It is romantic to think of a photograph as a snapshot of a world that would otherwise be lost to us. However the Gibson family’s enormous collection of photographs of Cornwall is so much more than a romanticised version of the past. Continue reading
It is romantic to think of a photograph as a snapshot of a world that would otherwise be lost to us. However the Gibson family’s enormous collection of photographs of Cornwall is so much more than a romanticised version of the past. Continue reading
In the back of Joseph Thomas’ book of poems entitled “Randigal Rhymes” you will find, along with a list of Cornish proverbs and charm for toothache, a glossary of Cornish words. The first one that you should look up of course is randigal and you will find that it means “a rigmarole, a nonsensical story”.
Joseph Thomas spent his life listening. He listened to the stories of fishwives and tin-miners, circus performers and princes, old men and school children and what he heard inspired his writing.
Joseph almost certainly didn’t write with any expectation of publication, indeed we can only read his poems now because they were printed by subscription by his friends after his death. My copy of his book was printed in 1895 and is rather battered and bruised but you can find reprints of “Randigal Rhymes and a Glossary of Cornish Words” here.
Joseph Thomas wrote because he loved it and because he seemed to want to record the comedy, beauty and whimsy of his world. Continue reading
Lets face it most of the decisions you make in the pub are at best misguided and at worst dangerous. We have all read or heard about some crazy misadventure and thought to ourselves that decision was definately made after several pints of Spingo!? I have to admit that was my first thought when I read about the voyage of Captain Richard Nicholls and his six crew.
One day in the middle of the winter of 1854 they set sail in their 37ft fishing boat called Mystery. As they left the safety of the small harbour of Newlyn their next stop was to be the coast of Australia. A treacherous journey of roughly 11,000 miles. . . Through some of the world’s roughest seas. . . In a small fishing boat. . . Somebody pass the rum! Continue reading
December is the time of the year when our days are at their shortest and darkest. When it seems that our little world is more night than day. But the Winter Solstice, 21st December, marks the turning of the year – the return of the sun! Celebrations marking this returning of light and warmth have been part of our culture for thousands of years.
Penzance’s Montol is a revival of those ancient celebrations. It is a modern version of a festival which was once held annually in the town until it feel out of favour in the 1930s. There are some festivities in Cornwall that still retain a true flavour of their pagan roots, such as the rather madcap Padstow Obby Oss. The Montol is another, it holds on to an ancient, much darker remembrance of our ancestor’s beliefs. Continue reading
I grew up in a household where farm work and animals came first above anything else. Don’t misunderstand me, I am not complaining, I had a blessed childhood with a kind of freedom that sadly very few children experience today. It taught me not only independence but also the
importance of hard work and responsibility. However it did mean that we never went on family holidays and days out were very few and far between.
I was, and still am, a bit of a daddy’s girl and I hope that my father has had a strong influence on the person that I have become. One thing that I know he did instil in me from a young age was an admiration for a good piece of granite.
Those days off I mentioned were never spent on the beach making sandcastles. They were spent on the Penwith or the heights of Bodmin moor or Dartmoor tramping through undergrowth looking for ancient pieces of stone. It is a tradition that you may have noticed I still enjoy as often as life allows!
In the summer of 1999 my father and I spent a whole day together driving around the west of the county looking at big rocks.
We admired their size and shape, marvelled at their probable weight and puzzled over how ancient man had moved them and raised them up. You see my father had a plan.
He wanted his own standing stone.
Our farm is a hill and the highest point affords beautiful views across the valley and the tidal creek below, it was the ideal spot for our very own monolith.
He took himself to the local granite quarry and spent hours walking around looking at the available stones. He wanted a piece of granite that was as natural in shape as possible with no obvious signs that it had been split by drilling or handled by machinery. Like ancient man all those thousands of years ago I am sure he had a particular piece of stone in mind.
I am sure the workmen thought he was balmy but perhaps that is where I also get my own nonchalance with regards to looking silly myself. He found his perfect stone and had it delivered to the farm.
The pit was dug and with the help of todays modern mechanised assistance our standing stone was raised to mark the year 2000.
We have never really spoken about it, my father is a man of few words, but I think he really enjoys the idea of something so lasting, so solid and unmoving marking his time on the land he loves so much. And so do I.
I went on a really wonderful walk the other day. The sun was shining, I was all alone and there was so much history along the way that I am hard pressed to decide which part should be the subject of this piece of writing.
