Driving the Cornish coast along what is romantically known as the Atlantic Highway takes you down a road that rolls through a stunning landscape. The high tors of the moorland rise up on one side and the fields drop away to the wide sweep of the sea on the other. There beautiful coves and safe harbours nestle in deep rocky valleys beneath the wave battered cliffs. Even the church towers seem lower here as if trying to escape the rough Atlantic winds. This is Cornwall’s wild north coast and myths and legends abound.
There have been many kings of Cornwall. All of them have vanished into a cloudy mist of Cornish mizzle, their names just vague myth-like mentions in the written history of a much greater kingdom. There was Donault, Erbin, Geraint, Salomon, Dungarth, Ricatus, Huwal. The most famous, King Arthur and King Mark, have strangely regular names in comparison to their ancestors.
Recently however I learnt of another Cornish king, perhaps not quite so grand. His is a story of bravery and valour but most of all I thought it might amuse. The source of the tale is a spinster diarist living in the small coastal village of Boscastle. Miss Ellen Brown kept a record of the comings and goings, the tea parties and funeral services, the births, drownings and disasters and enjoyed a good shipwreck or fractious lawsuit. Hers is a small glimpse into life in the area around her home in the late 19th century.
One entry in June 1883 recounts a local legend about Long Island. This large steep-sided rocky island is about a mile south down the coast from Boscastle near to the isolated hamlet of Trevalga.
“A few sheep graze [on Long Island] during the summer, on one occasion an old farmer had taken his sheep there and on attempting to return [to the mainland] found the tide too high and was obliged to remain all night clinging on with his hands, there being small foot-hold. A neighbour hearing his perilous condition took his fiddle and standing on the nearest cliff played to him the whole night through to keep him awake, lest sleeping he should lose his hold and falling into the sea be drowned.”
Ever after, according to Miss Brown, the old man was known as ‘King of the Island’ but I think it should have been his loyal fiddle-playing friend who was called a king. After all you have to wonder at the old farmer’s choice of location for his flock. Long Island is a palace for birds, it is a seagull skyscraper, it seems an unlikely spot for grazing! And what coastal man fails to keep an eye on the rising tide?
A walk along the coast here is very beautiful though and well worth it if only to watch the birds swoop and dive from the precipitous heights of Long Island and while you are there you can wonder at how the king came by his name.
Beneath aged yew trees, close to the church tower door, a grey gravestone stands. It leans a little but perhaps not so much as it should, all things considered.
The slate is splattered with bright splashes of silver coloured lichen. The stone seems flat grey in bright sunlight but step into the shade and lightly etched words appear. Though their edges blur these days fingertips can trace their outlines more easily than eyes can find them. The meaning of the words however is as sharp and clear cut as they were ever meant to be on the day that they were carved.
departed this life
12th July 1768
“Farewell vain world I’ve had enough of thee
Now am Careless what thou sayest of me
Thy smiles I Court not
Nor thy frowns I fear
My cares are Past
My head lies quiet Here.”
I have tried in vain to find some details to fill out that wispy insubstantial image of a man that I imagine when I pass his resting place. When I say wispy however don’t mistake that I think he was in any way hollow, anyone who chooses to have such an inscription as their last word on life is no shrinking violet. It is just that for someone who loves research and prides herself on finding things out (the obscurer the better) Mr Tresidder has left me very little to go on. The words on his grave speak to me of courage and defiance. He has defied all my attempts to find out who he was.
The author and the original source of the words is lost also, but for a period of time in the 18th and 19th centuries they could be found on the many and various headstones of the dearly departed; from widows and wealthy earls to suicide victims and lost causes. Whether it was a poem written in grief or despair, or perhaps one written in scorn, it doesn’t matter, even two and a half centuries later I think the words speak to our nature and to our own fears.
So maybe it doesn’t matter that I can’t pin down who William Tresidder was, his last words still echo through my life without the man to attribute them too. And for someone who is trying to learn to be a writer it goes to illustrate the power of the written word even nearly 300 years later.
I have a glass bead which is very precious and somewhat magical to me, not only because it reminds me of camping holidays on the beautiful Isles of Scilly, a small archipelago of islands just off the coast of Cornwall, but because it is my very own shipwreck treasure.
