In Search of Tywardreath Priory
When we were asked to take a stand at this event, I assumed I would be wandering around in a farmer’s fields with a bundle of flags under my arm – but, as ever with things dowsing, it turned out quite differently.
Tywardreath (and there have been about 20 various spellings of the name of the village) was once a very important port, with tin and other minerals being shipped out from its quays. Today, the centuries of silt from upstream mining have left it well inland, with even the ferryman’s cottage for the boat to St Blazey long since stranded, high and dry. The export trade is still in full swing, but now all from the ‘new’ town of Par, and the outgoing freight is all china clay.
In its heyday, Tywardreath was more than just a classically Cornish commercial complex, it had significant administrative power – and a wealthy and substantial priory, replete with extensive land holdings stretching away to St Ives, and even distant Somerset. The fishing village of Par was barely a monk’s ink dot on the priory parchment.
Come Good King Henry, come the downfall of the established church – and with it most of the physical grandeur of the Benedictines. The priory was dissolved, and its artefacts, right down to the very stones with which it had been built in the 11th century, were destroyed or (more likely) recycled. Various worked masonry is scattered amongst, and embedded into, the older buildings of the current village, while other sculpted examples are gradually being disinterred by historians and archaeologists.
But where exactly was the site of this priory? No-one seems to know. How can you lose a whole priory? Old maps have it shown well to the south of the village on a separate peninsula, but sea levels were different then – and locals and historians alike are far from convinced that this spot is anything more than indicative.
Our event was part of the momentum of the project entitled In Search of Tywardreath Priory (ISOTP). There was a proper archaeological dig being undertaken and documented, complete with ‘finds’, in the field next to the TDs gazebo; there was mediaeval cookery – which was much tastier than it sounds; there were folk musicians, craft workshops, an interesting exhibition of facsimiles of the official written records of Tywardreath from the Cornwall Record Office, including its original charter – and, of course, there was us.
Ros and I spent just about all day teaching dozens of people, of all ages and backgrounds, the basics of the craft. In fact, we only had one person who was not able to get a rod movement of any kind – and even she got a response of sorts to ‘yes’ and ‘no’ at the fourth time of asking. Perseverance pays.
It’s always fun to see someone going away engaged in animated chatter about this startling new worldview that they have just discovered, but on this occasion it seemed to be just about everyone. From primary school kids to mature novices even older than myself, we seemed to be the right people in the right place at the right time. It might not have been quite what I thought I would be doing, but what we did do, we seemed to do in spades.
To cap it all, we were interviewed by Morwenna Blake of Radio Cornwall, and I was able to help her too find the remains of the foundations of a long-demolished wall, which might have been contemporary with the Priory itself. The reporter recorded a few minutes of our activities, including a brief dowsing session with Brian Sheen of the Roseland Observatory, which made the final broadcast. My long experience of talking to the press (mainly in my transport strategy days) has primed me to be a little cautious of even the friendliest of the genre. So, when it was noted that I seemed to have found a mediaeval wall under the lawn where we were located, while the archaeologists were apparently struggling somewhat at their chosen site, Mo asked me if I thought their trial pit was in the wrong place. Thankfully the media management gods were with me and somewhat unintentionally I chanelled that ‘there is never a wrong place to dig a pit’. My forward defensive remark turned out to be the quote of the day. Another six seconds of fame!
As for the lost Priory itself, my rods pointed towards the much later parish church, although whether this meant the remanence of the monastic structure was under, south or north of it I had no chance to investigate. Alan Neal’s preparatory map dowsing indicated that I was at least pointing in the same direction as him, but it wasn’t a day for serious site mapping.
The wall in the ‘lawn’ I dated to around the 13th century – and this was corroborated by several of those dowsing with us, including some of the complete beginners, which is a reassurance, of sorts. However, a very psychic lady found it to be a 7th century wall – which I later dowsed to have been the wooden precursor of the long-removed masonry structure that I was finding. Yet another reminder about being specific with the dowsing question!
Several of the new dowsers were particularly talented and went off with my sawn off plant stakes as valued trophies of a surprisingly enlightening day.
The plan now is for a follow up event to take place in the autumn. We will be invited to attend, and hopefully to take a more active part in The Search. Our focus may be under the church itself (which is known to be on a different foundation to the Priory church) and in the surrounding graveyard. The recently appointed vicar has been approached to clear our participation formally.
We ended the day enjoying a pint at the nearby New Inn in the company of Helen Barden, who chairs ISOTP. I know it’s tough, but somebody has to do it!
Many thanks to Helen and her colleagues for inviting us to be involved in this hugely successful event, and to Pete & Jen for the loan of their gazebo.
Nigel Twinn, Tamar Dowsers, July 2017