Penzance, Newlyn and Mousehole

<h3>Extract from About Penzance, Newlyn and Mousehole<h3/>

” A huge spur of granite extends from the northern hills right down into Mounts Bay, where it causes an undersea hazard all the way to the beacon known as the Gear Pole. This forms a small bay within a bay.

Beneath its protection there was deep water for shipping and little exposure to gales. People too found shelter in its shadow. They built the first of a succession of harbours, and put up a place of worship close to the headland where the granite spur dives under the waves – the Battery Rocks, now mostly obscured by an open-air swimming pool. They called it the ‘Holy Headland’ – or in Cornish ‘Pen Sans’. “


<h3>Extract from Serpentine<h3/>

“A greater draw than the hard and sometimes dangerous quarry work was the growing complex at Poltesco (Near Ruan Minor). From the basic core of a water-wheel attached to the remnants of a few fish-cellars, the new workshops marched towards the sea, covering more and more ground until they reached the old capstan-house. The fruits of its prosperity were re-invested time after time in new plant, equipment and buildings. The workforce grew from a dozen or so to as many as 65 or more, depending on the size of the orders in hand. By the early 1860s the wheel was demoted to a secondary power source, as the company proudly installed their own steam engine.

The cove began to change its nature, from quiet fishing cleft to an industrial landscape, full of noise, smoke, discarded equipment, spoil tips, depots of stone, coal, timber and straw for packaging, dust everywhere, ringing to the sound of saws, chisels, hammers, the chugging of the steam engine, the rumbling of the wheel, the grinding and sanding of the stone, the shouting of orders and the human sounds of men at work, against the constant background of the sea beating on the shingle.”

Penlee – The Loss of a Lifeboat Extract

<h3>Extract from Penlee – The Loss of a Lifeboat<h3/>

Suddenly the wheelhouse door opened and the passengers, clad in orange lifejackets, rushed out onto the terrible decks. They fled to the port side, down the ladder and onto the side decks. As they reached the rail, a mountain of freezing black water rushed out of the shadows, burst over the ship’s side and buried them.

The ‘Union Star’ rolled with the blow and her side lifted high in the air. As she righted herself, thousands of gallons poured off her hatches, pinning the survivors to the rail, trying to drag them through. Slowly the water cleared for a brief respite.

And there was the ‘Solomon Browne’.

By a marvellous piece of seamanship, Trevelyan had timed her approach so that she came alongside in a brief moment of choppy confusion between major seas. The lifeboat sliced through the last few metres of foam and crashed against the coaster’s side. At last the willing hands of the crew, who had reached out in vain for so long, had work to do. They hauled across as many survivors as they could reach with desperate haste, and packed them inside the cabin. As late as he dared, Trevelyan broke contact and headed out to sea.

But they hadn’t all made it.

As they parted, at least one orange lifejacket was in the water, probably two. Two more were still visible clinging to the rail as the next wave engulfed them again. They were 50 metres from shore, and in amongst the breakers. All around them the sea was tearing itself apart.

Penlee Lifeboat – The First 200 Years Extract

<h3>Extract from Penlee Lifeboat – The first 200 years<h3/>

“The distances from shore were never very great, just a few yards in some cases, but disproportionately dangerous. Wrecks were nearly always stuck amongst the breakers, where steep and unpredictable waves stood the boats virtually on end. Launching a two-ton lifeboat together with its 13 crew ready at the oar, from a heavy trailer in soft sand required a huge amount of effort, strength and skill from the launching party, in real danger of being swept away themselves …

Once the lifeboat was under way she was fully exercised in keeping her bows up to the weather, pulling when able in the cresting seas. But the greatest hazards awaited her when ‘on scene’. The lifeboat had to negotiate not only the surrounding rocks but also the ropes, rigging, timbers and possibly cargo from the wreck which would be tossing in the water. As she closed with the casualty the nearside oars would have to be shipped, losing at once half her power and manoeuvrability at the crucial moment. All co-ordination of the oarsmen would have to be instant and precise, on the orders of the coxswain as shouted above the rain, wind and crashing surf, sometimes in near pitch darkness. Add to this the long exposure of the crew, drenched to the skin, often in the middle of winter, and it is easy to see why some of these rescues still rate as classics of the lifeboat service, and indeed in the general record of man’s humanity to man.”

