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Lizard Peninsula

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Title: Lizard Peninsula  
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Subject: Porthcurno, St Ives (UK Parliament constituency), RNAS Culdrose (HMS Seahawk), Cadgwith, Gunwalloe, Solar eclipse of August 11, 1999, Pentreath, Jeremy Annear, Traboe, Helston Folk Museum
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Lizard Peninsula

For other uses, see Lizard (disambiguation).

Coordinates: 50°02′N 5°11′W / 50.033°N 5.183°W / 50.033; -5.183

The Lizard (

Lizard village, the most southerly village on the British mainland, is in Landewednack, the most southerly civil parish.

The peninsula measures approximately 14 miles (23 km) x 14 miles (23 km). It is situated southwest of Falmouth ten miles (16 km) east of Penzance.[2][3]

The name "Lizard" is most probably a corruption of the Cornish name "Lys Ardh", meaning "high court";[4] it is purely coincidental that much of the peninsula is composed of a rock called serpentinite. The Lizard peninsula's original name may have been the Celtic name "Predannack" ("British one"); during the Iron Age (Pytheas c. 325 BC) and Roman period, Britain was known as Pretannike (in Greek) and as Albion (and Britons the "Pretani").

The Lizard's coast is particularly hazardous to shipping and the seaways round the peninsula were historically known as the "Graveyard of Ships" (see below). The Lizard Lighthouse was built at Lizard Point in 1752 and the RNLI operates The Lizard lifeboat station.

The Lizard lies within the Cornwall Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). Almost a third of Cornwall has AONB designation, with the same status and protection as a National Park.



There is evidence of early habitation with several burial mounds and stones. Part of the peninsula is known as the Meneage (land of the monks). There are several towns and villages on the peninsula, some of which are covered below.

Helston once headed the estuary of the River Cober, before it was cut off from the sea by Loe Bar in the 13th century. It was a small port which exported tin and copper. Helston was certainly in existence in the sixth century. The name comes from the Cornish "hen lis" or "old court" and "ton" added later to denote a Saxon manor; the Domesday Book refers to it as Henliston (which survives as the name of a road in the town). It was granted its charter by King John in 1201. It was here that tin ingots were weighed to determine the duty due to the Duke of Cornwall when a number of stannary towns were authorised by royal decree.

In the extreme south of the Lizard was the royal manor of Winnianton which was held by King William I at the time of Domesday Book (1086) and was also the head manor of the hundred of Kerrier. It was a large manor assessed as having 15 hides before 1066. At the time of Domesday there was land for 60 ploughs but in the lord's land there were 2 ploughs and in the lands held by villeins 24 ploughs. There were 24 villeins, 41 freedmen, 33 smallholders and 14 slaves. The was 6 acres of meadow, 8 square leagues of pasture and half a square league of woodland. The livestock was 14 unbroken mares, 3 cattle and 128 sheep; its value was £12 annually. Rinsey, Trelowarren, Mawgan-in-Meneage and 17 other lands are also recorded under Winnianton.[5] By the 14th century, a hamlet of fishermen's dwellings had established itself around the cove at Porthleven, named from the old Cornish "porth" (harbour) and "leven" (level or smooth). It grew with miners and farmworkers; and building of a harbour began in 1811. In 1855 the harbour was deepened, and a boatbuilding industry began, lasting until recently. The port imported coal, limestone and timber, and exported tin, copper and china clay. The harbour also heralded the start of Porthleven's golden days of pilchard fishing.

Mullion has the 15th century church of St Mellanus, and the Old Inn from the 16th century. The harbour was completed in 1895 and financed by Lord Robartes of Lanhydrock as a recompense to the fishermen for several disastrous pilchard seasons.

The small church of St Peter in Coverack, built in 1885 for £500, has a serpentinite pulpit.

The Great Western Railway operated a road motor service to The Lizard from Helston railway station. Commencing on 17 August 1903, it was the first successful British railway-run bus service and was initially provided as a cheaper alternative to a proposed light railway.

In 1999, the Solar eclipse of 11 August 1999 departed the UK mainland from the Lizard.


