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Cornwall: Out on the edge

Looking out to the Atlantic, Cornwall has always been defined by the elements and its mercurial, mystical landscapes, haunted by the ruins of old industries

Cornwall: Out on the edge
Coverack Beach, St Just. Image: Emily Mott

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In summer, the artist Kurt Jackson paints in his bare feet. This is not merely a question of taking off his socks and shoes. He works en plein air, unrolling monumental canvases on moors or clifftops and walking across them, feeling them under his toes as he layers on the paint. “I want to capture and celebrate what I’m looking at and what I’m feeling and hearing and seeing and smelling,” he tells me when I meet him at his gallery in the town of St Just. The result is paintings that channel the very Cornishness of Cornwall — as if the viewer can reach into the paint layers to feel the heather and gorse, the texture of granite and the ocean swell.

Ten years after my last visit, I too am seeking to capture something of the essence of England’s westernmost county — to feel beneath my toes, as it were, its culture and beauty, and the paradox of its position on the edge of things. After arriving from ‘up-country’ on the Night Riviera sleeper train (a pasta supper in Paddington, a breakfast croissant as we cross the Tamar), I pick up a hire car in Truro, set the satnav for The Lizard Peninsula and drive off into a glorious autumn morning. The Lizard is a geological oddity that juts out from Cornwall’s south coast into one of the busiest, most treacherous shipping lanes in the world. Below my tyres, as I reach the peninsula’s lower half, are gabbro and serpentine rocks — layers of ocean crust and Earth’s mantle pushed upward in a tectonic convulsion, now underpinning a wild heathland of rare plants and prehistoric settlements. Just off the east coast lie the crocodile-like Manacles; rocks that have ripped the bottom from over a hundred ships and the life from more than a thousand mariners. And all round is some of the cleanest sea you’ll find this side of the Arctic.

Soon, I’m slithering towards it down a chute of a footpath enclosed by high banks of sloe, blackberry and gorse bushes. The path has a secretive air, as if the spirits of the smugglers and wreckers who once trod it haunt it still. My companion for the morning, Tim van Berkel, tells me that donkeys also used it to bring seaweed up for the fields. Until the advent of artificial fertiliser, seaweed was widely used on coastal arable land. I’m about to discover how history has come full circle on this stretch of The Lizard, for seaweed is once more being harvested — this time as a superfood.

Dutchman Tim is the co-owner of The Cornish Seaweed Co, which farms a five-mile stretch of the intertidal zone, from where we are now, Lowland Point, past the fishing village of Coverack towards Lizard Point. The idea for the business came to van Berkel’s partner, Caro Warwick-Evans, when she heard an item on the radio programme Farming Today about the harvesting of seaweed in Ireland. “‘Hey, there’s lots of seaweed in Cornwall,’ we thought. ‘If the health benefits are so great and it’s so sustainable, why don’t we give it a go?”’ she tells me.

At the bottom of the path, we clamber over an old granite stile onto the grassy foreshore of Lowland Point. Out on the barely ruffled sea, a couple of container ships sit just below the horizon line. The tide is coming in, filling rock pools with tea-coloured water in which the seaweed sways. The harvesters have finished for the day — they’re laying out glistening piles to dry in polytunnels at nearby Roskillys (an organic farm where the Cornish Seaweed Co rents some land). But Tim is keen to give me a tour of the seaweed fields.

Skipping from boulder to boulder as the sea gurgles in beneath our boots we step over clusters of dark brown dulse (“a meat alternative, like bacon”), vivid green sea lettuce (“fried and mixed with dulse, it’s good on omelettes or fish pie”) and razor wrack (“not really edible but good for the skin. We make a bath bag out of it”). The tide advances fast, forcing us back to shore, where a circle of stones marks the site of a Romano-British salt works. This is another Cornish industry that’s been recently revived, for not far from where we’re standing the Cornish Sea Salt Co harvests pure Atlantic salt and sells it to discerning kitchens across Britain, as well exporting to over 35 countries worldwide.

Artist Kurt Jackson. Image: Emily Mott

Throughout history, Cornwall has made connections across the seas — ancient Phoenicians were said to have come here for the tin, although there’s no archaeological evidence. As my exploration of The Lizard continues, I find myself standing on cliffs at Poldhu, on the west side of the peninsula, holding onto my cap in a buffeting breeze. All around me, cows fertilise the tufty pastureland — known as morrops, in Cornish — with khaki pats. All around me are the ruins of granite foundation stones; at the cliff edge stands a granite obelisk. “You’re standing on one of the great sites of world history…” declares the plaque at its base.

