Here we are on the verge of going to Cornwall. This time tomorrow we shall be stepping onto the platform at Penzance, sniffing the air, looking for our trap and then driving off across the moors to Zennor. Why am I so incredibly and incurably romantic about Cornwall? – Virginia Woolf, 22nd March 1921
Some places get under our skin. They become part of us, not just part of our history but part of our souls too. They influence and inspire us. From Virginia Woolf’s diary entry above it’s clear to see she had a long standing love affair with Cornwall. And throughout her often troubled life she was drawn back time and again to the place where she had been most happy. The place which had cast a spell over her in childhood and where she first began writing stories. The place that eventually became a refuge for her and a balm.
Where it all begins
Adeline Virginia Stephen was born in South Kensington in London in 1882. She was the seventh of eight children. Her family were highly educated, well off and spent every summer in St Ives in Cornwall. From the time Virginia was just a few months old, until her mother’s death when she was 12, the whole household would decamp, escape the constraints of London life and take the train west.
‘In retrospect nothing we had as children made as much difference, was quite so important to us, as our summer in Cornwall.’ – Woolf, A Sketch of the Past, 1940
The family always rented Talland House in St Ives. And this spacious house still exists, though it has now become a bit crowded in by modern development and has been seperated into flats.
Talland House stands on rising ground above Albert Road, high up on the hill overlooking the famous seaside town. In those early days it was an peaceful and idyllic haven.
Virginia’s father, the renowned literary critic and historian, Sir Leslie Stephen described the house was “a pocket paradise with a sheltered cove of sand in easy reach.”
The children spent their days playing in the garden and running wild on the beach. They fished and searching for seashells with salt on their skin. In those days the garden of Talland house was extensive. Full of nocks and hidden corners for imaginative exploring. Terraces, divided by high hedges, led all the way down to the sea.
Virginia later described that time in Cornwall as her ‘most important memory’.
‘Lying half asleep, half awake, in bed in the nursery at St Ives. It is of hearing the waves breaking, one, two, one, two . . . It is of lying and hearing this splash and seeing this light, and feeling, it is almost impossible that I should be here; of feeling the purest ecstasy I can conceive.’
Wherever you are in St Ives the white vertical dash of Godrevy Lighthouse is always on the horizon. This iconic lighthouse became imbedded in Virginia’s mind. An image which she recreated in her contemplative book To The Lighthouse:
“For the great plateful of water was before her; the hoary Lighthouse, distant, austere, in the midst . . .”
Cornwall seeped in to much of her writing. In her diary in 1936, more than 40 years after those childhood summers Virginia, while pondering her passion for writing, wrote:
“I think it’s been absorbing ever since I was a little creature scribbling a story, in the manner of Hawthorne, on the green plush sofa in the drawing room at St. Ives, while the grown-ups dined.”
The End of Summer
Those hazy summers of freedom and sunshine came to an end with the death of Virginia’s mother, Julia Stephens. Julia was a beautiful and loving mother who had been a Pre-Raphaelite model before her marriage to her first husband.
She was just 49 years old when she died from influenza in 1895. Her death was a turning point, a tragic loss, that Virginia would struggle with for the rest of her life. It caused the first of her mental breakdowns at just 12 years old and the Stephens never returned to St Ives as a family again.
Virginia came back to Cornwall many times during her adult life, sometimes as single, independent woman and then later with her husband Leonard. Cornwall features, like a hazy shadow, in several of her books. The county drew her back time and again. An example of this pull can be seen from a letter that her sister Venessa Bell received in December 1909. Without warning or luggage Virginia had taken the 1pm train from Paddington to Cornwall and was writing from The Lelant Hotel (now the Badger Inn). Virginia explained:
“I went for a walk in Regent’s Park yesterday morning and it suddenly struck me how absurd it is was to stay in London with Cornwall going on all the time . . .”
