Friday, 21 August 2020

Through the lanes of Cornwall

This is the latest in a series of posts about my journey around England in a camper van in 1990. Read an introduction to this drawing journey around England here.

[Bracketed sections like this have been added in 2020.] 

I camped in a green lane last night, a narrow unsurfaced track that connected two even narrower roads. Up at a farm they tell me it will be quietness itself up there and that the only problem will be which gateway to park in, which view to have when the side door is swung open. I try each gateway for size, and pick on one that looks over the wheatfields to the tall tower of Probus church (above), its bells carrying on the wind this practice night.

Within minutes a motorcycle shoots by. In those few seconds we exchange startled glances, me with a kettle in my hand, him from beneath a blue peaked helmet before he's gone over the hill. By the time I have cooked another minor classic from my two saucepans and been for a walk around the fields he comes back and pulls up shaking his head.

“I’ll be sending a report about this to County Hall, yes I will. Built a shed right across the track further along they have, so you can hardly get by at all. Would you believe it?” There is more head shaking.

This is how he would spend his summer evenings, he tells me, going up and down the lanes on his bike. There is, he goes on, a danger that green lanes such as this are to have their status changed to footpath or bridleway, which would prevent entry to motor vehicles, such as his bike, few as they are that want to use them. His journey was a kind of modern beating of the bounds.

Just why this was so important to him he had trouble in explaining and I had trouble in understanding. In fact it was as if he'd never asked himself the question before.

“Now this shed is the sort of thing that will get these lanes closed to folks like me.”

“But," I dare to ask, “you say you only use it to make sure that you can still use it and that's the only time it really gets used by motor vehicles.”

He gives me a hurt kind of expression, but rallies.

“Ah,” he says, “but you have used it too.”

And with that, mercifully, he heads off.

James Hobbs, Bohortha, Cornwall, 1990

Roseland is a peninsula off a peninsula, a splinter of land off the south Cornish coast. Winding down the roads this morning, my pace having collected the usual trail of traffic behind me, I'll admit to being particularly keen to reach St Anthony-in-Roseland. Whereas Morton's enthusiasm for this little village had sprung from the magic of its name, mine was a matter more of seeing just how well the perfect idyll he had described had survived, how it had coped over the last 60 years, because in many ways it had the most to lose. There was an inkling that perhaps the sleepy, thatched village would have been adorned with bungalows, mini-markets and satellite dishes.

For a start, it is no easy place to find. There are no signs welcoming careful drivers to St Anthony's or brown signs to heritage centres. I had driven to Roseland's extremity, where the lighthouse sits, without uncovering it. My map omits all references and sitting looking across the tanker-strewn estuary to Falmouth I began to entertain the idea that the village he had described was nowhere to be found but in Morton’s own head. 

It is a landscape of hidden places, of glimpses of water in unlikely directions, of houses that disappear immediately the moment you pass. I start working my way back, turning up side lanes until I find what I think I am looking for: St Anthony is at the end of a no-through-road signposted Bohortha. If the village has a secret, it's going the right way about keeping it.

There is a bend in the lane lined with a few cottages before the road peters out into two grass tracks. It is all wonderfully unexceptional, so much so I need convincing it is the village Morton wrote about. For the first time I have to get out In Search of England to try to piece together whether I am in the right place; there is a little surviving thatch weighed down by tarpaulins and ropes, a farmhouse and the old school, already closed by the 1920s when Morton came.

A woman comes down the road wearing a floppy camouflage hat and carrying a basketful of strawberries. She introduces herself as Betty, and at just the mention of Morton, I know I have arrived.

“We do have a few people around asking after him. He stayed up at the farm around the corner there, where he sat and listened to the wireless. But his chauffeur stayed at Pink Cottage,” and she points to the house we are standing right outside. 

Chauffeur? This is certainly news to me. Having scoured his book countless times, I have found no evidence to point towards a chauffeur whizzing him around the lanes, and I don't like the sound of it too much. While I have been rattling up and down the coast using hedges for a toilet, he was sauntering from, perhaps, hotel to hotel in the back seat of a car trying to act the part of an intrepid explorer. He waxes so lyrically about the virginal simplicity of his room at the farmhouse, it does suggest it is something of a unusual change for him. But a driver? I can hardly believe how he could have kept it from his readers if it had been the case. [We know now from Michael Bartholomew’s book In Search of HV Morton that Morton was hiding much more heinous truths.]

