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

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



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