Porthcurno is a small village in the parish of St. Levan (N 50:02:47, W 5:39:21) located in a valley on the south coast of
Cornwall, England, UK. It is approximately 9 miles (14 km) to the west of the market town of Penzanceand about 3 miles (5 km) from Land's End, the most westerly point of the English mainland. Access by road is from the north end of the valley only along a narrow 'unclassified' spur road off the B3283 'B' class road. The road ends at St. Levan church about half a mile further on from the village. There is a public car park at the southern end of the valley for about 200 cars where parking is free out of season. The village is also accessible on foot by the South West Coast Path, being about two hours walk from Land's End or four hours walk from Penzance for fit cliff walkers. There is an occasional but reliable bus service linking Porthcurno with Penzance, Lands End and nearby villages and hamlets including Newlyn, Paul, Sheffield, Lamorna, St Buryan, Treen, Trewthewey, Polgiggaand Sennen.
The name Porthcurno evolved from the earlier spelling 'Porth Kernow' or 'Porth Curnow'. In the
Cornish language'Porth-Curnow' meant 'Port (or Bay) of Cornwall'. Today there is no evidence of early commercial port activity but some remains of man-made tracks for horse-drawn vehicles are visible on one of the footpaths from the beach passing up on the east side of the valley.
The Cable Station and Engineering College
In the late nineteenth century, the remote beach at Porthcurno became internationally famous as the British termination of early submarine
telegraphcables, the first of which was landed in 1870, part of an early international link stretching all the way to India, which was then a British colony. In 1872, the Eastern Telegraph Company (ETC) Limited was formed which took over the operation of the cables and built a cable office in the lower valley. The concretecable hut, where the cable shore ends were connected to their respective landlines, is a preserved building and still stands today at the top of the beach. ETC and its cable operations expanded through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in 1928 to merge with Marconi's Wireless Telegraph CompanyLimited to form Imperial and International Communications Limited which was re-named Cable and WirelessLimited in 1934.
In the Inter-War years, the Porthcurno cable office operated as many as 14 cables, for a time becoming the largest submarine cable telegraph station in the World. Porthcurno is still known colloquially by the
acronym'PK' being represented in Morse codeas 'di-dah-dah-dit' followed by 'dah-di-dah'. In the early days of expensive telegraphy, this could be easily sent economically and unambiguously with just two letters instead of ten for the full word.
Over the years, many apprentices were trained at the Porthcurno cable office in
telegraphyand supporting skills. In 1950 Cable and Wireless opened an engineering college offering courses in branches of telecommunicationson the site for employees, secondees and external students. Porthcurno is still recalled today by senior staff at telecommunications offices across the World who were former students here. The cable office closed in 1970, exactly 100 years after the first cable was landed, but the college remained open, receiving substantial investment in buildings and training equipment through the 1970s and 1980s, eventually closing permanently in 1993. The closure was a very sad event locally, but it was perhaps inevitable given the costs to Cable and Wireless of maintaining such a geographically remote site. The subsequent demolition of some of the less attractive 70s college buildings, in particular the prison-like block of no architectural merit known as 'Howitt House' received popular support. Shortly after the closure the Cable and Wireless Porthcurno Telegraph Museumwas opened. This award winning museum, has been widely recommended to tourists, local people and schools in the area, and has also been featured on the BBCTV documentary series " What the Victorians Did for Us", presented by the scientist and broadcaster Dr. Adam Hart-Davis. It occupies some of the former college buildings and includes several exhibits which are located in 'The Tunnel'.
Porthcurno was a critical communications target and vulnerable to attack during the Second World War so a tunnel was bored into the granite valley side by local tin mining engineers in 1940 to accommodate the essential telegraph equipment. The main entrance was protected by double bomb-proof, gas-proof doors and a covert escape route for staff via a secondary tunnel was incorporated from the back leading to the fields above. The interior was that of a windowless open-plan office constructed as a building shell within the granite void, complete with sloping roof, false ceiling, plastered and decorated walls and drainage for water seepage. The Tunnel environment being secure, dry, and at a virtually constant temperature proved to be ideal for the sensitive telegraph equipment and it continued to house the subsequently upgraded equipment until the cable office closure. It was then used for training facilities for the Engineering College until its subsequent closure when it was handed over to the museum.