The cottage is thatchless with dull paint and frosted glass in the front door, a holiday home. [It now seems to be available to rent.] There is an old water-pump in the garden. A vicar in Bath owns it, Betty tells me. A thick airport novel is inside on the window sill. It is a cottage with a glazed expression waiting for visitors.

This is the closest I have been to Morton since I left and I wonder if there is anyone who would remember him, unlikely as that may be.

“My father would have met him,” Betty tells me, promisingly. She pauses. “But he died 30 years ago.”

For all thesigns of a fairly timeless way of life, there have been changes here. Like when the defences for the war were built out on the Point, and when mains electricity arrived in 1945. Mains water waited until 1963. But there's no public telephone and no shop, and Betty didn't know anyone with satellite television. Instead there is the silence and wind of an island, its remoteness interrupted by a white milestone outside a house.

“London 272 miles.”

It had been put there by the owners of the house as a joke for their visiting friends, but now it is little more than a rude intrusion. London seems further away than that.

James Hobbs, Place Creek, Roseland, 1990

There is a church, but it is away across the fields behind the manor. The route leads over a hill, the grass thick and green with smells of dampness and scents of hedgerow flowers. The path splits and follows on under overhanging branches of trees along the edge of a cornfield.

The tower of the church only becomes visible through the trees when you are nearly on it, but it is wrapped in red campion, white leeks, rhododendron and roses. At least, this is what I am assured they are by a woman gradually sniffing and poking her way around the paths. On either side are steep banks of trees that threaten to swamp the scene with even more foliage than there is already. 

Birds swoop low over my head as I enter the dark church. You make an involuntary effort at ducking in these circumstances, but by the time you do they are well past anyway. The interior has not, I find when my eyes grow accustomed to the dimness, fared well under a regime of neglect. Plaster has fallen from the ceiling, the altar is stripped bare and paint is blistering and bubbling from the walls. Only the windows and memorials to those from the manor next door give the impression that any care has been taken at all. A stack of dishevelled, damp hymn books suggest that the Occasional Services notice is something of an overstatement. 

A man passing outside can help me with this. It started as a question as to when the next service might be and ended in the story of a village. Soon he was slumped next to me on a bench telling a long tale of animosity between the manor, who had kept the church in repair since 1650, and the local diocese.

“The manor had spent £7,000 on lead for the roof and £4,000 on the windows and then the vicar, strange man, refused to come out for a wedding and the next thing, before you know it, one thing has led to another... Normally I would be the one to come and give the graveyard a strim, but now I only feel embarrassed about it and I don't like to have to explain why it's in the state it is. You can almost see it being demolished... You're not a journalist are you?”

The most polished and quaint of rural scenes are all too easily taken to be a reflection of the tranquillity and equanimity of life in the country, so to find the relative worldliness of this situation is like catching the village with its trousers down.

James Hobbs, St Just-in-Roseland, Cornwall, 1990

It is a Sunday morning at St Just-in-Roseland at five minutes to eight and the church bell is ringing. I have slept in a corner of its car park and heard the clock striking each hour through the night. As the cars begin to surround me, I get dressed and watch the churchgoers on the walk through the gardens, following the trail of umbrellas. 

The care and attention that has been given to this church is a mirror image to to that I had seen bestowed upon St Anthony's yesterday. Heading through the tropical vegetation (a memorial to the eccentricities of successive clergymen who have devoted themselves to it), weaving between palm trees and ponds, I can imagine us for a moment as a group of expatriates making our way through some outpost of the Empire. Someone shouts, “But Dorothy, how frightful!” without a trace of a Cornish burr. Watching the little crocodile of elderly congregation disappearing towards the tower set against a creek, I half expected them to be gradually picked off by sniper fire from the rear.

Trekking back to their cars afterwards, the creek is revealing acres of mud through the ebbing tide. There are fallen trees from the winter's storms and a £10,000 appeal for them to be cleared by floating them down the river. Later an American contingent arrive with their camcorders. They avoid the sight of an oil rig moored in the estuary around the corner, a bizarre vision in the circumstances.

