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Gifted author and Bard was personification of Cornwall

By This is Cornwall  |  Posted: May 06, 2010

Joan Rendell

Joan Rendell

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The last time I spoke to Joan Rendell, she was in a state of excited glee about the chance discovery of a rare fossil.

With characteristic enthusiasm, this great lady of Cornwall cupped the polished object in her hands as if it was the most precious treasure on earth. "It is one of my most prized possessions and it really makes my heart sing every time I look at it," she said.

Joan had spotted the shiny black stone while walking along a beach, describing the flint echinoid that washed up at her feet as "heaven-sent".

"It is so perfect, not a chip or a scratch on it," she beamed. "It is worth more to me than any diamond."

This passion for what others might consider prosaic was typical of Joan; she was interested in everything and invariably knew more than most about her chosen subjects. From matchbox labels to churches, country crafts to the paranormal, Cornish history to corn dollies, her particular expertise was hard to categorise, and her most ardent interest almost impossible to pinpoint.

However, if pressed, she might say that the greatest love of her life was "home". Home to Joan might mean the small and unremarkable bungalow at Tremarsh, near Yeolmbridge, which she occupied for some 70 years. Home might also mean Werrington parish, north of Launceston, which she served as clerk for some 65 years. Or home could be Cornwall as a whole, the land of her birth which she studied and wrote about throughout her long life.

Born in Launceston, Joan Rendell was Cornish through and through, the daughter of a St Austell father and a Helston mother. Her father worked for the Admiralty and much of Joan's early childhood was spent travelling. When war broke out in 1939, the family were living in London and, like others, decided to evacuate to the country. Inevitably, they sought a refuge back "home" in Cornwall, buying the bungalow that was to be Joan's base for the rest of her days.

"We were lucky to find it really, because everyone was looking for a place just then," she recalled. "My parents always meant to find somewhere bigger, but we never did. They eventually retired here and it has always been my home."

A clutter of memories, the property enjoyed only basic amenities and no hot water. On every wall and shelf, old china and framed photographs of her beloved Labrador competed for space with piles of books, newspapers, manuscripts in progress and some of her 200,000 matchboxes — one of the largest collections in the world. This was Joan's living space and working space, where her 30 books and countless newspaper articles were crafted.

An early ambition to become a painter was soon abandoned when she discovered she could write in a style that made people want to listen. The first article she wrote, about decorative tiles, was published in the Western Morning News — and she never looked back, making a modest living from her pen for seven decades.

Rising before six each morning and not going to bed before midnight, Joan became a prolific scribe, producing a range of non-fiction titles.

Joan's attention to detail, coupled with an easy style, endeared her to readers, and she followed a definitive guide to matchbox collecting with Country Crafts, Cornish Churches, Collecting Natural Objects, Hawker Country, Pressed And Dried Flowers, Lundy Island, Around Bude And Stratton, North Cornwall In The Old Days, Corn Dollies, Gateway To Cornwall, Cornwall Strange But True, and many more.

When not writing, she volunteered for several organisations, including the National Savings movement, for which she was awarded the MBE and Silver Jubilee Medal, Launceston Old Cornwall Society and Werrington Parish Council. Her contribution to Cornwall was recognised in 1980 when she was made a Bard of Gorsedh Kernow, taking the name Scryfer Weryn (Writer of Werrington). She was also well travelled, visiting most of the countries in Europe, as well as North America and Africa.

Fellow Cornish author and Bard Michael Williams said: "In her writing, Joan had the sharp eyes and ears of a detective — there was something of a Miss Marple in her make-up, always unearthing interesting information and unusual facts and figures. Her writing has vitality, oozing colour and personality, while she herself personified Cornwall's distinctive culture. Time spent in Joan's company was never dull or wasted because she invariably had some interesting tale to tell or observation to make."

Never one for domestic duties and happily describing herself as eccentric, Joan drank nothing but cold water, while she existed for much of her life on raw vegetables, including a daily onion. Fiercely individual, passionately Cornish and no slave to conformity, Joan Rendell lived by her own rules, indulging her interests and helping those around her. Now sadly "gone home", she will be missed by all those whose path she crossed and will be remembered by a great many more. Hers was a long and fruitful life, the legacy of which is thankfully preserved in 30 volumes of erudite writing.

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