This is all that’s left of Guglielmo Marconi’s Wireless Station, which, on 12 December 1901, transmitted the first radio signal across the Atlantic to Newfoundland: a repetition of the letter ‘s’ in Morse Code. The station was dismantled in the ’30s but there’s a small museum nearby, The Marconi Centre, dedicated to the great man and his telecommunication experiments.

Cornwall has specialised in sending information long-distance since 1588, when lookouts lit a chain of beacons to alert the rest of England to the approach of the Spanish Armada. The museum’s guide, Robin Ridge, is a former engineer at the vast Goonhilly Satellite Earth Station on The Lizard. He tells me that by the 1870s, Cornwall was in touch with the rest of the world via a telegraph cable on the ocean bed, and that breaking news was greeted as excitedly then as it is today, if not as quickly. “Expats in India knew the result of the Boat Race within 20 minutes,” he says.

The telegraphy cable came ashore at Porthcurno, around three miles from Land’s End on the south coast. Porthcurno bills itself as ‘the most connected valley on the planet’. The former telegraph station there is now the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum, but Porthcurno remains plugged into the world as the landing point on the eastern side of the Atlantic of FLAG (Fibre-optic Link Around the Globe), a mostly undersea telecommunications cable that carries much of the world’s telephone and internet traffic between North America, Europe and Asia. Unsurprisingly, GCHQ operates a monitoring station a little way inland from Porthcurno, at Skewjack, and there’s a poetic logic in the fact John Le Carré, creator of that consummate eavesdropper, George Smiley, lives nearby.

Moor than meets the eye
Besides the telegraphy, Porthcurno has one of Cornwall’s best beaches, a wedge of fine sand hemmed by cliffs and sloping to a sea that turns Caribbean-green at the first hint of sun. And above it, slotted into those cliffs like some ruined amphitheatre in Sicily, is the open-air Minack Theatre. My destination that evening for a performance of William Wycherley’s Restoration comedy The Country Wife. As we take our seats, the sky above is wearing its comedy and tragedy masks at the same time — billows of innocuous cumulus lit by the setting sun and, out to sea, purple clouds threatening rain. “What a crowd of cuckolds and cuckold makers we have here,” exclaims the periwigged Pinchwife as the rain begins to fall and the audience rustles into plastic ponchos. But the rain abates and by the time we clamber back to the car park after a rollicking evening of shenanigans and double entendres, the moon is trailing a glittering causeway across the sea.

The following morning I’m up on the moors of West Penwith. Around me is Chysauster Ancient Village, a Romano-British settlement of 10 stone-walled houses, now shrunk to shoulder height and covered in heather and bracken. In the 19th century, Methodist preachers held open-air sermons up here, their fiery rhetoric echoing across a landscape of heather and rock, of megalithic tombs and standing stones, and underground chambers known as fogous. Towards Land’s End, a rescue helicopter hovers and two structures break the horizon: to the south west, the church tower at St Buryan, the village inland from Porthcurno, where Sam Peckinpah shot Straw Dogs; and due west, the engine house of the Ding Dong Mine which ceased operations in the late-19th century, its chimney rising like an offensive middle finger.

Tin mines, Penwith Coast. Image: Emily Mott

Of mines and men
D H Lawrence, who lived hereabouts (in the village of Zennor) during the First World War, detected in the landscape “that flicker of Celtic consciousness before it was swamped under Norman and Teutonic waves”. The artist Kurt Jackson, who lives in of West Penwith and has immortalised it in countless paintings, doesn’t buy into such mystical interpretations. But, he reckons, walking here is “a glorious way of getting to know and understand the Cornish landscape and therefore the culture, the history, everything”. I’m drawn by that Ding Dong engine house, so, having parked in a lay-by on the edge of Bosullow Common, I head there on foot. 

The footpath that crosses the lay-by is The Tinner’s Way, a waymarked path from St Ives, in the east, to Priest Cove, beyond St Just. I follow the path as it winds up between pin-cushion banks of heather and gorse, past the Nine Maidens stone circle, to Mên-an-Tol, a Neolithic formation of two granite standing stones either side of a ring-stone — viewed from the side the stones look like the acronym for ‘laugh out loud’. On top of the ring-stone — said to be imbued with various magical and magical powers — people have left seashells and sprigs of heather, possibly petitioning to get pregnant. I continue past the ‘Four Parish Stone’ that marks the meeting point of the parishes of Zennor, Gulval, Madron and Morvah — Cornish names that sound like Old Testament prophets — gulp in the sudden view of Mount’s Bay (with St Michael’s Mount rising, Avalon-like, from it) that opens up to the south east, and reach the sombre precincts of the Ding Dong engine house.

