Fears for the future of idyllic Cornish cove that inspired artists

Lamorna has an extraordinary heritage, but locals fear it may be squandered after the site was put up for sale

It is one of the most stunning beauty spots in Cornwall and one of the places that first attracted artists to the far south-west of England. More than 100 painters, sculptors, etchers and potters, as well as writers and poets, are thought to have lived or worked near Lamorna Cove in the first 30 years of the 20th century.

But the cove’s future now hangs in the balance after it was put on the market. Local people are anxious about who may buy it, insisting that only a public body would be able to protect the cove and could afford to maintain it.

“What happens to Lamorna is a concern for people around here,” said Rob Fishburn, who lives in the house once used by the abstract artist Marlow (Marjorie) Moss and has led artists’ trails in the area. “I’d like to see someone take it over who will protect it and love it and really honour its artistic heritage.”

Situated a few miles south of Newlyn, the valley and cove of Lamorna first attracted the attention of artists in the 19th century, including Alfred Munnings and Lamorna Birch, who named himself after the beauty spot. An exhibition of his paintings of Lamorna is on show at Penlee House Gallery, down the coast in Penzance, and its title, Entranced by a Special Place, evokes the hold it has had over artists.

But concern is mounting that this precious heritage could be squandered by an ill-thought-through purchase of the cove and the properties around it. Priced at £2.65m for three lots, the sale includes Lamorna’s beach, slipway, boat and kayak facility, car parks, a restaurant and gallery, two apartments and two houses.

Austin Wormleighton, biographer of Birch, said Lamorna’s magic and artistic heritage must be preserved. “It was always a place apart,” he said. “It is at the heart of what purists insist is the real Cornwall, a timeless countryside, bound at its edges by rocky coves, desolate beaches and massive rock formations.”


The cove, five miles from Penzance, is reached via a narrow lane down the wooded Lamorna valley; it leads to an idyllic scene of glittering sea surrounded by steep cliffs. Thousands of people pass through each year as they walk the South West Coast Path, which climbs up above Lamorna on to cliffs covered in wild flowers and patches of woodland.

Until production ceased in 1911, the cove was used to ship stone from a local quarry. Then it became an artists’ colony, encouraged by its owner Colonel Paynter. The painter Laura Knight would bring models down from London and draw them nude on the rocks. The cove also has strong literary links, inspiring novels that include Summer in February by Jonathan Smith and The Memory Garden by Rachel Hore. Dylan Thomas had a cottage there from 1935-37, before his marriage.

“It is such an important place in the story of art,” said Katie Herbert, curator of the Birch exhibition. “When you go there today you can still recognise its rocks and boulders from the paintings created 100 years ago.”

The cove has been in private hands since Paynter’s time but its owner, Roy Stevenson, who bought it more than 20 years ago, put it up for sale in May.

Rumours in Lamorna are now rife about prospective owners, including that one bidder wants to install a zip wire from cliff to cliff. Last week both the National Trust and Sir Tim Smit, who founded the Eden Project and recently bought the Georgian Charlestown Harbour further east, ruled out buying Lamorna Cove.

Artist Laura Knight
Laura Knight, one of the many artists drawn to Lamorna. Photograph: Rex

The National Trust said: “As we are already committed to caring for much of the coastline in Cornwall, we, reluctantly, will not be pursuing any acquisitions.” And Smit said: “Lamorna is gorgeous, and if I was a younger man I would have been seriously interested. To be honest, it’s above my pay grade. But it needs very sympathetic stewardship.”

Philip Hills, a member of the Lamorna Society who also has family links to the artist Alfred Munnings, said he wanted to encourage “preservation of such an important site, especially as to its significance and interest in its association with the artists”. He called for “a more enlightened approach to the heritage of the whole valley, its romanticism and beauty”.

Art aside, perhaps the biggest challenge facing any prospective buyer is how to protect the cove from the elements. “The real issue for anyone taking on Lamorna is the storms,” said Rob Fishburn. “Part of the quay fell in, and the road was damaged and still needs large sums spent on it.”

Another Lamorna resident, Wo King, is also concerned about the storms. He believes that the threat to its future is not from another owner not spending enough but from climate change. He filmed a 2014 storm that flung giant rocks on to the car park from the sea.

“We have had incredible storms here in the winter,” he said. “The waves have been as high as the houses. Eventually the quay will go back to the sea. Some visitors want Cornwall kept in aspic, but it’s a vibrant thing, and the coastline is constantly changing.”

Estate agents Knight Frank said that offers were on the table for the cove but none had yet been accepted.


Catherine Pepinster

The GuardianTramp

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