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Travel writer Philip Marsden on Cornwall
The travel writer and novelist finds the county he calls home constantly surprises him
I have lived in Cornwall for much of my adult life and, although a good deal of that time has been spent nosing around its remoter corners, it still holds the capacity to surprise, to throw up new discoveries. If it didn’t, I might well have moved elsewhere.
Cornwall is a thousand different places. A journey of just five or 10 miles can transport you to another world – from the wilderness of Bodmin Moor to the eccentric collections of Boscastle’s Museum of Witchcraft
and Magic, from the ancient field systems around Zennor in the far west to the alleyways and art galleries of St Ives, from the abandoned mine workings of the Great Flat Lode Trail to the rare geology and plants of the Lizard Peninsula, from sea caves and surf beaches to the moonscapes of the china clay country. Exploring Cornwall is a reminder that there are places in this country that can leave you standing still, looking around in amazement.
About 10 years ago, I moved inland with my family. We had been living in the busy harbour village of St Mawes. Our children had been at St Mawes School. We exchanged the hugger-mugger of the community – where a short walk to the shops could involve an hour or more of lively chat – for a mile of track, an old farmhouse and a rarelyvisited labyrinth of tidal creeks and valleys. I miss the daily feed of village news and gossip, and I miss the drama of the open sea. I even miss the dash across the road to the bakery which, during the worst of the winter storms, can leave you dowsed in gallons of spray.
But in the upper creeks of the Fal, and those of the Helford and Fowey rivers, is somewhere entirely different. I still find myself thinking: it’s hard to believe these sites exist, so close to the bustle of the county’s towns, to the beach-bustle of the coast. They have a mood all their own. Thick woods of sessile oak cover the slopes. There is a stillness here that persists even when Atlantic gales sweep in. Twice a day the tide creeps over mudflats to rise among the lower branches. Leave the windows open on cold and windless evenings, and the sounds of waders and wintering fowl, of redshank and curlew and wigeon, fill the night. Walk to Ruan Quay or to Sett Bridge from Ruan Lanihorne and the strangeness of this landscape becomes clear.
A couple of years ago, I sailed single-handed up the west of Ireland and Scotland, researching the stories of that coastline for a book. The Atlantic swells were high, the gales relentless and the harbours scarce and exposed. How often I longed for these Cornish creeks, for their particular peace, their estuarine shelter, the gentle shish of breeze in oak leaves, and the moment when the first silent lip of water slides across the mud.
The mud was not always here. It has accumulated over the centuries. Ships once pushed through the deep waters of these valleys, several miles into what is now solid ground. The tin they carried made its way to the Mediterranean; recent analysis of archaeological finds in Israel has suggested Cornwall was an even more important source of minerals in the ancient world than was previously supposed.
And that is the other aspect of Cornwall’s half-hidden places – the layers of history that lie waiting to be peeled back. In few other regions of the country, or of north-western Europe, is the past so present.
The Ordnance Survey is one way to explore Cornwall, another is in the county’s archives and in its more than 70 museums – Tate St Ives, the Royal Cornwall Museum and the National Maritime Museum Cornwall are only the biggest of these.
But perhaps nowhere reveals the diversity of this small region better than the brand-new £11 million archive centre, Kresen Kernow (kresenkernow.org), which opened to the public last September, with its 1.5 million documents and maps and manuscripts, 14 miles of shelving, and a limitless store of Cornish stories and places.
The Summer Isles: A Voyage of the Imagination, by Philip Marsden (Granta, £20), is out now