This is Rogers Tower. And it has often called a folly. The dictionary definition of a folly is “a costly, ornamental building with no practical purpose”. I have to concede that Rogers Tower probably does fulfil that brief. But was Mr Rogers foolish to build a little playhouse here for his family to picnic beside on a sunny day? I would say certainly not!
The tower was built in 1798 by one of the Rogers’ family from Treassowe Manor, a house on Tonkin Downs below the hill on which it stands. It is uncertain which member of the family was responsible but the most likely candidate would be John Rogers (1750-1832) who it has been said had the money and the inclination to undertake such a plan.
High above Mount’s Bay the tower commands immense views across the countryside in all directions. It is a Folly but it is also wonderful! There is only one downside to this view. The land between the tower and the village of Castle Gate is part of a giant granite quarry and for more than 100 years machinery has been gobbling up the hill side. (A large explosion went off while I was balanced precariously on the top of the OS trig point taking a picture! I nearly fell backwards into the ferns.)
There is also a downside to where John Rogers decided to build his tower – on the outer ring of the ancient Iron Age hillfort. The hillfort is still impressive and covers the top of the hill but to be fair I doubt he had to get any kind of planning permission. Sadly what is valuable to us now was in many ways just a pile of rocks to them then.
As I said there is so much history in this small place that I think I will have to return to it again for another walk and post! You have been warned!
I have always loved the mystery that a ruined place creates. They are on one hand like a blank page on which I can jot down any story that my imagination likes and then on the other they of course already have a real history to discover. Real characters and real events. The past halted in time by decay.
On high ground known as Tonkin Downs, close to Castle-an-dinas, there is the remains of an old farmhouse. It has no roof, it is now open to the elements and it’s glassless windows stare blank-eyed out across Mount’s Bay. It is all that remains of all it’s past owners planning as they sat beside the fireplace that once glowed with hot coals.
This building has stood empty since 1953 when its last family left, driven out by the blasting noise from the near-by quarry. As I stand at the empty thresh-hold I wonder if they still locked the front door when they left for that last time.
On the surface this would have been a wonderful place to live. The views are breath-taking and even now with the quarry’s activity still rumbling you are surrounded by space and birdsong. But even before the arrival of the earth-shaking quarry I expect that a life farming here would have been particularly tough, especially in the winter. The ground is poor, only cleared relatively recently by the hopeful James Hosking in 1813, and there is very little between this farm and the harsh elements.
The last people to live at Castle-an-dinas Farm were the Wooldridge family, before them was William and Christine Pearce and their 4 children and before them William Martin and his family. Generations of hands that pushed open the yard gate, rubbed their chilblains in front of the Rayburn or pressed fresh white plaster to the walls. Until finally they are all gone.
The ghostly sadness of an empty home jostles oddly with my enjoyment of poking about someone else’s house and day-dreaming the forgotten life of this shell of a cottage.
For more atmospheric places to visit try: Those Ruined places: Merther
The last time I visited the beautiful St Michael’s Mount, just off the coast of Cornwall, there was a steady stream of tourists crossing the tidal causeway ahead of me. I have walked this cobbled path many times in rain and shine, it’s a place that is different in every season and in every light. On this day it was the colour of the seaweed that stuck me, such an eye-popping green and lashings of it everywhere!
When my feet touched the rocky island shore I quickly began to wind my way up the old Pilgrims Path, weaving in and out of the flock of visitors puffing up to the castle. I had a different destination, the Giant’s Heart.
This stone heart suffers the undignified fate of being trampled under the soles of innumerable walking boots on a daily basis. It is the ultimate down-trodden heart and legend has it it belonged to Cormoran the Giant.
Cormoran built the huge stone castle that sits atop St Michael’s Mount but unfortunately he made nuisance of himself by waded ashore to the mainland every night and snatching livestock from local farms for his supper.
Local villagers got really fed up and offered a reward in return for someone slaying the giant. A local boy called Jack took up the challenge and he crept over to the island and dug a large giant-catching pit. Hardly a mastermind of a plan. But it was surprisingly effective. When Cormoran awoke from his sleep he saw Jack on his island and charged at him. Blinded by sunlight the giant didn’t see the pit that Jack had dug and promptly fell into it and disappeared.
Jack became a local hero and from then on was known as Jack the Giant Killer.
