlee Point.
Snowy, the Jack Russell, in the flat’s garden
Stunning views over the fort walls towards Picklecombe
The author with his brother alongside one of the arrow-slits (actually “embrasures”) in the flat’s garden
Through the back was an exit. It led to a pathway past the other flats, including my Great Aunt “Aunt Do’s” next door, who lived there with her dog “Tinker”. There were lots of other people in the flats to start with so it felt like becoming part of a small community. Exploring deeper into the fort I’d play in the massive circular gun emplacements, little changed since the military departed but for the removal of the guns! There were formidable (and seemingly intact) entrances to what I thought were medieval dungeons but were actually the magazines that had held the fort’s vital ammunition. I’d go high up the hill and send my elastic band propelled Spitfire overhead to protect the Fort from air attack.
Hunting, fishing, cooking
It was the big one. I’d taken my split cane fishing rod to all the beaches of Cawsand and Kingsand and Deep Cove below the Minadhu for some time, trailing my spinners or hooks baited with a lump of bread through the water, convinced that one day I’d get a mackerel to take home for lunch. I was on the far end of Kingsand Beach, the line suddenly went hard. I tried to reel in the fishing line. But the reel wouldn’t budge. I stayed there paralysed by excitement and fear, excitement for the catch, fear the line was just tangled (again). I, and whatever was holding up my fishing line, had reached an impasse. One of us had to give way. So I lifted my fishing rod slowly in the air, creating a little slack. And then reeled in as fast as I could. I could then see something flipping around in the water. It was silver. And it was big. I would guess about eighteen inches long, very thick in the body. And as strong as me. After a gargantuan struggle I hauled the fish in. It was definitely nothing like a mackerel. I consulted my fishing book. It wasn’t a pollock either. I noticed a golden spot on its gill, just behind its eye. It was a golden grey mullet. And from memory something like over 7 lb of golden grey mullet. I consulted the Angling Times. It was a record. They wanted photos of it. Alas, in those days before freezers, an anonymous parent had disposed of it. And we hadn’t even taken a photo. Or had it with chips. Grrrr!!!
I swiftly got a taste for Cornish cuisine. Fried breakfasts featured highly, we would go hunting for mushrooms around the fields at Rame Head. Mushroom picking was done early, 6-7 o’ clockish, the fields covered in dew, past abandoned World War 2 structures that seemed especially incongruous in the early morning light. I would kick puff balls along the way, often the size of a football, and see them smash into smithereens. The mushrooms would be fried with thick locally made sausages from the butcher in Millbrook. We had small tomatoes grown in the Fort garden and ripened in the conservatory windows. For dinner, a good sized crab could usually be found in the rocks at the back of the quay area off Garrett Street. They were unsurprisingly grumpy and did not take kindly to being prised away from their hollows, raising their pinchers high in the air at us. Local fishermen often passed on some surplus mackerel, a mixed blessing for my mum on whom the task of “cleaning” the mackerel in the lean to kitchen of the fort would fall. At my gran’s there would occasionally be conga eel cooked in butter with pepper. And saffron cake kept in her larder, fridges were still not common in the village. Plus clotted cream my Aunt Do made herself on a small paraffin stove. My contribution consisted of bucket loads of blackberries and apples for making jam, my hands streaked purple and on at least one occasion followed by a swarm of bees!
The author, fishing at Rame with traditional split cane rod
Secrets and mysteries at Penlee Point
Penlee Point from the flat’s garden
Exploring Penlee Point was exciting, it felt full of secrets and mysteries. On Cawsand beach there was a mysterious concrete box and a concrete platform I could climb to and watch the comings and goings on the beach. The sand was softer in the lee of Penlee Point, perfect for walking in. I would head towards Penlee Point, past the familiar coastguard cottages where my great-aunt lived for a while. Then onto a narrow darkened path where fallen trees and branches would sometimes obstruct the way ahead. There were glimpses far below of secret coves. I would hurry past the gates to what looked to me like a James Bond style secret government complex. Pier Cellars, once a state of the art Torpedo Station, nestled amongst the quiet Cornish coves. More mysteries awaited me further along Penlee Point. Cut into the hillside down to the sea were collosal steps cut into the rocks emerging from the sea, how were they made, what giant needed such steps to climb? These remnants of once massive Plymouth defences needed little to feed my imagination. There was a fog signal station here too that would have boomed warning to ships, fishing boats and yachts in their pristine white painted buildings.
The path to Penlee Point
I would sit at the Hermit’s Grotto (actually Queen Adelaide’s grotto) and peer through its archways, silhouettes of Cornish stone, pretending to be a hermit, chomping on my last rations of chocolate, banished from the mainland to survive here as best I could. In winter it would be freezing cold, a hell on earth, no fire to heat these bleak walls, the best shelter available the tunnel into its domain. My hair would grow long, a beard would reach down to my waist. Would I be seen from the sea? Would a ship come to rescue me and take me away from this exile? Or would I be captured and spirited far away to the edge of the known world? I shuddered and took the path back to the entrance of Penlee. Opposite the road I could find safety in my secret den. It could only be accessed by climbing over the river that ran parallel to St Andrews Place. Once over the river and a sharp climb into a clearing in the thicket, I was invisible to the outside world.