In recent years, six very high capacity modern descendants of submarine telegraph cables, using fibre optic technology have been landed at Porthcurno forming a significant part of the UK connection to the international telecommunications 'backbone'. Each of these has literally thousands of times the capacity of all of their predecessors put together. However today they use Porthcurno merely as a landing point for connecting to the UK telecommunications infrastructure, passing directly via landlines to a terminating station at
Skewjackabout 2 miles (3 km) inland from Porthcurno.
Porthcurno Coastal Area
The cliffs and coastline around Porthcurno are officially designated areas of outstanding natural beauty and widely considered as some of the most visually stunning in the South West. These can be enjoyed by walkers using the many public footpaths in the area. The South West coastal footpath passes through the area often within just a few yards of the clifftops. Extensive coastal areas are now owned and maintained by the National Trust and the remainder by the local
parish councilon behalf of Cornwall County Council. The nearby cliffs rise to 60 to 70 m and are formed from a bedrock of prismatic granite; over the geologicaltimescale having been eroded, shaped and divided vertically and horizontally sometimes almost into rounded cubic blocks, for example the nearby Logan Rock.
An ancient bridleway, probably the original route to Porthcurno beach via the nearby Trendrennen Farm to the east has recently been opened by the
Ramblers Association. In early 2006 this was passable on foot after a dry period but requires further restoration work and drainage. This was probably an early route to Porthcurno beach before the present road was built, used by horses and carts to collect seaweed which was used for land fertilisation.
Porthcurno beach, a few hundred yards south of the village is situated in the shelter of the
Logan Rockheadland just less than one mile (1 km) to the east. The beach is noted for its coarse sand of broken sea shells, steep shelf and strong rip-currents. Sometimes combinations of wind, tides and sea currents can change the 'sandscape' dramatically in a few hours, but it is unusual for the beach to be completely inundated at high tide. To the immediate east of Porthcurno beach is a small tidal beach called Green Bay. Sometimes this is accessible with caution from Porthcurno beach briefly at low tide. activity.
About half way along the main coastal footpath from Porthcurno to Logan Rock another path loops off to the cliffs above Pedn Vounder beach. Beside this is a white pyramid built from granite blocks about 3 m (10 feet) tall. Originally at this point stood a hut which housed the termination of a submarine telegraph cable to the French port of Brest which was laid in 1880. Some of the stone ducting built up on the cliffside is still visible from the footpath nearby. This was the first (indirect) cable connection from the UK to the American continent passing from Porthcurno to Brest and then via the trans-Atlantic cable first to
Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, off the coast of Canada, and then a further 500 km (313 miles) to Cape Cod, Massachusetts. In 1919 the cable end was moved to the Eastern Telegraph Company's hut a few hundred yards to the west at the top of Porthcurno Beach, where it remained in operation until 1962. The conspicuous pyramid replaced the hut because the former had previously been used by local fishermen as a land reference.
Logan Rockheadland, about 30 minutes' walk from Porthcurno to the east along the coastal footpath on the east side of Porthcurno Bay is famous for the 80 tonne graniterocking stone (Logan Rock) perched at the top of the middle outcrop of rocks on the small rocky peninsula. Millennia of erosionhad balanced it so finely that one person could move it easily and visibly. In 1824 a group of sailors led by LieutenantGoldsmith, nephew of the poet Oliver Goldsmith, and the worse for drink climbed up to Logan Rock armed with crowbars and dislodged it, allowing it to fall down the cliff. Such was the disgust of the local people at this blatant act of vandalism, that they complained to the Admiraltyand Goldsmith was ordered to replace the rock at his own expense. It took 7 months, 60 labourers and cost Goldsmith £130 at 1824 prices to replace it. It is said that Logan Rock has never really rocked properly since that time. The original invoicefor equipment and labour is now displayed on the wall of The Logan Rock public house in the nearby village of Treen, Cornwall.
