From the brilliance of Hypatia in late antiquity to the achievements of 20th century women, Julia Grigg’s Morrab Miscellany starts in the cultural centre of the Mediterranean world and follows Hypatia’s heritage through to present-day West Penwith.
H is for HYPATIA. Who was she?
Imagine Egypt, the city of Alexandria. It’s the year 375, the city prosperous and at its height as a centre of Byzantine learning. Imagine the city’s University lecture hall packed with male students. Then picture a tall young woman stride to the podium. The collar of a coarsely-woven philosopher’s cloak (normally exclusively worn by men) framing her beautiful face, she begins. The hall falls silent, captivated by the speaker’s brilliance as she expounds on one of the subjects in which she excels: mathematics perhaps, astronomy, Neo-Platonist philosophy or the writings of Aristotle.
Hypatia, a leading figure of her day
This is Hypatia, an outstanding woman who defied convention to become the leading intellectual figure of her day.
Pagan in her beliefs, Hypatia nevertheless taught Christians and pagans alike, convinced the two faiths could co-exist. But they fell into conflict, Alexandria suffering sustained religious turmoil, by 391 all its pagan temples destroyed or converted into churches.
By 415 Hypatia, controversial, fearlessly outspoken, a prominent target, was dead, the victim of mob violence.
Hypatia’s influence has lived on though, her learned Greek commentaries helping Hellenistic knowledge survive for posterity, her very existence a brightly-burning beacon for women’s self-realisation.
The Hypatia Trust, promoting women’s achievements
And in Penzance, in evidence as the inspiration behind The Hypatia Trust, an organisation established in 1996 to support and promote women’s achievements through research and documentation, exhibition and talks, publications and training.
Twentieth century pioneering women
Reflecting the fearless HERITAGE of Hypatia, two exceptional C20th women pioneers have left legacies of lasting marks on the landscape of West Cornwall through their custodianship of its wild spaces.
The domains of Rowena Cade at Minack and Jean Tangye at Dorminack are contrasted in style although separated by just a few short miles of the Penwith Heritage Peninsula’s coastal path.
Both the specialist environments the two women succeeded in creating – despite the horticultural challenges of their locations’ rugged cliffs, Atlantic rollicking gales and salt winds which waterlog the soil in winter, parch and dry it out in the summer – remain open for visitors to enjoy today.
Clifftop garden at Minack
Rowena Cade (1893-1983) embarked on her clifftop garden at Minack (Cornish for rocky place) after buying the headland in the early 1920s. Responding to the success of a summer production of a Shakespeare play in a nearby meadow, she offered her garden as the venue for the next one. Over six months Rowena herself, working with two assistants, excavated the steep cliffside by hand, creating a rudimentary stage and seating, where a 1930 performance of The Tempest inaugurated her theatre.
The Minack Theatre’s soaring trajectory of success since then is the stuff of legends, explained very well on its website and at its Exhibition Centre.
Rowena and gardener Billy Rawlings continued expanding the site throughout her lifetime.
At Minack today you make your way to your seat via terraces of exotic rockeries brimming with salt-tolerant succulents such as agaves, cacti and yucca. Thriving in the sub-tropical environment now in the care of a team under two full-time gardeners, aloes, fuschia and the joyous spears of redhot pokers make the entrance area and upper tiers astonishing riots of colour, a sight all the more exhilarating because of the vertical perspective’s vast ocean backdrop.
The website gives details of the 1-hour guided garden tours available at Minack.
The rural ‘good life’
Jean Tangye (1919 -1986) accompanied her writer husband, Derek, in leaving a career in London for a tumbledown Cornish cottage close to the sea where they cultivated potatoes and daffodils, playing host to a menagerie of animals wild and tame. Precursors of the craze to discover the rural ‘good life’, their progress was documented by Derek in 19 very successful books.
The late lamented John le Carré (1931-2020), a neighbour along the coastal path, said of Derek’s writing that it ‘gave more comfort and more joy in his lifetime than most writers dream of.’
Derek’s Minack Chronicles are still sought after but it was Jeannie whose inspiration created the 20 acres nature reserve ‘Oliver Land’ that continues to this day to commemorate the couple’s achievements.
Glorious, unmanaged beauty
Named for Oliver, a feral cat who adopted the couple, the reserve is accessed via a modest wooden gate off the coastal path. Intended to be left wild as a place for quiet contemplation, Derek writes, ‘It was this Oliver Land… for which Jeannie had a passion. So fierce was this passion that sometimes she made me believe that it was her destiny to preserve it for posterity – preserve it, not for agro ramblers, but for those who seek solitude, for the insects, the badgers, the foxes, the birds which travel from afar to make their nests in brambles and undergrowth; and for the wild flowers and grasses which flourish untidily in glorious, unmanaged beauty.’
Read more in Derek Tangye’s series of Minack Chronicles and The Minack Chronicles Revisited by John Nash (Old Well Studio 2011) and follow The Derek and Jeannie Tangye Minack Chronicles Nature Reserve on Facebook.
Oliver Land is now managed by the Cornwall Wildlife Trust