Trewint - Where Time Stands Still

Dr Herbert McGonigle, Chairman of the Wesley Fellowship, writes about a visit to the Isbell cottage in Trewint, Cornwall.

About eight miles south-west of Launceston in Cornwall lies the parish of Altarnun and its hamlet, Trewint. The busy A30 cuts through the parish and if you don’t know where to look, you will miss the hamlet altogether. And that would be a pity for in that hamlet there is a stone-built cottage rich in spiritual history and Methodist lore. Recently my wife, Jeanne, and I made another visit to that lovely spot. The shadows were beginning to be noticeably longer as we drove off the A30 and soon we were on what remains of the old mid-eighteenth century turnpike road that ran from London to Penzance. The mail coaches used to come this way and for many a year they would have rattled past just a few feet away from the cottage we had come to see.

And there it was - Digory Isbell’s cottage, quiet and unpretentious, as the long pink fingers of a fading sun threw shafts of light on its roof and walls. It’s not for nothing that Cornish folk are known for their hospitality and we were warmly welcomed by Mrs Joyce Pooley, the warden of this very special place. We passed through the narrow hallway and stood in the small room, so full of history and memories of the men and women of faith who had made that little cottage a true Bethel - a house of God. We looked around the room with its simple furniture, then upstairs to look again at the collection of Methodist books and pottery. Knowing the story, it was easy to imagine how it all began, two hundred and fifty-six years ago. It happened like this....
In the late evening of August 29th 1743, two of John Wesley’s preachers, John Nelson and John Downes, found themselves in Trewint, on their way into Cornwall to prepare for Wesley who was following behind them. Finding that the village had no inn, Nelson suggested they should knock at the door of the cottage with ‘the stone porch.’ The woman of the house answered the door and, on hearing their request, offered them bread, butter and milk and hay for the horse. The woman was Elizabeth Isbell, who with her husband, Digory, a stone-mason, had lived in the cottage since their marriage four years earlier. When the two preachers had rested they insisted on paying their hostess a shilling in spite of her protests. Later, when Digory returned, Elizabeth told him of the two travellers she had entertained but that was not all. ‘Before they left,’ she told him excitedly, ‘they prayed - without a book’! What a scene and how easy to imagine! Here were two of Wesley’s most trusted itinerant preachers, John Nelson, formerly, like Isbell, a stone-mason, and John Downes, something of a self-taught mathematician and philosopher. They had only one horse between them as they travelled into Cornwall, and they took turns at riding while the other walked behind. Now, having been warmly welcomed in this humble cottage, it was unthinkable they would leave without praying for God’s blessing on the home. Both Digory and Elizabeth were devout Church people and were familiar with the prayers of the Prayer Book but these two strangers prayed, Elizabeth reported, without a book! They had prayed from the heart in a way that was common among the early Methodists and it made a lasting impression on Elizabeth Isbell.

Some weeks later John Nelson returned to Trewint and when he knocked at the cottage, Elizabeth welcomed him: ‘The Lord bless you, come in.’ Later, after supper, Nelson and both his hosts sang a hymn together and the preacher gave them an exhortation from Scripture. Early the next morning Digory Isbell invited his neighbours to hear Nelson preach and, in his words, ‘about three hundred heard the word with joy.’ That was the first Methodist service conducted in the cottage but it would not be the last. The word preached by Nelson was made a blessing to many and, as he recorded in his Journal, ‘the man and his wife who had received us received the Lord who sent us.’
Seven months later the Isbells welcomed another visitor into their cottage, another Methodist preacher, John Wesley himself! The hills were covered with snow that April day and, in Wesley’s words, ‘wet and weary enough, having been battered by rain and hail for some hours,’ he arrived at Trewint at two in the afternoon. It is easy to imagine the warm reception he was given by the couple still rejoicing in their new-found faith. How privileged they felt to welcome the celebrated preacher into their home. Digory must have known that Wesley was coming that way and invited his neighbours, for at seven in the evening Wesley preached ‘to many more than the house would contain.’ The next morning Digory piloted Wesley across the wildness of Bodmin Moor where driving hail accompanied him for seven miles as he made his way to Gwennap.

Two weeks later, leaving Cornwall, Wesley preached again at the Isbell’s cottage, at five in the morning! But this was to be a very special day in the Isbell home and one they would never forget. Their third child, Hannah, had been born and this was the day of her baptism. By a remarkable turn of events, four ministers were present for the ceremony; John Wesley, George Whitefield, George Thompson, vicar of St Genny’s and John Bennet, the evangelical incumbent of the near-by parish of Laneast. Wesley officiated and many years later Hannah’s older sister recalled how the ministers prayed for ‘parents and child with great importunity and God heard them.’ What a remarkable providence had brought England’s two great evangelists to this humble cottage, and, their doctrinal differences forgotten for a while , they joined with the two local clergymen to baptise baby Hannah. We can surely guess how often that unforgettable day was recalled over and over again and how Hannah would have grown up with the story of how she was baptised by John Wesley with George Whitefield sharing in the service! As far as we know from the history of Methodism this was the only occasion when Wesley and Whitefield shared in a baptism service.