True Colours Extract

Extract from True Colours (2007)

” The light down the shaft grew stronger.

How could Jo get pregnant, he thought furiously. Why did she even bother to tell him? He wasn’t ready to take on a full-time lover agan, let alone a child. No no no. There were enough kids in the world already, even if none of them were his.

Even the bundle of rubbish on the far bank of the pool reminded him of a baby; if that bit was an arm, that the head, and the body tilting that way towards the water… he snapped out of it. It was becoming a nightmare.

Birdsong came faintly to his ears, which lifted his spirits further.He let his eyes rove around his prison again. In the opposite corner the walls disappeared into darkness. That must have been the way into the mine, although it seemed to be blocked. The whole of these workings were probably just an adit, a tunnel to let water drain out. If he had fallen into the deeper ore-digging workings he would never have survived.

Again, for want of something better to look at, the bundle drew his eyes. There really was something childlike about it. The large curve which could be a head, one arm bent and a hand up to the face as if to block out the world. On an impulse he suddenly put his good hand into the water and threw a little spray across at it. It was hard to get the range but at last a solid gout of water hit the target. Orange mud ran down. A deep grunting gasp forced itself from him and echoed around the chamber.

“Oh Jesus Christ,” he said aloud.

Now white and clear the fleshless fingers, the wise domed forehead and lightly stitched fontanelles, the sightless eye sockets, toothless mouth in a clean oval of surprise,neck disappearing into the rags of a reddish garment. Something shone yellow beside it and Simon sent another wave of spray over. It was plastic, perhaps a rattle, with a caricature of a face on it, its wide red smile still encouraging mirth and joy.

He started shouting wildly, all control gone. For some time he did not hear the distant sound of barking, or the voice that called back down to him…”

Country Byways

The Last Trump

Originally published in The Cornishman

“Oh I would not bring you false hope, on this strange and mournful day…” sang Paul Simon, and it was a strange and mournful day indeed. Inured as I am to the appeal of killing animals for sport, I too felt that something was going out of the countryside as I once knew it. It was probably the same on the day they banned bear-baiting.

I have always declared myself a ‘Don’t Care’ about the end of fox-hunting. I’ve had my moments with the hunt. When they regularly blocked up my only road home, or came hopping across my fields after being told to keep out, or just looked at me in their usual rude way like kings of the countryside, I’ve often wished them to perdition.

My tolerance for cruelty has also grown less as I’ve grown older. I used to shoot and fish a little, and grow animals for slaughter. Now I’m disgusted at the sight of shooting, I’m angry at the assumption that fishes feel no pain simply because they don’t scream, and I’ve become a vegetarian. The notion of chasing an animal to death for a bit of harmless fun really does seem to belong to another century. And the justification of keeping down the fox population for the benefit of farmers was always so much bull, as every country person knows.

But neither can I join in the celebrations. The triumphant winners are a strange mixture of brave and well-meaning animal-lovers, their more extreme and loopy colleagues, smooth New Labour townies, and rough Old Labour workers tasting some class revenge. They’re welcome to their champagne.

Perhaps the whole thing made me miserable because it was just another milestone in the slow death of the countryside. Successive governments plunder world markets for cheap food and wouldn’t care less if farming in Britain ceased altogether. They want nice places to walk their dogs, pretty views from the train, beautiful surroundings for their holidays, and that’s all. The old boys shouting “Gone Away!” for the last time might be a bunch of old-fashioned reactionaries, but they spent their lifetimes learning how to care for animals, use machines, work all hours, and turn fields into food. They aren’t being replaced. They won’t be standing on the roadsides and hedges to watch drag-hunting. They’ll stay at home by the fire with their memories.

