If you have time to visit only two places in Cornwall make one of them the Minack Theatre, high on a cliff top overlooking the sea. (The other place we recommend is Tintagel Castle.) You donít have to attend a performance at the theatre to enjoy it as it is open for daytime visitors to take in the remarkable site where open air performances are held at night (and occasional afternoons) to the sound of waves crashing just below the stage.
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The theatre stage and seats were carved out of the granite hillside by Rowena Cade, who started the work in 1931 at the age of 38 with the help of two gardeners. She continued working away until she died in 1983 and financed the whole thing herself. Itís a remarkable story, and an exhibition at the site gives the full details.
Rowena Cade was a Derbyshire lass, born in Spondon near Derby. Her father owned a cotton mill, so she was raised in comfort. After her fatherís retirement in 1906 the family moved to Cheltenham and lived in luxury. When World War I broke out Rowena took a job breaking horses for use by the army and lived in a caravan on an estate. It wasnít until after the war that she and her widowed mother moved to Cornwall. Thus Rowena came across, and purchased, the Minack site. She had a house built for the two of them at the headland.
She began to put on theatre productions for local friends. At the end of the 1920s she had put on a number of plays and made costumes for them. In 1930 she decided to use her own garden for a stage, but opted instead for the current site of the theatre. Six months later, with the help of two men, a stage and primitive seating were hewn out of the rock. The summer of 1932 saw the first performance.
The theatre bug had bitten and along with her two helpers she cut and hauled granite by hand creating terraces on the sheer slope. Almost destroyed by the army in World War II, the theatre building site was tackled once again. Granite walls, a road, a car park and 90 steps leading up from the beach were developed along with seating and stage work. The construction continued with Rowena hefting 15 foot long beams up from the shoreline and completing other remarkable feats of strength all seasons of the year in all types of weather. She was in her mid 80s.
Take time for a coffee in the small cafť at the top and enjoy the mesmerizing view. Sub-tropical rockeries adorn the steep hillside. This is a not to be missed heart-stopping site.
Located on a clifftop at the end of a minor road, off the B3315 from Porthcurno, south-east of Landís End
Tel. 0 1736 810 181 for box office; 0 1736 810 694 for office
Open: daily, year round except Christmas and New Yearís; winter hours: 10am-3.30pm; in summer, 9.30am-5pm except Wed and Fri, noon-5pm due to performances, Tue and Thu closes at noon; lots of variations in this schedule so check website before visiting
Theatre built on sheer granite slope by hand in 1930s; performances; parking; cafe; shop
Web: Minack Theatre
Photos and text © by Barbara Ballard