All that was left of Cormoran was his stone heart . . .
and legend has it that if you stand still and listen hard you’re still able to hear the pounding beat of the giant’s unhappy heart.
I have a little stone heart that my other half gave me, it is always in the glove box of my car. It is fascinating how we humans find patterns in the world about us, we see faces everywhere and animals in the clouds. We search out meaning, we find the stories and hold on to seemingly worthless things as if they are some powerful symbol or charm.
The stone heart is another kind of the talisman. So next time you climb the Mount at Penzance take a moment to stop and listen for the beating of a giant’s heart.
She pulled me up onto her lap and her woollen skirt scratched the back of my bare legs. I looked down at my grubby knees and the bruises like inky thumb prints down my shins. She reached, tired hand quivering, and brought down the photograph from its shelf. The frame was tarnishing, silver turning black in slowly spreading shadows from the edges.
I gazed at the family caught inside, frozen, their black eyes are staring straight out of the picture and I wondered for a moment if they could really see me. With a slow intake of breath, as if I had asked for this and she was bored with the telling, she began the story again. She smelt like blackcurrants and stale bread.
The esplanade was dotted with families taking the sea air, courting couples and nannies strolling with their bundled-up, dutifully silent charges. The high season bustle was over. The gulls slid by on wires of air and swung above the promenading clusters of people.
In the damp haze of the September morning there was the slight sting of winter. Walter had suggested the portrait when they had first arrived nearly two weeks ago but the days had been satisfactorily filled with beaching, boating, crabbing and afternoon teas. It was unseasonably mild everyone had remarked but today was the last day, tomorrow the cold weather would arrive. It was the last day of the summer.
The gold lettering on the glass door read: Messrs Allen & Henwood, Masters of the Photographic Art and when they stepped inside a bell chimed brightly above their heads bringing, bounding to their service from behind a red velvet curtain, the proprietor himself, Mr. Edward Allen.
Inside the studio there is a playful mix of the theatrical and the scientific, the smell of heady noxious fumes was the background note tingling in your nostrils as your eyes travelled to the various scenes assembled around the room, sets paused in anticipation of the next cast of players.
There was a library with floor to ceiling shelves and a parlour with a fake fireplace and a table set for tea; a Grecian temple, marble column and all, beside a canvas hanging painted with a woodland scene of bluebells and in one corner a nursery complete with toys and a rocking horse. All places and lives for the sitters to choose from. The illiterate miner could position himself beside a wall of books, pince-nez on the end of his nose and the untraveled matron could find herself remembering the day she visited the temple of the ancients, a parasol to shade her face also provided. Today however the family chose the standard setting to capture and preserve this moment, just plain but elegant drapery and stiff backed chair for the lady.
It was always a little difficult to get the children to look natural Mr. Allen thought, they tended to look wild eyed and fearful and as for getting them to stand still, well, he did have some tricks but he found seating them firmly on their mothers knee and a little intimidation usually achieved good results. Mr. Allen had also found that as long as the gentleman looked sufficiently masterful and fatherly he could usually sell a satisfactory number of copies.
He ducks under the black cloth and looks at the inverted image of the family. They are all in mourning clothes, dark shadows with just the odd flash of white lace in the ribbon in young girl’s hair and at the neck and wrists of the lady. Hair greased flat. Black boots gleam. All was well polished and cared for. The little girl flaps a toy monkey about but she is looking straight at him, right down the lens of the camera. A moment not to be missed.
“Now Mr. Beard would you be so kind as to perhaps place your hand upon Mrs. Beard’s right shoulder . . . super . . . chin a little higher . . . marvellous . . . now Master Percival could you hold the ball still young sir and look at me for just a . . .?” A slight adjustment in focus and . . . boom! The flash makes the girl bawl and wriggle out her mother’s arms and the boy drops the leather ball with a dull thud. It doesn’t matter however as they are there already. Snapped. The moment has been taken and captured on the glass sheet behind the eye of the lens. The smoke dispersed, the drift of grey melted away but the smell of burnt cinders from the blaze of the chemical flash lingered.
Later Mr. Allen will pass the negative to his rolled-up-sleeved associate, Mr. James Henwood who will work the magic of the development. Looking down into those little chemical baths the image will swim into view. Float onto the surface. That instant caught under the snap of the flash will materialise, inky black, grey and silver. A perfectly preserved monochrome moment. It will then be fixed forever. That moment in time held. Time abated, halted. But it is the events to come that will make this important. Not now though, no one could know it now. Mr. Walter Beard happily pays the fee, coins jangle on the counter, and promises to view the picture and order copies the next day. The very next day.
