Sunday, July 25, 2010

Recharging my Batteries (Double Arrrrrs)

I might be a Rain God. Certainly, my late father used to call me one. He compared me to the truck driver in one of Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently books who is unknowingly a Rain God and the rain loves him, following him wherever he goes. So too, it seems with me as every time I ever go down to Cornwall to visit my folks, it rains. When I phoned my mother last week to say that I was popping down to the Duchy for a few days, her first words were: ‘You’ll bring the weather with you again I suppose’.

Sure enough, almost as soon as I crossed the county line near Launceston, it began to rain. And as I drove down the A30 across Bodmin Moor, the mist came rolling in settling over Rough Tor and Brown Willy like heavy clouds fallen to Earth. I drove to my brother Simon’s house wearing a suitably gloomy frown. ‘Brought the weather with you as usual I see’, he said as he welcomed me inside the house. I wanted to point out that if you counted how many days per year it rains in Cornwall, my humble contribution amounted to a tiny percentage. However, I drank a nice hot tea instead and planned what I would do for the next few days – bearing in mind that wet weather gear would be most likely needed. The day ended with a walk around the wet but incredibly imposing old mine workings of the Great Flat Lode. You can never fail to be impressed by these cathedral-sized buildings, imagining what they were like 100 years ago when the site boasted some of the richest tin and copper mines in the world.

The following day began with thunderously heavy rain and more mist and fog so I decided on a drive about. Feeling somewhat nostalgic, I firstly drove to Helston where I filled up with petrol at the very filling station I used to work at in my teens. Of course, it looked very different then; there was no roof and only two pumps that were manually operated by me when I started there. Later, they upgraded to self-service pumps and I got the be the lad who sat behind the counter taking the money. I was only 16 at the time. They’d never allow it these days because of the cigarettes, over 18 magazines etc. but, back then, all we sold was petrol. We doled out Green Shield Stamps back then too and I was supposed to ask every driver if they wanted them. I didn’t. And I certainly didn’t ask the hundreds of foreign tourists as they had no idea what they were. That meant that I kept the stamps. I can’t tell you how much I bought with them, but it included my first electric guitar and a giant black ‘ghetto blaster’ cassette radio thing. As I filled the car up, I looked across the nearby road junction and could see the house I lived in for five years. It didn’t look any different except that it now has PVC double glazing and is a gold-top creamy colour rather than white. Oh, and the trees Mum and Dad planted are a lot taller.

I took a slow drive through the town, past my old school, past Tenderah Road and my first home in Helston, past the houses lived in by old school mates, past the newsagents – now a nail parlour – where I did my paper round from and down through Coinagehall Street and past the famous thatched Blue Anchor pub where I spent most evening from the age of about 16, drinking their home brewed Spingo and playing folk music.

Next stop was another town I grew up in; Penzance. That's Penzance harbour above and a wet fishing smack coming sensibly in to hide. By now the rain was appallingly drizzly and horrid but that didn’t stop me having a short and very damp walk on Marazion beach. Amazingly, the mist was so thick that St Michael’s Mount, usually just a short 1/4 mile walk from the shore was completely invisible. That morning there had been a feature on the BBC Breakfast Tv show about the dangers of ‘tombstoning’; jumping off high rocks, piers and breakwaters into the sea. It was something we did all the time as kids off the Porthleven harbour walls, and here in Penzance, off the steps that led down to Harvey’s Dry Dock. Despite the name, the dry dock was full of water most of the time. It was only drained when work needed doing on the lower part of a vessel’s hull. A steep set of granite steps led down to the dry dock from Morrab Road above and we would dare each other to climb one more step with every jump, getting higher and higher before each cannonball plunge into the often oily water. Just opposite is the main harbour itself where I would often dally on my way to school to watch the fishing boats off-loading their catches bound for Newlyn fish market. I was trusted to walk to school in those days and I was no older than eight or nine. Here's part of the prom in all its sodden glory.

Occasionally, I’d take my bike and a favourite game was to ride along the Victorian promenade at speed. It was especially exciting if the sea was rough as the waves would slam into the wall and come up and over the road in a giant arch of water. To ride under this was a kind of rite of passage and we’d all do it. Occasionally the waves and the accompanying wind were so powerful that we were knocked off our bikes. One memorable occasion, John Lugg was knocked clean off by something thrown by the sea. His bike was broken and he was bleeding from his knees and nose so wee took him home. His mum gave me a note the take to school excusing John from attending that day. I can still see Mr Tuttle’s face as he read the words: ‘John won’t be at school today as he was knocked off his bike by a flying octopus’. I never saw the offending cephalopod but John insisted that the creature (actually a cuttlefish he claimed but mum had got confused) had hit him on the side of the head and caused the crash. I believed him. The sea is very powerful and the gardens of the houses adjacent to the Prom are often full of sand, kelp and driftwood thrown there by Atlantic storms.

