Wednesday, March 01, 2006

A Literary Tour: Day 6

Day 6: Cornwall (Winston Graham)

Today's tour is pure self-indulgence, an excuse to visit some of my very favourite places. In the mid 1970s the BBC serialised the Poldark books by Winston Graham. As a teenager I was utterly hooked on this family saga set in an eighteenth century Cornish tin mining community, and the TV series led me into reading the books. Before the series started I had already fallen in love with the ruined tin-mining landscape of Cornwall - the disused engine houses now open to the elements, the chimneys marking air shafts down to the tunnels below. Some are perched in impossible positions overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. And yes, sometimes the locations were truly impossible, and many miners lost their lives when the sea to inundated their workings. I hesitate to recommend the Poldark series as my criteria for good books in those days were rather different to those I use now, and it is so long since I read them that I do not remember any detail. (Note to self: Add Poldark to my reading list. Time to check these books out again!)

Although the books were set a little further north, much of the Poldark series was filmed in the Land's End peninsula. This is the remote area of Cornwall I love the best, so today we are going to explore this extreme edge of the British Isles. Our starting point is the small town of St.Just where my great-uncle was the Methodist minister until he died in 1976. Often I would spend part of the summer there and walk the mile or so to Cape Cornwall (left) where I would spend two or three hours sitting at the base of the mine chimney, watching the sea and reading a book. We will walk there by road, sit for a while at the top of the Cape to rest and enjoy the view, then walk back by the scenic route. We start with a section of the coastal path (it is possible to walk round the entire coast of Cornwall - how I would love to do that one day!) as far as Ballowal Barrow, a Bronze Age burial chamber. Then we turn in land and walk through the green Cot Valley - passing more mine workings as we go - and back to St.Just. We make our way to the bakers in the town square and invest in two Cornish pasties for lunch. I'm hopeful this shop is still there, as their pasties are some of the best I've ever tasted. Last time I visited, some fifteen years ago, they were still up to their old standard. Cornish pasties in Cornwall are in a different league to those bought anywhere else! We can sit to eat them in Plen an Gwary, a medieval amphitheatre adjoining the town square where miracle plays were performed regularly until the early 1600s.

From St.Just we drive across to Penzance (remember Gilbert and Sullivan's Pirates?). A little further round the coast we come to St.Michael's Mount. My literary connection here is truly tenuous. Window seats for sitting and reading. This is my dream house. If money and present occupants were no object, this is where I would choose to live. A former Benedictine monastery (Henry VIII again!) it sits on top of its own little island. At the bottom are a miniscule village and equally tiny harbour. At low tide it is joined to the mainland by a causeway wide enough to drive across. At high tide it is cut off and can only be reached by boat. Best of all the house has its own private medieval chapel. It also has windows overlooking the bay ... with window seats. What more could anyone want in a house?

This evening we are going to the theatre. Not just any theatre, but the Minack Theatre, an outdoor amphitheatre overlooking the sea - in Cornwall it sometimes seems that everywhere overlooks the sea. Even on a summer evening we need to go prepared for the weather with warm clothes, rugs and serious rain gear (no umbrellas as they block the view for other theatre goers!). I was impressed by the optimism of this Frequently Asked Question on the Minack's website:

Q. Is the theatre air-conditioned or heated?
A. The Minack is an open-air theatre. The temperature is dependant upon the weather!

In England rain is not considered a reason to cancel outdoor performances. I know this from experience, not from the Minack, but from "enjoying" outdoor classical concerts in torrential rain. The last of these was soggy despite waterproof jacket and trousers, golf umbrellas, and a waterproof groundsheet. Thunderstorms or gales might be considered a reason to call off a performance, but even then I wouldn't guarantee it. The element of meteorological risk adds spice to the anticipation of the performance. But hey! We are going to be lucky and get a beautiful summer's evening, with just a hint of cold breeze from the sea. Take a look at this year's programme and decide what performance you would like to see.

Tomorrow we will be leaving behind us the black and white flag of Cornwall - the cross of St.Piran, patron of Cornwall and tin miners - and heading back across the River Tamar to England proper.