Imagine: it is the late C18 century, you are a rich gentleman with estates in Camborne and a passion for seaweeds and algae some of the rarest of which are found in a small inaccessible cove on the edge of Mount’s Bay. You want to spend time on your hobby but, at the same time, you fall in love with and marry (1773), a young lady from Shropshire called Susannah Acton. What could be more natural than to build (1775) a castellated mansion for her, just above your favourite cove, and name it after her – Acton Castle – so that she feels at home. You install seawater tanks in the basement so that you can observe your special seaweeds. But how to entertain your new wife?
Sea-bathing was the in-thing for good health. Weymouth and Brighton were developing a thriving business providing bathing machines which allowed both gentlemen and ladies to indulge themselves with decorum. John and Susannah Stackhouse clearly had the same idea and arranged for a sea-bathing pool to be constructed in his favourite cove, just below their new house. In fact they went further, making a number of changes in the cove which can still be found today. One of them is one of the most fascinating man-made structures on the Cornish coast which ranks alongside Hawker’s Hut as a ‘must see’ or rather ‘must-find’.
Things to look for:
An article by Michael Tangye published in Cornish Archaeology lists some of the things that John Stackhouse added to the cove that bears his name:
- A wide slipway down to the beach where a boat could be pulled up out of the summer storms
- A shed whose purpose is unclear
- A gully through the rocks to allow boats to reach the beach
- Another, side gully/slipway where boats could be pulled up away from any swells
- A rock-cut salt-water bath similar to those known as Lady Basset’s baths at Portreath
- A fresh-water bath carved out of the rock and fed by a fresh-water stream
Stackhouse cove is secluded. No road leads to it and the usual means of access is a twenty minute walk along the coastal path from either Perranuthnoe or Prussia Cove. There is a rough path down from Acton Castle itself but this is overgrown.
The cove consists mostly of rock with a small shingle strip at the top under a decaying cliff. A series of gullies runs seaward and laterally, providing a number of natural channels out of the swell.
It faces south west into the teeth of Atlantic gales with St Michael’s Mount filling the view of Mount’s Bay. Mousehole is visible in the distance.
The fresh-water bath
About 2-3m above the beach, at the northern end of the beach, is the entrance to what looks like a mine adit (there is another at a lower level close by). Originally there were some steps up to this and the remnants can be see on the right but they have long ago been destroyed by winter storms. It is thus a slippery scramble to get up to the entrance (note the greenery).
Inside (torch, or phone essential), there is a short, narrow 3-4m tunnel in which an adult can stand which leads into the bath itself.
According to Tangye , the room is 2.4m (8ft) square and 1.8m (6ft) high. The bath itself is 1.8m (6ft) long and 0.8m (2ft 9ins) wide. It is very dark with only a little light filtering down through a rock-cut chimney and the main tunnel.
Tangye says it is 0.9m (3ft) deep. In the picture our brave model stands over 1.8m tall so judge for yourself. He did say it was cold but was reluctant to test it for freshness.
The bath is fed from water filtering down from above, through the chimney and so there is a steady drip, drip of water.
Quite how Susannah used this bath is not clear. Unless she was particularly liberated for the time, modesty would have meant that she would have had to enter the bath fully clothed. There is no space for getting undressed and it is hard to imagine that anyone could wish to spend very long inside this space, sitting in a cold bath, no matter how much good it was doing them. It just seems a shame that they did not include a window so that she could look out at the fabulous view of St Michael’s Mount.
The web article contains a tantalising reference to the Carters of Prussia Cove: John and Henry. John (the ‘King of Prussia’) looked after the key to Acton Castle and, in his book The Autobiography of a Cornish Smuggler, Harry refers to hiding at Acton Castle when he was on the run after an incident at Cawsand.
The salt-water bath
The ‘second’ (according to Tangye) sea-water bath is much better known and is situated alongside the main gully. A set of eight steps lead down to a bath which is 27m (9ft) by 2.3m (7ft 7ins). The seaward side has been eroded so that the bath floods at a lower tide than originally designed. As it was, we saw it at roughly half tide and so it would only be a true bath for about half the time.
Close by are signs of some old iron posts, sunk into the rock. Was this to provide a modesty screen for Susannah, or simply a handrail?
This bath was an altogether more pleasant place to swim and the view out to sea was rewarding.
Over on the north coast, the Bassets were carving similar personal baths out of the rock. Larger, more communal swimming baths can be found in other coves, of which our favourite is the mermaid pool at Porthtowan.
Talking about it with a friend afterwards, we wondered whether the fresh-water bath was designed for Susannah to have a quick dip to wash off the salt before she mounted the cliff back to Acton Castle.
The main gully is wide and easily accessible for a boat (we have sailed into it in the past). Similar gullies were excavated out of the sedimentary rock round the corner at Prussia Cove.
Two thirds of the way to the sea on the left in the photo above is the second gully:
This runs at an angle to the main gully and contains the remains of some footings for wooden beams designed to protect the keel of a boat from the rocks in lieu of a keel-channel (or ‘drift’). A modern version of these beams can be seen round the corner at Bessy’s cove.
At the head of the gully is a curious feature which may have been the base of a capstan to pull up the boats, or even a keep-pot for lobsters etc. It looks too sharp-edged to be a natural rock whirlpool.
The shed and slipway
At the head of the beach is a slipway up the cliff which was once the main entrance to the cove, with a path to Acton Castle above. Sadly, this is now so overgrown that little more than a dachshund or Jack Russell can get up it without getting scratched by the gorse.
At the bottom of the slipway is the remains of a shed with what looks like a reinforced concrete roof which we have always supposed to have been a remnant of WWII. This also has the remains of some steps. Today, it seems to be harbouring a home-made raft.
Stackhouse has many treasures, some harder to find than others. It is a wonderful place to explore.
We just wondered whether John Stackhouse asked his wife whether she wanted a cold bath in a dark space before he thoughtfully built her one.
As we left the beach, we pointed out the fresh-water bath to some people coming the other way and later saw them climbing up. They too, we noticed, told the next people … and so the news will spread.