In the 17th century a Dutch ship of unknown name went down off the coast of St Agnes, the southernmost populated of the islands. It’s cargo was strewn across the ocean floor and this included thousands of glass beads which soon began to wash up on beach on St Agnes. That beach became known as Beady Pool and that is where I found my little glass treasure.
Around the Cornish coast it is estimated that there have been more than 6000 shipwrecks in the last roughly 800 years, that is more than any other part of the British Isles. And with a wreck there is always wreckage. There are many tales of Cornish wreckers, most of them exaggerated for dramatic effect and to sell newspapers and books but no Cornishman would ever deny that we didn’t take advantage of what might have washed our way or bobbed up on a beach.
Unsatisfactorily most of what bobs up these days is the smelly and often poisonous flotsam of our over-populated world (see thousands of pink bottles, winter 2016) but there are a few beautiful, amusing and just plain odd exceptions to this. Recent times have seen parts of space rockets and bucket loads of Lego bricks wash up on our beaches, bringing new meaning to ‘lets build a sandcastle’. Daily there are finds of the magical creatures that can be found in the waters around our coast and many far-flung visitors too, including jellyfish, whales and the odd Amazonian coconut. These finds are great for a picture on Instagram but in the past the value of salvage meant so much
more. Many people forget that Cornwall, for all its advantages of climate, way of life and natural scenery, is one of the poorest areas in Europe. Historically there have been times of great deprivation and hardship and people saw shipwrecks, rightly or wrongly, as a gift from God. It brought them free cargo that they could trade, sell or make use of. A wreck was a spectacle too and often hundreds of people would turn out to watch the impending disaster. Many of course did risk and loose their lives trying to save the unfortunate crew and passengers, a fact the wreaker-tale-tellers often forget to mention.
When the SS Minnehaha ended up on rocks on the Isles of Scilly in 1910 she became the focus of great attention. Boats even made the crossing from the Cornish mainland to ‘take a look’. The ship was carrying a rag-tag cargo of everything from motor parts and tobacco to typewriters and lead pencils. Much of it was ‘saved’ including a large quantity of Paris millinery. After the wreck the Scillonian ladies were often to be seen sporting fabulous headwear, when asked ‘where did you get that hat?’ they would simple wink and reply ‘Haha’. The New York Times, where the ship had been bound, reported that “the islanders will remember this as the greatest day in their history”. There have been similar wrecks on the Scillies in my lifetime, after the container ship Citacame to grief in 1997 everyone could be seen sporting Nike trainers.
Wrecks brought the new and exotic too, after a ship broke up off the Lizard peninsula in the 19th century thousands of oranges came ashore at Nanjizal cove and people came from miles around to harvest the strange crop. New tastes were also acquired as Mrs Bonham reported in 1896:
“The tea-wreck, in particular, was a wonderful piece of good fortune for the folks, very few of whom could ever indulge in such an expensive luxury. There was also the coffee-wreck, when many tasted that stimulant for the first time.”
Not all was gentle sport though when in 1818 the Brig Victoria got into trouble with a cargo of wine on board the Yeomanry guard had to be called when hundreds of looters tried to swarm the ship and the Riot Act had to be read after theLe Landois also carrying wine and brandy was besieged by a ″drunken mob of over 4,000 people″ at Whitesand Bay near Gribba Point. Apologies, sometimes we Cornish can be a right disorderly lot.
Recently I have been thinking about our ‘connection to place’. That undefinable feeling of belonging to somewhere. A special bond that never leaves you, even after years of absence. Somewhere you feel joined to. It won’t surprise you that I feel like that about Cornwall and more than that, the family farm where not only I but generations of my family grew up.
I realise however that not everyone feels like that about a place which is after all just dirt and stone. Isn’t family all you need to feel ‘at home’? Yet so many people have said that there is one place where their heart belongs and where I wonder where does that feeling come from? Is it the memories of a happy childhood that creates that bond or sense of belonging? Is it something in your bones, your genetic make-up? Your DNA? Back in the 18th and 19th centuries immigrants to the new countries being colonised around the globe took not only their languages and luggage with them, they took a little bit of home in their hearts too. That is why there is for example a Falmouth in 5 US states as well as Canada, Tasmania, Zimbabwe and Jamaica.
