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Undiscovered Cornwall, Reverend Hawker, Morwenstow Church And The Bude Mermaid

Updated on August 19, 2012

Wild sea cliffs, like a scene from a gothic novel

The coast of North Cornwall has a wild and rugged beauty. This article is about my favourite places around Morwenstow, the walk through the Tidna Valley and the history of the area including the famous Reverend Hawkwer.  Because this area is not so well known by tourists, it is still possible to find beautiful and deserted beaches where you can walk without seeing another soul. I particularly love the area around Morwenstow – don’t try to get down to the beach here though, it is very steep and dangerous but the cliff-top views are spectacular. It is like something from a gothic novel, wild sea cliffs, remote farmland and ancient woodland.

The View from Cliffs at Morwenstow

Reverend Hawker

The only things he wore that were black were his socks.  Even at his funeral, everyone wore purple!
The only things he wore that were black were his socks. Even at his funeral, everyone wore purple!

Reverend Hawker, Scholar, Poet, Eccentric

Morwenstow is perhaps most famous for Reverend Robert Stephen Hawker, usually referred to as Stephen Hawker who was the vicar of the parish of Morwenstow for forty years from 1834 to 1874. He was a great eccentric I think, preferring to dress in a red coat, a blue fisherman’s jersey, a pink brimless hat and long sea boots. He would top the ensemble with a poncho made from a yellow horse blanket (which he claimed to be the ancient Habit of St. Padern!) when he went out in search of poor ship-wrecked souls who, if he could not save, he was determined to give a Christian Burial.

He enlisted helpers in his mission from amongst his parishioners, most of whom were poor labourers and farmers (with perhaps the odd smuggler). Because the rocks on the shore would slice up the bodies into what was known locally, and rather gruesomely, as ‘Gobbets’, Parson Hawker had to ply his helpers with Gin or Brandy before they set out to fortify them and help to overcome their superstition and revulsion at this grisly task. The churchyard at Morwenstow has many gravestones of the drowned of numerous wrecks off the coast below the church. Prior to Revd Hawker’s compassion, these poor souls were buried on the beach where they lay or left to the sea.

Parson Hawker’s eccentricity did not stop with his taste in clothes, he would frequently be seen with his large pet pig, Gyp and he also had nine cats, all of whom were allowed into the church (although one was excommunicated for catching mice on a Sunday!). He also dressed as a Mermaid to fool the people of Bude, read the extract from the eBook by Sabine Baring-Gould below, it is very funny!

The Area Around Morwenstow and Bude

morwenstow, cornwall:
Morwenstow, Bude, Cornwall EX23, UK

get directions

Morwenstow, places of interest, Church, churchyard, Hawker's Hut and the Tidna Valley

bude, cornwall:
Bude, Cornwall EX23, UK

get directions

Great place to learn to surf, beautiful beaches, great town, Bude Canal and the Castle Museum are very interesting

Sandymouth, Cornwall:
Bude Sandymouth, Kilkhampton, Cornwall EX23 9, UK

get directions

Sandymouth (National Trust) has a huge sandy beach at low tide. Lifeguards throughout the summer, dogs allowed. Cafe, toilets, car park

This is a screenshot of the little web site I am building for Tamar Lake Farm
This is a screenshot of the little web site I am building for Tamar Lake Farm

Camping In Cornwall?

If you are thinking of visiting the area and have a caravan or tent, perhaps you would like to stay at the little site that we stay at, Tamar Lake Farm is near Kilkhampton and makes a great base for camping in Cornwall

I can find no image of the Bude Mermaid but I am sure your imagination can do the rest!
I can find no image of the Bude Mermaid but I am sure your imagination can do the rest!

The Bude Mermaid

 The following text is taken from The Vicar of Morwenstow: A Life of Robert Stephen Hawker, M.A. By Sabine Baring-Gould. Which you can read online by using the link.

"At full moon in the July of 1825 or 1826, he swam or rowed out to a rock at "some little distance from the shore, plaited seaweed into a wig, which he threw over his head, so that it hung in lank streamers halfway down his back, enveloped his legs in an oilskin wrap, and, otherwise naked, sat on the rock, flashing the moonbeams about from a hand-mirror, and sang and screamed till attention was arrested. Some people passing along the cliff heard and saw him, and ran into Bude, saying that a mermaid with a fish's tail was sitting on a rock, combing her hair, and singing.

A number of people ran out on the rocks and along the beach, and listened awe-struck to the singing and disconsolate wailing of the mermaid. Presently she dived off the rock, and disappeared.

Next night crowds of people assembled to look out for the mermaid; and in due time she re-appeared, and sent the moon flashing in their faces from her glass. Telescopes were brought to bear on her; but she sang on unmoved, braiding her tresses, and uttering remarkable sounds, unlike the singing of mortal throats which have been practised in do-re-mi.

This went on for several nights; the crowd growing greater, people arriving from Stratton, Kilkhampton, and all the villages round, till Robert Hawker got very hoarse with his nightly singing, and rather tired of sitting so long in the cold. He therefore wound up the performance one night with an unmistakable "God save the King," then plunged into the waves, and the mermaid never again revisited the "sounding shores of Bude."

Morwenstow Church and Churchyard

My photo of Morwenstow Church, looking back up the path from the cliffs
My photo of Morwenstow Church, looking back up the path from the cliffs
Library picture showing the figurehead which is not currently on display in the Churchyard
Library picture showing the figurehead which is not currently on display in the Churchyard

Morwenstow Church

If you go to Morwenstow, you can park outside the Rectory Tea Rooms and go and take a look around the Parish Church of St. Morwenna and St. John the Baptist and the churchyard.  Until recently, the figurehead of the Caledonia which was wrecked in 1842, stood at the entrance and marked the graves of nine of the ten man crew.  At present, the figurehead has been removed for restoration but near to the spot where it stood, is a granite cross marked simply ‘Unknown Yet Well Known’ and this marks the mass grave of 30 or more sailors, including the captain of a ship called the Alonzo which was also wrecked in 1842.

