by Revd Canon Sherry Bryan
My family and I had always holidayed in Cornwall. By the late ‘70s my brother had lived in West Cornwall for many years, so we knew it in all seasons of the year. Usually we camped in the westernmost part at the same site every year and during our stay I always enjoyed my ‘pilgrimages’ walking to a tiny rural church a mile or so away. I loved sitting in the peace and quiet to pray and to soak in the atmosphere. I would often think romantically of what it would be like to live in Cornwall and to have such a place as my local church. At the time we lived very happily in a village in Warwickshire with no prospect of moving. Little did I know what lay ahead…..
By 1991 I was standing in Truro Cathedral being ordained as a deacon. My girls and I (one by then at university up north) had just moved into a village near Newquay, and I was to spend the next five years as curate at two local churches. I think I was, even after many years of training, still a bit shell-shocked that this was actually happening.
The process of becoming a vicar is usually long and drawn out . It was no exception for me either. In those days no woman would be able to aspire towards such a thing, so it wasn’t even on my agenda. Despite that however, over a long period of years I had begun to feel an undeniable call to work for God in some capacity. It seems that other people were also identifying that in me, and I was being slowly drawn towards that surprising prospect. Gradually it was dawning on us all that I was to have a ministry in the church, whatever shape that might take. It was a daunting prospect but also rather awe-inspiring and exciting. To live out such a vocation in Cornwall was still not something I had dreamed of. One thing I was sure about: I was definitely called to a rural location, even though this is the least favourite option for most ministers in the church. There are usually fewer people to help, more practical jobs to do and a distinctly more difficult landscape to negotiate than in town or suburban ministry.
However it was right for me. I was eventually ordained priest in 1994 with 9 other women. We were the first ever women priests in Cornwall. Ten happy years were to follow as I became vicar of St Teath and Delabole, where I was to undertake a variety of different chaplaincy roles at the same time as being priest in charge. But it was as Rural Dean that I became especially aware of St Breward, where in 2005, the need to find a new vicar was becoming urgent. To my great surprise I was in fact to fill that vacancy myself, having prayed for a willing candidate. (Be careful what you pray for!). My present parish were shocked and tried to stop me from leaving. “Tis bandit country up there maid”, warned one farmer, with more than a little humour in his voice.
It’s true that moorland life is very different, even from somewhere as close as St Teath six miles away. It feels a lot more remote and even the weather and the roads are trickier to negotiate. It may not be bandit country but you do have to be pretty tough. I had no intention of moving , but I embraced our new life in St Breward, making full use on days off, of the vast acres of moorland to ride my horses and walk my dogs. I’ve even been known to ride between churches on occasion. There was certainly plenty to do in the churches, with Summer Fetes, Christmas Fayres, Coffee Mornings, Harvest Festivals and Harvest Suppers, meetings galore and of course, all the usual ups and downs of village and parish life to contend with, not to mention the regular and special services, the weddings and funerals of local people and the occasional tricky pastoral situation. As vicar I often found myself at the centre of it all, and with 4 churches to look after there were 4 centres of operation too. This expanded to 7 churches eventually as I neared retirement.
Being a vicar on the moor is not everyone’s idea of heaven but I was so fortunate that it really was mine. I have always loved country life and I revelled in the atmosphere, and even the weather. The wildness of it all suited me perfectly. I’m sure that it must suit others who choose to live there. It has to because you certainly are part of nature, living in such a place. For me it was fun to have to don my water-proofs and jump into my 4×4 and trundle my way down muddy rutted tracks to visit parishioners or attend meetings. And I enjoyed the people too. From farmers to shopkeepers, publicans to grave-diggers, young mums to elderly parishioners who’d lived there all their lives. It was exciting to share the life of the moor; to hear the hunt going past the Rectory on their way from the kennels, and to see them assembled at the meet or strung out across the moor, followed by quad bikes and cars.
St Breward is a very friendly church and though not everyone was delighted to receive a woman priest into their midst, eventually most came round to accepting me and I think we had a mostly very harmonious time working together. I loved it when the community really came together in the church. The wonderful candlelit carol services, starting with mulled wine and mince-pies, followed by rousing singing echoing into the darkness of the moor outside. The packed church at Remembrance services, accompanied by the Silver Band in all its glory, was a very special occasion for me. It was so good to see the little Brownies and Guides taking their poppy duties so seriously. And for me no Remembrance will ever be more evocative than standing at the memorial on Armistice day at Mine Hill with the wind buffeting, the clouds scudding across the landscape, the view stretching for miles around us as the Last Post was sounded.
I suppose that like most who have lived in St Breward, it’s the weather that tends to dominate. There’s usually quite a lot of it. Those sunsets from Ladydown, glinting on the sliver of sea in the far distance were incredible. Spring sunshine bringing the lanes to life and filling the hedges with colour; torrents of rainwater flooding from the fields and occasionally blocking all entry and exit from the village as rivers rose and bridges disappeared; Autumn gold of falling leaves on trees on the Camel Trail and in the woods; my muddy canines charging in to flop down by the Rayburn after a spectacularly muddy winter walk. It truly was and still is a very special place to make contact with the natural world.
It doesn’t often snow in Cornwall but my goodness when it does, St Breward is the place that gets it. And it’s not unusual to experience being snowed in. It happened a few times when we lived there. I remember some terrifying driving conditions. Slithering down a hill on the way to an appointment or service was no joke, and on one occasion I thought I’d met my ‘Waterloo’ – and I don’t mean the one near Blisland’! Thankfully Farmer Greenaway was around and came to my rescue just in time or I might not be writing this.
There is so much more I could say about the privilege of serving my last 12 years of stipendiary ministry in St Breward, and all the other churches in the Benefice, but I hope you get the picture. I think I could safely say that my experience was not for the faint-hearted, but it certainly was right for me and as I shuffle off into my dotage I look back with fond memories on that perhaps lesser known part of Cornwall that I’ve been privileged to be a part of.