It is possible to develop that feeling though? Can you feel connected to somewhere you only know briefly or is it purely dictated by your roots, your history? I have left my family home on many occasions for long periods of time, sometimes years but on returning i
t was never landing in Heathrow airport that was important to me, it was crossing the Tamar river. I still get that same joyous feeling of relief every time I do it.
But some people do loose their homes and homelands forever. You would think in this, the most globalised period of our human history, that it wouldn’t matter quite as much but to many a forced separation can be very painful.
There is a Welsh word, hiraeth, which means a homesickness for somewhere to which you can never return, grief for a lost place.
The history of the village of Tyneham illustrates the effect a permanent and forced parting or dislocation of people for their home can have. Just before Christmas in 1943 the villagers were given an order to leave their homes. They were assured that this would be temporary while the MOD used the area for training. The villagers left believing that they were making an essential contribution to the war effort and that they would one day return.
Evelyn Bond, one of the older residents, even pinned a note to the church door asking that the village be treated “with care” as she added “we shall one day return”.
They were never allowed back. Many died in what they felt was a kind of exile. In 1974 John Gould, who had been born in the village, wrote to Harold Wilson. Despite having lived away from Tyneham for more than 30 years he begged the then Prime Minister to allowed him to return or at least to be buried there when his time came.
Gould said “I have always wanted to return . . . Tyneham to me is the most beautiful place in the world . . . most of all I want to go home”.
Part of Gould’s plea was that all his memories were there and all his friends and relations were buried in the churchyard. Something hard to describe was pulling on him to return, and not just to the bricks and mortar of his childhood home but to the earth of the place.
Another group of dispossessed people are the Chagossians who were forced to leave Diego Garcia when the British took over the island in 1967. Some 48 years later they are still fighting to return to what they call “our motherland”. They even have a special world to describe the pain they feel from this separation. They call it “sagren”, the feeling of deep sorrow caused by being apart from their home.
Many languages have a word which goes some way towards describing that feeling. “Querencia” is a word originating in Spanish, it means a place from which one draws one’s strength and a place where you are your most authentic self.
The Cornish word “hireth” is closely connected to the Welsh but somehow deeper, it is something in your bones, a longing, a yearning for something lost. On a personal level my family have lived in this same house for generations and perhaps that is the source of the connection I feel to it. The hopes, dreams, tears and happiness of my genetic history are imbedded in the dirt and granite walls. The fields hum with my father’s, grandfathers and great-grandfather’s sweat. My great-great-grandfather looked out on the same view as I do now writing this and we remember him fondly for installing the inside toilet! Their processions and their stories surround me.
So what are the magical ingredients that combine to produce that wonderful sense of belonging? Is it just a bundle of happy childhood memories perhaps with a large splash of collective history thrown in? The dictionary describes ‘belonging’ as “to be connected with, native to or resident of” and perhaps it is that simple, feeling completely at home because it is the place that you know best. The place that you were conceived, born and raised.
Beneath the long barn in the farm yard there is our dark and dirty tool shed. It is full of the “what ifs” and “it might come in handy one days” of farming. On the back of the door there hangs an overcoat. Once pale green, or perhaps always light brown, it has been there for all of my life. It has never moved, the sagging shoulders have a thick layer of dark dust settled on them as do the drapes of the material and the top edges of the pockets.
Perhaps it was hung there after getting wet in a sudden shower or because the day turned out to be too hot for an overcoat. Perhaps it was always a little too small or just never quite comfortable, whatever the reason that coat was hung on the hook on the back of that door and it has never been moved since. The years, decades have swung by and there it has hung, summer and winter, my grandfather’s old overcoat. It, like so much that surrounds me, is a constant and there is a profound comfort in that. My life is built on and around the lives of my ancestors. In some cases it is as if they just hung up their coat and stepped outside for a moment.
“A sense of place results gradually and unconsciously from inhabiting landscape over time, becoming familiar with its physical properties, accruing history within its confines”.
It has been said by psychologists that a special bond develops between a child and their childhood environment, that this “childhood landscape” forms part of a person’s identity. That the place is part of you and you are a part of it.
Recent years have not only seen unprecedented voluntary movements of people around our planet but also mass migration due to economic deprivation and the escalation of violent conflicts. I wonder if the word “home” will take on more or less significance for those displaced people.