Just to the north of the peninsula is evidence of an
Iron Agecliff fort called Treryn Dinas, comprising about 5 ramparts, ditches and some evidence of round dwelling huts. There is a small rocky island off the Logan Rock peninsula called Horrace and another smaller granite island which is only visible at low tide, providing a useful quick indication of the tide state.
Climate and Tourism
The natural beauty of the area and its mild climate make the beach and surrounding coastline very popular with tourists throughout the year but especially in the summer months, and they can become very crowded during the school holidays in July and August. The prevailing wind is from the south west and the winters are unusually mild for its latitude because of the influence of the warm
Gulf Streamsea current crossing the Atlantic Oceanfrom warmer seas around the Gulf of Mexico. The local area has some of the highest "average" annual air temperatures of the United Kingdom. In common with much of the south Cornish coast, summer daily maxima rarely exceed about 28 degrees Celsiusand sub-zero temperatures and frost are uncommon in the winter. Occasional snowfalls, when they do occur, usually melt into slushwithin a few hours. The lower valley and beach enjoy a micro-climatebeing sheltered in most directions from the prevailing and other winds. For the more exposed cliff-top areas, gale-force winds are common throughout the year which occasionally cause moderate structural damage to buildings locally.
In the summer months Porthcurno is popular with families on holiday with young children who enjoy playing on the beach and perhaps some supervised bathing. In the quieter seasons visitors tend to be local people and day-trippers from other parts of Cornwall. Many tourists come from elsewhere in the United Kingdom and Europe and may have rented self-catering or bed and breakfast accommodation nearby. There is a small sub post office and general stores, open all year, at the north end of the valley and a small cafe and ice cream stand near the car park which are open during the peak season.
Development of the area was dominated for over one hundred years by the operations of the cable station owned by
Cable and Wirelessplc and its predecessor companies. Probably over 90% of the inhabitants were either employees of Cable and Wireless or were directly supported by it.
Second World War, Porthcurno was designated a "Vulnerable Point" and was heavily defended and fortified as a part of British anti-invasion preparations. Defences included pillboxes, a petroleum warfare beach flame barrage. [Foot, 2006, p81-87]
The development of motor transport in the twentieth century and improved prosperity after the Second World War provided many with cars and made Porthcurno less than half an hour's drive from Penzance so many traveled daily from Penzance and other parts of Cornwall.
Much of the beach and surrounding shores previously owned by Cable and Wireless was donated to the National Trust in 1993 in common with many other parts of the Cornish coastline.
Most of the houses along the 'Valley' road were owned by the former Cable and Wireless Engineering College and sold off subsequent to its closure in 1993. Many of them have recently been converted to holiday flats making the population very seasonally dependent. Today the predominant industry of the area is tourism which is still quite seasonal despite recent improvements in communications and attempts to attract tourists out of season.
The Minack Theatre
Just out of sight of Porthcurno beach in the cliff face to the west is the
Minack Theatre, an open air theatre with a unique stage backdrop of Porthcurno Bay and the Logan Rock headland. It is an unusual setting for plays staged during the summer months ranging from the traditional Shakespeareto the more contemporary. The Theatre is accessible on foot from the coastal footpath by a rugged path in the cliff face or more easily by road taking the steep narrow hill leaving Porthcurno to the south towards St. Levan Churchand turning left at the summit. The Minack Theatre was built virtually single handedly by the late Rowena Cadewho worked there into her eighties with the support of local labourers. Today the Rowena Cade exhibition centre, coffee shop and theatre are open to visitors for most of the year but the theatre largely undergoes maintenance during the winter months in preparation for the following season.
