Kevrinek – the secret place, a name that has been passed down through the centuries, refers to the deeply wooded valley that falls steeply away towards the sea below Chy Nans. You will find nothing to identify it as such on any maps, now or back in the time when the name would have first appeared. Perhaps the basis lies in an age when this place was even more isolated than it is now, when small communities huddled together, gleaning a living from their immediate surroundings. In the case of Kevrinek that would be fishing, farming on the slopes of the valley and, in small areas of rich pasture, keeping cows, goats, geese and other semi domesticated animals. Certainly there is a hint of religious undertone. Saints had arrived on the northern coast of Cornwall as early as the 6th century, the most prominent being St Petroc , adding a much needed mystical and focused element to the lives of souls eager to embrace the promise of eternal life, making their everyday lives of hardship seem but a down-payment on the glories ahead.
Maybe influences here have origins in pagan times, when the emphasis was on appeasement of the spirits rather than the less tangible carrot of eternal life dangled by early Christianity. Spells and curses had more power than the soft option of prayer. Certain birds and animals were deemed to be evil or brought bad luck. Owls were considered to be birds of ill-omen as were Ravens and a toad on a doorstep was a sign that the house had been ill-wished, the toad subsequently disposed of.
I’ll go onto more depth on what I know of the early Christian influences in the area and the overlap with pagan origins at another time, as I feel this aspect contributes much to the ambience of the whole area and, whilst much is down to conjecture, we cannot underestimate its potency. Either way, the atmosphere is one of reverence and uneasy peace. It is certainly a place for contemplation but probably not uplifting should ones thoughts veer towards regret or sadness. The overall air of serenity affords a wonderful opportunity for someone with an open mind to achieve clarity should thoughts be in any way confused. The promise of a positive outcome once untangled is enticing indeed, and will be found in Kevrinek if vibration is in tune.
It’s difficult to know if the stream was wider and straighter in years gone by. Probably it was and, further upstream below the ‘tunnel’ I mention below, remains of a mill would indicate a more vigorous flow of water at some time. Once into the thick canopy of trees arching over the valley, the stream enters a quieter, darker, secret world, meandering between hummocks of moss, presumably covering rocks, giving the impression of a small village of houses for gnomes. Imagination drove me to think that the moss covered domes were gravestones for monks who had died, the house having, allegedly, been used as a retreat by the brothers at the monastery in Bodmin. Guiltily uncovering a couple of mossy domes when Tegan and I were children and used this place as our playground, revealed nothing other than rock when we had hoped to find an inscription or even the vague outline of a Celtic cross.
Maybe I’ll take another look at some stage, especially as recent discoveries have tickled the imagination. Enough of that for now, and part of me feels it’s right to let things rest. Perhaps, intrusion would disturb the tranquillity and break the spell. So, the stream winds its way down towards the cove, following an illogical, random course, as if reluctant to arrive. Thick ferns, such as you see mostly on the more sheltered south coast of Cornwall, hover over small pools, seemingly still, rather like base camps on an expedition. Here is slightly deeper water, playgrounds for voles and rats although we failed to discover any fish, just a few newts and tadpoles in the spring. Gravity will have its way and, eventually, the cold, fresh water greets the salty ocean in a small cove, bubbling over stones and boulders, the remnants of a long abandoned harbour, once a bustling and vibrant place in the heady days of tin mining. The one remaining section still stand proud and solid, a twelve foot high wall of granite blocks, above and a few yards back from which sits a row of buildings, once storehouses I assume and two small cottages, one of which I judge to be habitable with a little attention. On the land side, there appears to have been other structures at one time, remains of a network of walls disappearing into an encroaching fringe of vegetation. The dark stonework gives the impression of being somewhat older than the cottages, unless the force from Atlantic gales has bleached away any discolouration from the quayside buildings.
A well, or it could be a drain, rises into the courtyard at the back of the cottages, with a ridge of raised earth and rocks leading off from this into the thick woodland. Standing on the quay, completely at the mercy of the ocean, the sea is slate grey, interspersed with creamy ridges that make their way to the shore in a constant march. Ahead to the left is Tremerryn beach, sand and rock pools covered now by a high tide, the only exposed section being beneath the tall cliffs that rise in height steadily as they approach a cathedral like arch of rock beneath which, in the cliff face, lie several caves, not deep but dark enough to encourage thoughts of smugglers when we were children. The coast path follows the rise of the cliff, winding inland a little then back to the edge, ultimately disappearing into the next cove, where lies the Wreckers, a wondrous pub with an infamous history and now a music venue attracting customers both local and from a distance. Set above a slipway sloping to a stony beach, presumably used by fishing boats at one time, a creative landlord keeps an excellent cellar, serves hearty local food and makes the most of the inglorious reputation of the place, both real and imagined, adorning the walls with ‘supposed’ relics from smuggling days of yore. Many memories live here, some happy, some not so and others vague, erased and sometimes enhanced by St Austell best bitter. Because of the setting and the isolation, music here is special and the company exceptional.
