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A Cornish Tale of Two Towers

Keen-eyed travellers coming down the A30 into West Cornwall can spot the tiny hilltop town of St Day from a distance by picking out the white cupola of its Town Clock, the name proudly given to the tall clock tower at its centre.

St Day has long had a landmark to help travellers find their way – its original Cornish name of Tolgulla or Tallgullow, is translated as ‘brow of light’ or ‘beacon on the hill’.[1] Was this a beacon that showed medieval pilgrims the way to St Michael’s Mount, the most important pilgrimage shrine in Cornwall? It seems likely that the settlement, located in the ancient parish of Gwennap, grew up around a wayside chapel on that pilgrim route. By 1269 the chapel of the Holy Trinity, at the heart of what became known as ‘the towne of Seynte Trynyte’ (first recorded as St Day in 1350), had itself become an important pilgrimage shrine receiving bequests in many Cornish wills.[2] The cartographer Norden writing in 1584 noted that “the resorte was so great, as it made the people of the Countrye to bring all kinde of provision to that place; and so longe it contynued with increase, that it grew into a kinde of market to this daye without further charter…”.[3] We don’t know what form the image of the Trinity at the chapel took, but its popularity enabled the chapel to be rebuilt in the 15th century, including a substantial tower. Sitting on the highest point in St Day, this tower must have been even more visible to travellers than the clock tower seen today.

The 16th century Reformation brought about the end of the chapel, described in 1584 as “now decayed”.[4] However, as St Day grew into a thriving commercial centre of what became one of the richest mining areas in the world, the tower remained standing in the chapel yard, which was used as a market place. Its presence inspired the producer of a 1772 map of the manor to include a cartouche illustrating St Day rather fancifully as if it were an Italianate hilltop town, but including a miner’s pick and shovel in the far left to locate it firmly in Cornwall.

By 1789 St Day had outgrown its medieval origins and a much bigger market place was built on what had been the Green. The old chapel yard market place was leased to a local tinner, George Richards, who built a house in the shadow of the tower, by then “a dark and venerable object, with broken battlements and a single pinnacle”.[5] Unfortunately for George, about seven years later the old tower collapsed onto his new house. The remains of the fallen tower were removed – some of the masonry used to repair George’s house, and other decorative pieces of tracery and the remaining pinnacle taken away as garden ornaments. There is little to mark the site of St Day’s famous shrine today, but George’s house is still there, bearing the scars where beams were repaired and crushed cob replaced by stone.

Without its landmark tower St Day must have seemed a strange place to the residents, so perhaps it is no surprise that in 1831 a new tower was built in the relocated market place – the Town Clock we see today. This became a focal point for the community, incorporating a lock-up and surrounded by market buildings busy with crowds rivalling neighbouring Redruth. Even with St Day’s economic decline in the early 20th century, the Town Clock remained a community focus as the site of the War Memorial.

But the Town Clock is more than a visual landmark. It is part of the local soundscape, its regular chimes marking the heartbeat of St Day, inspiring protest poetry in the Cornish newspapers when a dispute over access to wind the clock silenced it for years in the mid-19th century. When the clock was out of action during a major renovation of the tower in 2015/6 local residents accustomed to the half-hourly chimes were very aware of something missing in the quiet small hours. People also realised how often they unconsciously looked up at the clock faces to check the time, only to be surprised that the hands were missing.

A tower has been a feature of St Day’s landscape for centuries. The Town Clock is part of the fabric of the community, and since the recent restoration project the community has become part of the fabric of the tower – 400 handmade tiles, individually made and decorated by the people of St Day, their names and interests set into clay, now line the inside walls of the tower. And the white cupola, visible from afar by day is now bathed in coloured light every night in memory of a much loved and respected postmaster and parish councillor who died in 2020.

A more detailed history of St Day Town Clock can be found here.

[1] J. Mills, ‘The Towne of Seynte Trynyte’, in J. Mills & P. Annear, The Book of St Day, Halsgrove, 2003, p.7-11. [2] N. Orme, with O. Padel, A History of Cornwall Vol 2 – Religious History to 1560, The Victoria History of the Counties of England, Institute of Historical Research by Boydell & Brewer, 2010, p. 75, 84, 86. [3] C.C. James, A History of the Parish of Gwennap in Cornwall, privately published, 1949, p.41-44. [4] Norden quoted in C.C. James, A History of the Parish of Gwennap, p.42. [5] C.S. Gilbert, Historical and Topographical Survey of the County of Cornwall, Vol. II, Part 2., 1817-1820.

Map cartouche - Map of the Manor of Tallgullow alias St Day, North Devon Record Office, 1772 (B170/94/5).


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