On the cragged edges of an exposed cliff peak sits an agonisingly almost finished odeum, grand in stature and unassuming of nature. The Minack theatre has been a sought after venue for many productions, the unheard of aspire to play there and a venue of choice for more seasoned theatrical productions.
It has a story of success through adversity that would rival many of the great playwrights best efforts, a love story flecked with moments of quiet elation and equal parts bitter loss. The tame crescendo being a marriage of balanced books and powerful lasting memories. A journey covering 80 years of dogged grit and determination, culminating in something truly remarkable with an essence of eternal life.
Rowena Cade was a slight lady with big ideas and a knack for creating something extraordinary from the humblest beginnings. Born in 1893 to a cotton mill owner, she spent her childhood in Devon, a self confessed ‘tom boy’ the outdoors presented the perfect setting for an enigmatic mind. She told a story of climbing through her bedroom window onto waiting tree branches only to fall from top to bottom landing with a thump. Her first taste of theatre came when her mother cast her in a production of “Alice Through The Looking Glass”, it was a resounding success drawing crowds of 27 and 43 across the two performances, though a far cry from the sort of audience sizes she would later attract, it cemented her love of theatre and productions.
The Cade family moved to Cheltenham in 1906 when her father retired, they moved to a small village where James Cade bought a house that was previously owned by the great novelist Sir Walter Scott. It was considered inevitable they would move to there as her fathers brother was Headmaster at the Cheltenham Junior School and her mother was born there. They lived an idilic life, quiet, comfortable, nothing of any significance happened while there. It was the outbreak of war in 1914 that shattered life as they knew it, like many others the family was cruelly splintered. Rowena worked at the Sir John Gilbey estate as a selector and breaker of horses destined for the front line in France and Belgium. Her father went off to fight alongside his brothers in arms, sadly he didn’t return. The Cade family were left in mourning and missing its patriarch, her mother sold the family home and moved them back down to South West England, with a family line dating back some 300 years it seemed fitting to return. The next few years were fitful and restless, never staying long in any one place, renting all the while.
Whilst living in the village of Lamorna she came across a cliff top section of lower Cornwall, just a stones throw away from Lands end. She paid the relatively grand sum of £100 (around £11,000 in todays money) and she brought Minack Head. Rowena set about the building of a house for them using granite sourced from the local St Leven Quarry, she would later extend the house to accommodate her sisters return from Australia.
She joined a drama group, entertainment that far down south was mostly ‘homemade’ and they put on a production of “A Midsummer Nights Dream”. She didn’t have a speaking part in the play, instead immersing herself with all the important goings on backstage, decorating, sewing costumes, she had a flair for creative crafting. One of the plays faeries recalled a time when Rowena was in a field hurriedly altering costumes with her sewing machine nestled in the grass at the eleventh hour. The play was a success, enough to inspire them into putting on another performance the following year. With a new found confidence they decided on “The Tempest”, but having thoughts that the same venue might not have the same feel for this particular works and other potential venues being potentially too small, Rowena tabled using Minack Head. The serious, dramatic backdrop would be more fitting and space for seating was ample. Everyone agreed and work began creating the first theatre for their play. It took Rowena and the others six months to build their first crude staging, it was lit with car head lights powered by Minack House fed through long wires and whatever batteries they could find. Hurdles clambered over, another successful performance ensued. Rowena and her gardeners, Billy Rawlings and Charles Thomas, set to work building something bigger and more permanent. Rowena became an apprentice and labourer, together they ferried rocks, sand, soil and stone to create a seating area and the stages. Every winter for the next seven years Billy, Charles and Rowena would make progressive changes and touch ups to their ever evolving venue. Rain, wind or snow didn’t hinder the ceaseless growth of the Minack. Years of performances had earned a good reputation as a unique theatrical destination. However, Rowena was to be dealt another blow as war had broken out again. She took on the role of billeting officer this time around, consoling children and parents alike as they were moved to relative safety outside of London. The Minack was in a prime location for mounted sea defences in case of German invasion, the land was seized and cordoned off to the public with barbed wire. A pill box was erected and manned constantly, if the opportunity presented itself she would crawl under the barbed wire and tend the grass. At the end of the war a film company wanted to use the sight for a new project they had. They had heard of the Minack prior to war starting and felt it would be perfect for their film “Love Story” with Stewart Grainger and Margaret Lockwood. They were plagued with storms and eventually abandoned the site in favour of a replica studio mock up with less problems to overcome. Prisoners Of War were sent in to dismantle and clear away what was left of the Armies defences. A combination of so many people and forced neglect had rendered the theatre almost unrecognisable, it was likened to its earliest stages of set up. Rowena and Billy were left with a shell and the prospect of starting from the beginning. Tackling it with the dedication and tenacity of sculptors they began the hard process of rejuvenating their labour of love. The reputation was spreading again with more visitors and many groups looking to perform there, it had become something of an iconic location for amateur dramatics societies. With its ever growing crowds Rowena and Billy decided that it was time separate the Minack Garden from the Theatre. A 90 step pathway was constructed that led from the shoreline to the penultimate head, huge granite rocks were hauled to the top throughout the early fifties, finally separating the two parts. Rising costs and dwindling budgets had left Rowena and Billy unable to afford more granite, ever the problem solver Rowena would carry sacks of sand up from the beach at Porthcurno to use in the cement. She had developed a technique of carving intricate patterns into the cement just as it was about to set. This method was applied to shape the many hundreds of seats that adorned the Minack, each had a title from one of that years plays and their respective dates.
