‘You don’t buy and sell idiots. You don’t buy and sell chavs, like you do here.’
– conversation in a Trebetherick boozer.
The dawn light suffuses into the open cottage living room where I’ve slept. As it creeps across the ceiling wall, these dusty dressers and dining tables seem to shriek and recede, shrinking from incongruously large shapes to something more everyday. This cottage has been uninterrupted for many decades. The walls could crumble into nothing in your hands, but are strong and robust, like the hives of termites. It breathes an aged air, exhaustedly occupying the intelligence of its years like a hyperthymesic savant. The carpets and furniture have been preserved in tea and tapioca pudding, board games and bridge, and quiet disagreements, stiffly stewing the atmosphere as lips are chewed, from the christening of a child’s name to the executors of the selfsame will.
Cast open the curtains. Today, the sun has risen without an email alert. No alarm clock stirred the cattle from the warmth of their grassy-belly-beds. The songbirds flittering over those hedgerows had no automated reminders or morning emails to motivate them from their slumber. Tammy’s doggy, still coy from the kick of a malicious horse, has not been reassured of his existential importance by Facebook or Twitter notifications. This delightful late-summer morning is not trending. Such losses, theirs!
Tammy’s preparing tea in the other room. She’s gifted with her hands. She grasps intuitively how the seed becomes a shrub, and how the pile of neglected timber is simply a pre-formed table or chair. She works as a self-employed gardener in nearby Exeter, but is seeking more, ‘something creative’, carpentry, possibly. She has a laid-back way about her, and over breakfast tells me of life in Cornwall, and of cleaning for one of the very last Cornish speakers. Unlike Welsh or even, to a lesser degree, Scots Gaelic, Cornish is so endangered a language to be almost near-extinct. Later today I will cross from Devon into Cornwall. Already, my attention’s rapt by what the region might suggest. Is there anything more to Kernow independence than bumper stickers and flaky pastries?
I cycle out of the village of Weare Giffard, following an off-road trail that plods into a muddy trial. Approximately nowhere, between fields surrounded by more fields, I quickly find myself lost. Sometimes simply heading west isn’t the most effective navigation. Still, it’s an excuse to nose around some semi-derelict barns and tumbledown cottages. I ride along a narrow trail that pierces through docile country fields like that of a sunray, capturing the dance of the mites as a breeze ruffles some garret’s blinds. The curtains have been pulled over these lands. Farming is over now, as golden hay wheels dry out in the distance.
Through the villages of Monkleigh and Frithelstock Stone I ride. The morning is warm and sunny. Tired by my exertions already, though the trail is flat, I stop to guzzle plump, scrumptious blackberries, growing on every hedge in abundance. I zigzag down one country road after another, lost no doubt, but being lost on lanes like these is wonderful. Today I have one thing on my to-do agenda: experience the landscape with as much intensity as my senses can bear. So be it…
I pass Hembury Castle then cut through Meddon, before reaching the main-road and, ahead, the stretch of lovely verdant wilderness that’s called Hartland. Around here I cross into the county of Cornwall, Kernow a’gas dynergh, which will turn out to be the first and last piece of Cornish language I encounter. Excited, I push on through Woolley, weaving among tall hedgerows that obscure everything except an azure ceiling and the calls of the birds. I am pushing towards the Hartland coastline, brushing aside twiggly branches and forest fronds to reach my first stop of the morn, Morwenstow.
I’m searching for the ghost of Robert Stephen Hawker, or Reverend Hawker to his congregation. In this distant and isolated church, a landmark to nervy sailors passing by this cataclysmic stretch of coast, Hawker preached. His work kept him busy. As well as providing for the personal and spiritual needs of the small yet disparate parish of Saint Morwenna, he often clambered out onto these dangerous rocks to either assist the rescue of stranded seamen or recover their remains. Beneath those old and heavy sycamore trees in the adjacent churchyard lie the remains of forty such men Hawker identified.
‘Welcome! wild rock and lonely shore,
Where round my days dark seas shall roar;
And thy gray fane, Morwenna, stand
The beacon of the Eternal Land!’
A poet by temperament and calling, he built himself a small wooden hut into the cliff, a fragile refuge above the surge of the terrifying seas. From this vantage he would smoke opium and gaze into that sea, accompanied by the god he prayed to and the imagination which sustained him. His visions were strange and predictably intense. He assured contemporaries that his church was dedicated to Morwenna, a Welsh teacher and holy woman, because ‘I have seen her, and she has told me as much’. This craggy promontory was special to her, and to him.
‘My Saxon shrine, the only ground
Wherein this weary heart hath rest:
What years the birds of God have found
Along thy walls their sacred nest:
The storm — the blast — the tempest shock,
Have beat upon those walls in vain;
She stands — a daughter of the rock —
The changeless God’s eternal fane.’
