Despite a foggy head and a slight loss of sensation in my limbs (a leftover from the Crantock bale push the night before), last Saturday we headed over to the intriguingly named Dollar Cove and Church Cove on the Lizard Coast.
Since learning the history of this particular stretch of coastline, both the Gunwalloe coves – Dollar Cove and Church Cove – have always featured high up on our list of must-visit places. Situated on the dramatically beautiful Lizard peninsula, until now our visits had always been thwarted by the allure of the coves’ more famous neighbours, Kynance and Poldhu. By no means the ugly sister of the three, the Gunwalloe coast is comparatively less well known and lacks the guide book coverage that it’s show-time neighbours have received. What it lacks in tourist exposure however, it more than makes up for in its rich and plentiful history. In particular it’s shipwrecks. Treasure shipwrecks.
As I parked up at the National Trust car park, the weather was perfect. A week of strong offshore winds and stormy weather was just breaking up, leaving behind a coastline battered and bruised by incoming set after incoming set of powerful, slate grey waves. As the clouds chased each other overhead, breaking apart and reforming again, the jagged shoreline of the Gunwalloe coves were thrown in and out of beautiful sunshine and ominous shade. Perfect conditions for some shipwreck storytelling.
St Anthony Shipwreck, Gunwalloe Bay 1527
During a ferocious storm in 1527, the St Anthony – the flagship of King John III of Portugal’s fleet – sank off of the Gunwalloe coast. Shipwreck sites litter the coast of Cornwall but what makes this one particularly interesting is that the ship’s manifest records that it had an extremely valuable cargo. Not only did it contain a large number of copper and silver ingots, but it’s also thought to have been carrying the dowry of Princess Katherine, bride of King John III and sister of the holy Roman Emperor – Charles V.
The ship came into trouble off of the coast at Gunwalloe, however the seabed here is formed of rocky gullies and an onslaught of powerful surf, seen in a storm such as the one that wrecked the carrack, can cause huge shifts of sediment and dramatic rises and falls in the seabed depth. This meant that by the following morning, in much calmer conditions and stranded at low tide, the ship is believed to have sat in just 6 ft of water. How I imagine what happened next is fairly reminiscent of a half price TV sale at Asda on Black Friday:
With only around half of the 86 crew surviving to protect the wreck, the Cornish locals spent much of the next day
looting salvaging the ship’s cargo. British monarch Henry VIII set up a Court of Star Chamber to enforce King John III of Portugal’s demands for the return of the goods however, the verdict of the trial is not known. As is, I suspect, the fate of much of the loot.
I like to think that the Cornish locals did well out of the wreck, that there were suddenly a lot of peasants able to afford large turnips in the country in a Baldrick of Blackadder style. The reality is more likely however, that the wealthy landowners benefited the most from the St Anthony’s spoils. At the time, manorial rights meant that the landowners were entitled to the spoils from ships wrecked on their lands. Sure enough, in the case of the St Anthony, three neighbouring landowners on this coastline were able to afford some fancy fixes to their manors and statuses in the years to come.
Although accounts survive from the time which record these events, the specific location of the wreck wasn’t actually known until around 1981. The rocky gullies of the seabed at Gunwalloe meant that the wooden ship and her artefacts were quickly destroyed under the force of the Atlantic surf leaving behind little trace. A copper ingot was discovered by a shellfish diver in the area but it wasn’t until another was found washed up on the beach that the narrative records were matched to the location and the wreck site was rediscovered.
In 1982 the site was protected from treasure hunters and opportunistic divers by a Protection of Wrecks act. The remaining copper and silver ingots were recovered and taken to the British Museum for analysis. For those interested, an in-depth and interesting bulletin on the subject of post-medieval ingots, including those of the St Anthony wreck, can be found here. From the British Museum, the ingots were transported to the Charlestown Shipwreck & Heritage Centre and Pengersick castle where some of the artefacts are now displayed.
San Salvadore, Dollar Cove 1669
Dollar cove gets it’s name from another equally valuable shipwreck although sadly, less is known about this one as is known about the St Anthony wreck. In 1669, a Spanish ship – the San Salvadore – was wrecked off of the Gunwalloe coast at Dollar Cove. It is said that it was transporting around two tonnes of silver coins, some of which are still rumoured to wash up in the cove following a heavy storm. Over the years many attempts have been made to recover the loot including sunken shafts and underwater damming of gullies but, despite the effort invested, no major discoveries have been made.
When I first set foot on the beaches at Dollar cove and Church Cove, it was hard to imagine the devastating conclusions that these ships suffered here. Children played in the surf and rock pools as parents, armed with coffee flasks, watched on. In Dollar Cove those treacherous, exposed rocky gullies, so feared by many seafarers, are now exploited as a fantastic natural climbing frame. And in Church Cove, the most recent shipwreck to affect these sandy shores was one built for a shipwreck scene for the 2015 BBC adaptation of Winston Graham’s Poldark. We are now fortunate enough that these pivotal moments in history can be thought of in wonder, with their stories capturing the imagination of the young and old alike. 400-500 years ago these sites were a scene of life and death. Life to the survivors (and an offer of better life for the looters) but death to so many of those on board.
For the Kiwi and I, the coves neatly summarise what it is that we love about Cornwall. These fantastic, dramatic stories from history, set against an equally beautiful and dramatic scenery. All within a short walk or scenic drive of each other. So, next time you happen to be en-route to the beautiful coves of Kynance and Poldhu, be sure to make time for a visit to Gunwalloe and the coves of Church Cove and Dollar Cove. I dare you to try and not cast your thoughts back to a time of storms, shipwrecks and silver…
There is a National Trust car park at Gunwalloe with easy walking access over sand dunes to both Church Cove and Dollar Cove. For the more active explorers – the coastal path here is particularly beautiful and passes through both coves. There is a small shop with light refreshment and pubs and cafes on either side at Gunwalloe and at the neighbouring Poldhu Cove.
Interested in the history of the Cornish coast? You might like our visit to the mines at Botallack. Have you visited an interesting historic site recently? Or know of any more shipwreck history? Feel free to comment below or you can email us, Facebook us or tweet us on Twitter. Don’t forget to add #kiwiinkernow to your Instagram pics too!