A History of Lanreath and The Old Rectory - for those with a little time to spare!

The village of Lanreath is ancient.  The name itself derives from the 11th century name of Lanredoch (Lan meaning the site of an ancient Church so the name literally meant Redoc’s Church site). In the 16th Century the name was softened to Lanreatha and the final ‘a’ was dropped sometime after that. It is pronounced Lan~reth. More than two thousand years ago, Cornwall was as much a Celtic nation as Wales and Scotland. Iron Age Celts spread all over England, down through northern France, into Middle and Eastern Europe. These peoples shaped the hill fort that still dominates nearby Bury Down (approximately half a mile to the north-east) and it is likely that the area sheltered at least one settled community.

In AD 43 the Romans invaded, and though their initial arrival may not have touched what they called Dumnonia (Devon and Cornwall) they did slowly come nearer, travelling down the ancient tracks that still run along the spine of Cornwall, constructing a camp near the spot now occupied by Bodmin town.  After an occupation lasting four centuries the invaders retreated and in the vacuum left by their departure tribal warfare broke out once again.  In addition, along the southern and eastern coasts of Britain hordes of Angles and Saxons were beginning to swarm ashore.

The end of Celtic Britain was in sight, but it was not something that was going to happen over night.  For fifty years a ferocious struggle raged across the breadth of what is now England. Gradually the British leaders fell back towards Wales and the South West.  The legend of King Arthur belongs to this period and if Arthur did exist, in some form at least (and many modern historians believe he did) it’s certainly possible that his final stronghold was to be found in Cornwall.  King Mark, often associated with the Arthurian stories, is said to have ruled the area around Lanreath and a few miles away, on the other side of the Fowey River, an ancient memorial stone commemorates the existence of Mark’s nephew, the even more celebrated Tristan.

Mystery surrounds the wars and the rulers that shaped Dumnonia during this period, but one powerful influence of the time is fairly well documented - Christianity.  It is through this early Celtic Church that the prefix ‘’Lan’ was used to describe a monastic settlement, often set within a circular enclosure. It is reasonable to suppose that here in this valley, perhaps on the very spot where the parish church now stands, there dwelt a small community of Celtic monks.  Saint Marnarch (pronounced in the same way as Monarch), patron of the church, was probably their founder, but like many Cornish saints he is an obscure figure and though he is thought to have spent some time on the north coast nothing at all is known about the origins of his connection with Lanreath.

Several centuries were to elapse before the Anglo-Saxons’ final conquest of Dumnonia.  Eastern Cornwall and the area around Lanreath, would have been one of the first to come under direct Anglo-Saxon influence and in 1066, when Norman William invaded, the village was held by a Saxon known as Aelfric. Saxon dominance was short-lived and by 1087, when William’s clerks compiled the Domesday Book, the whole of Cornwall had been handed over to Richard, Count of Mortain, half-brother of the Conqueror and one of the most powerful men in England.  The parish, at that time, extended to an area of something like one hundred and forty acres.  There were forty acres of woodland (in which pigs would have routed for acorns); thirty acres of pasture supporting three head of cattle and sixty sheep, and enough arable land, according to Domesday Book, to provide work for eight ploughs, though there were only three ploughs in the village. It is likely that these ploughs were shared between the fifteen or so resident families. The Count of Mortain built a stone castle at Launceston and soon there were others, at Restormel near Lostwithiel, at Trematon by the River Lynher, and at Tintagel. Celtic monasteries and narrow Saxon churches were being pulled down to make way for sturdy Norman structures. There is no doubt that the present day parish church of St. Marnarch was originally a fairly typical example of Norman workmanship.  A large part of that building still stands to-day, though during the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries there were to be a number of alterations and additions.

The coming of the Spanish Armada, in 1588, caused a stir all along the southern coast of Cornwall; but it was not until the seventeenth century that Lanreath itself came into direct contact with great events.  At that time the area belonged to the Grylls family, and in 1609 Charles Grylls, counsellor-at-law (who with his wife and eight children is commemorated by a remarkable monument in St. Marnarch’s chancel) decided to build himself a new house.  The lovely Jacobean manor he created, now known as Court Barton, is not open to the public, but its mellow north front may be seen from the centre of the village.  The Grylls family must have been pleased when their fine house was completed, and no doubt Charles’s nephew Francis, who was soon to become Rector of the parish, joined in the celebrations. Meanwhile, across the country storm clouds were gathering and in 1642 the Civil war began.

