CORNISH TALES - John Taylor's adventures on the Cornish Coastal Paths
I was ten years old when my family decided to spend our next year’s summer holiday in Penzance. None of us had ever been to Cornwall so we looked forward to it. Cornwall conjured up visions of shipwrecks, smugglers and pirates, as well as sandy beaches and caves.
The day after we arrived in Penzance, we claimed a spot on the beach, and I raced into the icy surf, turned around and raced back out again, only to see a girl up to her neck in a water-filled hole in the sand. Rushing over to help, I pulled her out, and took her to her parents. The next day, I invited Claire to the Lobster Pot cafe for strawberries and cream. This was my first date. Ever since then, Cornwall has exerted an irresistible attraction to me and even though I didn’t find any pirates, I did save a damsel in distress.
In May, 2014, I returned to Cornwall with the aim of walking from Minehead to Falmouth, which went well until the weather turned nasty. Gale force winds drove me into the Mullion Cove youth hostel where I met several other people waiting out the storm. It wasn’t long before we began swapping stories. Here are some of them.
Anastasia Beris is her own person. While most British people travel to Greece for the sunshine and the food, she is one who travels in the opposite direction. She visits Cornwall every year. Her reasons are interesting; she prefers the Cornish scenery and doesn’t like the heat in Greece. She explained how similar the Greeks are to the Cornish in that they all seem to wear their emotions on their sleeves. Love, jealousy, humour, anger and empathy are all very close to the surface. However, there are some things that the Cornish do better. These are Anastasia’s five rules for living. Rule one is to keep moving because doing the opposite encourages very bad health. Rule two is try to be kind even in tough situations. This will result in having many friends and friends are good for you. Rule three is to lighten up. This will reduce the bad kind of stress. Rule four is to try not to do things that you don’t love. And rule five is to start now on the first four.
As soon as she finished her little speech, she gave us all a firm hug and a kiss.
The Historian’s Tale
There must be at least thirty lighthouses along the coast of Southwest England and they say that if you spread out the shipwrecks, you would have one wreck every two hundred yards. Most of the existing lighthouses are now automated but still warn ships with their beams and foghorns. Frederick Farrady, who sat quietly in the corner of the room, was asked by us to explain his mission. He introduced himself as an historian who studies the history and operation of lighthouses. He said he spends about six weeks every year volunteering at lifeboat stations. On this trip, he was walking from lighthouse to lighthouse, and upon arrival, would spread out his bivvy sac and spend the night under the beam as it swept over him every ten seconds. He said he was really lucky when he was treated to the foghorn as well. He was the only one amongst us who hoped the weather would be foggy.
The Botanist’s Tale
Kylie O’Toole, smelling bewitchingly of calla lily, looked at us over the top of large and rather attractive glasses. Whenever she was asked a question on the native flora, she would reach into her fanny pack, pull out her wildflower book, and, after a quick flick, accurately answer the question. Her knowledge of the local vegetation was incredible. Whether it was the blooming season of Calendula or the favourite environment for Sweet William, she knew the answer. Kylie was a sweet lady who could not have been any taller than four feet nine inches and this came in handy as most plants along the path were less than twelve inches tall. Gorse seemed to be the dominant species, it’s colour being so outrageous that it hurts the eyes. Some fields have so much gorse in them that the young bulls find it more comfortable to stand on the path which makes it a bit unnerving for those amongst us who live in cities and find ourselves having to squeeze by.
When we had run out of questions, Kylie seemed relieved, and resumed her prior habit, that of eating chocolate Digestive biscuits.
The Postman’s Tale
Matt Kimber, the postman, was in Southwest England for one reason only, and that was to break the fifty plus age record for the six hundred and thirty mile path. To break the record, he had to complete it in twenty-eight days, which is astounding considering the elevation gain totals four times Mt. Everest, or one hundred and twelve thousand feet! To us mere mortals in the room, who have a tough time doing fourteen miles per day, he had to cover twenty-four. With that pronouncement, he bade us goodnight as he had to get an early start in the morning.
