Walking the Cornish Coast: As I Was Walking to St Ives

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Jackie Harding recounts a journey from Zennor to St Ives earlier this year, where the echoes of the past, the sounds of the sea and the memories of other people still resonate along the way.

In this new regular series of features she will be mapping these kinds of stories onto the physical landscape of the Cornish coast. Read on to discover more.

We had arrived at night and so, woken by an urgent knocking at the door and a request to move our car so that the dairy man could collect the milk, I saw for the first time at dawn the view from our room in the converted barn at Tremedda Farm near Zennor. Cows grazed on the craggy moorland. Opening the door, however, the entrance was as unlike that of a barn in windswept West Cornwall as could be imagined. The sun drenched brick work suggested Italy – all arches and columns and our own covered terrace. Built into the structure, a large stone bowl prompted incongruous visons of country people stamping olives or grapes.

Later, breakfast was served in a room reached through the walled garden.  Here, the décor was more Bloomsbury than Boswednack: the farm was built at the turn of the last century for Elsie Pilcher who was indeed associated with The Bloomsbury Set through Virginia Woolf, whose family spent their summers at Talland House in St Ives. Elsie had not settled for merely a room of her own, but an entire farm, where she lived, as a young woman, with her Italian Chaperone. Her story mapped an unexpected contour onto the seemingly unforgiving landscape in this remotest corner of Cornwall.

Although reluctant to leave the sunny terrace and walled gardens, we set off after breakfast to pick up the coast path at Zennor, described by D.H. Lawrence as a “most beautiful place: a tiny granite village nestling under high shaggy moor-hills and a big sweep of lovely sea beyond”.

We passed St Senera Church, the only Church in England with its own mermaid, then turned off near The Tinner’s Arms where Lawrence stayed in 1915 and where he set his story Samson and Delilah, which dramatizes the reaction of the Cornish landlady to the unexpected return of her husband after an absence of sixteen years working as a miner in America, during which time he sent no word and no money. Ghosts of the characters as well as the writer, of mermaids and lovelorn, sea-drawn young men, walked with us on the path out of Zennor, along the coffin way, towards St Ives.

As we walked from Zennor, we were astounded, as Lawrence had been almost a century before, by the profusion of purple and yellow bordering the footpath, filling the air; “Primroses and violets are out and the gorse is lovely.”  The same track led us to the same “infinite Atlantic, all peacock-mingled colours”.  The granite sea below us, the ancient moorland above, we forged our path through time and space, glorious spring sunshine alternating with leaden skies and sudden showers.

In Zennor we passed a large stone, said to have been Wesley’s pulpit when he preached there in 1748. Granite boulders and rocks with splodges of yellow and green lichen had been moved into walls and markers along the way – some even constructed into a knee-high wall at the extreme edge of perilous cliffs. I wondered at the tenacity of a people who had bothered to make a boundary where the sea already made one.

Different types of walls and stiles provide physical echoes of pre-historic field systems; relics of ancient quoits and hut circles in the area led me to look twice at every boulder and outcrop for signs of human settlement, which can be dated here to the early Bronze Age. I finally understood nineteenth century miner-poet John Harris from Camborne, who wrote, “For me the rocks have language”. The landscape became a text on which I was walking, finding stories and layering my own.

The tumbling stream near Wicca Point reminded me of playing in waterfalls in Vermont; the perfect place for a picnic in the sun. Walking on, the rhythm of my steps echoed my grandad’s riddle remembered from childhood:

“As I was walking to St Ives, I met a man with seven wives…”

although we met almost no-one. Losing the path for a while we clambered over huge granite boulders, ancient Hepworths, and marvelled at the vastness of the sea beyond.

The final stretch led us past the bowling green onto Porthmeor Beach. My memory of skinny dipping here one October afternoon mingled with the borrowed memory of my best friend’s grandmother who, as a child in the Second World War, witnessed, while playing on the beach, the bombing of the gasworks where The Tate now stands guard.

We passed Barnoon Cemetery, where Alfred Wallis’ grave is marked by Bernard Leach’s ceramic mermaid and then the tiny stone cottage where Wallis, returned from the sea, lived and painted and sold hardware. We had stayed in the cottage next door a few years before, neighbours divided by time, not space.

Hurrying now to catch a bus back to Zennor, tired after the walk which seems longer than the map-measured distance, we hot-footed it through St Ives, past the Arts Club where a ten year old Virginia Woolf had gazed out of the window at her lighthouse while her mother played piano. The Arts Club where poets and musicians still drink and dream and play and perform, under the benevolent eye of that venerable old sea winkle, Bob Devereux, who has worked his way up from painting deck chair attendant to stall holder to poetic gallery director to become the Grand Old Man of the Frug.

We made it to the bus station in time to catch one of only two buses a day to Zennor and so ended this part of our adventure in the company of a man with the most impeccably coiffured handle bar moustache.

A man with his own stories to find.

Jackie Harding graduated from the University of London in 1987. With over 25 years teaching experience, she is also a published journalist and has an interest in teaching Creative Writing at university level.