Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Godrevy Light

A celebration of inspiration – and marriage

The jagged line of rocks off Godrevy Point, on the north eastern headland of St Ives Bay, lies right across the natural navigation course for the harbours of Hayle and St Ives. The reef claimed a succession of victims culminating in the loss of steamship Nile with all souls in 1854. This tragic incident caused a national outcry and prompted Trinity House to build a light at Godrevy. The resulting lighthouse is a beautiful and iconic structure, the inspiration of artists, photographers, poets and writers including Virginia Woolf.

In 1955, Charles Thomas, 26, met 17 year old Jessica Mann at an archaeological dig at Godrevy. They married several years later, and the lighthouse has continued to influence their lives. To celebrate their Golden Wedding, and the 150th anniversary of the first lighting of Godrevy lighthouse, they have written Godrevy Light, a book that records its history and explains how it is represented in art and literature.

In the early 1920s Charles' grandfather bought the northern part of Gwithian Parish and several miles of the North Cliffs, which he later gave to the National Trust to stop the land being developed. “It's one of the few unspoilt pieces of the Cornish coastline,” Charles explains. “Again and again I find myself at Godrevy, watching the gale driven waves breaking over the Island.”

Charles Thomas is well known as an archaeologist, Bard of the Gorsedd, founder of the Institute of Cornish Studies, researcher, author and excavator. The Lord Lieutenant of Cornwall presented him with the Jenner Medal in 2008 saying, “Professor Thomas’s contribution to Cornish life and understanding is unparalleled. History, language, archaeology, folklore, art, place names, dialect, military history, landscape, Methodism – these and much more have come under his scrutiny. He truly is a Cornish Polymath”.

Jessica Mann has written over 20 crime novels and non-fiction books. As a journalist she has written for national newspapers and as a broadcaster has appeared on television and radio. She has been on the board of many different companies, involved with the NHS, been a Planning Inspector, a 'water watchdog', and is a member of the Arts Council.

Despite both being prolific writers in their different fields, this is the first time they have collaborated on a book. “I don't think collaboration's a good idea,” says Jessica firmly. “I think we would not be having a 50th wedding anniversary if we had done any more!”

The idea grew from their joint interest in contemporary art and their many artist friends. “There's no pleasure like buying a picture,” says Jessica. “Our house is absolutely full of them, though only half are of the lighthouse. Once people know that you're interested in it, they give them to you as well.” She smiles reflectively. “Some of our especially treasured ones have been given to us by the artists themselves - Terry Frost, Kurt Jackson, John Miller. That adds a special dimension to enjoying them.”

The book is based on a pamphlet Charles wrote years ago about Godrevy lighthouse which now changes hands on Ebay for surprising sums,” Jessica explains. “We were wondering what to do about celebrating our marriage and we thought it would be fun to do something we could give to people as presents rather than receiving anything, and it grew from there.”

The book is illustrated by works of art by members of the St Ives art colony, other Cornish painters and craftsmen and visitors to Cornwall. Artists represented include Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Trevor Corser, Garstin Cox, Sir Terry Frost, Rose Hilton, Kurt Jackson, Andrew Lanyon, Jeremy Le Grice, Margo Maeckelberghe, Daphne McClure, John Miller, Charles Sim Mottram, Sidney Nolan, Julius Ollson, Jane O’Malley, Bryan Pearce, Robert Borlase Smart and Francis Raymond Spenlove. Many other artefacts, photographs, maps and souvenirs are included.

Jessica bought their first painting of the lighthouse from the vicar of St Ives who was intending to send it to a jumble sale. “I smuggled it back to our house, to give to Charles for our first Christmas together,” she says. “It was 1959, exactly 100 years since the light first shone from Godrevy.”

The couple now have two sons, two daughters and ten grandchildren, most of whom were christened at Gwithian Chapel, a building that has attracted visitors from all over the world. “It's a Grade II star listed building and next year will be its 200th anniversary,” says Charles, who recently had the building restored by English Heritage. “It's the only thatched chapel in Cornwall.” Charles has been connected with the chapel since the 1950s when he was a chapel steward. “It's now a charity with 5 trustees and has a Letter of Consent which means we operate as a Methodist church but work very closely with the local parish church.”

To add to Charles and Jessica's considerable accomplishments is their 50 years of marriage which, as Charles says, “It's quite an achievement, isn't it?”
“I think we're probably an extinct species to have stayed married so long!” adds Jessica. Part of their Golden Wedding celebrations included the publication of Godrevy Light at a launch party in St Ives, with the lighthouse shimmering in a heat haze.

“Godrevy was not famous when we began to collect the pictures and objects that illustrate this book,” says Jessica. “It's changed enormously, partly due to the Virginia Woolf effect – it appeared in To the Lighthouse. It's also because people get around much more than they used to. And also because wetsuits have completely transformed the seaside in the last 15 years. Now people can go to the beach all year round and stay there all day. That's why it's so crowded, even in winter.”

In 2005, when the lighthouse was threatened with closure, there were worldwide protests. “The lighthouse has become an icon,” Jessica explains. “Many people think it's their special place – as we do – so we thought they would like to see this book. The lighthouse is objectively terribly beautiful,” she pauses, and a smile can be heard in her voice. “It really is a lovely sight, no matter what.”

Godrevy Light by Charles Thomas and Jessica Mann is published in hardback by Twelveheads Press of Chacewater, price £18. www.twelveheads.com and from Cornish bookshops, Amazon etc.

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