Damn it, I promised myself I wouldn’t get nostalgic about something I deplored in principle and found aggravating in practice. Good riddance to it. Those involved will carry on in some form or another, and there’ll be a flourishing ‘black’ hunt, so it isn’t even a genuine goodbye. But it was the last day of something; and the demise of anything ancient and familiar is, at the very least, a solemn moment. It passed.


Houshold God

First Published in Cornwall Today

Like all brilliant ideas it is breathtakingly simple. Picture a stove with a fire inside it, and instead of throwing the fuel in from the top, open a cute little door in the side and do it from there. Make it nice and big and fill up the space with chambers for baking or roasting in. Put a permanent hot-plate over the flames. Make the grate moveable so that you can agitate it from the outside and cause the ashes to fall into a removable pan. As a final flourish, put in a chamber so that piped water can go in cold and come out of the other end lovely and hot. Brilliant hardly covers the case. It’s a miracle. It’s an Aga.

Or it could be a Rayburn, which is smaller, humbler, and has never to my knowledge inspired a genre of novels. Or a continental equivalent. Or its predecessor, the kitchen range.

Those were known locally as the Cornish Range, as many of them were actually made here in the days when Cornwall boasted more iron foundries than art galleries. They were objects of great beauty and substance, constructed of cast-iron panels, black-metalled frames, and sufficient brass handles and knobs to sort the house-proud housewife from her slovenly neighbour. They were also a pile of work, or so I’m told, needing cleaning out, blacking, shining and cosseting, and still prone to going out every time the wind changed. They were often fuelled in poorer families with driftwood and sticks, although intended for coal, but in either case showed a reluctance to stay in overnight.

Not so the Rayburns, onto which Cornish families fell like wolves, abandoning their Ranges like yesterday’s newspapers. These refined and tidied up the Range’s repertoire of useful things to do, but stayed in easily and didn’t have to be polished every thursday. To their afficianados – I am one – they represent a high point of human culture comparable to Michaelangelo’s “David”, or Mr Crapper’s equally indispensable invention. For one shovel-full of cheap coal, not only do they cook your pasty, heat your bath, dry your clothes, keep your kitchen as cosy as a kitchen should be, but also air your house. If it is a traditional granite house its walls will contain several tons of water which can make it feel clammy if not actually soggy. The Rayburn’s gentle heat shoves the air around with a nice constant heat which keeps the water in its place.

I never wished for an Aga, though my sister swears by hers, and so do many thousands like her. I find them fussy about their fuel, and prone to induce unseemly raptures in the breasts of city visitors. They want them so badly that there is even an electric (townie) version available. How can that be right? What about the fumes and the mess and the ashes needing to be riddled morning and night? No pain no gain I say, though I am starting to look favourably on oil – especially now that it’s running out. Whichever you favour, they are as much a part of the reality of rural life as a septic tank (though with a far less disgusting name), the beating heart of any house lucky enough to have one. Mmm.


On the broardway

First published in the West Briton
So, as you shove your way down the central corridor with your bags and cases, knocking heartlessly against the knees which project into your way; or as you jerk down the same narrow path with your coffee in one hand and often a stranger’s shoulder in the other; as you twist and turn and try to fold your constricted limbs into a comfortable position; or as you read of rail disasters like Hatfield, do you think back and once more confirm the genius of Ismbard Kingdom Brunel?

I can’t remember who championed Brunel in the TV “Great Britons” series, but I think it was the brash motor-racing chap. I’m sorry he didn’t win. I often think of Brunel while taking the train through Cornwall, making his first survey of the route I am travelling on; sitting quietly on his horse in the difficult hills around Bodmin and Liskeard with his big hat on, mentally tracing the line through the virgin landscape and visualising a cutting here, a tunnel there, and a spectacular bridge over a steep valley; in order to gentle the gradient to something the engines could manage. I always think of him as the trains slow down cautiously to trundle over the Albert Bridge at Saltash, his brilliance in utilising the tides to raise the massive bridge sections, stage by stage, to the right levels.