The Massage Therapist’s Tale
Silken, (she refused to divulge her last name), was enjoying herself listening to the stories of the other people in the room as she nibbled on almonds and drank from her water bottle. She lived in London and spent her days helping athletes recover from tough competitions by massaging tight muscles and walking up and down on their spines, something that I could have used after already having walked two hundred miles. She had a theory that all five of your senses must be balanced in order to achieve perfect mental health. Realizing that she was overdosing her sense of touch because her job required it, she felt she had to spend her holidays rebalancing. Every year she achieved this by walking the South West Coast Path which offered her the scenery, the sea, the wind, fresh fish, wildflowers, farm animals, cider, seabirds, nasturtiums and Cornish pasties. I made a note to myself that, from now on, i would pay more attention to my senses in case I got unbalanced. I might also drink more water and start eating almonds.
The Pilgrim’s Tale
We have all read about people who make personal sacrifices to collect money for their favourite charity like the man who “ran” the London marathon in a diving suit. It took him five days but he did it. What about the person who rowed across the Atlantic or the fellow who swam from Alcatraz to the mainland in shark-infested water pulling a boat with sixteen people aboard, with his hands and feet tied. Well, sitting in front of us, with his feet in a bucket of ice water, was a man who was well on his way to walking the six hundred and thirty mile South West Coast Path barefoot! Only those who have walked the path can comprehend this feat (no pun intended). Yet, there he was, Christopher Slade, not even complaining. Why complain, he said, when what he was doing paled in comparison to the suffering of the Syrian refugees. Can you imagine the pain? It rivals Terry Fox. All he will get out of it is a great feeling of having helped, a line in the Guinness Book of World Records and never again having to buy another pair of shoes.
The Swimmers’ Tale
There was a knock at the door which the pilgrim answered. He was greeted by two gorgeous twin sisters who introduced themselves as Simrin and Saira Finn from Fishguard in Wales. They were eighteen years old and obviously very fit. When asked where they had come from that day, they said Prussia Cove, three miles away. It soon became clear that they had not walked but had swum and were determined to swim the entire coastline. I asked Simrin what it was like being identical twins doing the same things. She said that they were only identical when they were in the water. On dry land, each did her own thing. Simrin wanted to be rich and spend her free time day trading while Saira simply wanted to pursue perfect blessedness by extinguishing all selfish needs and desires. For obvious reasons, I wanted to find out more about these unique sisters who were extremely easy to talk with. They definitely shared many qualities: both were risk takers and self directed. They were goal orientated and polite with enormous tolerance to physical pain. Like all teenaged girls, they loved music and dancing: Simrin liked Bruce Springsteen while Saira preferred Bhangra and when it came to heartthrobs, both swooned over Daniel Craig. When I asked why they had chosen the south west coast of England for their swim, they said that their coach would not stop talking about it, so, to shut him up, they had to do it. By now, I thought it was time to stop questioning them so I allowed Simrin to move over to the computer and Saira to sit cross legged on the floor to meditate.
The Poet’s Tale
Just as we all thought we had seen and heard everything this stormy day, a man stumbled into the room, wet faced and bedraggled. Sinking into a leather chair, he looked at all of us through glowing eyes, set in a face that radiated happiness. Samuel Greenacre was his name: he was a poet. He had come from Falmouth and wished to relate a recent experience which had moved him greatly. He asked our permission for him to present it in the form of a poem. He stood up and began.
It was Valentine’s Day on the old Truro road.
An old man appeared as if under a load.
He came to a halt under three balls of brass
and rubbed a clear spot on the dirty old glass.
Pressing his face to the small window pane,
he saw something there that kindled a flame.
His heart gave a flutter, his forehead grew damp.
He no longer felt like a useless old tramp.
The thing that he saw made his fingers fly free
and from deep in his mind came an old memory.
There in the pawnshop in a box made of tin,
lay a varnished and tarnished old violin.
Covered in dust along with its bow,
it seemed very old but to those in the know,
It got their attention and caused them to stare,
for the strings of this instrument were made of hair.
The old man who saw it could hardly resist,
as he saw a bargain that could not be missed.
He offered ten pounds: twas all he could raise.
With his tenner accepted, the old man gave praise.
As he carefully lifted it out of the case,
a smile slowly spread all over his face.
And with trembling hand and anticipation,
tucked it under his chin and felt the elation.
Then issuing forth and with total surprise,
out came a tune that brought tears to his eyes.
With an absence of effort it flowed through the air,
it amazed the pawnbroker and caused him to stare
at the little old man as he danced through the shop
with his heart full of joy and unable to stop.
