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Talking Location With author JS Monroe – West Penwith, CORNWALL

29th May 2023

#TalkingLocationWith….. JS Monroe, author of No Place to Hide – Penwith Moors, West Cornwall 

West Penwith, also known as the Lands End Peninsula, is at the south-western tip of England, and is somewhere that I’ve returned to again and again in my thrillers. My wife’s mother and grandmother grew up in the tiny fishing village of Mousehole, once called the prettiest village in England by Dylan Thomas, and I’m lucky enough to have access to an old netloft overlooking the harbour, where I retreat to read and write.

Head further west towards Cape Cornwall and you come across bleak moorland, a mix of heath, wetland and granite outcrops, latticed with the crumbling drystone walls of medieval field systems. The spectacular, windswept landscape of Penwith Moors, designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest last year, is bordered by the Atlantic on three sides, and dotted with Bronze and Iron Age burial chambers, stone circles and tin mines. And I love it here. Poldark country, only wilder.

I first featured it in Find Me, my debut JS Monroe thriller in 2017. Jar, a young Irish writer, is convinced that his girlfriend, JS Monroewho apparently committed suicide five years earlier, is still alive. A series of emails, seemingly from beyond the grave, draw him down from London to Gurnard’s Head, a distinctive rocky outcrop north of Land’s End that owes its name to the unusual-looking Gurnard fish. He buys a drink at the Gurnard’s Head pub, visible from miles around because of its distinctive yellow ochre painted walls, and it’s a great place to stop off for a pint if you’re walking the coastpath to Zennor and St. Ives. (The owners also run the excellent Old Coastguard Hotel in Mousehole.)

I’ve featured West Penwith again in my new novel, No Place To Hide. A standalone thriller, it’s a loose and contemporary retelling of Dr Faustus, Christopher Marlowe’s brilliant (if uneven) play that gave us such wonderful lines as: Was this the face that launched a thousand ships/And burnt the topless towers of Ilium? I wanted to conclude the book with a literal cliff-hanger and there was only one place where that could be: the extraordinary outdoor Minack Theatre, three miles from Land’s End, near Porthcurno. Carved out of the granite cliffs overlooking the stormy Western maw of the English Channel, the theatre was the brainchild of Rowena Cade, who offered her garden to a local theatre group in search of a stage to perform The Tempest in 1932. She set about cutting (and blasting) an auditorium out of the cliff face to give the audience somewhere to sit. She also carried, by hand, sacks of sand up from the beach at Porthcurno below to make concrete seats and much of the structure you see today.

JS MonroeThe result was an extraordinary achievement, dubbed by locals the eighth wonder of the world, which she improved upon and modified for the rest of her life (she died in 1983, shortly before her 90th birthday). Today, the seats carry the names of many of the plays that have been performed there over the years, and I was delighted to find one carved with “Doctor Faustus 1967”. After its humble beginnings, 100,000 people visit the theatre every year now, either for performances or to look around the vertiginous site. But be warned: the paths are not for the faint-hearted. The views, however, are breathtaking. I had great fun setting the finale in such a dramatic place, where waves thump into a “zawn” – a fissure in the granite – far below, as the protesting sea is funnelled and trapped.

A hot tip for anyone visiting the theatre this summer. A little further around the coast, past Sennen on the way to Gurnard’s Head, is a hamlet called Rosemergy. It’s here that the best cream teas in Cornwall are served. I’m loathe to share the secret, in case the place becomes too popular, but Jane, the charming owner of 200-year old Rosemergy Farmhouse, bakes homemade scones in her Aga and serves Rodda’s cream and jam, along with steaming mugs of tea, in the beautiful surrounds of her walled garden.

And no trip to this far-flung part of the world is complete without a visit to Chapel Carn Brae, south of St Just. At 650 feet above sea level, it’s known as the last hill in Cornwall – or the first in England. It’s also a site of historic importance. Owned by the National Trust, it has signs of Neolithic activity at the summit, as well as the remains of a 13th Century chapel, from which the place derives its name. Seven dilapidated barrows line the slopes. On a clear day, you can see the Scilly Isles from here, as well as the north and south coast of the peninsula, and a beacon is lit every summer solstice. Another tip: try enjoying the magnificent views to the accompaniment of Cornwall My Home, sung by The Fisherman’s Friends. What’s become Cornwall’s unofficial anthem features Chapel Carn Brae in the fifth verse:

First thing in the morning, on Chapel Carn Brae
To gaze at the Scillies in the blue far away
For this is my Cornwall, and I’ll tell you why
Because I was born here and here I shall die

It’s a stirring experience, one that Adam, the Cornish-born hero of No Place To Hide, would enjoy. If, that is, he survives his hour of reckoning at the Minack…


No Place To Hide is published by Head of Zeus and is available now.

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