Billy died in 1966, Rowena had a single seat with his name carved in by way of a memorial to her visionary assistant. Tom Angrove became her new builders mate, eventually retiring in 1993 some ten years after her passing. He recalled how she would carry bags of sand all day, in all weathers, only residing herself to a car in later life. One story he shared was of 15ft wooden beams salvaged from the shore at Porthcurno, it had washed up from the wreckage of a Spanish Ship. She carried each beam up by hand, again from bottom to top, perhaps attempting to reverse her childhood bedroom escapology attempts. Customs officials came asking after the wood, they approached Rowena and asked if she had seen it. She politely told them that she had and that she had taken it up to the theatre. She invited them to come up and see for themselves. They declined, scoffing that a “frail looking woman” such as herself couldn’t possibly have managed such a feat and they left. Whilst carving the wood for use as a changing room she remarked to Tom “well I didn’t tell them a lie now did I”.
Year on year the Minack was tweaked and changed, with every nail and step placed to better suit its performers and patrons. Her pioneering cement work is still in use today, a testament to her innovative mind. In the later part of her life Rowena brought a cottage and some land around the Minack, this gave the opportunity to build the ticket office and increase the parking again. She died in her mid eighties leaving all that she had created to a trust fund that had been set up for the Minack. She tried in vain to get the National Trust and a London drama school to invest in the Minack, but no one was biting due to the unattractive takings. She did manage to get a short period of help from The National Council of Social Services, but they withdrew support after three years of negative profits. She carved out her final years work on a meagre budget, using her determination and her acute sense of ‘the show must go on’ to continue.
Her work didn’t finish with death either, after she passed sketches and intricate notes were left. Ideas of how to cover the Minack during rain and other inclement weather were left in her stead. As of yet no one has taken up the plans and assert her final designs.
The Trustees took the reigns and built a coffee shop, ticket office and small story board history of this incomparable location. After many years of not making money, Rowena often had to top up the years takings with her own money, the Minack is earning it’s keep, opening up the venue to day time visitors has been a master stroke. With 150,000 visitors each year the venue and its many intricacies are marvelled at by young and old alike. In addition 80,000 people visit each year to watch a play, the backdrop of closing sun and rising moon, coupled with live music and a warm blanket provides a night of entertainment more unique than even its creator could have envisaged. It certainly would have been many a playwrights muse.
The enduring philosophy is to carry on the noble direction Rowena had journeyed, by providing good quality production that is varied and to a high standard. It’s open to anyone who will strive for perfection, whether a small unheard of amateur group or a large theatrical production. Its final goal is to keep the Minack a venue affordable to all, whilst still maintaining the site and improving it year after year.
To have built such a vast, complex structure in an open area of imposing Cornish cliff edge shows a courage of conviction I can only admire, to do it twice after seeing it trampled the first time shows a tenacity and drive that anyone can aspire to. The small, frail lady that built a grandiose, hearty theatre for all to enjoy will forever be cemented into history as a heroic visionary with a back bone of iron and the will to match.