Six miles or so north of Bude, is the parish of Morwenstow, and its northern boundary at Marsland Mouth is where Cornwall meets Devon.
It consists of about half a dozen small hamlets, but it’s the location of the parish church near to the rugged North Cornish coast and its connection with the rather eccentric Reverend Robert Stephen Hawker that people mainly come here for.
R.S. Hawker was born on 3rd December 1803 at Charles Church vicarage in Plymouth, and by the age of 19 was married to Charlotte Eliza I’ans, a 41 year old woman from Cornwall.
It was his ambition to become an Anglican priest and spent 5 years studying at Pembroke College Oxford, where he also wrote several pieces of poetry including his famous adaptation of ‘Song of the Western Men’.
He was ordained in 1831 and by 1835 was vicar of Morwenstow, where he remained for the rest of his life.
Prior to Hawker’s appointment at Morwenstow, the remote parish had been left pretty much to its own devices. Vicars came and went with a great deal of regularity, and those that did stay were absent most of the time, leaving the mostly poor people to fend for themselves in the best way they could. Consequently, the rugged coastline attracted smugglers, wreckers and non-conformers, and the new ‘Parson’, as he became known, regarded his task as “the effort to do good against their will to our fellow men”.
In my introduction to Bude I mentioned that the opening of the canal was the first big thing to happen to this tiny, nondescript village at the mouth of the equally nondescript River Neet.
The reason that I’m calling it nondescript is because there was nothing here; no harbour to land fish, no minerals to mine, and it didn’t even lead to anywhere. All that was here were rocks, sand and water, so why build a canal? The answer was because of all three.
The rocks and sea cliffs around Bude are unique for Cornwall in as much as that they are made up of carboniferous limestone. Nowhere else in the county has rocks like these, and geologists have even found a special name for them – the Bude Formation. To mere mortals like me it makes for an interesting coastline and a nice sandy beach, but to people interested in making a living it meant that these cliffs produced sand containing calcium carbonate which could be used to neutralise the acidic land of the inland farms.
The first person to dream up the idea of transporting this sand inland by canal was a Cornishman who went by the name of John Edyvean back in 1774. His idea was to build a 95 mile waterway from Bude to the navigable part of the River Tamar, thereby connecting the Bristol Channel with the English Channel. This would have allowed, not just the transportation of sand, but other goods as well, such as coal, slate and timber. It also meant that ships didn’t have to take the hazardous journey around Land’s End.