The Lizard has been the site of many maritime disasters. It forms a natural obstacle to entry and exit of Falmouth and its naturally deep estuary. At Lizard Point stands the Lizard Lighthouse. In fact, the light was erected by Sir John Killigrew by his own expense: It was built at the cost of "20 nobles a year" for 30 years, but it caused an uproar over the following years, as King James I considered charging vessels to pass. This caused so many problems that the lighthouse was demolished, but was successfully rebuilt in 1751 by order of Thomas Fonnereau and remains almost unchanged today. Further east lie The Manacles, near Porthoustock: 1.5 square miles (4 km2) of jagged rocks just beneath the waves.

  • In 1721 the Royal Anne Galley, an oared frigate, was wrecked at Lizard Point. Of a crew of 185 only three survived; lost was Lord Belhaven who was en route to take up the Governorship of Barbados.
  • A 44 gun frigate, HMS Anson, was wrecked at Loe Bar in 1807. Although it wrecked close to shore, many lost their lives in the storm. This inspired Henry Trengrouse to invent the rocket fired line, later to become the Breeches buoy.
  • The transport ship Dispatch ran aground on the Manacles in 1809 on its return from the Peninsular War, losing 104 men from the 7th Hussars. The following day, with local villagers still attempting a rescue, the Cruizer class brig-sloop HMS Primrose hit the northern end of these rocks. The only survivor of its 126 officers, men and boys was a drummer boy.
  • The SS Mohegan, a 7,000 tonne passenger liner, also hit the Manacles in 1898 with the loss of 106 lives.[6]
  • The American passenger liner, the Paris, was stranded on the Manacles in 1899, with no loss of life.

The biggest rescue in the RNLI's history was 17 March 1907 when the 12,000 tonne liner SS Suevic hit the Maenheere Reef near Lizard Point in Cornwall. In a strong gale and dense fog RNLI lifeboat volunteers rescued 456 passengers, including 70 babies. Crews from the Lizard, Cadgwith, Coverack and Porthleven rowed out repeatedly for 16 hours to rescue all of the people on board. Six silver RNLI medals were later awarded, two to Suevic crew members.[7]

The Battle at the Lizard, a naval battle, took place off The Lizard on 21 October 1707.

Smuggling was a regular, and often necessary, way of life in these parts, despite the efforts of coastguards or "Preventive men". In 1801, the King's Pardon was offered to any smuggler giving information on the Mullion musket men involved in a gunfight with the crew of HM Gun Vessel Hecate.


RAF Predannack Down (see Predannack Airfield) was a Second World War airbase, from which Coastal Command squadrons flew anti-submarine sorties into the Bay of Biscay as well as convoy support in the western English Channel. The runways still exist and the site is used by a local Air Cadet Volunteergliding Squadron 626VGS and as an emergency/relief base for RNAS Culdrose (HMS Seahawk).

RNAS Culdrose is Europe's largest helicopter base, and currently hosts the Training and Occupational Conversion Unit operating the EH101 "Merlin" helicopter. It is also the home base for Merlin Squadrons embarked upon Royal Navy warships, the Westland Sea King AEW variant helicopter, a Search And Rescue (Sea King, again) helicopter flight, and some BAe Hawk T.1 trainer jets used for training purposes by the Royal Navy. The base also operates some other types of fixed wing aircraft for calibration and other training purposes. As befits the base's name, a non-flying example of a Hawker Sea Hawk forms the main gate guardian static display. RNAS Culdrose is a major contributor to the economy of The Lizard area.


The Lizard peninsula is in the St Ives parliamentary constituency (which comprises the whole of the former district of Penwith and the southern part of the former district of Kerrier). However, the parishes northeast of the Helford River are in Camborne and Redruth parliamentary constituency

To the north, The Lizard peninsula is bordered by the civil parishes of Breage, Porthleven, Sithney, Helston, Wendron, Gweek and — across the Helford River — by Constantine, Kerrier and Mawnan.

The parishes on the peninsula proper are (west to east):

The Lizard's political history includes the 1497 Cornish rebellion which began in St Keverne. The village blacksmith Michael Joseph (Michael An Gof in Cornish, meaning blacksmith) led the uprising, protesting against the punitive taxes levied by Henry VII to pay for the war against the Scots. The uprising was routed on its march to London and the two leaders, Michael Joseph and Thomas Flamank, were subsequently hanged, drawn and quartered.


Titanium was discovered here by the Reverend William Gregor in 1791.

In 1869, John Pender formed the Falmouth Gibraltar and Malta Telegraph company, intending to connect India to England with an undersea cable. Although intended to land at Falmouth, the final landing point was Porthcurno near Land's End.

