According to his son-in-law and biographer C. E. Byles, Hawker’s clifftop retreat was originally constructed in around 1844, using timber from the wrecks of the Caledonia, the Phoenix, and the Alonzo. In a letter to a friend Hawker describes how he and his wife Charlotte were accustomed to walk out every evening:
…to the cliff above the sea – and there we often sit, while I read the letters and papers that have arrived in the bag, which reaches us between four and five in the afternoon. There, with the Atlantic rolling beneath, the descending sun above the sea, and with no Land between us – to the West – and the coast of Labrador, have many of your letters been read and commented on it the Twilight hour.
Life and Letters, (p. 165-166)
Although the path which once led down to the beach has long since vanished, the spot remains much as described by Byles:
Out of the timbers cast ashore from these wrecks Hawker built the little cabin in the face of the cliffs which is known as “The Hut”. The door is in two hatches; so that a person inside can close the lower hatch as a protection from the weather, while from the upper he looks out on a magnificent prospect of shore and sky and sea. If you sit at the back of the hut, with both hatches open, you see nothing but a few feet of earth, apparently the edge of a precipice, and just over the edge the points of dark and sinister rocks rising amid a swirl of foam hundreds of feet below. The ceaseless thunder of the breakers echoes in your ears; those lions of the deep which “roaring after their prey, do seek their meat from God.” The lurking presence of sunken reefs, their tops visible only at low tide, is revealed by patches of a duller hue on the surrounding water. There they lie, like the horns of some monstrous bull, ready to rip open the side of any hapless vessel that comes within their reach. From such a height are you looking down upon the sea, that you seem to be gazing at a great wall of water. In the midway space between, white-winged gulls float calmly to and fro, uttering their plaintive call.
Stand up and the apparent precipice resolves itself into a slope of turfy mounds and boulders, overgrown with bracken and furze, and gay with marguerites and purple fox-glove. To the right a mighty slab of grey rock slants downward to the surf, its jagged edge clearly defined against the blue. Step outside the hut and descend “By zigzag paths, and juts of pointed rock.” A little further down the cliffside and a grand vista of coast and promontory meets your gaze. Northward lies the tumbled mass of Vicarage rocks, and beyond and above them frowns the brow of Hennacliff, king of Cornish headlands. Southwards, the grass-clad shape of Sharp’s Nose, or, as Hawker calls it in ‘The Smuggler’s Song,’ “Shark’s Nose Head,” runs out, a cliff beyond the cliffs, like the doorstep of Polyphemus, into the courtyard of the sea. Over the ridge of Sharp’s Nose the bay stretches, bounded by a long line of dwindling headlands, and on it ply the little coasters whose bourn is the perilous haven of Bude.
Life & Letters, (p. 165-166)
Retreating to ‘the wilderness’ had been an important part of Hawker’s life since his teenage years, as evidenced by the following extracts from a letter, or letters, written after Charlotte’s death, in 1864:
Very many years ago, before I married, I lived for several months in a kind of hut upon the seashore, with a man who was a kind of half-fisherman half-wrecker; and his house was chiefly wooden, and I went there to study by myself, and what with the situation, the novelty, and the various incidents of the day and the night, I do not think I was ever happier or more occupied with interest than there.
Life and Letters (p. 11)
When I was young, and living at Whitstone (poor C.’s place), I built a kind of log hut in the wood, a mile from any house, and there read for Deacon’s orders, only going home at night. I learnt St. Paul’s Epistles by heart there, and ever afterwards I used to revert to my Woodhouse with pleasure and regret.
Life and Letters (p.21)
Piers Brendon, in his book Hawker of Morwenstow: Portrait of a Victorian Eccentric, also refers to these two earlier retreats (Brendon, p. 44 & 58) and speculates that ‘Perhaps it is these remote, rustic huts, to which Hawker so often fled, which really epitomize his life. Only in isolation, divorced from the conveniences and complexities of ‘civilization’, distant from the temptations and pleasures of society, could he realize his true self and complete his unique destiny’. Hawker, however, was nothing if not contradictory, and he could also be a genial and generous host to the many visitors who sought him out during the summer months. Tennyson, Charles Kingsley, and Mortimer Collins, among others, were all given a conducted tour of the parish, which Brendon describes as following ‘an almost ritual pattern – the vicarage, the church, the cliffs, the hut, the visitors’ book, ‘the little black mail he likes to levy’.’ (Brendon, p. 149).
In a rough tribute to Hawker’s memory the interior of the hut is now covered with the initials of passing walkers, but it is still possible to walk out at six o’clock on a September evening and to experience this peaceful place alone and undisturbed, much as described by Hawker in The Quest of the Sangraal:
They had their lodges in the wilderness,
Or built them cells beside the shadowy sea,
And there they dwelt with angels, like a dream:
So they unroll’d the volume of the Book,
And fill’d the fields of the Evangelist
With antique thoughts, that breathed of Paradise.
Hawker’s Hut, built of wreckwood in the face of the cliffs at Morwenstow. Here he composed “The Quest of the Sangraal.” (From a photograph by S. Thorn). Life and Letters (p. 166)
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Text and photos © Angela Williams 2010, 2011