Approaches and arrival
Leaving the top road, an offshoot twice removed from the main A30 trunk road, the traveller is suddenly swallowed up by a tunnel of thick woods, virtually impenetrable on either side, the dense tangle arching inwards to obliterate direct sunlight, the remaining light filtering down reluctantly to a roadway of tarmac, laid carelessly some years ago and now disintegrating more with assistance from the weather than the occasional traffic. Trees are mostly scrubby oak, the occasional noble beech forcing its way towards the distant light beyond the canopy, a straggle of ferns and brambles crowding around the ankles of the trees not so much in subservience, more as if hoping to emulate their larger relatives and scramble upwards, either by means of their immediate companions or by their own volition and a firm belief in the power of mystical elevation.
The reason why the track meanders so can only be explained by the fact that, hidden deep in the woods and now barely visible, are the remains of small buildings, maybe houses that may have once formed a small community of farmers or woodsmen. The stream running parallel to the tunnel, but some distance away, could also hold answers as to why some chose to set up home here centuries ago. The incline grows steeper and the track straightens, the tree tunnel is darker and takes on the appearance of a bob sleigh track, the experience enhanced by steady snow, some of which has penetrated the canopy and lies unsullied apart from a meandering trail of paw prints, possibly a rabbit, weasel or a stoat. It is impossible for the pace not to quicken as the light at the end of the tunnel naturally draws you towards it, the moderate brightness ahead making the enclosed space seem darker by contrast. And so, we emerge into falling snow, driven at a forty-five degree icy angle, the constriction of the tunnel now seeming rather attractive on reflection.
Open land lies to either side, the route of the stream to the left identified by bushes and trees huddling around the banks, and a white meadow to the right, falling away gently towards thick trees about five hundred yards distant, where Francis Martyn’s cottage can be found, barely visible in the deluge. A short way ahead, defiant and rather larger than one would expect, stand two tall granite pillars. At some stage, there may have been gates attached but there is nothing to show that this was the case. A road leading off to the left, eventually finding its way to the lower track to the cove at the bottom of Kevrinek, is not visible beneath snow, now readily covering all it embraces.
If the pillars have stories to tell, today is not the day and we proceed down the drive, some one hundred yards towards the house. Either side is lawn with untidy bushes huddling under a snowy helmet, and we, unfairly perhaps, suppose the lawn to be unkempt, such is the feeling of neglect that permeates my thoughts on the journey down towards the house. Considering the muted grandeur of the pillars and the drive, Chy Nans is moderate in size, hot on character yet cold in appearance. An air of sadness surrounds the place somehow, made more poignant by lack of light from within on a gloomy November afternoon.
Built sometime around the late fifteenth century, some put the date in the 1490’s, there are elements that identify it as a dwelling and others that gravitate towards architecture of the church. It could be that alterations over the years had shifted the balance between the two. A defining feature is the wide porch, up two steps, then opening out beyond the archway into a good size area with ample accommodation for logs on one side, a stone seat occupying the opposite wall.
There are no windows in this entrance hall, making it rather gloomy, a single large oak door set back completing the picture, more substantial than seems necessary, opening up the possibility there may have been double doors at one time. Above the porch sits a room with an arched window, matching the arch of the entrance below, and this enjoys a view right down the drive towards the granite pillars. Inside the house, much description of the rooms, the mixture of styles and the multitude of curiosities scattered around find their voice in the books so I will not dwell on this. There you will also find such information as I have on the reason for the house being there in the first place, although much is conjecture since there are no records to be found despite searches in local museums and libraries. Suffice to say that the abiding feeling is that Chy Nans was constructed as a house of rest, a retreat I suppose, for the order of monks based at Bodmin and, possible, by visiting Brothers from other monastic houses across the land and beyond. The house requires considerable attention, as you will also discover, yet the main fabric is solid and well constructed.