The Hermit’s Grotto (actually Queen Adelaide’s Grotto)
The Lost World of Long Pool
“This was it, a flood of Biblical proportions”. I watched my yacht taking a buffeting as the heavy seas came in and pounded it. Storm tossed it lurched from side to side, taking in water, until a massive wave hit it to the starboard and soaked the sail. It could no longer be navigated, the rudder was useless. It hit the rocks. Only a short time was left before it was pounded to pieces, its sailors dead on the rocks. Long Pool was a world of its own. It had its own climate, the beachy area towards the safe shores of Minadhu was calm and warm, the seaward area beyond pounded by sea and storm. In between the two was a tropical paradise, an area of seawashed islands, little coves, secret caves, where mermaids would sing to passing yachts and try to send them to their doom. I would peer through the water. Deadly mansize anemones would send forth their crimson red tentacles to grab the unwary. But I was a hunter. I trawled my let through the undergrowth. I was pursuing giant shrimps. Their legs scuttled away, faster and faster, I would have to wait, patiently wait for my prey. But then the flood came. Time to pick up my yacht and back to the Fort for lunch.
Long Pool, moody and unchanged on a cloudy summer day
Long Pool, less sea-life now than I remembered
Mackerel and fisherman’s tales
It was 6 o’clock in the morning or certainly felt like it. I helped the Cawsand man, probably a distant relative, pull the clinker built rowing boat down Cawsand beach into the ice cold, sea water, clear as crystal as the small waves broke on the shore. The boat made a rasping sound as its keel dragged along the pebbles. There were still many in the village who went out fishing then. The small outboard motor putted away as we glided out on the still water in the dark shade of Penlee woods, past Pier Cellars, past the Lighthouse and foghorn towards Rame. The boat was rock steady in the water until the engine was turned off and the fishing began. It rocked gently from side to side. Ours was the only boat on the water as far as the eye could see, no risk of being disturbed by any wash. He told me of the time when a conga eel six feet long, had been caught, its tail on one side of the boat, the fishing line pulled hard on the other. The giant fish was under the boat and resisted being pulled in. The fight had gone on some time before it finally succumbed and was pulled into the boat. I looked at my own line nervously. I was told of smuggling days in the village, of wrecks and their plunder. I felt myself drawn in to a community of the Cornish stretching back through the generations, privy to their lore. Fisherman’s tales!
Piskies on a hot thirsty day
It was a hot day and I was thirsty, walking along the road towards Rame Church. I had often passed this spot on the corner of a field. My mother had whispered to me that it was a place where the piskies met. It was an ancient slate. My father told me that the water was pure and cold. It tumbled in from some unknown source in the field, filling up a container made of rough-edged grey slate. Moss hung from its edges. Crystal clear water poured out of the top as it overflowed. I was on my own. I dared drink the water, looking carefully around to see if there were any little people watching. Would they challenge me for taking their water? Or put a spell on me in revenge for my impertinence in invading their world? Nothing happened to me. Not even any tummy trouble. I wouldn’t recommend this now. My story goes back to a different time. Maybe the piskies have gone.
Moonlandings, Armageddon and storytelling
We sat in the lounge of the old fisherman’s cottage in Garrett Street. Little had changed since the 1920’s. There was an art deco style sofa, very deep pile, a window looking direct on to the street. A fireplace bordered by two cupboards was the only source of heating. But not on that balmy summer’s day. Three generations sat around a small black and white rented television. We had no television in our flat in the Fort. All were intent on the screen but for one small boy who was rather bored and spent his time trying to get attention from the adults. There was Winifred, Frank and Do, all born in the early 1900’s, there was Pearl and Frank, born in the early 1930’s and myself in the early 1960s. I look back at that day now and wonder what each generation felt about what they were watching. The oldest born before the horrors of World War 1, those in the middle who endured with them the horrors of World War 2, and myself who took space flight for granted and thought what he was observing was tame compared with Dr Who or Lost in Space. Much of the time was spent watching an empty sky waiting for something to happen. I imagine it must have been the year of the first moon-landing, July 1969. It’s left etched in my memory not for the return from the moon but the poignancy of shared experience.
In the 1960’s, the fear of nuclear war was only too real. Plymouth had been devastated by the blitz, only Plymouth people knew just how badly. Cawsand was not far away across the bay and many Cawsand men had worked in Devonport naval base. The stocky old man, my grandad, tinkered with the clock or barometer in the hallway of his cottage in Garrett Street. There was a note of seriousness in his voice. Of course, being Cornish, I could never tell whether that was the prelude to some grave matter or some humour. “If war breaks out, I’ll have to take control. I’m now the only civil authority left in the village”. The village must by now have lost its village policeman. Grandad had been appointed village traffic warden. He had no doubt as to the extensiveness of his jurisdiction or its importance to the survival of the village and its people. He had a plan, no doubt, to keep the village secure, fed, its cars parked well.
Frank Copp, my grandfather and Cawsand village traffic warden
Cornish villages are full of natural storytellers. Cawsand was no exception. When evenings came and the weather was bad, the east wind was the most feared in the village, we would sit in my grandparent’s cottage by the light of an old Victorian oil lamp, my grandad making delicate adjustments to it, to keep it lit and bright. I would listen to the stories of village life, past and present, the two naturally merged into one continuum. Of Sunday outings in a charabanc for the ladies of the village. Of a trip across the water, to Plymouth. Of being asked to make a boat for the Mount Edgecombe family. Of storms bringing waves so large they would hit the roof of my great aunt’s cottage and down the chimney putting out the fire. Of the luggers that were once hauled up Cawsand beach. Of a warship cut in two by enemy fire in the war that my grandad helped get back from the Mediterrenean. A tradition of storytelling that lives on in the Copp family.
Stephen F Copp
12th January 2022
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