Rowena Cade at the Minack
While not about Bude, most people who live in Bude will know of the Minack Theatre, so here goes…
You may not have heard of Rowena Cade. Born in Derbyshire, she was the amazing woman whose legacy stops me in my tracks every time I visit the Minack Theatre in Cornwall.
A granite construction, with concrete seats, perched on the edge of the cliffs above beautiful Porthcurno, the Minack was created by a woman with vision, determination, resilience and the kind of sheer hard graft that would have me wearily fainting. It is now almost a place of pilgrimage for lovers of theatre and open air performance, but it is also a must-visit place in Cornwall. It is also an unforgettably incredible tale of female achievement.
Rowena’s family moved to a house at Lamorna in west Cornwall, known for its artists and free thinking. She and her widowed mother bought the nearby Minack headland for a mere £100. She built a rather elegant and sizeable house there for the two of them, which provided the setting for many amateur productions. It must be said, at this point, that the area is fairly inaccessible, and remote. The ladies would have had time on their hands, and needed to make their own entertainment. Rowena designed and made the costumes for the amateur dramatics.
Feeling the gardens were not appropriate for the play in the way it would have been for, say, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Rowena ambitiously decided to stage The Tempest above Minack Rock, and set about making a stage and some rudimentary seating (old photos show people with deckchairs) which took six months. The first performance was in 1932, lit by batteries and car headlamps. It’s hard to imagine a more suitable site for The Tempest, especially if the sea fancied whipping up a storm.
The germ of the theatre had begun. Rowena, 38, a philanthropist unencumbered by husband or children, began to build her dream. The work would have been back-breaking, as anyone who has climbed the granite steps from Porthcurno beach to the Minack could imagine. Hard to imagine this frail looking woman bringing up bags of sand (for the cement) from the beach and huge beams from the shoreline, but she did. Reputedly, she carried a dozen 15 foot beams from a wrecked Spanish freighter up the steps to create a dressing room. The police, understandably, did not believe her when she admitted to this, so she was cleared of suspicion of taking it. She continued working until her mid 80s, dying just before she hit 90. Her plans were eventually to have covers for the theatre to keep off the rain during performances, but they have never been actioned. She was also a whizz with cement, using a screwdriver to create her own designs before it set. The theatre has steep paths and steps, so be warned if you have accessibility difficulties.
What sustained this woman? Well, she had two devoted local craftsmen, Billy Rawlings and Charles Angove, to help (the gardens are also incredible) and she had true passion. That’s what keeps people going against the odds. Maybe she was a tad eccentric, too. The Minack has an exhibition dedicated to Rowena Cade, as it should. Photos of her in her later years show her sitting in a wheelbarrow, reading, frame slight, hair crazy. Earlier photos showed her as the elegant, ladylike – looking woman one might have expected.
During World War II, Minack was chosen to be part of the coastline defences, which destroyed much of the theatre, later rebuilt by Rowena Cade. By 1944, it was chosen as a location for Love Story, starring Margaret Lockwood and Stewart Grainger, which was, perhaps, its salvation. Rowena came from a time when little was wasted, so even the box office is made from a converted gun post.
On a sunny day, the place is absolutely stunning (I’ve only been on sunny days) with the turquoise sea below mesmerising. Indeed, I could imagine it distracting from the performance. Dolphins, basking sharks, and seals have all been spotted, along with a variety of sea birds. The flora and fauna have helped settle the place into its coastal environment, with which it is totally sympathetic and in keeping. Down at Porthcurno Beach, as the huge waves rolled in with an offshore blowing back the spray, rainbows were developing, a sight I have only previously seen in Northumberland. It’s a magical sight which defies accurate description.
There are lots of lessons in the Rowena Cade story, which reiterate lessons learned from women everywhere. First, that age is no barrier to achievement. Second, that our creativity and desire for action also do not necessarily diminish as we grown frailer. So many of us stop at the first hurdle, fail, and give up, but we can instead be fuelled by positive emotions such as love, vision, and creativity. Rowena moved from Derbyshire to Cheltenham. As a friend commented, she had the eccentricity of gentility, the capacity to focus on her vision, and not be sideswiped by life’s trifles. Despite her wealth, and expected life of inactivity, Rowena showed spark and ‘grit’ from an early age. She volunteered, for example, at the outbreak of World War I, to select and train warhorses.
Quite simply, some women, indeed people, have ideas and energy to spare; they are the folk who become inspirational.