Thursday, February 19, 2004

L.H. says it's too Jane Austen-ish. is what it is.


In a far country lies an ancient coast, subscribed by tides.

The library held its annual discard sale and it was there, in a travel book, that I found the timeless image of earth’s crust shouldered up against earth’s water. I carried the book home with me and dreamed. Years went by. When the children were grown and stepping into independence, I took the left fork in the road and stored or sold the collections of my life. I went to London.

In New Compton Street I lived in a third-storey flat with Soho on one side of me and Covent Garden on the other. The spire of St. Giles-in-the-Fields was my northern neighbour and Shaftesbury Street ran with noise below the sitting room windows to the south. I walked each day in London’s maze of streets, in neighbourhoods filled with tourists, hotels and a subculture of street people and drug pushers. There were resident bohemians, too: artists, actors, musicians, and the bookshops, cafes, theatres and galleries that cradle them. Graffiti was everywhere; homeless people and beggars were everywhere. I learned the correct out-of-doors posture: head down, rapid walking pace, arms tight to the body. Only tourists looked up and around and spoke to strangers. As November came to an end, the weight of the population, its breath and stink and anonymity, pressed down on me. I was lonely, too. Then an image of an ancient coast surfaced like something remembered when you first wake up in the morning. I booked a Friday morning exit from Paddington Station on a Great Western train to Cornwall.

Train change at Plymouth. The rain streaked down the windows of the cars and strangers closed in upon each other. Announcements, scratchy, reedy, overlaid the sound of steel wheels on steel rails. Accents made the names unintelligible.

Train change at Par. With the rain and the approach of winter, daylight was gone by four o’clock. The windows shot my face back to me.

Newquay. Rain was driven in slanted sheets by wind full-blown from the invisible sea. Five minutes worth of taxi. Then I launched myself from the car toward a door with a wrought iron ring handle set into an arch on the lee-side of an old stone building. I closed the door of the Glendorgal Hotel and lost the sound of the Atlantic wailing. But excitement had already replaced the fatigue of the seven-hour journey. Somewhere close, water heaved against rock and I went back out into the night to walk while London fell away.

That evening, the Glendorgal’s bar was polished wood wreathed in smiles. I learned from those gathered around it that the nineteenth-century part of the building had been the childhood home of a writer, Derek Tangye. His “Minack Chronicles” are tales of life in Cornwall. What was it like to live here, on this shoulder against the sea? I wondered.

In spite of the rain, I walked throughout the weekend. My flat lease in London would be ending after Christmas and I decided, somewhere between Lusty Glaze and Porth beaches, not to spend Christmas alone. I would return to the Glendorgal and use it as a base to look for new accommodation. London had nearly emptied my bank account. I needed a cheaper place to live and write and Cornwall presented a solution.

By the end of December, new friends had come along. Angela, from Yorkshire, was the receptionist at the Glendorgal. Her husband, Rob, was a carpenter from Birmingham. Graeme, the hotel’s barman, was from South Africa. In fact, most of the people I met were transplanted from somewhere else. It seemed like a great tide had washed over the world, carrying with it dreamers, romantics, drifters and the dispossessed. It deposited them west of River Tamar and east of the Atlantic, a space where land and sea drew them in and held them to mingle with the descendents of Celts and Britons scuttled westward by encroaching Anglo-Saxon immigrants centuries ago.

Christmas Day at the hotel was quiet. The hours melted to six o’clock and a choice of turkey or roast beef. The owner of the hotel, Irish Seamus, his wife, their families, Angela and Rob and I, made a party of it. News came from the kitchen: Seamus and the chef had quarrelled and the Yorkshire puddings had been flung like confetti at a wedding. War games began. By midnight, the men swam in an alcohol haze and Seamus and Graeme fell out. Boxing Day was cold, gray and apparently unforgiving. The men could not put the previous evening into perspective. They sulked or strutted, according to their nature, and Graeme lost his job for pride. He was compelled to vacate the hotel’s staff accommodation.

Sue, another hotel employee, rescued Graeme with the offer of a two-bedroom cottage in a small market town seven miles away. I arranged to rent one of the rooms from him and was satisfied that I could count on shelter for a while. With several shuttles in an old MGB, worldly possessions were transferred to the cottage on Fore Street in St. Columb Major and a new year began.

It was late in January, on a cold, clear day, when we drove to Bedruthan Steps. I’d shared the story of my old cliff picture with Graeme and he agreed to take me there in his car. Though I’d studied the maps, I lost all sense of direction once we entered the narrow, curving lanes of the countryside between St. Columb and the coast. Was it really a distance of five miles to the Steps? It seemed like more with the twists and turns and tunnel vision pressed upon us by stone hedgerows higher than the roof of the car.

We parked at Carnewas, a National Trust enclave on the coast, and hiked the gravel-covered paths that led north toward the Steps while seabirds keened and slip-streamed above us. Ahead, the land hung and was anchored between wind-scoured sky and drenched-blue horizon. We came to a drop-off point and perspective multiplied to include depth as well as height, to embrace boundless width and immeasurable proportions. Before and below us, that ancient coastal picture I’d harboured for so long sprang out, alive.

The tide was at its ebb, exposing tumbled, riven rocks black against golden sand. These monoliths stood like a fleet of wrecked ships with their keels pointing to heaven. Once, they had been part of the cliffs themselves but over a thousand years or more the sea had hammered the land and undermined the granite and limestone. The sea tunnelled into crevices and lapped or raged until shards fell at the shore. We stood on the cliff-top, perhaps a hundred and twenty feet above sea-level, and absorbed the sight of Bedruthan Steps stretching away from us: north toward another jutting finger of land, and west, out to sea. The rocks, taller than houses, reached up, stark, to the cloudless sky. In such a place a man’s height goes for nothing and I remembered the Cornish legends of giants who, it is said, used the pillars as stepping stones at high tide.

We went on to find that a set of rocky stairs with iron-pipe handrails descending to the beach were gated and pad-locked shut for the winter months. A sign warned of danger in the falling rocks, in the turn of the tide, in sudden changes of weather, in the ocean’s undercurrents. We were no more than seeds on the wind in this place.

Several months went by and I returned to Canada. Another new year arrived and then it was April before I was able to get back to Cornwall to visit the Steps again. This time the gate was unlocked and I used the man-cut rock steps, a hundred or more down, to trace the flesh of the cliff’s reality. Walking the long stretches of beach at last, I saw my reflection in the warm shallows of tide pools. At the base of the cliffs the black hearts of wet cave openings swallowed me. I followed my shadow’s lead and measured my height against the staggered monoliths while the Atlantic pulsed and murmured, gathering its energy.

Today, I charge a brush with paint and drag it across a rectangle of canvas. The colours of dreams and danger flow, self-measurements against the idea of land and sea and sky, in cobalt and ultramarine, in burnt sienna and ochre. Beach stretches, rocks rise like little mountains, cliffs like green-topped anchors. The reaching sea pulls and pushes memory and desire. The paint is not enough. I promise myself that the next visit to the Steps will be soon, that I’ll find a cottage to rent nearby. I want to learn the seasons and weather of the Steps by the scent of the wind alone.


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