These granite structures, which once housed the steam engines that pumped water from the mines, have been called by some ‘moorland cathedrals’ for the way they embellish the Cornish landscape. Close up, however, Ding Dong has a sullen air; a burnt-out car sits in a gully of rainwater; the fathomless mouth of the mineshaft is covered with rusted iron railings crudely anchored by boulders. And this feels right, for there’s really nothing romantic or spiritual about this place.

As Kurt Jackson says, quoting Cornish artist Peter Lanyon, “The engine houses should be seen as memorials to the suffering of the miners.” Indeed, working conditions and life expectancy in the mining industry were dreadful. One of the worst of Cornwall’s mining disasters occurred at Levant Mine, on the coast, just over four miles west of Ding Dong. On 20 October 1919, a link broke on Levant’s ‘man engine’ — the system of platforms that lowered and raised men between the surface and the working shafts — plunging 31 miners to their deaths. “Their descendants still live round here, the tragedy is still felt keenly,” says Richard, a volunteer guide at the museum on the site where the mine once stood. Richard leads the way down the tunnel, from the miners’ ‘dry’ (changing room) past the ‘clay drop’ — a chute where miners scooped up clay to affix candles to their felt hats — to the shaft of the man engine. Here, poised above the place where the men fell, he talks of the miners’ superstitions, how they believed the spirits of those who died underground stayed down there in the deep, dark places and needed to be placated, usually with scraps of food. The story of the miner rash enough to defy these spirits is told in the folk song The Ballad of Tommy Trevorrow; the first verse of which Richard duly recites:

Tom Trevorrow! Tom Trevorrow!

Leave some of thy fuggan for bucca

Or bad luck to thee to-morrow!

When I emerge, a red-billed chough — Cornwall’s emblematic bird — is tumbling and soaring above the cliffs. Out on the ocean, within the reef that lies a mile offshore, basking sharks and dolphins regularly breach the waves. It’s a wildly beautiful spot.

My Cornish exploration concludes in St Ives, a former pilchard port that reinvented itself in the postwar years as a hub of artistic innovation. At its forefront was the sculptor Barbara Hepworth. In St Ives, the place where she lived and worked, Trewyn Studio, has become a museum affiliated to Tate St Ives. Filled with flowers, fragrance and shapes, the garden of Trewyn is as perfect as the trademark holes in Hepworth’s sculptures. It’s here I meet Tate St Ives’ executive director, Mark Osterfield. We admire Hepworth’s cluster of perpendicular pieces, Conversation with Magic Stones, and discuss her love of what she called “the remarkable pagan landscape” of West Penwith. “If you think of Nine Maidens, Mên-an-Tol, etcetera, you can see it, can’t you,” he says.

As we leave Trewyn, I ask Mark about the large, whitewashed, apparently redundant building, resembling a giant doorstop as it follows the gradient of the hill. “The old Palais de Danse,” he says; then elaborates. Not only was it once the jitterbug capital of west Cornwall but — when the feet stopped tapping — Hepworth used it as a studio for pieces too big for Trewyn, notably the 21ft-high bronze Single Form, which has stood outside the UN Headquarters in New York since 1964. “You can still see the outline of the sculpture on the floor,” says Mark. The Tate plans to open the Palais to the public some day. Meanwhile, I contemplate the idea that, on this salty old back street, with the beady-eyed herring gulls crying overhead, Hepworth did what Cornwall does best. She forged something unique and sent it out across the seas.

Essentials

Getting there & around
Cornwall can be accessed by rail and road from across the UK. FlyBe flies four times daily to Newquay from Gatwick and Stansted, twice daily from Manchester to Newquay and once daily from Birmingham and Edinburgh. Car hire from Hertz is available in several locations. 

Where to stay
West by Five

Hotel Tresanton

More info
visitcornwall.com

How to do it
Great Western Railway’s Night Riviera Sleeper departs London Paddington station at 11.45pm, arriving in Truro at 7.06am and Penzance at 7.53am. From £66 per person, off peak. 

Published in the Jul/Aug issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)