Next, it was on to Hayle to visit mum, drink tea and hear all the latest gossip about people I don’t know. That’s the thing about time and distance; my mum has moved house five times since I left home in 1980. And I’ve lived in six different houses. We have no common shared points of interest any more other than the family. She doesn’t know anyone I know and vice versa. Still, a pleasant evening and I may have picked up an amazing story to turn into a book. More on that anon … here's the Hayle estuary taken from Lelant saltings.

Wednesday it was much brighter with gloriously warm sunshine. My Rain God status appeared to have been rescinded. I decided to make the most of the unusually clement weather and took the park and ride train from Lelant Saltings into St Ives. It has to be one of the prettiest short train routes in the UK. The little train shuttles between St Erth and St Ives several times daily and the route goes along the cliffs above Hayle, Carbis Bay and into St Ives itself. You get wonderful views of the sweep of St Ives Bay, right up to and beyond Godrevy lighthouse. It’s wonderful. I’m amazed they haven’t stuck a steam train on the route and turned it into a tourist attraction yet. Amazed but quite pleased. This is one commuter route I'd love to do every day. Just look at these views, taken from the train.

St Ives was as lovely and eclectic as always. I love wandering up and down the ‘downalongs’ and popping into the many art galleries to see what’s what. I also visited Barbara Hepworth’s house, now a museum, where much of her work is on display. I have always been a fan. I was very lucky to meet her once in my early teens when my dad, then a crime prevention officer, visited her. He was there to show her a sculpture which, incredibly, he’d discovered being used as a door stop at a house he’d visited. He was sure it was one of hers and wanted her to identify it, which she did. Dad – honest old bugger that he was – then returned it to the owners, lucky undeserving sods that they are/were. I got to see Barbara in her workshop, hands white with dust but still very active even in her 70s. She died in a house fire just over a year later but her workshop has been preserved, eerily just as I remember it. It looks like she’s just popped out to make a pot of tea and could return at any second.
Her gardens are wonderfully laid out and full of her sculpture which, as is only right and proper, is not roped off or behind glass. There is something about her work that screams out to be touched and smoothed and caressed. Whether bronze or stone or wood, there is a sensual, tactile pleasure to be had. Sorry. Came over all arty there. Of course, I then had to sit on the town's tiny beach with a Cornish ice cream.

I then drove around the curve of St Ives Bay to Gwithian, Cornwall's best-kept secret. Gwithian and the adjacent Godrevy beaches are directly opposite St Ives across the bay. But whereas St Ives and nearby Carbis Bay beaches are always crammed with holiday makers so densely packed you can barely slide a fag paper between them, these two beaches are empty. Three miles of golden sand and not a tourist to be seen. Why? Because it's real Cornwall, natural Cornwall. There are no ice cream parlours or pasty shops, amusement arcades or tat shops. There's just a basic public toilet and raw, naked countryside and shoreline. I love it.

This was just a whistle-stop four day trip home to see the folks so I couldn't fit too much in. I did decide, however, to visit an area that I rarely get to see; the North Penwith coast between St Ives and Lands End. This is really old Cornwall, a place of scrubby gorse-clad moorland and high granite-topped hills. The land is too crappy for livestock (although remnants of old Celtic walled fields remain) and there are few villages. Those there are - such as Zennor and Morvah and Pendeen - are very pretty and exist solely because this part of the county was rich in tin and copper. Here's the view across the fields from lower Pendeen towards the lighthouse.

Further down the coast there's the mine complex of Botallack but I decided to do a 3-4 mile walk over the cliffs to Geevor, one of Cornwall's last working mines, now silent and used as a museum. You can walk around the older Victorian workings (see below) and it's scary to think that the mine shafts actually go out under the Atlantic sea bed for several miles. The ground is littered with heavy lumps of copper and tin ore and the place has all the ambience of an ancient monument.

I'm pleased to say that the Sun stayed with me for three out of the four days and I was able to pack in quite a lot of research and writing as well as long walks and visiting family. And, as always, I left the Duchy with a heavy heart. You can't grow up in a place like Cornwall without it becoming a part of you and I miss it terribly. I will go back one day. I can't imagine not doing so.

(All photos by me)

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