It was a spontaneous decision on a rainy, blustery Sunday. I’ll go and find St Allen. Why? Because my maiden name is Allen and although I don’t know of any relatives who specifically came from the area, I wanted to see it for myself.
I’ve often passed the sign on the left of the main road from Truro to Carland Cross, just after Trispen, but had never ventured down it. This was my opportunity.
Officially described as a ‘quiet lane’, the change in scenery is instant. Gone were the cars and much-used tarmac, to be replaced instead by overhanging trees, intriguing driveways (one to Truthan Manor, now a private Grade II listed eighteenth century property but once the place were Jago, sheriff of Cornwall in the mid seventeenth century, apparently held court) and sudden field-gate glimpses of beautiful rolling countryside. There were very few houses and those that I did pass were largely old and hidden behind tall hedges and abundant foliage.
Given that there is ample signposting to St Allen, I’d somehow imagined a village. There isn’t one. St Allen is an isolated twelfth century church, set in deep countryside with no surrounding homes (apart from a vicarage somewhere behind the shrubs). Probably named after a local Celtic saint, the church was once part of the great Manor of Cargoll, largely based around St Newlyn East, near Newquay. Roger de Valle Torta, Lord of Trematon Castle near Saltash, sold the manor to Bishop Bronescombe in 1269 – just four years after the latter had established Glasney College in Penryn as a great centre of ecclesiastical power. From then until 1328, St Allen was an important place on the map for all the distinguished people who visited the bishop at his nearby home of Lanner Barton. By the fifteenth century the church had been enlarged with a second aisle but, thanks to King Henry VIII and his Reformation, the Barton was let to tenant farmers and St Allen presumably lost its prominence.
I love churches. Like many others, I don’t attend regular services but I do like to visit them, breathe in their atmosphere of quiet serenity and ponder on the human dramas that have taken place over centuries within and without their walls. Graveyards are a particular fascination because of the lives they mark. One headstone, just on the right as you walk towards the church entrance, records the deaths of Richard Paul Vincent of Tolcarne who died aged 44 in 1830, his wife, Elizabeth, who died aged 70 in 1861 and those of their children Ann, Henry, (we’re not told when or where they passed away), Harriet, who died at sea aged 36 and Richard, who lived until the grand old age of 81 in Australia. What joys and tribulations did they endure? Every life has its highs and lows and clearly they had their quota.
One of the terrible events that won’t have passed the family by is the East Wheal Rose mine disaster of 1846. Just after midday on 9 July, there was a terrific thunderstorm that lasted more than an hour. The mine is situated in a valley just outside St Newlyn East and, in less than five minutes after the rain started, water began to descend from the surrounding hills in torrents. Two hundred miners were underground at the time and despite the valiant efforts of those on the surface to avoid imminent inundation, the tunnels were quickly plunged into darkness and flooded. Thirty eight men were killed – nine of them from St Allen parish. Five of those were married and one of them had nine children. It’s impossible to believe that the impact on the whole community can have been anything less than devastating.
Wandering round the pathways, seeing names carved in granite and standing calmly in the church itself, alone but for whispers of the past, I could easily imagine the many emotions this place – and so many others like it in the county – have witnessed.
Cornwall is about so much more then stunning coastline, rugged moors and picturesque hamlets. It’s about its people. The men and women who have lived, loved, laughed and ultimately passed on.
I can’t claim any direct familial link with St Allen but I can vouch for the satisfaction and greater sense of self-awareness that comes from discovering a new, largely untouched part of Cornwall.
It’s an adventure – one I’d certainly recommend.
For more information about places to stay and things to see and do in Cornwall, visit wearecornwall.com
Written by Sue Bradbury