Does it look Roman to you? A place where the legions gathered to watch gruesome entertainments? Think again. It’s the brainchild of one remarkable, 20th-century woman—Rowena Cade.
Born in 1893 Rowena was the second child of a Derbyshire mill-owner. Her great, great grandfather, Joseph Wright painted haunting images of 17th-century life. I guess the artistic streak ran in the family. It certainly surfaced in Rowena.
After the First World War, Rowena and her widowed mother moved to Cornwall, and Rowena discovered a love of costume designing for the local amateur dramatics. When she produced A Midsummer Night’s Dream the action took place in a local meadow.
Her next play was Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Rowena decided Cornwall’s cliffs would make an amazing backdrop. She looked across at Minack gully above Minack Rock and wondered if she could make a stage there.
The answer was yes.
For six months, Rowena and two Cornish craftsmen struggled to carve a stage and some seating from the rocks. It would have been hard work anytime, but working on an exposed cliff in the depths of a Cornish winter took guts and determination.
I couldn’t resist standing on one of the balconies and declaiming Juliet’s famous speech “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo.”
My husband laughed. I guess I wasn’t cut out to be an actress.
As Minack Theater’s fame spread, Rowena realized she’d have to separate the theater from her garden. She helped build the walls surrounding the place, just as she’d helped build the seats and balconies spread out below.
Imagine how devastated she must have been when World War Two saw the place fall into ruins.
This gusty woman dusted off her overalls and rebuilt. One of Minack’s joys are the Celtic designs that Rowena drew in the concrete before it set. Another is the names and the dates of the shows carved into the front rows of seats.
In 1976, Rowena gave the theater to the charitable trust that runs the place now.
During my visit, I enjoyed a late lunch in the tearooms. One of the waitresses told me she worked in the best place in the world. “Where else can you look out the window and watch a basking shark while you’re working?”
In 1993, the trust started to landscape the Cliffside gardens. Here’s what BBC Garden’s Illustrated Magazine said about the result. “Niall & Jill Milligan have created a pioneering garden worth of Rowena Cade’s own imaginative leap: a feast of succulents, cacti and other drought tolerant species, interspersed with vivid blasts of bulbs and herbaceous perennials.”
Perhaps the waitress was right. It is one of the most beautiful places on earth. On a sunny, spring day, I certainly thought so.