A small headland to the west of the Minack Theatre called Pedn-men-an-Mere (Cornish: 'rocky headland by the sea') is known locally as 'Wireless Point'. This retains the rusted but still visible remains of the base and tether points of a
wireless telegraphyantenna mast that was erected in 1902 by the Eastern Telegraph Company. It was thought that this was used to 'spy' on the early wireless transmissions by Marconi, a developer of radio, from the Poldhucliff top about 17 miles (27 km) to the east, across Mount's Bayon the west side of the Lizard Peninsula. In those days Marconi's 'wireless telegraphy' was seen as a potential threat to the established 'cable and line telegraphy' on which Porthcurno and many local jobs depended. Much to their regret, the company mistakenly concluded that Marconi's efforts posed no threat to their cable business. However, Marconi's secretive development of the ShortwaveBeam Wireless System at Poldhu would be so successful that Eastern and many other cable telegraph companies were forced into near-bankruptcy by 1928.
There is a pair of large boulders near the cliff edge of which the smaller one, weighing about 5 tonnes, can be rocked by the weight of one adult.
Porth Chapel Beach
Pedn-men-an-Mere overlooks the small secluded tidal beach of Porth Chapel to the west. Porth Chapel beach is named after the remains of a medieval chapel visible next to the footpath about 30 m above the beach. There is a spring known as the St. Levan Holy Well further up the cliffside which may be reached by ancient granite steps. The steps were covered for many years but were discovered in 1931 by the Reverend H. T. Valantine and Dr. Vernon Favel. They were restored in 2003, part of a Cornwall County Council restoration project and were opened by The Countess of Wessex.
The parish church of
St Levanlies a few hundred yards up the valley to the north. There is a small car park in a field next to St Levan Church.
* [http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/science/wirearoundtheworld.shtml Wire around the World] — Porthcurno to Alice Springs by Telegraph
* [http://www.porthcurno.org.uk/ The Porthcurno Telegraph Museum]
* [http://www.minack.com/ The Minack Theatre]
* [http://www.cwhistory.com/ The History of Cable and Wireless]
* [http://tomstandage.com/vicnet.html The Victorian Internet] by Tom Standage
* [http://www.shimbo.co.uk/history/legends.htm Logan Rock] — the story of Lt. Goldsmith and Logan Rock
* [http://www.atlantic-cable.com Atlantic Cables] - old and modern telecommunications cables passing through Porthcurno
* [http://www.atlantic-cable.com/Article/FrenchCableStation] - Orleans Cable Station, Cape Cod
* [http://www.cornwall.gov.uk/index.cfm?articleid=3458 Cornwall County Council] - St. Levan Holy Well restoration project
* [http://www.vrcornwall.co.uk/porthcurno-cove.htm 360 degree spherical panorama of Porthcurno Cove]
* [http://www.lookaroundcornwall.com/tours/porthcurno_vt.htm Virtual tour of Porthcurno Telegraph Museum]
* [http://crocat.cornwall.gov.uk/dserve/dserve.exe?dsqIni=Dserve.ini&dsqApp=Archive&dsqDb=Catalog&dsqCmd=Overview.tcl&dsqSearch=((text)='porthcurno') Cornwall Record Office Online Catalogue for Porthcurno]
* [http://www.ianlewis147.com/030_porthcurno/ Photographs taken at Porthcurno Beach by Cornwall resident Ian Lewis - 4 October 2007]
* [http://www.porthcurno.mobi Porthcurno mobile information]
*cite book |last= Foot |first= William |coauthors= |title= Beaches, fields, streets, and hills ... the anti-invasion landscapes of England, 1940 |publisher= Council for British Archaeology |year= 2006 |month= |isbn= 1-902771-53-2
* "The Book of St. Levan — Crabs, Crousts and Clerks", St. Levan Local History Group, DAA Halsgrove Ltd., Tiverton, Devon EX16 6SS, UK. ISBN 1-84114-328-6.
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