Cornwall was staunchly loyal to the Royalist cause and for several years Cromwell’s Army found it impossible to gain any sort of foothold west of the Tamar.  The County gentlemen fought with conspicuous gallantry and when, in the summer of 1644, the Parliamentarian Lord Essex attempted to seize Launceston and Bodmin the King himself led an army into Cornwall.  A second Royalist force, under the command of Sir Richard Grenville,  advanced from the west and after a battle at Braddock Down, just south of Middle Taphouse, Essex found himself cornered with what was left of his troops, in the town of Lostwithiel and the triangle of land just west of the Fowey River.  The King, accompanied by his fourteen-year-old son (the future Charles II), his entourage and his Generals, stayed first in Liskeard and then at the great mansion of Boconnoc, four miles north of Lanreath.  As the siege went on the area between the Fowey and Looe Rivers must have teemed with Royalists troops.  Some were definitely quartered in Lanreath, and there is a tradition that on one occasion at least King Charles himself visited the village, spending an hour or so at the courthouse, now the Punch Bowl Inn.  The whole Grylls family are thought to have been ardent Royalists and Francis, who by this time had been Rector for nearly thirty years, was no exception.

Lord Essex’s army was worn down and scattered but the power of Parliament could not be held at bay for ever and on August 17th, 1647, the last Cornish fortress to hold out (Pendennis Castle, near Falmouth) reluctantly surrendered to General Fairfax.  Eighteen  months  later King Charles I was executed.  The ensuing decade of Parliamentarian rule was not popular in Cornwall, but it had to be endured.  It is not known whether the Grylls family were at any time involved in helping Royalist fugitives to escape but it has been suggested that the underground tunnel, entrances to which can still be seen beneath the Old Rectory, may date from this period.  Soon, in any case, Francis was replaced as Rector by a man whose views were more in tune with those of the Government and in order to avoid sequestration of their estates his relations were ordered to pay crippling fines.

By 1660 the Commonwealth was running out of steam and with the Restoration came almost immediate relief.  Barely six months after the King’s return another Francis Grylls was instituted as Rector of Lanreath. In this same year we find the first written reference to his parsonage house.  Listed on the new Hearth Tax Rolls, Lanreath Rectory is described as having eleven hearths.  Whether this second Francis altered or improved the property in any way we don’t know but nineteen years after his institution in 1679, in the Ecclesiastical Records for that year,  is a detailed description of the Rectory. The building contained a hall, a ‘parlour with boarded floor’, a kitchen ‘with great range and two ovens’  - and an amazing number of rooms devoted to the pursuit of self-sufficiency, among them a bread house, bake house, brew house, buttery, pantry and dairy.  Outside there was a barn, a stable, a calves’ house ‘with hay store above’, an ox house, a malt house, ‘four small rooms for hogs and a dove house of stone’.  The gardens included ‘the Pigeon House garden’, two kitchen gardens and a place for ‘flowers and sweet herbs’.

The second Francis Grylls survived until 1691, out-living Charles II by six years.

One after the other, three more members of the Grylls family (William, Nicholas and Richard) were to become Rectors of Lanreath.  Richard, the last of this clerical dynasty, was presented to the living in 1719.  In 1726, during Richard’s incumbency, there appears in the Ecclesiastical Records another description of the Rectory, and this time there is greater emphasis on living accommodation.  In addition to the ‘parlour with boarded floor’;  there are said to be six rooms with plastered or partly plastered walls (one ‘handsomely plastered’), and the hall is now described as ‘a great hall, open to the roof’.  The hall may have been much the same fifty years earlier, but by 1726 a ‘great hall open to the roof’ was becoming more of a rarity and consequently would have been more likely to get a mention.  Richard Grylls seems to have taken a great interest in his garden and glebe land, planting numbers of ash and sycamore saplings (perhaps explaining the large number of these trees in and around the garden of the current building), putting new apple trees in the Pigeon House Garden and building a high wall round the vegetable garden, which lay on the western side of the house, bordering the main village street.  The southern part of this wall is still standing, and though its no longer within the Rectory grounds it can be seen by anyone standing in the street, some fifty yards or so above the Punch Bowl Inn.

