Travel writer Philip Mars­den on Corn­wall

The travel writer and nov­el­ist finds the county he calls home con­stantly sur­prises him

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - Content -

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 (kre­senker­, 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

The pretty sea­side vil­lage of St Mawes, where Mars­den and his fam­ily used to live

Mars­den (with his boat in the back­ground) at the tidal Ruan Creek

‘There is a still­ness here’: Ruan Creek at Arde­vora on the Rose­land Penin­sula

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