That evening back at the bungalow there was no mistaking the change in the air. Those brilliant shining evenings, when the sky drops to a rich deep blue, violet touching the sea, are gone. Winter is sliding in, creeping down through the valleys towards the shore. Soon the cold air will burn the leaves, turning them amber and crimson. A bitter wind will press the trees towards sleep. Lying in bed Winifred imagines winter’s frosty gossamer cape wrapping around them all, a mantle and a shroud or perhaps a blanket? Comforting? She isn’t sure but there is the unstoppable silent tiptoe towards dark hibernation. Sleep. Sinking towards rest. As she closes her eyes she hears the steady rolling rhythm of the waves on the beach and her husband’s breath and isn’t sure which is which.
When they walk along the cliffs the next morning, the last day of their holiday, Winifred is struck by the change. The sky is slate grey, high clouds spin by wildly. The sea is brushed steel and the top of the waves foam white as tissue paper.
Looking down from the same spot where just days before they had gazed through a clear glassy window of the ocean surface to the seaweed and fish below, now it seems the sea has changed its chemical properties. It is ashen, opaque and jealously hiding its depths. The horizon, where the bright little fishing boats which Percy loves count could usually be found, is an empty grey haze, undefined.
Dropping down the little twisting path to the beach the family splits into two. Percy and his father turn to the beach and Winifred and Phyllis to the bungalow to take a mid-morning nap. Winifred notices there are piles of bronze and brown seaweed strewn wildly about when just the day before there had been an empty golden canvas for their footprints.
“You’re not thinking to go in are you dear?” She looks anxiously at the inscrutable charcoal coloured water.
Walter chuckles “I think we may, what do you say Percy? It is our last chance this season, Winnie!” She smiles weakly and thinks how puffed up and pleased he looks.
Sitting on the porch Winifred is unsettled, the sound of the waves and the wind fill her head but the beach is empty, they are almost alone, just a man fishing, a silhouette on the shiny leaden coloured rocks beneath the shadow of the cliff. Her eyes drift to her husband who is now at the tides edge.
Walter is standing, hands on his hips, shoulders back, staring out to sea. He is courting the squall Winifred thinks, challenging the waves to a battle of wills, he was ever the same, childish, demanding and pushy. Baiting the world for battles he can’t win. He had been on the boxing team at school and been flattened, he was muddied and bloodied weekly on the rugby field but had courted her relentlessly, incessantly into submission. After their wedding it wasn’t good enough to be a cobbler like his father, he became first man in Cornwall to sell ready-made, off the shelf boots and shoes. The empire of leather, laces and boot polish was his.
She watches as her husband and son take their first steps into the sea and shivers at the thought of the icy water touching their skin. She can almost feel the tug of the knotted seaweed pulling at their ankles. When they are waist deep it seems to her as if they have wading into oil, the water is so thick and dark. A shudder drums through her and at that moment the antimacassar slides off the back of the chair and drops onto her shoulder like a white parrot. Flinching she gets up and fuses it back into its place. A sharp noise on the air makes her pause thinking perhaps Phyllis is awake, she tilts her head towards the white shuttered window. Nothing. Stillness again.
When Winifred turns her eyes back to the sea they are both gone. There is nothing but undulating black water from the shore to the foggy horizon.
The fisherman said later that he never even saw the boy and when he realised the man was in trouble he called out to him. Walter had just put up his hands as if grabbing at the air and then went under, disappeared into the dark inky waves.
“They say he just disappeared, just went under, vanished.” She is glassy eyed again, lost in her thoughts, fondling the memory.
The fettered family stare out of the photograph, their world is a world of black, white and grey and memory. They are held under an inky spell within that silver frame. The frame of the story also, the frame of a bewitched moment and the frame of the memory of an old lady. The family unaltered, suspended and held behind glass in an act of preservation.
“When I look at this it is like time does not exist, I can smell the cinders and feel his hand on my shoulder, do you see? I have them, they are still here with me.” I turned to look at the picture again, white faces looking out from the black. I am eager to get down now from her lap and go out to play, I know the story has ended, as it always does, at the point it always does.
“It’s such a blessing that we captured them as they were.” She touches the boy’s face and he stares back from behind the glass, leather ball under his arm.
