Dear Sir Kev,
Sincere apologies for not writing sooner. I have no excuses, such as too much HSD (that’s beer), or I’ve been worked off my feet, or there’s no internet here in the south west, or even – nothing to report. The truth is I haven’t dispatched a report for the simple reason that I have been overcome with laziness. It’s not entirely my fault. Some responsibility must lie with the location I now find myself in. I know you have an appreciation of landscape, fauna, and natural vistas. Well you try doing something when each day you are confronted by a wide serpentine estuary filled to capacity by the restless Atlantic twice daily, and beyond it gently rolling farmlands all the way to Bodmin Moor. Think Middle Earth’s Argonath without the statues.
That view is partly the reason Kim and I bought our first place here nearly 20 years ago, and its therapeutic and meditative powers haven’t diminished with time. Indeed, in our new elevated position where we can watch entire weather systems unfold on the horizon, on their way to you and our former lives, where entire 180 degree rainbows are as common as oyster catchers and the local youth pulling hand-break turns in the dead of night, the scene is possibly even more absorbing today; even more prone to rendering all who gaze on it to be unavailing. In fact many visitors have inquired as to how Kim or I ever getting anything done faced with such a view, or for that matter, ever leave the house. I rest my case.
I recall some time ago a friend of yours, down here at the busiest time, school summer holidays, complaining that there were insufficient railings around the harbour, where a young child might easily fall into the briny. I also recall, whereupon it was pointed to him that this is a fishing port and not, like Alton Towers, designed to be infant friendly, your friend dismissed the notion insisting the town is nowt more than a holiday resort. I won’t relay the displeasure that comment caused hereabouts.
I recall his remark because this morning at high tide, with the harbour gate slipping into the water to allow the coming and going of craft, I counted twenty one fishing vessels within the inner harbour alone. I could see more, sea worn and heavy with chains and lifting gear from further afield (Fowey and Penzance), tied up along the outer harbour, with another two, followed by gulls (who clearly hadn’t worked out that they didn’t have any fish on board at the start of the voyage) pushing against the tide on their way north along the Camel past Rock and Polzeath, to Stepper Point, Pentire, Newlyn Rock and the fishing grounds beyond.
There is a pride in these parts in taking what’s for the taking, that extends beyond fish: It’s ironic that for a town known internationally for seafood I’ve yet to meet a Cornishman who eats the stuff. I recall a trip some years ago to Tresco (the island, not the troubled grocery chain), the most verdant of the Isles of Scilly, and being shown the ceilings, doors, kitchens, and entire extensions built with a pinkish Canadian pine that had been washed up on the island’s shores when a cargo ship struck the rocks.
Closer to home a ship bearing coal that sank in the Camel estuary in the 1950s is still providing fuel for those with the time to scour Harbour Cove for lumps. Most are the size of fists but occasionally there are others as big as carry-on wheelies. The recent enthusiasm for wood burning stoves in homes has fueled another form of beach-coming. A tree trunk or piece of ship’s decking is enough for two nights burning so you can imagine, with wrecking in the DNA in these parts, the ingenuity and subterfuge employed to secure the most prized bits. In fact, it is not uncommon to find piles of driftwood stashed among the dunes and wooded rocks on St.George’s Well, placed by those awaiting a means by which to transport their booty home. I am not ashamed to admit that I have stashed wood in such a manner and I am not the only one to return the next day, armed with a saw, axe and burlap bag, to find it all gone.
Not so long ago I came upon some timbers, so saturated and blackened, I guessed they had been at the bottom of the sea for many years. I gathered them together but only had the strength to get one home. By the afternoon the remaining timbers, that I’d dragged to a small cave, had gone. Once dried the inside of my only log was revealed to be riddled with some foul smelling, translucent sea creature. Like some odorous invisible worm. I mention this because I came upon the same rank stink on a visit to a neighbour’s some days later.
One of the most successful beach scavengers around here, a meticulously attired women with a back as straight as a door and a pure white bob, who lives in the town’s most elegantly dilapidated house, and who is rumored to have danced at the London Palladium in a former life, insists “I never come home empty handed.” There is a basket in her living room containing many beautiful twisted branches, all found on the beaches while walking her black labrador retrievers, and that she intends to burn, one by one, upon each of her birthdays.
I mention her because she, and a growing number of people around here, also eat for free. Sea cabbage, or kale, grows ferociously on Old Town Cove, just off the Camel Trail. It can be eaten raw but I prefer it gently steamed when it reveals a bitter, nutty taste, that is delicious in stir-frys and rice. If my elegant friend is anything to go by it is packed with the elixir of life, although it can have a purging effect too. She serves sea cabbage up for a relative, an especially patronising one, she says, and one who is prone to grasping my friend’s wrist, anxiously, and asking in that sombre clerical way, “if I am alright?” The sea cabbage gives her the trots which is another way of telling her to get lost.
The other delicacy to be served up at many a local table is cauliflower. The fields above St.George’s Well are knee deep with them, tended and picked by teams of east European farm labourers working in every kind of weather. They must have instructions to harvest only a specific size and colour because there are discarded cauliflowers close to the cliff path. Kim is not alone in bringing dozens home, while, as someone pointed out, Tesco (the troubled grocery store not the Scilly isle) can’t give whoppers away for less than 50p. I’ll wager if they mudded them up a bit and left a pile in the car park they’d be gone within minutes.
The tide has turned since I began this dispatch. The sea has receded to reveal swirls of sand bars and mudflats, and the Camel virtually gone as far as the iron bridge. The oyster catchers and curlews are back, and the men who dig for lugworms are up to their thighs in mud. I can see all of that, so long as I don’t do much of anything else.