If there’s one thing that’s more or less guaranteed to get me to notice a church, it’s the name. My name, specifically, for if a church is dedicated to St Nicholas then it’s done the hard part as far as grabbing my attention is concerned. Shallow? Me? Sometimes.
When I was a child and we used to go down to Sussex, I recall being quite fond of a little chapel by Pett Level beach, next to the lifeboat station, and looking back on that I think I may have liked it because of its name – St Nicholas. Last month I was down in Cornwall, visiting places like Falmouth, Boscastle and Tintagel. And St Ives. In addition to being named after a fifth-century saint to whom the main church in the town is dedicated (St Ia, a holy woman who according to legend floated across the sea from Ireland on a leaf), St Ives (which is usually included in any list of the top ten seaside towns in Britain) also has a stone chapel out on the headland that lies at the end of the town, with the sea on three sides.
This headland, which is known locally as the Island even though it is not an island, has had a chapel on it for a very long time – ‘from time immemorial’ according to the plaque on its walls, meaning that no-one knows how old it is, just that it is old. It pre-dates St Ia’s Church (itself a fifteenth-century building), and it is dedicated to St Nicholas. In a place which for centuries made its living from the sea, sailors would have worshipped there, which explains the dedication for St Nicholas was the patron saint of sailors (among others). As well as being a place of worship, the chapel has also been used as a lookout point, both by customs men looking for smugglers and for smugglers keeping an eye out for customs men! During the Napoleonic Wars it was the storage area for a nearby gun battery (the site of which is now occupied by the coastguard lookout). In the early twentieth century the War Office tried to demolish it, but following local outcry it was saved and restored in time to commemorate the Coronation of George V in 1911; further restoration work took place sixty years later.
I had to go and take a look, what with the chapel having the same name as me. This was despite the heat on the day I was in St Ives (despite being on the coast, there was no sea breeze). Down into the town from the Trenwith car park I walked, then through the town (stopping off for lunch in the form of a Cornish pastie on the way, for it just seems wrong to go to Cornwall and not have a Cornish pastie, whatever the weather) and out onto the Island.
I’m glad I did. It’s a pleasant, modest little single-room place topped with a couple of Celtic crosses (it is in Cornwall, after all) with a whitewashed interior.
A nice place to go for a spot of quiet contemplation away from the numbers in a town that can get very busy, and as a bonus it has some great views of said town.