James Hobbs, Oil rig, Cornwall, 1990

A woman is working in her garden overlooking it, but I have trouble in making myself heard in the wind.

“Excuse me,” I try again, “could you tell me about the oil rig?” She continues to struggle with a support for a flopping plant, shoving and hammering with no sign of a reaction.

“Hello!” I shout this time. Still nothing. She is evidently as deaf as the post she is now beating into the ground with an axehead, so I leave her to it. I can only assume the oil rig is not a permanent feature.

James Hobbs, 1990

Read on: Rock bottom at Land's End 

Thursday, 6 August 2020

Over the Tamar to Cornwall

This is the latest in a series of posts about my journey around England in a camper van in 1990. Read an introduction to this drawing journey around England here.

[Bracketed sections like this have been added in 2020.] 

On the road to Exeter (above), where the slopes become hills and there is no mistaking that Devon is somewhere different, there is news coming through on the radio of a collision off the south coast between a trawler and the oil tanker Rose Bay. The report tells how the trawler crew were more interested in watching the Cup Final on a TV below deck than what they were likely to run into as they floated along [Manchester United and Crystal Palace drew 3-3 after extra time]. The result is an oil slick that is bobbing away at sea, but which may yet meet the very coast I am heading for. All eyes are on the weather forecast and the wind directions.

A strip of road passes along the edge of the River Avon near Bigbury Bay, a quiet, narrow lane that is little higher than the level of the receding water. I have pulled in under the craggy little cliff next to it watching the tide drop as I cook. There are signs of a high tide mark along the road, a line of assorted twigs, but the rider of a horse that passes assures me I should be safe to park here tonight. She says the tides are not so high at the moment, so I shouldn't wake up to water lapping around my bed. Anyway, it will be even quieter later, she goes on, as the road gets completely flooded fat high tide further along, which will effectively cut me off.

James Hobbs, Devon gateway, 1990

This estuary would have been one of the most affected had the oil spillage been much worse. Sensitive wildlife areas are still threatened even though booms are being positioned across the mouths of rivers to keep what there is out. In the same way, roads to this stretch of coast have been closed too, to keep out people coming to gawp at the mess there is. “Road closed – no access to beach” signs block the routes to the blackened shoreline.

The warnings for people to stay away have worked. The roads are largely deserted. When I later find my way down to the beach at Bigbury, there are only a few cars in the car park and a couple of people walking across from the pub on the island. There are tyre marks in the sand and I can persuade myself that in the wind I can smell disinfectant. But of the sludgy oil and blackened wildlife that are pictured in the local paper, there is no sign.

[About 1,100 tonnes of crude oil were spilt in the Rose Bay collision, polluting about 12 miles of the Devon coast. I'm not sure how I missed the damage: it was reported in Hansard that Challaborough beach, close to where I camped for the night, was damaged by oil up to 18 inches deep.]


True enough, I am not flooded out in the night. The road is still wet, but I have lost no sleep. I eat my breakfast cereal watching swans and a heron on the river, untouched by oil from the Rose Bay, and then head further west.

Plymouth is studded with plaques and memorials to prove its great pride in its history. They pop up everywhere. Nowhere is this more evident than on the Hoe, a vast green brow along the front that looks over the Sound. There is Smeaton's Tower which used to be the lighthouse perched out on Eddystone Rock, and a statue of the Sir Francis Drake, the English explorer [and slave trader]. Today he seems to be waiting at a bus stop, having to be content with the view of the back end of a line of vintage buses that are being clambered and drooled over by enthusiasts.

[Drake's statue has, for now, survived the toppling that those of other figures with links to slavery and Britain's brutal colonial past have undergone in the wake of George Floyd's killing by police in the US.]

James Hobbs, Drake's statue, Plymouth Hoe, 1990

As if this wasn't enough the Army Display Team are on hand too, standing over young boys holding rifles and explaining the finer points of the camouflaged tanks and jeeps. The last time I had seen this such a vehicle was on the sea front at Bournemouth keeping an eye on the Leeds supporters. The idea of this event is probably to get the kids before they get you. It is mostly young families looking around, some with pushchairs, as nonchalantly as if it was a village fete, kids pulling dads towards different stands.

