What I Did On My Holidays

What I Did On My Holidays

Originally published in The Cornishman 5/9/02

Saw my first kingfisher, for one. Shortly after dawn on Newlyn Fish Day I was wandering around watching people set up stalls when a fast movement caught my eye, an iridescent colour which reminded me unromantically of a bluebottle, not diving but buzzing around the harbour on its way back to the river at Tolcarne. A stubby little bird I have waited a lifetime to see.

Watched another batch of swallows come into the world, line up with sweet huge beaks on the edge of the roof-truss, take their first stuttering short flights, form a ‘school’ on the washing-line, learn to swoop and slip into doorways, windows and even between one plant and another, chase each other as if pursued by their own shadows, line up to chuckle on the wires every evening, and now feed themselves to prepare for departure.

Saw old favourites return in the shape of sparrows, buzzards, a few pheasants, and goldfinches galore, and welcomed new regulars, linnets and sparrow-hawks. Saw the usual family of foxes, bolder than ever, no longer afraid of the gun. Badgers also defying those who would harm them.

Felt the long wet spells of early summer finally bring their dividend as late August turned hot and clear, while the stored moisture kept the air sweet, the nights cool and the breeze scented, while the lush growth never dried up.

Spent evenings in the open at Minack and Penlee Park enjoying drama set on cliffs or amongst trees, watching the light gradually change behind the action, occasionally distracted by boats, planes, birds or human sounds, but never wishing myself indoors.

Walked to the high points and the seaside, followed the Pilgrims’ Way, wandered through woods in Lamorna and St Loy. Took a cruise to Scilly on a golden morning when the lines of our wake were the biggest waves we saw all day. Swam on Tresco.

Ate out in the garden and outside various pubs, watching the world go by. Took the dogs for walks, or rolled around with them on the lawn.

Stood in the garden last night unable to sleep, barefoot on the wet grass, looking at a moon from a childrens’ story-book and an explosion of pin-bright stars, soundless, dark, with just a hint of autumn in the air, listening to the whirr of bats flying within inches of my ears.

No, I didn’t go away this year. I went to Cornwall, and had a lovely time.

The Rosebud and the Newlyn Clearances

Extract from The Rosebud and the Newlyn Clearances

If they had expected to slip quietly to their destination, they were soon confounded.

The sight of the relatively tiny fishing boat picking its way between a mass of commercial shipping, the huge docks with their forests of cranes, was astonishing enough. Every vessel they passed hooted or whistled to honour their passage, and the sensation spread up-river before them. Crewmen, tug-boatmen and dockers waved and called as they went by, while the bemused Newlyn men waved back. As they pushed further into the heart of London, the public were also lining the river hoping for a glimpse of them, cheering when they were spotted.

Following just astern the massed photographers went into action as soon as the Houses of Parliament came into view. The whole crew of PZ 87 were on deck, gazing in wonder at their reception, waving or raising their fists in response. The police launch led the way. An archetypal double-decker bus stood on Westminster Bridge. The hands of Big Ben stood at five past eleven. The little fishing boat steamed on towards its destiny, bearing the hopes of its people, as bold and brave as any vessel that ever sailed the Thames. The cameramen, realising that they were looking at a truly classic photograph, squeezed and squeezed…

About St Michaels Mount

Extract from About St Michaels Mount

“The Mount’s access to the high seas gave it a value far in excess of a landlocked castle. No longer could it exist as a sparsely defended priory. Henry VIII was now on the throne and his personal needs as well as his mistrust of Rome led him to radical solutions. Unable to bring the monasteries under his control, he simply did the unthinkable and made away with them, distributing their lands amongst his friends. Among them was Syon Abbey, dissolved in 1539, and with it St Michaels Mount.

For strategic reasons the Mount was considered too important to meet the same fate as so many of its fellow priories. The buildings were not pulled down, and the C14th church still stands as the centrepiece of the castle. But the faithful line of clergy, whose attendance had lasted unbroken for a thousand years, were sent away.”

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…”


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.

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