Inspired by our discovery of the Stackhouse baths a couple of weeks ago, we continued reading Michael Tangye’s article on Rock-cut baths in Cornwall and headed for Portreath to find ‘Lady Basset’s pool’ – or more correctly pools. The Bassets – Lord and Lady – were not people to do things by half for there are seven of the things at Portreath, the nearest large beach to the family home of Tehidy. They are thought to date from the early 1780s ‘for the pleasure of Susannah, Lady Basset, and her young daughter Frances’ (b 1781)’.
In his article Michael Tangye mentions the Stackhouse baths first and, given that John Stackhouse married Susannah in 1773, it is probable that his bath pre-dates the Basset ones. Indeed, the idea for the Portreath ones may have come from the Stackhouses as John was heir to the Pendarves estate just south of Camborne and would have known the Bassets – Lord de Dunstanville – of Tehidy.
Each bath has a different level of privacy. Michael Tangye says they are ‘all situated at varying distances below the high water mark so that at least one would be accessible at most states of the tide’. Without getting out surveying equipment, one has to take this at face value but it is curious as we will see.
Tangye numbers the baths – reading from left to right – although there is no indication that this relates to their date of construction. All are visible on Google Maps. The first six are all on the west side of the beach. The last two are on the east side. Click on each title for a precise location.
This is the highest up the beach and was presumably the most accessible as the tide receded. Like all the baths, it has been filled with sand and stones over time which makes it difficult to assess the original depth.
No 2 is very close to Bath No 1, sits at the level of the beach and looks the least sophisticated.
Bathers in both of these two baths would have been very visible from the beach and surrounding cliffs.
The third bath is the most famous and is known as Lady Basset’s bath. It sits on a ledge, cut into the cliff, and is about 1.5m above the level of the beach.
There is something distinctly grand about this bath which has steps down into it (see picture) and once had metal railings on its cliff side (the evidence is still there). A distant observer would simply see a head poking up, half way up the cliff. But … it is out-performed by …
This is just around the corner from No 3, is on a higher shelf and has the great advantage of having a sea view. A set of steps at the south end indicate where a ladder once stood, or where the sea has eroded some rocky steps. It is a bit of a scramble to reach it but worth the effort.
It is not hard to imagine Susannah and Frances Basset sitting in baths 3 and 4, chatting around the corner to each other. I would choose No 4 every time, for the sea view.
The next bath is situated around the corner of the promontory, on the westernmost of two flat rocks. It is easy to climb up to although there is evidence of former steps.
This bath is the nearest to the sea. We visited at low tide on a day when the tide was neither spring nor neap, and found we had little time to hang around (see the picture above).
It has the advantage of privacy as it is hidden from the beach by the small headland. But if privacy is what you want then …
Bath No 6 (location approximate)
No 6 is the most private as it is situated inside what Tangye calls ‘a large dark and cold cave‘. I can only think that he had not yet visited Stackhouse when he wrote that. At least this one does not induce claustrophobia like the fresh-water bath at Stackhouse.
It is easy to find at the entrance to a cave very close to Bath No 5.
It is certainly cold as the cave faces north but is not as far inside as Tangye implies, more in the mouth of the cave.
You would not want to linger in this bath as the tide would reach the little promontory out of sight of the bather. There is an escape route, through a small arched tunnel if you are prepared to wade, returning you to a spot close to Bath No 3.
The last, purportedly Basset, bath is over the other side of the beach, close to the pier, and is an altogether simpler affair, really just a plunge pool.
One of the problems of our expedition was that we became adept at spotting ‘potential sites’ for baths, or pools which ‘might be a bath’ but this one certainly looks real. It would have been very public, indeed, Tangye ponders whether it was actually constructed for the public.
The last bath is almost certainly C20th as it resembles the ‘mermaid’ pool at neighbouring Porthtowan and others up and down the coast (eg Perranporth, Bude, Mousehole, Trevone). It is constructed less by digging out and more by constructing a simple dam to enlarge and existing pool.
Could it be that this pool has absorbed a former Basset pool? Might there have been 6 pools for the ladies on the western side of the beach and 2 pools for the gentlemen on the eastern side?
It must be packed with small people avoiding the surf on a sunny day.
And then there is a possible ninth bath, not mentioned by Michael Tangye and only pointed out to us on a later visit. Situated close to bath 6, on a very similar rock is a large rock pool. This would be unremarkable, but for the very obvious right angle which has the air of having been made by human hand.
A large rock below the surface has the macabre shape of a coffin. Without it, the pool might well be the usual 0.5m in depth but it is hard to believe that this rock arrived accidentally and so our judgement is that this is probably not a true ‘Basset’ pool. Who knows?
So, what can we make of these sea-water baths and how they were used? Those of us old enough to remember swimming in Cornish seas before the days of wetsuits know all too well that staying still in cold water is generally a ‘bad idea’. No wonder surfing is so popular.
The water in a rock-cut bath would be marginally warmer than the sea, but only marginally. Did the two Susannahs (Stackhouse and Basset) simply sit in their baths, slide down to get their shoulders wet and then leap to their feet with the C18th equivalent of a lady-like shriek, and demand a warm towel and glass of smuggled brandy? Or did they sit there for hours to satisfy the opinion of their doctors that cold sea-water was good for arthritis, no doubt resulting in that bane of the C18th medical profession, ‘a chill’?
And which bath did they use when? Sadly we did not have the necessary six hours to watch the tide coming in, recording when each bath was accessible and if and when the water was refreshed. No doubt someone in Portreath knows the answer.
Did they lack an observant mathematician to help them plan in the C18th or was labour so cheap they simply asked a local miner to build another bath whenever they felt the need?
Next time we are over there, we will give one a try (wet-suited of course). But first, off to Polridmouth Cove to find the last of Michael Tangye’s rock-cut baths.