Why it has taken all these years for the intrigue about the history and makeup of the place to be brought into focus is intriguing, triggered by an accident that resulted in the death of my father and a subsequent link from his research into what the house may have been used for. It was always accepted that there was a connection to the monastery but it was ever a tenuous one with little to encourage further investigation until Branock and father provided the catalyst. The fact that father, Tegan and I were all immersed in elements of historical research through study and work, living in this ancient home must have, somehow, heightened our senses with regard to history in general, whilst ignoring the possibilities on our doorstep.
I suppose it was taken for granted, having been the family home for centuries, none of us considering it worthy of an actual case study. Since events have indicated that there could be grounds to explore the house in more depth, the power of imagination comes into play, creating all kinds of possibilities and, whatever we manage to uncover will fuel further conjecture and romanticising, I have no doubt. I seem to remember loving the atmosphere when we were children, although some friends when visiting found the place to be intimidating, scary I suppose, such is the influence of dark caverns, hidden passages and the creaking of old timbers in the night.
The contrast to their own home environment must have been substantial. We had always known there was a cellar under the main hall. Nothing unusual there one would suppose, as the majority of older houses, large and small, were built with cellars as storage for goods, wine, meat and so on as temperatures underground aid preservation. I have never been down to the cellar as it was bricked up before I was born, on the grounds that it had become unsafe. Whether that applies to the actual stairs or the structure down below is unknown. So conjecture once again clicks in and, suddenly, there is the notion that more lies beneath, especially as Chy Nans is built into a hillside, so the construction of lower level would have been a good deal easier than it would had the work been undertaken on level ground. The land falls away steeply to the north into a strange straggle of marshland way down the slope. Possibly another stream or river might have flowed through that area eons ago, leaving boggy remains as a legacy. Had that been the case, the site of Chy Nans would have almost been an island with a river either side. It would be interesting to find if there is evidence of where this other stream may have found outlet, as the geography would indicate it should be in the same cove where the one flowing through Kevrinek meets the ocean.
The Old buildings
An air of mystique now hangs around the old buildings. I say now because they have been brought into focus since Branock started on the path towards meeting his maker there, passing away a short while later in hospital. So whilst I say mystique, this is laced with sadness and confusion and perhaps even a little anger, bearing in mind developments in book two. If you have yet to read that far, I will allow you to do so without colouring your opinion for now.
While there is no record of the origins or purpose of the buildings, much can be surmised from inspection. Situated at the bottom of the grounds, accessed by a sloping path from the rear of the house, the layout comprises a series of separate units linked together to form a rough circle, rather like a fortified dwelling, typical of the Middle Ages. There is, however, no hint that there was ever the need to defend the site, being quite open on one side with no battlements or elements that might be used to repel an assault. The whole site sits adjacent to the stream, with one side virtually on the bank itself although raised up a distance above the edge.
Why it had to be so close is unclear, yet it’s easy to consider that some kind of mill may have been involved but somehow that seems unlikely, as there are no signs typically found around a working mill. Perhaps it was just to have a water supply on tap, so to speak. The individual sections of the structure vary in height, although some have no roof that may indicate that they were higher at some stage. The lower rooms, which appear to have been used as storerooms, stables or pens for cattle, pigs or sheep, have rough stone floors with uneven walls, rocks sticking out at random and a couple of crudely whitewashed walls at either end and one along the back.
These were areas we played in as children, setting up a den, cooking food on an open fire and generally creating a wonderful make-believe world away from the prying eyes of adults at the house, some distance away but hidden from view by trees and bushes. It could well have been that, when the building was erected, vegetation was thicker than now and, as the site pre-dates the main house by, maybe, a hundred years, there must have been elements of a self sufficient dwelling. By that, I mean there would have been a food preparation area with attendant facilities, dormitories or sleeping chambers and, of course, a chapel of sorts. This pre-supposes that this was indeed set up as a religious site in the first place and so we look for indications of such a purpose. Access to the courtyard, for want of a better word, is through a broad gap, with no sign of a gate, posts or columns that would indicate a formal entrance.
This seems to be simply a hole in the wall although there is no rubble, as would be the case had the wall fallen down. It appears that the gap was made deliberately. It would have been appropriate to have had a wide arched entrance in stone, possibly embellished with carvings, to which heavy wooden gates would be affixed, but where that could have been situated is a mystery. It comes to mind that perhaps this was an exploratory phase in the process, a simple dwelling erected as the forerunner of the larger project that was Chy Nans. If this was set up by an order of monks, there will surely be tell tale signs somewhere inside. Standing in the courtyard now, ahead are the storerooms, stables and so on, and these form about half of the enclosure, each at a slight angle to the other forming the shape of a large letter C. Most of the three sections are open, although small strips of what may have been front walls form a fringe on either side, a bit like a proscenium arch on a theatre stage.