I am a great believer in seeing the beauty in the small things in life, I don’t need the fancy stuff, the lavish meals and five star hotels. A bowl of chips and a tent in a field will do me just fine (so long as there’s mayo and a blow-up mattress).
Lately I have become a little obsessed with the pieces of sea worn glass that you find dotted along the beaches in Cornwall. It must be the child in me but when ever I pick them up I feel as if I have made some magical discovery. Still I have always been the same, I think from childhood I have wanted to be a discoverer.
I have spent hours walking up and down ploughed fields with a metal detector and the oldest thing I ever found were some barely recognisable coins that Truro museum very indulgently identified for me as being a couple of hundred years old and pretty much worthless. (I should admit that I was a grown woman at this point not a child)
I visited numerous ruins left behind by civilisations across the globe, from the Romans to the Mayans, Hittites and many more. At every site especially the more obscure and overgrown ones I have kept my eyes peeled for that bit of history that the excavators somehow might have missed. I have never found a thing(surprise surprise). When I was in Egypt we hired bicycles to tour the tombs in the valley of the kings. I saw a couple of the ancient sites and then went off on my own and spent hours looking for fossils of seashells in the sweltering heat of bare rocky hillsides. I did find quite a few and now keep them in a small wooden box which is full of other random bits and pieces. I call it my memory box.
So when that seaglass glints up at me from the damp sand somehow I feel as if I have discovered uncut diamonds. As I said in the beginning its the little things that make our lives shine and we should take trouble to look and find them. We should never stop searching for little bits of treasure to add to our memory boxes.
Living beside the sea means you have a long-term relationship with a wild, wonderful and mysterious entity.
You can never be sure what she will do next. As the recent Storm Imogen has proved you can never trust her and you must expect surprises, the occasional wet foot and salt-misted glasses.
I grew up fearing the open water more than loving it. Despite the obvious stereotype being Cornish doesn’t mean that you are born with gills and a surfboard under your arm.
I do love her though and I treat her with a respect I feel she deserves.
There is something restorative about being near the water. The Victorians agreed, they thought that the sea air and salt water was the cure for just about every ill and in the 19th century Penzance became the destination of choice of the discerning invalid. Consequently the town has a very large graveyard.
There is some truth in this idea though, I often find myself drawn to the seashore whether it is to walk, sit in the car on a rough day and watch the waves pound in or just to sit in the sand and read. Always expect the unexpected and watch out for the rogue wave, those ones that leap up and soak you on an apparently calm day.
The coast of Cornwall is a shipping graveyard, literally thousands of vessels have come to grief on these shores. Their remains lie on the seabed out of sight for everyone apart from the seals and the odd diver (and believe I am not getting in a wetsuit, let alone going under water!).
For us land lubbers however there has magically appeared and handy land based alternative. Recent rough seas have revealed the remains of the Jeune Hortense, a French ship that got into trouble in Mount’s Bay in May 1888. She ran aground while trying to return home to Cornwall the body of a Fowey man who had died on France. The four crew were rescued as were the cargo of 400 rather anxious damp cattle but the ship could not be saved. She slowly broke up and disappeared beneath the sands. That is until a recent reappearance. The remains have been revealed to the south of the horseshoe-shaped bay and lie in the sand like the skeletal remains of some ancient mythical beast.
It is a magical and rather disquieting quality that the sea possesses that allows it to make whole beaches come and go at will, often overnight ( just ask Porthleven) so really it was nothing to make a wooden wreck appear to rise from the sandy seabed in January.
It does however fascinate me. The wood is smooth as silk and now feels like iron. The scene is sad and yet majestic somehow. The wreck lies along way from the usual tourist trail across the bay to the famous mount. You feel, and usually are, alone.
After 130 years this ship can still turn heads and excite the imagination.
Our mistress the sea gives us so many gifts, not just the pleasures of using her waters and the larder of creatures that have been the saviour and mainstay of this county throughout history but actual presents. Treasures from the deep so to speak.
But more of that another time and please bear in mind one woman’s treasure is most certainly another’s junk!
My mother is always reminding me that lichen is a sign of clean air. So now every time I see a tree or boulder which is green with the bushy little parasite her words come back to me. I stick out my chin and take in a deep lung full of the good stuff.
Towards the further most tip of Butney Bank, where on a cold winter’s day the thick fonds of the ferns are the colour of orchre, there is an ancient oak tree. Continue reading →