The Lizard

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By Lizard Point

The Lizard is a peninsula in south-western Cornwall, a broad, triangular tongue of land, scoured by the Atlantic winds and fringed with storm-battered rocks. It extends into the sea where the English Channel gives way to the Atlantic Ocean and ends at Lizard Point. The most southerly point of the mainland of Great Britain is near Lizard Point at SW701115.

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

The peninsula measures approximately 14 miles by 14 miles. It is juts into the Channel southwest of Falmouth and ten miles east of Penzance.

The name "Lizard" is most probably a corruption of the Cornish name "Lys Ardh", meaning "high court";[1] it is purely coincidental that much of the peninsula is composed of a rock called serpentine (serpentinite). Modern, reconstructed Cornish names the peninsula An Lysardh.

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 Royal National Lifeboat Institution operates The Lizard lifeboat station.

Lizard Point

Lizard Point

Lizard Point is at the southern tip of the Lizard. Lizard Village stand half a mile from it. It is the most southerly point on mainland Great Britain at 49°57'30"N. With the exception of parts of the Isles of Scilly, it is the southernmost part of the United Kingdom.

Lizard Point is for many ships the starting point of their ocean passage and a notorious shipping hazard. The Lizard lighthouse stands at Lizard Point.

This landscape is noted for its rich wildlife and geological interest.[2]

The rock of the Lizard is known as serpentine, which may be polished to a bright sheen, and Lizard Village is not short of shops to sell carved serpentine ware[3] which items range from ornaments to the pump handles in the local public house; the Lizard Inn.

The first sighting of the Spanish Armada on mainland Britain was off Lizard Point at 3 pm on 29 July 1588.[4][5] This was one of the greatest invasion fleets in history and consisted of 120 ships armed with over 1,000 cannon and with 29,000 men aboard. It was scattered and sunk by storm and by dauntless English sailors.

Lifeboat service

The Royal National Lifeboat Institution operates The Lizard lifeboat station at Kilcobben Cove,[6][7] two miles north-east of Lizard Point. A Tyne class lifeboat is housed in a large boathouse at the base of the cliff. The station has a funicular line to transport lifeboat crews from the boathouse to the clifftop station car park.

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 a strong gale and dense fog RNLI lifeboat volunteers rescued 456 passengers, including seventy babies. Crews from the Lizard, Cadgwith, Coverack and Porthleven rowed out repeatedly for sixteen hours to rescue all of the people on board. Six silver RNLI medals were later awarded, two to Suevic crew members.[8]



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). Helston 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.[9]

By the 14th century, a hamlet of fishermen's dwellings had established itself around the cove at Porthleven (a name from the Cornish "harbour by level or smooth ground"). It grew with miners and farm workers 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.

In the 1497 Cornish rebellion began in St Keverne. The village blacksmith Michael Joseph, known as Michael An Gof (Cornish for “the blacksmith”) led the uprising, protesting against the punitive taxes levied by King 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.

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 bus 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.


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.

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

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: one and a half square miles 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 voyage 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 ton passenger liner, also hit the Manacles in 1898 with the loss of 106 lives.[10]
  • 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 ton liner SS Suevic hit the Maenheere Reef near Lizard Point. 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.[11]

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 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 gliding club 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 training 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 parishes on the peninsula are (west to east):


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 Britain 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 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, Marconi sent a radio communication across the Atlantic Ocean to St John's, Newfoundland.

A radar station called RAF Drytree was built during Second World War. 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 stands near to the Goonhilly station site.


Sketchmap of The Lizard geology

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.[12]


Several nature sites exist on the Lizard Peninsula; Predannack nature reserve, Mullion Island, Goonhilly Downs, and the Cornish Seal Sanctuary at Gweek. A large area of the Lizard is designated a National Nature Reserve because of its coastal grasslands and heaths and inland heaths.[13] 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.[14][15]

The area is also home to one of England's rarest breeding birds, the Corning chough. The distinctive, red-beaked and footed chough is a symbol of Cornwall but died out in the county and has had to be reintroduced. Chough began breeding on Lizard in 2002 following a concerted effort by the Cornish Chough Project in conjunction with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 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. 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

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.

Outside links


  1. Mills, A. D.. The Popular Dictionary of English Place-Names. Parragon Book Service Ltd & Magpie Books. pp. 213. ISBN 0-7525-1851-8. 
  2. "Caerthillian to Kennack". Natural England. 1993. Retrieved 18 November 2011. 
  3. Dickens, Charles (9). "Cornish Stone". Household Words: A Weekly Journal 10 (233): 96. 
  4. Lovett, A. W. (1986). Early Habsburg Spain, 1517-1598. Oxford University Press. p. 184. ISBN 978-0-19-822139-5. 
  5. Fry, Plantagenet Somerset (1990). The Kings & Queens of England & Scotland. Grove Press. p. 108. ISBN 978-0-8021-1386-3. 
  6. "Lifeboat Station : The Lizard". Royal National Lifeboat Institution. Retrieved 4 December 2011. 
  7. "The story of our station". The Lizard Lifeboat. Retrieved 4 December 2011. 
  8. Biggest RNLI rescue is remembered, BBC News Online, 11 March 2007, 
  9. Thorn, Caroline et al. (eds.) Cornwall. Chichester: Phillimore; entry 1,1
  10. "Lizard Peninsula: Coverack and Area". Cornwall on line. Retrieved 11 March 2010. 
  11. BBC news - Biggest RNLI rescue is remembered
  12. Kirby, G. A. (1979). "The Lizard Complex as an ophiolite". Nature, London, 282, pp. 58-61.
  13. "The Lizard NNR". Natural England. Retrieved 31 January 2010. 
  14. "East Lizard Heathlands". Natural England. 1995. Retrieved 31 October 2011. 
  15. "West Lizard". Natural England. 1995. Retrieved 31 October 2011. 
  • Meneage and Lizard Oral History Group (ed.) (1980) Traditional Life in the Far South West. (40 pp.) [N. pl.]: the Group