In the full summer, with a strong breeze, we opened the creaky gate of Gwennap churchyard, and stepped away from the present. Following a long spell of hot, dry weather, the sensation of being on the cusp of a transition was in the air, even before we arrived.
Entering through the north gate, the extensive churchyard gives the initial impression of a frozen wave – the church is to the south, poised on the crest, with the ground falling to the north in front of it. An avenue of dark-green, dense yew trees traverses from east to west, augmenting the sense of entering an ocean, which is further heightened by the long, seeded summer grass rippling around the headstones - fixed like boats at anchor.
The tunnel of yews is long and dark; the boles are hidden beneath dense foliage, hiding any evidence that could help to guess their age. Appropriate, perhaps: this species of evergreen, found associated with burial grounds back to pre-Christian times, creates a dark and cool shade in which time seems to stand still. Further in to the tunnel, walking around a gentle corner, light at the other end of the tree-lined path is intensified by the darkness beneath the boughs: perhaps the intention of its planting was to contrast the darkness with the light?
At the top of the slope, the long, granite church building sits beyond a pretty lychgate. Climbing upwards, the separate bell-tower – positioned to the south of the church, adjacent to another gate – is suddenly visible, and the rounded, local stone from which it is constructed – and the unexpectedly decorous windows - suggests it was built at an earlier date than the main church building. Its shape is solid and squat; its elevated position on the brow of the hill serves to increase the range over which its bells can be heard. Standing at the periphery of the oscillating grass, near the cool shade of the tower, it strikes me that it serves the inverse purpose of a lighthouse; sending out not a warning but a calling – gathering together the community to a place of sanctuary and solace. In an age when individuals are often ensconced in their private pools of technology, the communal purpose of the bell-tower seems significant, and its place at the brow of the hill appropriate in more ways than one.
The multitude of gravestones with references to far-flung parts of the world here at Gwennap – including Real del Monte, Australia and New Zealand – give a visitor here a sensation of movement, even while stationary. Miners from the close-knit community that was here, travelled overseas to seek work when the local mines failed, at various points in the 19th and early 20th century. Natural ingress of water to the deep mines below Cornwall meant that pumping was needed to keep the mines workable; the need to import coal to power the pump-engines lowered the profit-margin of the mines, and made them vulnerable to becoming uneconomic, should the price of tin or copper fall. Though the equipment from a closing mine would typically be auctioned to off-set the debts accrued, the (often large) workforce of men and women, who worked below and above ground, respectively, could struggle to find an opening for their skills unless another mine in the area was expanding.
Migration to other parts of the world, where exploration was revealing new mineral deposits, was often the only option to maintain families bereft of local employment. Wives and children often stayed ‘at home’, and the husbands and older sons travelled away, sending back money on a regular basis, and returning themselves for visits when finances permitted. Too often, though, these miners that helped to build the economic prosperity of distant lands didn’t come back themselves, falling victim to ill-health or accidents, and dying on distant shores. Their families commemorated them in the parish, though, and their stories surround the church.
The sensation of movement in this isolated churchyard is potent, and I am reminded of the deer-tracks I saw through a field of ripening wheat; erratic trails cross-cutting the neat tractor-lines, providing the only evidence of their unobserved movement. Here, too, those large movements of miners long-gone are preserved only in the names of the places where they died: and the changes their income and absence would have had on their families are only traces on stone.
In the midst of this large burial ground, with the wind tossing the long grass to and fro, the mind wanders to the analogy of ‘storms’ which has been used so extensively in the last 18 months to describe the pandemic we have all been experiencing. Here, amidst the graves of a mining-community now gone, the beginnings of an appreciation of what radical changes the families of the 19th and early 20th centuries must have experienced is palpable. Moving across the globe at a time when travel was much slower than today, making distances seem concomitantly larger, families were separated and the trajectories of many lives changed or curtailed. Amidst the fragile seed-heads of the ripened summer grass, the dark, solid headstones seem to represent the resilience of the human spirit, even at the times when we doubt our own capacity to cope. Ripples of change, and the passage of time, will shape us but not harm us, and the huge changes that individuals from past communities have endured is proof of that. Perhaps their fortitude in times of uncertainty can inspire us in the present-day.
A miner who died as a result of a fall at Agar Mine, is laid to rest here.
Find his story, and a way to send a token of remembrance to the churchyard on our sister-site: www.exploremystory.org