Visiting England?

Hubtrails is a collection of articles (called Hubs on HubPages) about places all over the world. Some of the best are listed at the foot of this article. If you would like to find some great places to visit in the UK. You may also like my Hub on National Trust Property, Kingston Lacy in Dorset.

Chimneys at the Old Vicarage

The chimneys were designed to remind Reverend Hawker of the towers of churches that had been significant in his life
The chimneys were designed to remind Reverend Hawker of the towers of churches that had been significant in his life

The Old Vicarage, Morwenstow

If you look across from the churchyard to the former Rectory, which was built by Revd Hawker, you will notice the unusual chimney pots that were designed by him to remind him of the towers of churches that had been significant in his life.  The only one that is not of a church tower is the one on the roof of the old kitchen and this one is a replica of the tomb of his mother.

Reverend Hawker and Harvest Festival

In the Christian Church, we all celebrate Harvest Festival, but few of us know that the Harvest Festival Service was actually first introduced in the Church of England in 1843 by Reverend Hawker who wanted to give thanks to God for the plenty of the Harvest.  The service was a communion service and the communion bread made from flour from the first cut of corn.  Since then it has become an annual tradition in churches everywhere to celebrate the Harvest in this way.

Hawkers Hut, the smallest National Trust Property

You can sit inside Hawkers Hut and look out over the wild coastline and think of Parson Hawker writing his sermons.
You can sit inside Hawkers Hut and look out over the wild coastline and think of Parson Hawker writing his sermons.

National Trust in Cornwall

This part of the coastline is owned and preserved by the National Trust, you can walk down the path between the Church and the Rectory Tea Rooms, the short walk to the top of the cliffs at the coast.  If you look over to your right, you may glimpse Lundy Island on a clear day.  If you turn left there is another short walk to ‘Hawker’s Hut’ which Revd. Hawker built himself from driftwood and this is where he would sit and write his sermons and poetry puffing on his pipe of opium!  Interestingly, this hut is the smallest National Trust Property.

A YouTube video showing the amazing view from Hawkers Hut

Reverend Hawker, Poet and Author of the 'Cornish National Anthem'!

Perhaps his most famous poem is the ‘Song of the Western Men’ that is now more widely known as ‘Trelawny’, Cornwall’s ‘National Anthem’


A good sword and a trusty hand!
A merry heart and true!
King James's men shall understand
What Cornish lads can do!

And have they fixed the where and when?
And shall Trelawny die?
Here's twenty thousand Cornish men
Will know the reason why!

Out spake their Captain brave and bold:
A merry wight was he:—
"If London Tower were Michael's hold,
We'd set Trelawny free!

"We'll cross the Tamar, land to land:
The Severn is no stay:
Then 'one and all' and hand in hand;
And who shall bid us nay?

"And when we came to London Wall,
A pleasant sight to view,
Come forth! come forth! ye cowards all:
Here's men as good as you.

"Trelawny he's in keep in hold:
Trelawny he may die:
But here's twenty thousand Cornish bold
Will know the reason why!"

The ‘Trelawny’ in the song was Sir Jonathan Trelawny, who was Bishop of Bristol and one of seven Bishops imprisoned in the Tower of London by James II in 1687. Revd Hawker became known as the author of ‘The Song of the Western Men’ when Charles Dickens made it public in the serial magazine Household Words.

The Tidna Valley

The Tidna Valley is a magical place in spring.
The Tidna Valley is a magical place in spring.
Ancient trees, dappled shade and a stream rushing to the sea
Ancient trees, dappled shade and a stream rushing to the sea

The Beautiful Tidna Valley


If you continue your walk, past ‘Hawker’s Hut, a way-marked path takes you down a steeply-stepped descent into the Tidna Valley, one of my favourite places in the world on a spring day with wild daffodils and primroses and later, bluebells.  The path takes you up beside the stream to more steps that will take you into the garden of the lovely ‘Bush Inn’.  It is almost impossible to believe that this building was so badly damaged by fire in 1968 as it still retains so much of its old world charm.  The food is excellent, locally sourced meat and fish being a speciality.  On a sunny day, it is nice to end your walk with a drink in the garden there, or perhaps to walk the short distance down the lane to the Rectory Tea Rooms again where you can fortify yourself with an excellent Cornish Cream Tea.

If you get a chance to visit this beautiful corner of the world, I hope you will find its beauty as entrancing as I do.  Perhaps you, like me, when reading the inscriptions on the gravestones, will spare a thought for Revd Hawker who all those years ago, made it his mission to give poor sailors a Christian Burial here.

Useful information if you would like to visit North Cornwall

The nearest sizeable town to Morwenstow, is Bude.  Here you can visit the Cornish Tourist Board tourist Information Centre for information on hotels Cornwall, holiday cottages Cornwall, self catering Cornwall and so on.  Bude is a fascinating place in itself.  It was home to Cornwall’s forgotten genius Sir Goldsworthy Gurney and I will be writing a hub about him and about the Bude Canal, voted in the Telegraph Newspaper as being the best Canal Walk in the UK. It really is a great place to visit with great surfing beaches and beautiful places to discover.

Have You Enjoyed Reading This Article?

If you have enjoyed reading about Undiscovered Cornwall,my favourite places around Morwenstow and the colourful Reverend Stephen Hawker, please will you help me to publicise it by clicking the Tweet this and Like buttons at the top of the page or using the share it button below.  I would love to receive your comments and you can leave one at the bottom of this page.  Thank you.


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