Richard Grylls remained Rector until 1736.

The next Rector was Hele Trelawny. Hele’s term did not last long, and in 1740 he was replaced by Joshua Howell, a young man who is said to have been wealthy.  Little else is known about Joshua (apart from the fact that he had a number of children) but he is supposed to have had building work done at the Rectory.  In 1785 Joshua Howell died and his place was taken by Edward Pole, an even more shadowy figure than his predecessor.  He was Rector for fifteen years and during his time the Napoleonic Wars began, bringing with them new fears of invasion.  For some years a close watch was kept upon the coast and naughty children were threatened with abduction by 'Boney'.  While the war was in progress something of a blind eye was often turned upon the smuggling trade.  Throughout the eighteenth century smuggling had been endemic in Cornwall and many country gentlemen became involved; among them  one of the Rectors of Lanreath.  The Punch Bowl Inn was definitely a centre of activity, and when this kind of work was in hand the Rectory’s ‘secret passage’, originally constructed for other purposes, could have come in very handy.  Edward Pole died in 1800, and the new century brought a new family into the life of Lanreath Rectory.

For several hundred years the Bullers had been respected landowners.  A number of their sons had gone into the Navy, and during the eighteenth century one had achieved distinction as an Admiral, adding a good deal to the family’s prestige - “Bullers Quay” in Looe is named after him.  By 1800 their seat was at Morval, near Looe, and it’s there that Richard Buller, Rector of Lanreath from 1800-1827, was probably born.  He does not appear to have been a remarkable figure, but his incumbency saw the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the end (almost) of Georgian England.  His wife probably read the new novels of Jane Austen, provided Richard didn’t disapprove. He, no doubt, travelled about the parish in a serviceable dog-cart.  His life may have been comfortable but it is unlikely that he was particularly well-off for when he died, in 1827, the Rectory seems to have been in a bad state of repair.  The next incumbent, Stephen Worsley, was instructed by his Bishop to put things right, and it may be for this reason that he chose to reside in Blackheath, near London, leaving a curate in charge while essential work was carried out.  We don’t know how extensive the repairs were, or exactly how long they took.  Soon after the accession of Queen Victoria in 1837, another Richard Buller was instituted as Rector, and an important era had begun.

When he arrived to take control of his new parish the Reverend Richard Buller, Rector of Lanreath from 1829-1883, was thirty-three years old.  His wife, Elizabeth, was the same age and they had two children, Rhoda aged five and Alexander aged three, with a second daughter, Emmeline, soon to be born.  They were wealthy,  had excellent connections, and Elizabeth planned to continue to do a lot of entertaining.  The existing Rectory would not be adequate for their needs and so,  they engaged an architect (probably Thomas Lee, who designed Arlington Court, near Barnstable) and embarked upon a series of elaborate alterations, finally adding a southern section which almost doubled the size of the house.  This later extension formed the separate Master and Mistresses Bedrooms, a first floor Study or Dressing Room (now the Living Rooms of Fowey and the Living Room and Bedrooms of Daymer) and on the ground floor a large handsome Drawing Room and Dining Room (these now form a large part of  the owners apartments).  The thickness of the walls by the entrance to each room testifies to the strength of these walls. All this meant that the building contained something like twenty-five rooms.  Although the Victorian age had begun there was not yet a Victorian style, and in character the new work was utterly Georgian.  Efforts seem to have been made to create a harmonious whole, and the portico added to the west front may have been intended to camouflage what might otherwise have been a noticeable join.  (This portico has since been removed and the entrance hall has become part of the owners kitchen).

The gardens were also considered to be in need of attention. The Bullers are said to have planted innumerable trees and shrubs.  The magnificent wisteria on the western side of the house probably dates from this time, though it may be older.  As a finishing touch, they created a circular entrance driveway that approached the Rectory through the space now occupied by the bungalow just beyond the current driveway  – and when all this was completed, one can imagine the excitement with which Elizabeth Buller awaited her first dinner guests.   Richard’s cousin Charles, renowned for his good looks, was Member of Parliament for Liskeard and a friend of William Makepeace Thackeray, who had once come down to help him with an election campaign (‘he made the people laugh’); and it may not be too much to imagine that the famous novelist may sometimes have come to dine at Lanreath.

