The Secret Strength Behind the Minack

The Secret Strength Behind the Minack

You may not have heard of Rowena Cade. Born in Derbyshire, she was the amazing woman whose legacy will stop you in your tracks if you visit the marvellous Minack Theatre in Cornwall.

Granite, with concrete seats, perched on the edge of the cliffs above beautiful Porthcurno, ideal for Shakespearean drama, the Minack was created by a woman with vision, determination, resilience and the kind of sheer hard graft that is of its time.  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.

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, building a rather elegant and sizeable house there for the two of them, providing the setting for many amateur productions.  Rowena designed and made the costumes for her amateur dramatics to entertain the locals.

 

Feeling the gardens were not the right setting for her production, Rowena ambitiously decided to stage Shakespeare’s The Tempest above Minack Rock, and set about making a stage and some rudimentary seating (old photos show people with deckchairs) which took her six months.  The first performance was in 1932, lit by batteries and car headlamps.  It is 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 without 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 contemplate this frail-looking woman bringing up bags of sand (for the cement) from the beach and huge wooden beams from the shoreline, but she did.  Reputedly, she carried a dozen 15ft beams from a wrecked Spanish freighter 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!

 

 

The germ of the theatre had begun. Rowena, 38, a philanthropist without 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 contemplate this frail-looking woman bringing up bags of sand (for the cement) from the beach and huge wooden beams from the shoreline, but she did.  Reputedly, she carried a dozen 15ft beams from a wrecked Spanish freighter 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, with seats containing her ‘screwdriver’ designs.

Rowena had two devoted local craftsmen to help fulfil her vision and create equally incredible gardens.  The Minack has an exhibition dedicated to the remarkable lady.  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, the Minack was chosen to be part of the coastline defences, which destroyed much of the theatre, later rebuilt by Rowena Cade. Rowena came from a time when little was wasted, so even the box office was made from a converted gun post.

 

By 1944, it was chosen as a location for Love Story, starring Margaret Lockwood and Stewart Grainger, which was, perhaps, its salvation.

On a sunny day, the place is absolutely awesome with a mesmerising turquoise sea below. 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 roll in with an offshore blowing back the spray, rainbows often develop, a mind-blowingly magical sight which is almost super-natural.

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