In 1900 Guglielmo Marconi stayed the Housel Bay Hotel in his quest to locate a coastal radio station to receive signals from ships equipped with his apparatus. He leased a plot "in the wheat field adjoining the hotel" where the Lizard Wireless Telegraph Station still stands today. Recently restored by the National Trust, it looks as it did in January 1901, when Marconi received the distance record signals of 186 miles (299 km) from his transmitter station at Niton, Isle of Wight.

The Lizard Wireless Station is the oldest Marconi station to survive in its original state in the world and is located to the west of the Lloyds Signal Station in what appears to be a wooden hut. In December 1901, on the cliffs above Poldhu, Guglielmo Marconi sent a radio communication across the Atlantic to St. John's, Newfoundland.

A radar station called RAF Drytree was built during World War II. The site was later chosen for the Telstar project in 1962; its rocky foundations, clear atmosphere and extreme southerly location being uniquely suitable. This became the Goonhilly satellite earth station, now owned by BT Group plc. Some important developments in television satellite transmission were made at Goonhilly station. A wind farm exists near to the Goonhilly station site.


Main article: Geology of Lizard

Known as the Lizard complex, the peninsula's geology is the best preserved example of an exposed ophiolite in the United Kingdom.

An ophiolite is a suite of geological formations which represent a slice through a section of ocean crust (including the upper level of the mantle) thrust onto the continental crust.

The Lizard formations comprise three main units; the serpentinites, the "oceanic complex" and the metamorphic basement.[8]


Several nature sites exist on the Lizard Peninsula; Predannack nature reserve, Mullion Island, Goonhilly Downs, and the Cornish Seal Sanctuary at Gweek. An area of the Lizard coverning 16.62 square kilometres (6.42 sq mi) is designated a National Nature Reserve because of its coastal grasslands and heaths and inland heaths.[9] The peninsula contains 3 main Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), both noted for their endangered insects and plants, as well as their geology. The first is East Lizard Heathlands SSSI, the second is Caerthillian to Kennack SSSI and the third is West Lizard SSSI, of which the important wetland, Hayle Kimbro Pool, forms a part of.[10][11]

The area is also home to one of England's rarest breeding birds — the Chough. This species of crow is distinctive due to its red beak and legs and haunting "chee-aw" call. Chough began breeding on Lizard in 2002 following a concerted effort by the Cornish Chough Project in conjunction with DEFRA and the RSPB.

The Lizard contains some of the most specialised flora of any area in Britain, including many Red Data Book plant species. Of particular note is the Cornish heath, Erica vagans, that occurs in abundance here, but which is found nowhere else in Britain. There are more than 600 species of flowering plants on the Lizard, nearly a quarter of all UK species.[12] The reason for this richness is partly because of the many different and unusual Lizard rocks on the Lizard Peninsula. But above all, it is a coming together of multiple factors: a very mild maritime climate, but one prone to gales and salt winds; waterlogged and boggy soils, but ones that often parch and dry out in the summer; soils of greatly contrasting fertility and pH; and lastly man's influence. Any single factor taken on its own would influence the flora; taken together, they combine, overlap and interact in fascinating and surprising ways. Contrasting plant communities grow side-by-side in a mosaic that changes within a few metres but also changes markedly over time with the cycle of heath fires. It's not so much that conditions are ideal for growth, but that there is such a variety of different, difficult conditions. Each habitat, with its own combination of factors, attracts its own specialist plants.[13] It is also one of the few places where the rare formicine ant, Formica exsecta, (the narrow-headed ant), can be found.

Portrayal in literature and film

Daphne du Maurier based many novels on this part of Cornwall, including Frenchman's Creek.

The Lizard was featured on the BBC television programme Seven Natural Wonders as one of the wonders of the South West.

In James Clavell's novel Shogun, ship's pilot Vasco Rodrigues challenges John Blackthorne to recite the latitude of the Lizard to verify that Blackthorne is a fellow seaman.


  • Meneage and Lizard Oral History Group (ed.) (1980) Traditional Life in the Far South West. (40 pp.) [N. pl.]: the Group

Further reading

  • The Lizard Guidebook Friendly Guides (2013) ISBN 978-1-904645-06-1 (has sections on the geology and plants of the Lizard as well as walks)
  • Nigel Tangye (1977) From Rock and Tempest. London: William Kimber ISBN 0718303156 (about shipwrecks round the Lizard peninsula)
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