"Fire a service rifle. Five shots for 20p," reads a sign. A few youths shoot down a small gap at the back of a camouflaged lorry.

It is not surprising to find this here because Plymouth's name has been made by war and by the sea, and to look out from the Hoe, it is easy to see why. It is a marvellous harbour view, a stage that makes each arrival and departure an event. There is everything from dinghies to cross channel ferries passing through it even now. 

But what it also does is tame the idea of what it is to cross oceans. It is like a gentle introduction, seductive, impossible to ignore, its two headlands a gateway that asked to be passed through. There is a terrace down to the water's edge and bare rocks, cafes, deckchairs and two floating white islands offshore where swimmers are sitting and resting. The Rose Bay cannot be far from their minds.

There is another outbreak of plaques at the Barbican, the old fortified area of Plymouth whose narrow streets show that it, at least, survived the bombing raids. It was from here the Pilgrim Fathers left on the Mayflower. Number 9, the house where it is claimed at least some of them stayed the night before they set sail is no longer the coal merchant of Morton's time, but a shop selling junk art to the American tourists, who are in no short supply. 

But it is not really a tourist atmosphere here; it is a place to see and be seen on this afternoon, bump into friends, watch people pass from the benches. The narrowness and irregularity of the Barbican stands out – after the massive destruction of the second world war Plymouth's centre was rebuilt with sweeping dual carriageways and straight, yawning thoroughfares. For a while it was as if Chicago had come to Devon as a grid system of roads was laid out and 14 storey buildings were called skyscrapers. Built for the age of the car, many of the shopping streets are closed to them now, filled instead with fountains, trees and playgrounds. Charles Church remains roofless as a memorial to those lost in the war, its shell embalmed in the middle of a roundabout. Plymouth is still getting used to being its new self.

James Hobbs, Devonport Dockyard, 1990

The city's dockyard at Devonport, started under William of Orange, struggles to survive in these post Cold War days. This is good news and bad news to Plymouth's workers of course, but for now it survives in competition with Scottish dockyards, fighting to have nuclear submarines in its waters. In search of an entrance to the waterfront, I have turned down a road to be stopped by a policeman.

"Sorry sir, no public access here, but if it's cranes you're looking to draw, may I suggest Cornwall Beach. Right at the lights, left at the mini-roundabout, down a cobbled street..." His suggestion is perfect. The road, lined with blocks of flats, slopes down to the water and a couple of pubs, but is dominated by the view of the bow of a ship. There is about 10 feet of shingle and a few rowing boats. Music is in the air and children are playing in the street.

James Hobbs, Cornwall Street, Plymouth, 1990

"I did a drawing of a balloon at school today," a little girl says, and runs to get it, but comes back with her younger brother instead. They sit and chat with me as I draw, oblivious to warnings about talking to strangers. When I tell them I am going to Cornwall, she tells me they have never been, and yet there it is just across the River Tamar from us.

The Sound narrows at Devil's Point and opens again into the deep landlocked harbour that is marked with cranes and docks. For all the prosperity it has brought Plymouth it is rough and stark, an area used to dealing with the demands of sailors finally making it ashore after voyages, used to the freight thundering in and out and the tourists on their way to France and Spain on the ferries.

James Hobbs, Tamar bridges, 1990

For those that have charged down the A38, skirting the south of Dartmoor on their way to Cornwall, there is the Tamar Bridge to mark the event. It stands beside Isambard Kingdom Brunel's suspension bridge built 100 years previously, and together they make an interesting pair. While a woman feeds herself and her dog with ice-cream by the next car, I watch the trains cross the bridge, and disappear from view until they cross a more distant viaduct.

But rather than take the bridge, I stick to Morton's route and take the Tor Ferry. I queue for longer than the trip takes. Immediately things do change and something does take over. The roads are quiet and the sea is calm as I make along the coast, but it is a step that signifies that the land is running out, narrowing, and soon we will be left at the tip of Land's End.

James Hobbs, 1990

[Further posts about this journey will follow here soon.]