Thoughts from Penzance and Land’s End, Cornwall – Part 2

27 06 2005

24-27 June 2005

Part1 | Part2

A Developed Society

I am writing these final notes on the return from Penzance. It is important for the train to be not more than 30 minutes late at arrival in Reading where I have to change to the last connecting train to Farnborough. The train is now running late but not too late. At Totnes, some moron had smashed a window and as a result a speed restriction is in effect. The train will run at 100 mph instead of 125 mph. This shouldn’t affect much since most of the tracks along this route are limited to 100 mph.

England seen from outside is a rosy, romantic picture. If a visitor stays long enough he or she will see that it has its subversive elements. It is common to see people leave the train having made a mess of a clean seat: empty plastic bags and bottles, beers cans, empty crisp packs, newspapers, magazines… the list goes on. This behaviour is no better that in Indian trains. Generalisation from particulars is a common pitfall but I have done plenty of train journeys to speak what is not rare.

So what makes England a developed country? A “developed” status based on simply wealth or economic prosperity does not reflect the cumulative state of the minds of a nation. We cannot proclaim a status on culture which will always remain subjective and unique in each part of the world. The same cannot be said of basic human behaviour and civic sense required to live in society, in cooperation with other individuals. These have to fall outside the shades of culture on a common chequered board of blacks and whites. They have to be considered in marking nations as developed or otherwise. It is not a simple process but those who grant such status will remain adamant to keep it simple to their benefit.

But who can be blamed? Where lies the solution? We live in an economic world. Our lives are governed by it. Such is the outcome of capitalism and we have to live with it.

The Somerset Levels

I had been to Glastonbury a few months ago but only today I was able to fully appreciate the uniqueness of the Somerset Levels as the train travelled to the next station, Bristol-Temple-Meads. A flat piece of land stretched for miles all around, spotted with trees here and there, lined with hedges far and near. At the edge of some distant fields the sun was setting with a fiery glow. Black plastic-wrapped hay rolls in fields nearby gleamed in the waning light of the day. For nearly fifteen minutes I have been on the levels with this uninterrupted beautiful view.

St Ives

St Ives is a nice coastal town and I wish I could have spent a little more time in it. As such I had only a couple of hours. Narrow lanes winding around old houses breathe a character so different from anything I have seen, even in the Isle of Wight. The lanes dip and climb. Once in a while a gap between the buildings takes our vision to the blue sea and the sandy beach. This is truly a destination for tourists. The beach was crowded as expected. I did not relish the prospect of lazying?/ in the sand under a hot sun. Why such an idle pastime appeals to the western mind is something I will never understand or appreciate.

Given a choice between Tate Gallery and St Ives Museum I opted for the latter. It was located in an old building by the sea. The exhibits were too many and not particularly well displayed. But it has a strong local flavour. The character of this part of England has been coloured in two principal occupations – fishing and mining. Farming has always been subsidiary to these two, albeit an important one. Even today many parts of Cornwall continue farming on small pieces of land unlike the mechanised large scale farming practised in Hampshire. Barley is commonly grown. Dairy framing is less common. An example is the Boleigh Farm where I had camped for the first night. The mooing of the cows continued well after dark and commenced before sunrise.

The black-and-white photographs in the museum give a glimpse of the past. To us it appears a romantic and idyllic lifestyle. The truth is that it was a hard life devoid of modern day comforts that we have taken for granted. The death of twelve miners at Wheal Agar on August 15, 1883 is recorded in a poem. Two lines of this poem read,

Alas! too often enters death
Into a Cornish mine

The dangers at sea were no less severe. The loss of Trevessa in 1923 and subsequent endurance, loss or survival of the crew is a popular local story.

Another interesting fact of St Ives is the Knill ceremony that happens once in five years since 1801. One of the museum curators explained to me that it was ordained in John Knill’s (1733-1811) will that this ceremony be performed for reasons unclear to me. Knill was a customs officer and town mayor. What could have been his intent other than vanity that comes from self-importance? Music is played on the streets. A procession winds to the top of the hill where his monument stands. Widows dressed in black play their part. All in all it appears to me a celebration, but of what, of Death? Or of his contributions to society through which we may perhaps be inspired? Most likely this is just an excuse for people to gather and celebrate for no particular reason.

Last thing to be noted of St Ives is this: why are there so many art galleries in one single town so remote from London? At every turn there is a gallery. Perhaps artists find ample inspiration on the beaches, the waves dancing back and forth, the open horizon at the edge of a blue sea, the rocking of boats on glittering waters, the fishing nets hauled with their heavy loads… Once inside these galleries it is easy to see that subjects are diverse and not limited to the coast or the open sea. I think it’s simply because here at St Ives we have a tourist market. Artists or art dealers take this opportunity to sell what they can to tourists who are not necessarily art connoisseurs. The same reasoning is applicable to Bali.