She arrived at Lelant station late on Christmas Eve, without her glasses, chequebook or coat, and made her way up the steep hill to the nearest accomodation. The Badger Inn. But she seems just content to be there.
“I am so drugged with the fresh air that I can’t write, and now my ink fails. As for the beauty of this place, it surpasses every other season. I have the hotel to myself – and get a very nice sitting room for nothing. It is very comfortable and humble, and infinitely better than the Lizard or St Ives.”
The landlords at the time, Thomas and Sarah Dunstan, had no other guests and must have been surprised at their late, unannounced arrival. Lelant is a small village a few miles from St Ives. It overlooks the same sweeping bay she knew from her childhood holidays and the same endless stretch of golden sand that runs for three miles to the Godrevy Lighthouse. Virginia wrote:
“Then there is the lighthouse seen through the steamy glass, and a grey flat where the sea is. There is no moon or stars but the air is soft as down.”
Virginia seems to have spent that impromptu Christmas break in 1909 walking alone in the Cornish countryside.
“After dinner is a very pleasant time . . . as one sits by the fire thinking how one staggered up Trencrom in the mist this afternoon, and sat on a granite tomb on the top, and surveyed the land, with the rain dripping against one’s skin . . .”
Trencrom is a hill topped with an Iron Age hillfort close to Lelant with extensive views of both St Ives Bay and Mounts Bay. It is a place full of history and legend and unchanged as it is, it is easy to imagine Virginia sitting there in the rain.
She also wrote to her friend Violet Dickinson on the 27th December:
“I have been tramping about the country, and dabbling in the Atlantic. It is as soft as spring and at ten at night I sit with my window open. Old farmers are saying good night and calling the weather dirty beneath me. How anyone with an immortal soul can live inland I can’t imagine. Only clods and animals should be able to endure it.”
Another return visit was under less free or festive circumstances. Just a year after her spontaneous journey to Lelant Virginia was back in Cornwall. This time staying near the village of Zennor.
She had been finishing her first novel, The Voyage Out, when she suffered a serious mental breakdown. It was so severe that she was taken to ‘Burley’, 15 Cambridge Park, Twickenham. A specialist home for women Virginia was to receive treatment here on three different occasions. In 1910, when she had recovered a little, it was decided that she should go to Cornwall, accompanied by a nurse, to recuperate. Virginia and Ms. Jean Thomas spent nearly a month at Lower Porthmeor, from 16th August until 6th Sept. They occupied their time by taking long, invigorating walks across the moors.
Virginia later wrote of the area:
“This is the loveliest place in the world. It is so lonely.”
From then on she returned to Zennor often. In 1919 with her husband Leonard Woolf, renting the same cottage used by D H Lawrence at Tregethen. And again in 1921 and 1926, sometimes staying the writer’s haunt the Eagles Nest. They also stayed at Carbis Bay in 1914 for a while too. This time Virginia was recovering from a suicide attempt and another of her recurring bouts of depression. Cornwall it seems was always a safe and comforting haven for her.
Her last visit
In May 1936 Virginia and Leonard set out on a road trip of the south west of England. This holiday was to be Virginia’s last visit to Cornwall and the couple again stayed at the Eagles Nest near Zennor.
They took a day trip to St Ives and visited Talland House one final time. Leonard poignantly wrote that “Virginia peered through the ground floor windows to see the ghosts of her childhood.”
She died in 1941.
Tracking Down Virginia
It is relatively easy to see some of the places that Virginia Woolf stayed in Cornwall. You could pop into The Badger Inn in Lelant and have something to eat in the same lounge area that Virginia used. Talland House is within walking distance of St Ives railway station.
* But it is important to remember however that the houses she staying in are privately owned now, so not really tourist attractions!
Both Tregerthen and the Eagles Nest can been seen between Zennor and the Carracks on this scenic circular walk. You can also ‘visit’ Lower Porthmeor, where Virginia stayed with her nurse, on a walk from Rosemergy to Gurnards Head. This route actually passes through the cottage’s garden.