Outside on the beach I play games of prisoners held captive, castles and ship wreaks. Gulls circle, the air is salt and brine.
She looks out the shuttered window at the tide rolling in again. Charcoal and grey, pewter and black, mesmerised, bound, hostage. Time suspended.
They are not lost. They are here, held, captured and detained in a photograph.
This story was inspired by real events in my family history in the 19th century.
Celia Fiennes was born in 1662 but she had very different ideas about what a woman of her time should be and how they should behave. Celia refused to be bound by convention. She never married and, at a time when making a journey for its own sake was a new and rather racy idea, Celia became an enthusiastic traveller.
She wrote in her diary that her journeys helped her “to regain [her] health by variety and change of aire and exercise”. It seems that Celia, like myself, found meaning in her life from seeing, experiencing and finding out about different people and places.
This of course was a time when travel was for most people an arduous necessity that took planning and resolve. The first stage-coaches didn’t appear in Cornwall until 1790, so nearly one hundred years after Celia’s travels, and even then the 100 mile journey from Exeter to Falmouth took 2 whole days. (About the same time as the A30 on an August Bank Holiday weekend then.)
But Celia was her own boss, with her own agenda and she did it all riding side-saddle in a frock. She completed her “Great Journey to Newcastle and Cornwall” in 1698 on a horse accompanied by just one or sometimes two servants. And of course as you might have guessed apart from my admiration for her as an independently minded woman it is her descriptions of Cornwall that also interest me.
After a rather dramatic hour-long crossing of the River Tamar from Devon (there was no bridge at Saltash in those days) during which she catches a cold and wishes she had never started, one of the first places that Celia visited was Looe. Here she describes crossing “a little arme of the sea on a bridge of 14 arches”.
That particular bridge no longer exists but the illustration above from 1840 gives us a good idea of what she might have seen. She also writes that Looe is a “pretty bigg seaport” with “a great many little houses all of stone”. I wonder what she would make of it now?
A little further down the coast Celia and her faithful four-legged companion made another river crossing. This time at Fowey where she marvelled at the colour of the sea. “As green as I ever saw” she says.
But perhaps my favourite episode in her diary is the entry of the night that she spent in St Austell. It is easy to forget that Celia was what you might call a ‘well-breed’ lady, she had been brought up in privileged circumstances and here she was travelling into darkest rural Cornwall without an escort. She was staying (when not at the homes of wealthy friends) in whatever accommodation was available when the sun set and she couldn’t go any further that day. So on this particular evening Celia finds herself in some kind of lodging in St Austell which she describes as “barn-like” and she gives us a delightful look at the Cornish people around her.
After telling us about an excellent “apple pye” with which she partook of “clouted creame” (clotted cream) available only in these parts she goes on to describe her company.
I was much pleased with my supper tho’ not with the custome of the county, which is a universall smoaking both men and women and children have all their pipes of tobacco in their mouths and soe sit round the fire smoaking, which was not delightful to me . . . I must say they are as comely sort of women as I have seen any where tho’ in ordinary dress, good black eyes and very neate.
I love this. Cornish women are indeed “comely”!
It reminds me also of later photographs of elderly men and women with a clay-pipes that seem to be as much as part of them as the nose of their face. I imagine her as being as much a curiosity to the locals as they were to her. I can see them all gathered about the fire, peering as her through their pipe smoke, mumbling . . . pretty much how I felt a few weeks ago when I visited the Bucket Of Blood Inn in Phillack but that’s another story.
As Celia rides out St Austell the next morning she is amazed by the industry in the area, the numerous mines and the “violent heat and fierce flames” coming from the furnaces. These were hard times when a lucky few were making their fortunes on the backs of the many. She comments again on the force of the industry when she passes through Redruth describing it as “very bleake”.
But Celia’s horse carried her on, right to the end of the county, her diary ends with a description of her clambering about on the rocks at Lands End. And as she says her “horses legs could not carry me through the deep and so return’d to Pensands [Penzance]” and there “the Mount . . . looked very fine in the broad day the sun shining on the rocke in the sea”.
Celia continued her travels intermittently throughout her life until at least 1712 and took her through most of England. She comments that because of the various wars with England’s neighbours she is too nervous to travel to the continent alone but I have a feeling if she had been able she would have ridden her horse side-saddle for as far as its legs would have taken her.
Her diaries have been published and are actually an interesting read I promise! Link here.