This was the best music he had ever played
from a violin that had been beautifully made.
The tune that he played flowed like the sea,
it tugged at his heart strings and set him free.
When the solo concerto was finally done,
the shop felt as if it was filled with the sun.
The old man was moved like never before
as he hugged his fine purchase and then left the store.
This wonderful violin would fill his last years
with happiness, love and even some tears.
When Samuel sat down, there was silence for a few seconds, and then we applauded his touching tale. This was indeed an interesting day in the Mullion Cove youth hostel.
The Anaesthetist’s Tale
Ever since he was a young boy, Kyle Gascoyne was fascinated by the state of unconsciousness, dreams, sleep and sedation. He enjoyed sleeping and dreaming so much that his mother had difficulty prying him out of bed in the mornings. He did not take kindly to these interruptions, especially if he was in the middle of a dream about Madonna, his favourite celebrity. Occasionally, like all of us, he needed a spot of surgery due to various hockey injuries and the doctors were always amazed at his positive attitude towards anaesthesia. He even asked the dentist to put him under instead of administering the needle. So Kyle became an anaesthetist.
Since Kyle’s first visit to the Southwest Coast Path it made such an impression on him that Madonna was shunted into second place. He would rather dream about places like Penzance, Zennor, Fowey and Mousehole. That’s why he was in the lounge that day; he was living a dream. Kyle’s amazing ability to sleep gave him massive powers of recuperation which allowed him to move at top speed when necessary in his chosen sports of ice hockey, lacrosse and running. His bursts of high octane energy seemed to be fueled by a diet of mushrooms, strawberries and cider which he consumed in prodigious quantities.
The Holocaust Survivor’s Tale
Before my arrival at the hostel, I had walked thirteen miles from Porthleven accompanied by Moses Feinberg, an eighty-six year old survivor from Sobibor death camp in Poland during the second world war. He told me about his escape which had been organized by Russian soldiers who were also prisoners in the camp. When the time came, six hundred inmates rushed the main gate. Only three hundred made it to the forest. Moses was one of them.
I asked my friend why he chose to endure such hardship on the Cornish path at his advanced age and he replied that he was toughening himself in case he had to endure something similar in the future. He then confided a secret to me. He had arrived at Sobibor by cattle train with his mother and younger sister. The group was split into two, women and young children to the left, men and older boys to the right. The males were given jobs. Moses’ job was to shave the heads of the women and children and send them to the gas chamber. To his horror, Moses’ family entered the room. He called them over and was faced with an impossible decision. Should he keep quiet, tell them and say goodbye or drop his clippers and go with them? He prolonged the hair cutting as long as he was able and did not tell them. He has suffered ever since.
As we approached the hostel, it started to rain heavily and the wind howled; was God as upset as we were? We both entered the hostel with our faces streaming with water.
The Dogwalker’s Tale
Joey Capone, sitting on an overstuffed sofa in the youth hostel lounge, was covered by three large, tired dogs with their tongues hanging out. Joey himself looked in fine form as he fed his animals handfuls of dog biscuits, eagerly anticipating his turn to tell us what he was doing there that day.
I first bumped him and told him to begin his tale which turned out to be very interesting. Wishing to see South West England and not having a lot of cash, Joey decided to walk dogs for a fee which would cover his youth hostel bills.
He arrived in Minehead and began his search for employment. He found a large stone manor house with a long gravel driveway with a Bentley parked on it. Walking on the gravel alerted the dogs inside the house to bark ferociously. This was a good sign so he rang the bell. This excited the dogs even more and made it very difficult for the lady of the house to open the door. Mrs. Barnardo looked to be at the end of her tether and was less than polite to Joey. But, when he offered to walk her dogs, she couldn’t believe her luck. She ushered him into the great room and served him hot buttered scones and a pot of Earl Grey. Joey showed Mrs. Barnardo his references and they came to an agreement that Joey would earn one pound per mile for each of the five dogs. Realizing how tough it was for the lady to handle her dogs, Joey offered to “walk” the dogs 630 miles to Poole which is the full length of the Southwest Coast path. Money was no object to Mrs. Barnardo so she agreed and even supplied Joey with a backpack full of dog biscuits. Thirty minutes later Joey swaggered down the driveway with Ginger, Phlox, Diesel, Snowdrop and Bighill, the bulldog.