Maiden Legends

Most of Britain contains relics of the Stone Age people and Cornwall is no exception. I have passed some burial mounds and chambers. All that are left of these are some stones at entrances now sealed to inquisitive visitors. The spirits within rest at ease. I have seen in my walks the Merry Maidens stone circle, a small circle of 19 stones laid out in a closed field. On another day, weary of the unrelenting climbs of the coastal path, I walked inland along paved roads that are so much easier on the feet. This took me to the remarkable set of two standing stones flanking a circular holed stone, known as Men-An-Tol. Local legends abound this monument. It is said to have healing properties. Like other stone monuments in Britain this too is associated with ceremonies that derive from the motions of the sun and the moon. There is nothing spectacular about Men-An-Tol. It fails to impress like the Stonehenge. It does not have the isolated allure of the Castlerigg Stone Circle. Yet something right in the middle of an open moorland where no life stirs save the grass and the gorse, takes me to a prehistoric past, to the very beginnings of our dominant human race.

Walking further, I passed another stone circle marked on my map as the Nine Maidens, although I counted eleven! There is romanticism in the status of a maiden, young, beautiful and free; one who is not bound by the institution of marriage; one who is in full possession of freedom and self-expression. Who cares if the stones are rough, contorted and mangled by the fury of nature? They immediately soften and perform their circle of dance if we call them maidens. Their laughter and gay company is the inspiration of generations to come. Thus we have a number of maidens making merry in circles. Thus we have the Seven Sisters welcoming the brothers crossing the Channel. Thus we partake the joy, comfort and happiness of the fair members of our species.

The Boleigh Pipes

On the first night I camped at the Boleigh Farm. In the adjoining field there are two unworked stone columns that from a distant look like recent ruins of concrete pillars and thus of little interest to any modern age traveller. However, when I do come to know what they are called my mind quickly fancies a kindled interest. Such is the inherent romance of antiquity. These are called The Boleigh Pipes. The mooing of the farm’s cattle does not inspire their age-worn ruggedness. Who knows what music they make or what divine invocations they trace? We must believe there is music in them for their name is our own invention.

The Levant Mine

In my childhood days I have travelled often by train. An annual journey during summer school holidays to grandma’s place was always an event of excitement. With this came the association of steam engines and railways, so much so that the mention of one immediately recalled images of the other. It has taken a visit to Cornwall to see beyond this. Here one learns the far-reaching applications of steam engines.

The Hain Steamship Company was founded in 1878. It has its origins in St Ives. In the Hain Room of the St Ives Museum are models, paintings and pictures of vessels. These impress upon us the power of steam in an age of mass scale industrialization.

Thomas Newcomen’s engine was later adapted by Richard Trevithick to become the Cornish beam engine which was used mainly to pump water out from the mine workings that often ran beneath the sea. The copper and tin mine at Levant continues to thrill visitors with its beam winding engine which has been reinstated to its original working order. This is where we must praise the passion and dedication of numerous volunteers who toil without recognition or money. Some do it for the love of it. Some believe in preservation of a rich heritage and its purpose for the future. If England continues to survive it is because of this nation of volunteers. I have met a couple of National Trust volunteers at the Trengwainton Gardens clipping and pruning. I have met a group of volunteers mending a stone wall on my way to Cape Cornwall. The lighthouse at Pendeen (or St Aldhelm’s Head in Dorset) calls for volunteers to watch the coast. Many man-years of volunteering have saved the Levant beam engine from eternal oblivion. The engineer explained to me the working while the steam escaped through gaps, the greasy metal parts moved with regularity, the water rose up, bubbled and flowed. I half heard or understood what he said, rather mesmerised by the mechanism. Given a few days of stay at Levant, all its romance would have been lost on me.

A guided tour of the mine was informative. My admiration was greater for the tour guide whose knowledge of the mine’s history, grasp of technical jargon and awareness of local terms added much interest. He explained the conditions under which the mines were run and maintained. While the men mined below, the women and children would use seven-pound hammers to separate waste rocks from the ore. He spoke of their daily routines. He explained how competitive it was to get a job which was secure only for a month. One had to bid for it. He even described the clothes they wore and they wore it with pride for a miner would never prefer to go back to a farm. He talked of the fatal day in 1919 when the man-engine (simply a rod with steps to lower or raise men through various levels of the mine) shaft broke and killed 31 men. Poor maintenance and lack of investment were blamed. The mine never regained its full glory after that. The downfall was hastened by the slump in metal prices.

In Cornwall, wealth has been made from the rich bounties of nature. Rocks have been dug up, pounded and shifted for decades but the beauty of nature endures. What is our existence but a few moments in an eternity that is hers.

A Local Hero

Walking through Penzance one will not fail to notice the statue of Sir Humphry Davy, a local hero who invented the safety lamp. Prior to this invention, candles (locally known as tallow-dips) were used. This was the source of many disasters since underground passages often contained inflammable gases. An invention that has a direct and immediate contribution in saving lives is an invention indeed.

Part1 | Part2

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