The Penwith Papers

The Road to Nowhere?

In the previous Penwith Paper, we were introduced to the story of a dispute in 1150 AD concerning the Manor of Gurlyn, Tredea and Trevessa.

But there is much more to be said on this subject, starting about the time of Bishop Bartholomew of Exeter (1159-1184). Now, read on…

The western boundary of St Erth parish was once a matter of dispute between the parishes of St Erth and Lelant, and the matter was referred to the Pope.

During this time the Papacy itself was in dispute, so it is impossible to determine which Pope was consulted, but the matter was passed to the Dean and Chancellor of Wells Cathedral. The Dean made an enquiry of the faithful of the parishes as to where the boundary should be. An award was made and this award specified the disputed boundary: ‘de Gunhen sitis subtus magnam viam que tendit de Cruce Aldrou directe usque ad mare in australi parte versus Trelewid (Treloweth).’  

A rough translation is: ‘the boundary ‘from Gunhen [Cornish for the ‘Old Moor’] situated underneath the great road which runs from from the Cross of Aldred straight all the way to the sea in the southern part in the direction of Treloweth.’

The ‘great road,’ (magnam viam) is the present A30 road, as it runs west of St Erth station. But why is it called the ‘great road’ when, at the time of the award, it seemed to lead nowhere?


Sand Dunes near Lelant, Cornwall by Walter Elmer Schofield
Sand Dunes near Lelant, Cornwall by Walter Elmer Schofield

At the present time it is the road ‘up-country,’ but until the building of the Hayle Causeway the road would have appeared to lead only to the treacherous sands and mud of the Hayle Estuary.

Somewhere there has to be at least one destination important enough to be served by a main – indeed, a ‘great’ - road.  The southern terminus of the road surely has to be a place on the shore of Mount’s Bay. St Michael’s Mount, at that time a port with strong links with the Continent, is an obvious candidate. But to the north, St Ives hardly existed.  Could there have been a similar place of importance at the northern end of the road, which has now disappeared? Or was that major destination in fact an earlier, lost settlement at  Lelant?

The present village of Lelant grew up long after the award was made. A sixteenth century glimpse is offered by the antiquarian John Leland, who visited during his tour of Cornwall (1534-1543): ‘The Toune of Lannant is praty…..There came to this Place ons, the Haven being onbarrid and since chokid with Tynne Workes, good talle Shippes.’ The adjective ‘praty’ (or ‘pretty’) has other meanings at this date than ‘attractive,’ and Leland’s use of the word ‘praty’ might imply that the town was ‘pretty large.’

Lake and Polsue’s ‘Parochial History of the County of Cornwall’ quotes Norden who, writing slightly later than Leland, described Lelant as ‘sometime a haven town, and of late decayed by reason of the sand which hath choked the harbour, and buried much of the land and houses; and many devices they use to prevent the absorpation of the church. Here are great store of tin and copper mines.’ The evidence from these sources, written over 200 years after the port disappeared and was replaced by St Ives, is that a substantial settlement was buried by the sand. 

Lelant was described as a town and not as a ‘churchtown.’ A ‘churchtown’ is usually a small settlement near the parish church, when the main centre of population of the parish is some way away. There are several examples in west Cornwall where this can be found: Madron was the churchtown for Penzance, Paul for much of Newlyn - and Lelant for St Ives.

St Uny Church LelantSt Uny Church Lelant

The parish church of Lelant stands by itself near the golf course while the main settlement is some way away, built up along the road to St Ives. This was a necessity after the encroachment of the sand and the consequent closing of the port. The population had to move away so the settlement is where it is now. But traces of the former importance of the churchtown remain - there is a house by the church which was once an inn, and at the door of the stables is a mounting block.

The efforts mentioned by Norden to save the church from the sand were obviously successful. Attempts were made in the early part of the eighteenth century to arrest the inundation by planting grass. Pococke, touring in 1750, noticed that valuable land was being lost as sand was driven in from the bar.

The parish church which stands today is certainly the one which stood surrounded by the houses of the old town of Lelant. It still retains the original Norman arcade which survived the rebuilding of the church at the end of the fifteenth `century. Davies Gilbert, in his ‘Parochial History of Cornwall,’ clearly states that the present church was not a new one as some writers have erroneously stated.  A market was granted by the King to William de Botreaux at his manor of Lelant in 1296 and was to be held on Thursday of each week. Two yearly fairs were also to be held, and as late as 1856 one fair was held each year on August 15th. The town even had a customs house. Davies Gilbert mentions that ‘foundations of houses have been undoubtedly found under the sand.’

A further indication of the importance of Lelant is that it was the mother church of St Ives and Towednack. Even as St Ives grew in importance in the fourteenth century and afterwards, and Lelant declined, residents of St Ives and Towednack were denied their own burial rights. St Ives, even with its fine church, (consecrated in 1434), remained a chapelry of Lelant until the nineteenth century. Not only did St Ives people have to make a difficult journey to Lelant for baptisms and burial, but they could only market their goods in Lelant.

The old town of Lelant remained buried and undisturbed until the Spring of 1875 when navvies working on the construction of the St Erth to St Ives railway in the Towans above the Lelant Ferry, found what some believed to be the remains of an ancient church or chapel of Lelant Town. The contractor of the work, Mr. J.C. Lang, described in a letter what had been uncovered. Many completed skeletons were found. The skeletons were in good condition and were about one foot below the turf and were lying in haphazard positions. There was some speculation as to the reason why these remains were where they were. It was thought that they were shipwreck victims cast up on the shore, who could not be buried in consecrated ground. However, some of the graves were covered with flat stones.