All went well until they reached the high cliffs of Treyarnon which was a breeding ground for seagulls. The sight of hundreds of gulls on the edge of the cliff drove Phlox nuts; he raced to the edge and sailed into space.
This sad event forced Joey to leash the remaining four dogs and the loss cut into his profits. With four dogs pulling him along, he made record time to Zennor, an area known for its adder population. The adder is the only poisonous snake in the UK. Normally, it won’t bother you but when confronted by four charging dogs, it had to protect itself. Poor old Diesel got bitten in the leg and died three hours later. Joey felt badly for the loss of Diesel and his dwindling profit.
By now it was dark outside the hostel and Joey had to retire to his dorm before the three dogs trapped him on the sofa. We thanked him for relating what was one of the more interesting tales of the day. We all lined up for our fist bumps, stroked the dogs and said goodnight.
Reverend Fonseca’s Tale
Completely overlooked in the lounge that evening was a small, wiry man who was tanned like a piece of leather. He was dressed in simple clothing but our attention was drawn to the priest’s collar which was partially covered by his anorak.
We asked the Reverend his reason for being in the youth hostel as today was Sunday. He told us that his parish was on Mullion Island where he lived in a yurt and spent his free time bird watching and peering through his telescope to spot ships in distress. As the sea was too rough that day, he was unable to hold Sunday service. He only held church services in fine weather when a calm sea allowed his congregation to reach the island. Instead of ringing church bells, he banged drums to announce the ten o’clock service.
The Reverend loved animals and encouraged his congregation to bring their pets to church where they could socialize with the minister’s resident goats and peacocks. Instead of bringing money for the collection plate, Reverend Fonseca suggested his flock bring food for the animals.
Vic Fonseca told us that his family could be traced back to the days of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Many Spanish ships were wrecked on the Cornish coast causing the survivors to stay in Cornwall. At that time, Cornwall needed men to replace miners and fishermen lost in accidents so the Spaniards were accepted into Cornish society. Even today, the Spanish influence can be seen amongst the locals including the Reverend Vic Fonseca.
The Joker’s Tale
Few Cornish people walk along the coast path and even fewer stay at youth hostels but today we were lucky to meet a true Cornishman. His name was Winston Poldark and he was huge. From his bushy beard to the boots on his feet, he was all in black, a quite intimidating sight really but he did have a kind face and a twinkle in his eye. From his backpack came a plastic tube that transported an amber liquid into his mouth. Winston’s accent was charming and the volume of his voice filled the room.
As he took another swig from the tube, I told him how lucky he was to be born and bred in my favourite county of England. His reply left us all in no doubt about the fact that Cornwall is not a county and is not part of England. None of us argued.
He then launched into a story about a man who had toured England visiting churches. In all of these churches, he had seen solid gold telephones on the walls with signs that read “Speak to God-ten thousand pounds per minute.” As the man crossed over the Tamar River into Cornwall, he visited his first Cornish church. Sure enough, there on the wall was a solid gold telephone but this time the sign read “Speak to God- twenty-five pence.” Mystified, this man sought out the minister and asked him why this call to God was so cheap in Cornish churches. The minister replied that in Cornwall, it was a local call.
Winston roared with laughter, slapped Joey on the back and caused the dogs to cower in the corner. There was a moment of silence after the laughter died down, so I brought up the most popular English subject, the weather. I commented on how strong the wind was that day which brought the Cornishman back to life. “Windy?” he said, looking at me as if I didn’t have a brain. “That’s just a breeze; a real Cornish wind blows lumps of granite sideways!”After that statement, the rich amber fluid took its toll and Winston fell asleep allowing the dogs to reclaim their spots on Joey’s lap.
The Detective’s Tale
Long stretches of the Cornish path are far from civilization and can only be reached on foot or by boat. Cliffs restrict boats from landing and severe climbs limit hiking. Add to this a landscape riddled with abandoned tin mine shafts and it becomes an ideal place for those people wishing to escape detection. This explained why the Mullion Cove youth hostel received a visit from DCI Vera Wycliffe that stormy afternoon.
Vera was not dressed for hiking and was not fit enough to handle the path but she was tough and determined to catch criminals. It seemed that a bank had been robbed in Penzance and the perpetrator had hidden the banknotes under the carpet of his ensuite room in the Mad Hatter B&B. The landlady had discovered the money while vacuuming his room. Vera and her squad had arrived thirty minutes too late. All roads had been blocked and the harbour and train station were being watched. The only way out for the robber was the coastal path which he must have used as his suitcase was found on the trail.