But I think of him most often whenever the built-in inconvenience of the mean-sized carriages afflicts the passengers with the usual frustration. It didn’t have to be this way.

If you stand at some of the smaller Cornish stations you can still see the redundant spaces at the sides of the lines and sidings, indicating something more substantial and magnificent, now gone. The ghost of the Broad Gauge still haunts the length of the former original Great Western Railway.

It is well-known that George Stephenson designed his railways using the arbitrary width of the horse-drawn wagons which served Killingworth Colliery, whose rails happened to be 4′ 8 1/2″ apart. It was a pragmatic decision, probably not even thought about until the extent of the network made it impractical to change. Brunel, on the other hand, did give the matter some thought, devising with his engineer’s mind the optimum compromise between engine capacity and weight, wind resistance and stability, and loading capacity for passengers and freight alike. He came up with a gauge of just over 7′, nearly thirty inches wider.

It made better sense. Present day trains teeter along like big ladies on high heels, tall and corseted, with their wheels gathered demurely beneath them. Brunel’s engines were monsters by comparison, slung between great wheels instead of balancing on top of them, making them far more powerful, durable and stable. The trucks were able to carry a far greater load and improve the economy of each journey by a large percentage. Passengers were not originally the priority, but when they became so, the added width gave a generosity of space we can only dream of.

History and politics favoured Stephenson, and the 1846 Standard Gauge Act gave the vote to the inferior model. The very last broad gauge line to be built in Britain was the St Ives branch line, which opened in 1877. When the change was inevitable the company directors decided not to disrupt their network over a long period (!) but did the remaining conversion over a single week-end. At 10.15 on 20th May 1892 the last broad gauge “Cornishman” left Paddingon for Penzance, and probably – although history doesn’t recount – arrived on time. And, ever since, we have only the memory of a great man to comfort us as we rattle through England like sardines in a can.

Huer’s Call

That childish rabble in the Commons run our country

Originally published in The West Briton 3rd Febuary 2014

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I like to turn on Radio 4 in the morning, and when its steady drone hasn’t put me straight back to sleep, ponder the issues of the hour as presented by the BBC (brilliantly, so hands off any weasel politician trying to wreck it – you’ll have me and most of middle Britain to reckon with!) Sorry, where was I? Ah yes, in that happy dozy pre-getting-up state I’m aware of changing trends, and it’s become apparent that with unusual co-operation the political parties have decided that the New Year celebrations marked the starting gun of the next election campaign. You can almost see those memos and texts now:

“Dear XYZ, as someone likely to be interviewed on radio/TV or featured in the press you will in future be sure to tie in a pointlessly negative comment on the current government/ the previous government/ the EU/ whatever the subject; furthermore to promote the key phrases in your handbook, i.e. ‘Hard working families’ (Tory); ‘Fight for a fair Britain’ (Labour); ‘I’m so so sorry’ (Lib Dem); ‘Floods aren’t really an expression of God’s anger at gay marriage’ (UKIP) etc. These phrases must be used at every opportunity. You have been warned.”

The mood music has become even more discordant than before. We’re facing fifteen mind-shredding months of blame and counter-blame.

I enjoy sport, support the Cornish Pirates and (small letters) manchester united and cheer when they win. Likewise I grumble at refs and diss the opposition, even though I secretly know they’re decent teams too, all doing their best. But that’s sport, a game. The worst that can happen is that we lose games and lose face, all of which is fixable by a couple of pints and good moan.

Politics isn’t sport. People say they’ve no time for politics, but whatever they think, politics has plenty of time for them. It’s like saying they’re not interested in money, or jobs, or the communities we live in, or our kids, or the state of the world, or war. Politicians run the show, a huge responsibility which touches every side of our lives. We need them to be on the ball, but sadly we can forget about that until May 2015. Whatever brains they have will have been rented out in the noble cause of Party Propaganda, demonstrated by behaving like quarrelsome and stupid infants.

