On one of my Cornish walks I fell in with a couple of walkers as we paused to catch our breaths under cover of admiring Boat Cove – one of those rather lovely beaches with sand to laze on for a read in the sun, rocks to clamber over for a spot of exploring, a stream to dam should a civil engineering moment strike you (just me then?), and a slipway for the launching of boats and the provision of diversions for landlubbers like me. After we had exchanged the usual walkers’ pleasantries (Where are you heading? How are you finding it?), we turned to how we had come to find ourselves in the very tip on Cornwall. They – perhaps in their 70s – spoke of how they had first come to the Penwith Peninsula decades ago on the invitation of a friend and had so loved the place that they had returned ever afterwards. Their friend had been an art teacher at an upmarket boarding school, they told me, where houses were provided for masters and their families. With no need of a property in that area, the young schoolmaster bought a rundown miner’s cottage way down here instead. He spent his summers restoring it, joined by a wife and children as time went by, and eventually retired to live year round in this beautiful spot.
We – my new companions and I – agreed that there is something very special about this particular, remote part of the world. I cannot say that I know Cornwall and that is one of the reasons I’m walking this way. Before I came I had perceived that much of the county had been bespoiled by early uncontrolled overly commercialised and unsympathetic development (Tintagel, Newquay) or by its own picturesque success (Padstow, Rock). I’ll make an honourable exception for Porthleven, which is cannily steering a middle path, but my few visits to Cornwall usually had me scurrying back to Pembrokeshire.
Turns out I was wrong. I am sure that I shall meet blights of bungalowification along the way as I move further up the coast but Penwith is a very distinct place, wild and yet peaceful, with a gentle atmosphere.
There’s a very good book about this place. Called West of Hayle River. Sums it up. Written by Gerald Priestland, remember him? Yes of course. From Thought for the Day. The Today programme has been the soundtrack to my mornings for as long as I can recall. Bit old now though so you probably won’t find it anywhere. He talks about how the part of Cornwall west of St Ives is like nowhere else in the world. A really special place.
I think you know where this is going.
A few weeks later I went into my local Oxfam bookshop in search of light, disposable holiday reading – nothing with a pink cover, nothing with a black cover, nothing with the title in gold letters, but otherwise all else acceptable – and there it was.