Theatrical backdrop, moonlit tales, sweet smell of wild flowers, the sound of the waves and the feel of the sea air all make for the most magical of settings in the far west of Cornwall – just five miles from the end of the land – the most extraordinary of theatres is found nestling amongst the cliffs.
Seating has been hewn from the craggy cliff face, the winding gorse and thrift lined path leads perilously down to the stage itself apparently protruding out into the bay beyond. The sun slowly sets, the moon in all its phases rises above the gentle swish of the sea or the crashing of the waves on a windy summer’s evening – the audience sit entranced, involved and listening to the words, or songs coming from the stage below.
The Minack Theatre high above the sea
Think of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” being staged in such a setting, or hearing Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance” echoing round the gully cliffs of the theatre back, or seeing the incredibly wide range of theatrical stagings ... opera, comedy, ballet, son et lumiere or chorus works gently and melodically travelling up to the gods – the seats high up above the stage.
We used, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, to travel over the Peninsula from the St Ives area to Penzance .. not far – fifteen miles or so in total - then just follow all the lights of other cars winding along the Cornish lanes from Newlyn, through Mousehole, along and past Lamorna, keeping on through Treen until the village of St Levan was signposted southwards .. going down the steep sided valley towards the sea before turning off to the rough and wild area as directed.
1880's poster for The Pirates of Penzance
We were well loaded – waterproofs to sit on, rugs to wrap round or under us, coats, jackets, hats, scarves, thick socks and boots, in those days a few had folding chairs to sit on – plonked on patches of semi flat ground, the rest of us gathering round ... picnic baskets with simple fair, but definitely full of hot sustaining coffee or tea, for some a wee flask or two ...
All this was carried down those perilous cliff faces ... scrambling for footholds, placing baskets to steady ourselves .. find our perch – the elders guiding us to “their best spots” – greeting other friends and relatives – the Cornish community of diehards; there were few lights, we all carried torches or relied on the moonlight.
Out came the food .. soup from other flasks, rolls filled with ham, hard-boiled eggs, tomatoes, cucumber pieces and at last our wonderful Cornish pasties ... pastry rounds filled with finely chopped beef skirt and onions, small diced potato and swede-turnip, sprinkled with salt and pepper, a dab of butter – the pastry edges brushed with beaten egg, pulled up and pinched together on the top – a hole punched in the middle to let the steam out, placed on a baking tray and baked in a moderate oven for 50 minutes or so .. til golden brown, and steaming hot ... remove, leave to cool for five minutes – quickly wrap in tea-towels and wrap again in other cloths to keep warm ..
The aroma of fresh hot pasties, put into greaseproof bags or held in our hands if we felt brave enough against the piping hot pastry or weren’t worried about losing some of the oozing hot pasty filling ... delicious – summer is the time for these remembrances – happy days high above the rocky outcrops with the cool damp air and dusk descending before the impending performance to come.
The Minack Theatre with its 'hewn' grass covered bench seats
Strawberries – freshly picked from the fields that afternoon – with lashings of Cornish cream to finish a fine meal off .. and we were ready to heed the words of the bard, or hum along with the choruses at the magical world of the spectacle below. Perhaps a chocolate or two to sustain us during the interval as we reviewed the show so far .. and just relaxed into the rocky arena enjoying the ambience of that wonderful setting.
What days of youth – young unformed boys and girls, an undeveloped but much loved place of theatre ... how they’ve all grown and changed – the Minack .. in Cornish meaning that rocky place .. still in its fantastic setting, modernised .. with grass covered terraces for seating, a more permanent flattened stage area, the audience and visitor facilities more modern .. but what an amazing testament to one woman – yes! one woman .. and her determination to make it work – once she’d set her mind she tracked the stars and moon overcoming all obstacles to bring the Minack Theatre to life – forever.
Homemade Cornish pasties – once tasted never to be forgotten .. the ubiquitous shop ones quickly rejected in favour of family fare, though even I might concede that they’d be better than those of days gone by .. Roman olive oil pastry would presumably be extremely solid and rock like?
The rock of ages – the Minack .. versus an extremely palatable and delicious pastry pasty – gosh are you hungry now? – I am!
Dear Mr Postman – we are in those summer days again .. of picnics, lovely weather – perhaps damp grass, but picnics at every moment .. sitting on hills and watching the sun go down, quaffing a glass, or nestling in a hollow out of the wind just savouring the fresh air .. with a pasty in hand – what could be better? Thank you for delivering this .. my mother will laugh and have memories of her own ...