So welcome to the launch of yet another new political movement, SITOP, the Sort It Out Party. First on its agenda will be the establishment of two Houses of Parliament. The House of Commons will be remodelled to make its geography match most other serious assemblies, that is in a semi-circle rather than two opposing ranks divided by the length of a sword as at present, with all members facing the Speaker and one person speaking at a time. Anyone shouting, cat-calling, jeering, or otherwise disrupting proceedings will be instantly thrown out. It will observe normal office hours, to encourage more women to take part. Prime Minister’s Questions will be abolished. Party references will be punished by ducking in the Thames. Only those who’ve been present for debates will have the right to vote in them, which can be done by pressing a button rather than farting around in lobbies. The signal for voting will be a large illuminated sign reading: “Sort It Out.”

But, you may think, doesn’t that take all the fun out of politics? Yes it does, which is why all members of the Commons will also become members of the Upper House. This will no longer be the sleepy home of Lords but will be renamed the House of Fun, open every evening, where in the red and gold halls the benches will still be on opposite sides, members will be encouraged to shout, scream, insult each other, tell jokes, score silly party points, jump up and down, interrupt, do the conga, and dance the hokey-cokey in the aisles. Once a month custard pies will be provided and water-filled sponges may be hurled at the Speaker. Proceedings will be broadcast and selected members may be put through complex physical discomforts with a commentary by Ant & Dec. Then, suitably refreshed, members will reconvene in the Commons at nine sharp the next morning and focus on sorting out the matters we actually care about, concentrating together on pragmatic solutions to real issues rather than party gibberish. Oh please…


Old Mike

First Published in the Cornishman September 12th 2013 

View the original 

A BIT more serious about food this week. I’ve been catching up on a TV series called Mud, Sweat And Tractors. Apart from the desperate title, there’s nothing cheesy at all in the programme (apart from cheese). It’s a simple enough theme – the production of food, as seen by those who produce it.

It’s not an easy sell. People in general don’t give a toss where their food comes from as long as it does.

Farm work, involving as it does getting dirty and dealing with manure, is regarded in the digital age as it has been since the Industrial Revolution – as something normal people don’t do.

Food turns up on the shelves where you want it. Most children, if asked where carrots come from, would answer with the name of the supermarket where their parents shop. The idea that they grow in earth from seeds would be like science fiction.

 It’s a poignant tale. The Thirties were times of poverty – the war years saw a revival – the postwar years were good as food production was mainly government-controlled, with national buying schemes and guaranteed prices.

But the EU and the Common Agricultural Policy messed it up, fattening farmers as never before with monstrous surpluses here, paying them not to grow things there, sending out risible directives about foodstuffs everywhere.

There was a huge and deserved backlash, but instead of simply reining in the corrupt systems, farming went suddenly from a free-for-all to a free market.

No more would there be single bodies such as the Milk Marketing Board organising milk production in the country at a set price.

The clock was reversed; every farm was its own little business, having to do its own marketing and strike what bargains it could, as it had in the Thirties – except that then there was a local market, on the doorstep, at the village shop, at the town stores and wholesalers. The milkman did his rounds; so did the butcher, the baker and the fishmonger, all selling direct for cash. It was grinding labour but regular money.

But by the Eighties supermarkets had wiped everyone else out. The village shops were giving up. The ‘housewife’ was no longer at home to buy. Supermarkets were all there was. The only competition they cared about was between themselves, and always based on price, as it still is.

To keep prices low, they paid farmers less and less, and since farmers had no longer had any other choice, they put up with it or got out. Those who survived became as corporate and homogenised as the supermarkets themselves, while small and medium-sized farming became a marginal enterprise. Should we care? Some brave individual businesses still soldier on, but five or six companies now decide what’s grown in Britain and what we’ll pay for it.

The tradition of careful individual farming is virtually over. There’s no more diversity of production. Supermarkets – like the monstrosity still growing outside Penzance – hold all the cards, and rule over the countryside like robber barons of yore. The seductive myth that the marketplace would automatically provide a fair and equitable system while governments do nothing is displayed once again as the greatest folly of our times.


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