The Penzance Natural History and Antiquarian Society made an excursion to Lelant on April 12th 1889 and a report appeared in their 1888-92 Transactions. The letter from Mr. Lang was read but the vicar of the parish was ‘inclined to think that the remains were those of a living cargo of a slave ship wrecked there during the last century.’ This did not account for the presence of the walled graves. Shipwrecks in the St Ives area are listed in Richard and Bridget Larne’s  ‘Shipwreck Index of the British Isles’ but apart from the well-known 1826 accidental arrival in St Ives of a ship which had been carrying slaves, there is no account of any wreck of a slave ship. The most likely explanation is that the navvies had cut into the churchyard of the old town.     

The evidence, then, points to a sizeable settlement having grown up on the Hayle Estuary near the present Lelant parish church.  The settlement was described as a town by Leland and for him in about 1535 there was still something to see - although the port was falling into disuse because of it being choked by sand.

As a port at the entrance to a river which was tidal in ancient times well inland, Lelant would have had some importance. The narrow isthmus between the western part of Penwith and the rest of Cornwall provided an overland route from Lelant to Mount’s Bay, and almost certainly to St Michael’s Mount. For centuries the Mount had been an important port connected with the tin trade with links to the continent. The possibility of a major road between Lelant and the Mount is surely very significant.

There would have been a great deal of sea traffic across the Celtic Sea from Ireland and Wales during the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ and the early medieval period. Much has been written about this period and all the indications from legend and archaeology are that the north coast of Cornwall received much of the contact with trade from Ireland.  Land’s End with its dangerous coastline, and currents caused by the convergence of the Atlantic and the English Channel, could be avoided by transferring cargoes from ships arriving in the Hayle Estuary to ships in Mount’s Bay. It is therefore very likely that many of the cargoes arriving at Lelant would be carried over the ‘great road’ to St Michael’s Mount and then loaded into other waiting vessels to be carried to the Continent or ports along the south coast of England. The traffic would also flow in the reverse direction.

Carnsew on the opposite side of the estuary may have performed a similar role during the late Roman period. Ivor Thomas presented a valuable discussion of early portage routes using the evidence of trackways and footpaths from large scale maps. While the port operated, cargoes originating locally would also have been carried overland to and from the port, before or after being shipped across the Celtic Sea. Cargo in transit, local goods and passengers – arriving as pilgrims or transacting business –will have made the port a busy place.

The Lelant area was rich in tin and copper and these minerals were being mined when the port was functioning. Although there are few specific references to mines in the early medieval period, plenty of general evidence shows that mines were already being worked at that time. Mines in the Hayle River valley contributed to the choking of that river, due to the washing away of ‘overburden’ (topsoil) to provide access to tin close to the surface.  ‘Old men’s workings’ were discovered when mines in the Lelant area were being developed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. There was even a mine close to the old town, called West Wheal Towan.     

There are rare glimpses of the old town and port of Lelant during its life. We owe a great deal to the late Dr. James Whetter’s work on thirteenth-century Cornwall. In 1284, a  murder took place in Lelant, following a dispute when a group of men came out of the tavern of Michael le Gascon. The men were named as Richard, son of Richard Juvenis, Odo his brother and Elgerus, son of Huwe lot. The dispute was over the tithing of Ludgvan; feelings evidently ran high where tax liability was involved. Elgerus struck Richard with a knife causing fatal injuries. Whetter suggests that the presence of a Gascon as an innkeeper in Lelant provides evidence that the wine trade of Gascony was involved in the life of the town.

Not a great deal has emerged about the port, but during the thirteenth century a sailor fell from a ship and was drowned. The coroner came to assess the value of the ship for a deodand* for the king. The sheriff, Roger de Ingepenne, and his bailiff, William de Hogeston, obstructed the process. The sheriff claimed a quarter share of the ship and its cargo, estimated to be worth 20 marks. 

For its time the ship was large, and its cargo quite valuable.    

The story of how St Ives rose from a small village to a borough, sending two members to Parliament, has been well recounted by Charles Henderson. The success of St Ives was gained very much at the expense of Lelant, which - with the loss of its own port - had also lost its reason for being.

Hayle Causeway from Lelant SaltingsHayle Causeway from Lelant Saltings

After the building of the Hayle Causeway in 1825 (and very much later the Hayle by-pass), the ‘great road’ of the twelfth century deserved that title even more: it now led to London.                       

*‘deodand’  literally  means ‘given to God.’ In English law up until 1846, anyone responsible for the death of an individual had to forfeit  a personal chattel for some pious use. This would be sold and givento the crown. In this case, a ship was responsible.



‘Early Tours in Devon and Cornwall’ ed. Pearse Chope, 1967, pp 21, 193-194

‘Parochial History of Cornwall’ Davies Gilbert, vol 318 38, pp 5,6

‘Essays in Cornish History’ Charles Henderson, reprinted 1963, pp 80-92

‘The Parishes of Saint Ives, Lelant and Zennor’ Matthews J. Hobson, 1892 

‘Mines and Miners of Cornwall’  A K Hamilton, vol 1 1961,  p 41

‘Parochial History of Cornwall’ Lake & Polsue, vol 3 1870, p 100

‘The Book of St Ives’ Cyril Noall, 1977, p 16

‘Norman Architecture in Cornwall’ E H Sedding, 1909 p 22

‘Studies in Cornish Geography’ Ivor Thomas, Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society, vol 1 1947 & 1948 pp 43-82

 ‘Cornwall in the Thirteenth Century’ Dr. James Whetter, 1996, pp 79, 87, 96

The Penwith Papers:

Penwith Local History Group
The Penwith Papers:

Growing Up in West Cornwall. A Publication by the Penwith Local History Group

"Growing Up in West Cornwall"

Edited by
Sally Corbet

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