The ‘rooms’ are about fifteen feet deep and ten feet high, sloping to around eight at the rear. In the floor on the right side is a dip about one foot deep and four feet long, rather like a small inspection pit in a garage, and this channel fits right up to the wall. Above this are two smooth stone lintels, one vertical and the other at a slight angle, set into the wall. The rest of the area contains little apart from a pile of logs and twigs in one corner, loose stones and small rocks littered across the floor and two slits in the back wall, some two feet high and just a few inches wide with incongruous arches at the top and narrow shelves directly under each one. Coming out now into the centre, to the right is a taller building in a poor state of repair. It must have been twice its current height at some stage, judging from the remains of the narrow stairs that reach what would have been a first floor, a couple more risers indicate access to a second floor when it was constructed.
Across the courtyard is a similar structure, suggesting that the two could have originally been joined together. Or is that fantasy taking over again? For such a humble building, surely an arched roof would have been far too grand, especially if this was a temporary project pending the larger Chy Nans that followed. It would be interesting to know if they had a name for the site. Oh for records! I climb the remaining stairs, a small window affording a glimpse of the stream below and, through the dense thicket of trees on the far bank, a hint of light beyond, signalling an open space, more noticeable with a covering of snow. Now on the top step, I can go no further, but here find a small section of smooth, worked stone setting out at an angle, suggesting that the possibility of a vaulted roof could not be discounted altogether.
The stairs are crumbling close to the edge and scaffolding around this ‘tower’ shows that the intent to repair was in place, even if the execution of such intent was not forthcoming. Ivy and brambles substantially cover many of the walls, creating the impression of a folly, popular with Victorian Gentry yet not so grand. Down the stairs again, turning left in what must have been the inside of a chapel, if that is what it was, the theory is reinforced by a stone ledge behind which is a small recess topped with a shallow arch, the gap filled with rubble but there nonetheless, bearing all the characteristics of an aumbry where the elements of the Eucharist would have been kept. A curved wall leading off from beyond the tower, half of which no longer exists, since a section has been demolished to form the entrance through which I accessed the courtyard, does paint the picture of a complete east wall, no doubt with a large window above it originally. This would have been where the altar was situated and been the focus of worship in the early days.
The remaining section of wall is about ten feet high in places and some two feet thick, showing that the building as a whole seems to have been substantially constructed. And remember that this could have been in use for well over a hundred years before Chy Nans became the upgraded version. Whether this intriguing building continued to be a place of worship we will never know, but I would like to think it still retained a purpose. Large stone flags cover the area near the east wall, largely enveloped now by moss and lichen, some sunken at the corners, others cracked. An uneven line marks what could have been a tiled centre to the ‘chapel’ area, most of the usable material presumably robbed out when the site was abandoned, as suggested by fragments of terracotta and pale stone littering the surface.
The journey from the top road down to the cove starts with a bobsleigh like journey down the tunnel of trees, thick vegetation either side, the land falling away to the left towards the stream, remnants of houses or workshops lurking in the deep woods. Via a tortuous route, the lane twists and turns before straightening for the final plunge, emerging into open space on either side, the unreasonably large granite pillars announcing the entrance to Chy Nans, which lies at the bottom of the drive, brooding and showing all the signs of impending disintegration. A track leads to the left away from the house to meet up with coast road and then to the cove. Below the house, a lane winds down past the old buildings, over a small stone bridge, also emerging at the cove. To the east of the house, the land fall steeply away towards marshland and scrubby undergrowth and the slope is covered with similarly dense trees and bushes, making the area accessible only with difficulty. The stream and lane from the house arrive at the cove at the same time, the former bubbling over the remains of the inner harbour walls. Two cottages and a storehouse stand proud on the remaining section of the quay, and the base of the outer harbour wall is sometimes uncovered when the tide is really low. Beyond this is the merciless Atlantic, a brilliant blue on one day, slate grey and boiling the next.
I hope the overview helps paint the picture for you. Let’s explore Kevrinek together
NOTE: Kevrinek is a work of fiction, but the places and characters exist vividly in my mind as a composite of a number of locations I know in Cornwall. Hopefully, you will share and experience feelings and flashes of recognition as the stories unfold. Names and characters are a product of my imagination and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.