Vera questioned all of us and checked our bags and our IDs but drew a blank. Christopher, the pilgrim, and Fred, the historian, two of the toughest people you could meet, offered to search the local mine tunnels and caves for clues to the robber’s whereabouts. Christopher put on his shoes and all three of them ventured out into the foul weather conditions and we never saw them again.
The Wife of Bath’s Tale
Not long after detective Wycliffe had departed from the hostel with Christopher and Frederick in tow, the door opened and in came a worried looking woman clutching a photograph. She was bodily and facially attractive despite a large gap between her two top front teeth. She walked through the room and proceeded to search the hostel. She returned to our room, held up her photograph and asked if we had seen her husband. Anastasia asked what reason he would have for abandoning her. Betty, the wife from Bath, admitted that she had spent too much time holding city meetings in their house, resulting in her husband, Liam, spending more and more time in the local pub.
Betty came home one night to find his drawers empty. He loved south west England so she had begun her search here. Dublin was where he was born so she would continue her search there. She left dozens of posters on the table, asking that, if we saw him, to tell him she would henceforth give up her meetings and be the most perfect wife of Bath.
The English Teacher’s Tale
Living in or visiting Cornwall makes some people want to write stories or poems even if they have never done it before. The inspiration comes from its history, the landscape and the people that live there. David Sermon, an English teacher from Sussex, told us that Cornwall has produced more famous authors than any other county in England. From Daphne Du Maurier, William Golding, Winston Graham, Rosamunde Pilcher to D.H. Lawrence, the list is endless. David had just walked from Zennor where he had visited the house that Lawrence had written “Sons and Lovers” in. He had lived there with his German wife during World War Two. The locals were highly suspicious of her because, the saying goes, she changed the colour of her curtains too often, and rumour spread that she was signalling German submarines. It got so bad that Lawrence was banned from the local pub, The Tinner’s Arms, so they finally moved.
David’s next port of call would be Menabilly in Fowey, the old house where Daphne Du Maurier wrote most of her books. After completing his journey, he would bring students from his school to see if the gift of writing would rub off on them.
The Writer’s Tale
When the Cornish tin mining industry collapsed because tin could be mined cheaper in Malaysia, Cornish miners emigrated, taking their skills and work ethic elsewhere. Many travelled to North America. Kay Penhale told us that her ancestors were part of that migration, ending up in and around Savannah, Georgia. Kay was visiting Cornwall to seek out the towns and churches from whence they came. Her search closed in on three places; St. Just, Rock and Fowey. The churches and graveyards of these towns just happened to be some of the most interesting in the county. She had already visited St. Just and St. Enodoc and soon would see St Winnow near Fowey. Walking long distances did not present a problem for Kay as she had recently completed the Camino de Santiago trail in Spain and written a story about it. She is a bright, high energy person, who, rather surprisingly, hiked in a skirt; her reason being that nylon hiking pants made a swishing sound as one leg passed the other and twenty thousand swishes a day was annoying. She stood out amongst the other people in the room who mostly wore browns and greys because she had chosen purple. Apparently, purple confuses bulls and they back off.
She found this worked in Spain and so far was working in Cornwall, even though she disliked purple. Kay encouraged me to write this article and it was a unique opportunity, one that may not happen again, but I am sure she will be motivated to write a far superior one and, maybe, one day, we will read about ourselves in National Geographic as she is a contributor to that magazine.
The storm raged for most of the night, but, as is often the case in England, the weather changed and we were greeted by a calm, fresh, sunny morning. I spent the first part of the day making notes on the people I had met and then, after lunch, I resumed my marathon. As I walked along the beach at Kynance Cove, I felt rejuvenated and refreshed. It was the calm after the storm. It was late afternoon and the few people who had been there during the day had gone. There was no wind. The sea was quiet. The sun was two hands from the horizon. The sand ripples were as regular as the lines in a child’s exercise book. Barley and wheat were ripening in the fields nearby. The voices of the people I had met rang in my ears and I was already looking forward to my next visit to Cornwall which would give me a physical challenge and an emotional boost, two things which the South West Coast Path provides like no other place on earth.