If he did, it seems certain that he would have found a happy, lively household.  Rhoda, Alexander and Emmerline were followed, in time, by Jane, Henry, Ann and Alice.  There were usually half a dozen servants, plus, of course, a nurse for the children and later a governess. The children’s bedrooms now form the two bedrooms of the apartment called Epphaven and the nurse/governess would have used what is now the bedroom of Gorran apartment.

The facsimile of Richard Buller, displayed inside the Church, reveals the quintessential Victorian  parson.  From his comfortable Rectory he must have watched the spread and development of the British Empire; and when, round about 1850, Alexander followed family tradition by going into the Navy he probably reflected with satisfaction that little now menaced a Service which had already subdued the world.  The girls all seem to have married fairly young and their weddings, no doubt, were celebrated by the whole village.  When, at last (an elderly widower with a young curate to help him and Alexander’s daughter to keep him company) Richard Buller looked back upon his life, it must have been with a great deal of quiet gratification.

John Buller-Kitson became Rector in 1883, and like the Grylls’ of long ago must have felt the Rectory was almost a family home.  His incumbency saw the end of the Victorian era and the beginning of the First World War.

John Buller-Kitson was succeeded by Leonard Williams, but Mr. Williams’ term was short, and four years later his place was taken by Reginald Murley, who was to see Lanreath  through the troubled period of the Twenties and Thirties.  When he died, in 1939, he was succeeded by Charles Girling, the last Rector (though not the last clergyman) ever to occupy Lanreath Rectory.

Mr. Girling had a lively young family and was popular in the village.  He was instituted on January 13th, 1940, at a time of desperate national anxiety, and one of his first acts was to order the digging up of the west lawn and the creation in its place of a large emergency vegetable garden.  Lanreath Home Guard met regularly in his study and there their weapons were kept, stored in a cupboard so large that it has since been turned into the kitchen of Caerhays apartment! Soon Plymouth was being devastated by enemy action, and from time to time even the little town of Looe came under attack.  Lanreath’s young men were far away and in danger (the Roll of Honour inside the Church lists those who were serving at this time) and there was a real fear that the invasion, if it came, might be launched on the beaches of Cornwall. No-one knew how it might all be going to end, but like clergymen up and down the country Charles Girling was an enduring source of strength, and when it ended he helped to co-ordinate the celebrations.

The Girling family remained at Lanreath Rectory until 1962, but some time before that date it had begun to be evident that the Rectory (as a rectory) did not fit into the modern world.  It had been built to house a self-sufficient community, and such communities were now part of the past.  In 1962, after Charles Girling’s death, the Church Commissioners put the old house up for sale.  The purchaser, a private company, sought and obtained permission to convert its acquisition into eight flats.  The Church had retained Richard Buller’s orchard and there a new rectory was being built, but the remaining gardens were still unnecessarily extensive and several pieces of land - constituting most of the current village east of the Punch Bowl Inn,  were sold off as potential building sites.  The circular drive was grassed over, the tennis courts were removed and part of the kitchen quarters were demolished), opening up the eastern side of the stable courtyard (these kitchens were originally sited adjacent to the wall between the current Courtyard car park and the garden.  Inside the house several large rooms were partitioned and, finally, the great central staircase was taken away to make room for the kitchens and bathrooms of Fowey and Daymer apartments.

The house had changed dramatically; but survived with much of its character intact. There is every possibility that without this new use, the original building might have been pulled down to build further modern housing.   Hundreds of families have spent happy holidays in the house, most of them going home relaxed, many returning again and again.

There is a lot to be discovered about the long history of the Old Rectory, Lanreath but it is not a house that now lives only in the past. The current work, renovating parts of the building and surviving grounds,  repairing other parts of the building that had been neglected,  should mean that The Old Rectory continues to exist as a family home and as a provider of employment to local people for many more years to come. However, we can all still listen to the magnificent pealing of the Church bells and for just a few moments, wonder how life might have been all those years ago........

Old Aerial Photo of The Old Rectory