By now Digory and his wife Elizabeth were fervent Methodists, though like most Methodists of the time, were also faithful members of their local parish church. It was Methodist preaching that brought them to personal faith in Christ and their home was not only blessed with salvation but often they had the honour of giving hospitality to passing Methodist preachers. One day while reading his Bible Digory came to the story in 2 Kings of how the woman in Shunem entertained the prophet Elisha and later furnished a room for ‘ the man of God.’ Digory felt moved by the story and said to Elizabeth: ‘We have the servants of God in this home, and I can build. Why don’t we build a room for the preachers.’ And so the enterprise was no sooner thought of than it was begun. Digory set to and built a narrow, covered sleeve passage along the side of the cottage. Then he added two rooms, one above the other and each about ten feet square. The lower room had a large hearth to provide heat while the upper room was furnished with a bed, a table and a stool. A prophet’s chamber indeed!

John Wesley made six visits in all to the Isbell cottage. During a visit there in July 1745 he rejoiced at how the work of God was increasing in that part of Cornwall, ‘among young and old, rich and poor, from Trewint quite to the sea-side.’ Two years later, late in July 1747, he was back in Trewint and preached from a favourite text; ‘Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem....’ ( Matt. 2:1). Fifteen years later, in September 1762, he made his last preaching visit to Trewint In the years between John Wesley’s visits and in the years after, many of his preachers came there to preach and rest in the ‘preachers rooms.’ Among them was good old John Nelson under whose preaching the Isbells’ hearts had been opened and his visit there was the beginning of this moving story. The cottage became a centre for the Methodist work in that part of Cornwall. Four years after Wesley’s last visit the Isbell home was visited with great sadness when Hannah, the daughter baptised by Wesley twenty four years earlier, died of small-pox, ‘witnessing to the last a good confession.’ Her father outlived her by another twenty-seven years, and died, strong in the faith of Jesus Christ and repeating words written by Charles Wesley:

Ah! why did I so late Thee know
Thee, lovelier than the sons of men?...

Nine years later Elizabeth followed Digory to glory, in her 87th year. A slab over their grave in Altarnun churchyard gives the dates of their decease and then adds: ‘They were the first who entertained the Methodist Preachers in this County, and Lived and died in that connection, but Strictly adhered to the duties of the Established Church. Reader, may thy end be like theirs.’ Although not strictly accurate for Charles Wesley had been entertained at St Ives two months before Nelson and Downes arrived in Trewint, nevertheless the Isbell cottage has been part of Methodist history in Cornwall since both the Wesley brothers crossed the river Tamar for the first time in 1743.

Today the cottage and its surroundings stand much as Nelson and Wesley and Whitefield and other Methodist preachers viewed them long, long ago. There are cars, and TV aerials and some newer houses, but in a remarkable way Trewint is a kind of time capsule from the 18th century. Across from the door of the cottage is the ‘Pilgrim’s Garden,’ laid out as a place to stop and rest and remember. In the middle of the garden stands a sundial, a replica of the sundial at John Nelson’s house in Birstall in Yorkshire, a reminder that Nelson was the first of many Methodist preachers who proclaimed the Good News on Digory Isbell’s door-step.

Trewint is not Jerusalem, or Antioch, or Canterbury or Geneva, and most Church historians make no mention of it. But Church history was made here for in this cottage and around its stone porch the gospel was preached, lives were transformed, a Methodist Society was begun, and generation after generation people who know the story have come here to mediate and remember and thank God for all that Trewint stands for. How often these old walls resounded to Methodist preaching and even louder Methodist singing! Here good men and women of God met to encourage one another on the way to heaven and the ‘prophet’s chamber’ gave homely comforts to scores of weary preachers....

But our visit was at an end and it was time to go. We prayed there, as we have done on every visit, and felt that blessed communion with the saints who’ve gone before. The shadows were long and darkening over the cottage as we turned the car where John Nelson and John Wesley and so many others rode their horses on the old turnpike road. We left the Isbell’s cottage in its quiet, rural setting, thanking God for the story it has to tell. This is indeed Trewint - where time stands still.

Revd Dr Herbert McGonigle
Principal and Senior Lecturer in Historical Theology and Wesley Studies
Nazarene Theological College



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Further links:

John Wesley in Cornwall
Wesley Cottage - Trewint
Wesley Cottage Online