I wander round the peaceful chapel, but find more meaning in Hawker’s words as I venture round the churchyard, fingers roving over the lichens that thrive on the tombstones. My god is nature, but I’m fascinated by the myriad ways human minds have attempted to explain the world around them.
‘Window and wall have lips to tell
The mighty faith of days unknown.’
Hawker’s verses brim with an exuberant love of nature and obeisance to its mysteries. I climb out of the churchyard down to the hut where Hawker got off his nut and scribbled his hallucinations. Past tame cattle and sheep, clawed into the cliff-edge, the timber frame still stands with a full century of graffiti scratched or etched into it. What are they? Just names, lasting a little longer than the froth of the effervescent ocean, Atlantic in their vain attempts to defy time. A couple with two playful dogs are down there surveying the scene, and I take their photo, a disorderly moment as they shout to their owners to stay still. And after that I am off, past the Black Bull Inn and a village hall appealing for foodbank donations, and back into the bosom of the rural Cornish scenery.
Like north Devon, the road west is damn hilly. Up-down-up-down, an assault course that’ll test the mettle of any jack tackling it by pedal. It’s a tiring business, and frequently I pull over to catch a breath or snack on dried fruit. But just look around. It’s so archetypally… lovely. Like a postcard or a pack of fudge, unreal, photoshopped, except it’s not. England’s green and rolling fields, the stuff of a thousand patriotic eulogies. Curious that national identity is so often understood in these rural, pre-industrial scenes. Cricket on the village green… intrinsically conservative, looking to the past, to villagers living with similar conditions and education as their livestock. I wonder what a civic identity that begins in the cities would look like, liberal, metropolitan and future-facing.
But though the cities are more interesting, the pleasure of this trip comes on days like these, riding with the sun besides me through some wild and magical landscape. I soar up high (or rather, huff) through the Coombe valley, and pass a sinister complex cocooned in barbed wire and CCTV cameras. Here the British government spies on the emails, phone-calls, texts and web-searches of the rest of the world. From the secret signals of UN officials to the porno and cat photos that typify modern internet usage, GCHQ checks and stores it all.
GCHQ’s activities were brought into the spotlight for a time last year, when American security contractor Edward Snowden leaked files detailing the extent of the NSA’s global surveillance to various international news outlets. The American NSA had worked closely with the intelligence agencies of the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand (or ‘Five eyes’ as conspiracy fans term them), monitoring global communications and generating new forms of surveillance. The extent of this surveillance is quite bewildering, harvesting the data-trails of every one of us, and producing viruses that could bring down most people’s computers. In the name of national security, both countries have done more to destabilise the societies of other countries than at any other point in living history.
Recognising how America has historically treated its political dissenters, Snowden’s gambit was to publish everything before he was ‘neutralised’ (or whatever offensive term the military use for murdering people).
‘All I can say right now is the US government is not going to be able to cover this up by jailing or murdering me. Truth is coming, and it cannot be stopped.’
Snowden has improbably survived, now hiding in Russia; in the UK, the Guardian newspaper were pressured into physically destroying hard drives containing the Snowden files, in an absurd yet powerful symbolic attack on the free press by the government. The issue of privacy has disappeared from the news agenda, and whilst I travel, I hear occasional news reports from intelligence chiefs demanding more powers to snoop. Without an international, legally binding charter of digital human rights, these invasions of privacy will continue. There are few grounds to be optimistic. Evidence of the publicly-nefarious activities of the NSA was first leaked back in 1972 by Perry Fellwock. In Britain, Duncan Campbell publicly revealed the existence of GCHQ in a Time Out article in 1976, and for his pains was nearly jailed for ten years by the then-Labour government. The intelligence agencies are not ‘above’ the law, they are behind it; their law is the law. Our deference to the law troubles me.
There is no need for an organisation like GCHQ in a civilised democracy. On a daily basis it violates a basic right to privacy of its citizens. It does this under the spurious justification of terrorism, for a government that lethally bombs other states without UN mandate, imprisons its citizens without charge, criminalises street protest, and terrifies its citizens with a daily stream of hysteria about crimes and global diseases. Its existence is an offence against the common notions of toleration, liberalism, justice and fair play shared by the peoples of these islands.
I leave behind the satellites and ride down towards the seaside town of Bude. Villages boast unusual names: Inch’s Shop, insalubrious Poughill, and cling to a road that terminate deferentially at the crest of a hill, site of a large supermarket. Inside, a young man from Devon struggles when asked about regional identity. ‘We do the best clotted cream’, he eventually offers, unsure. Compared to the harsh rockiness of Cornwall and its barer, more exposed fields, Devon’s landscapes are – so far – richer, more verdant and varied in their beauty, in the splendour of their wildflowers and trees, pinched hedgerows and forests berthed tightly into cliff-sides and gaping valleys. But Devon’s frilly, if you follow. Cornwall’s altogether stranger. Some quite extraordinary days await me.
Bude itself is ugly, a small and tacky town. You can buy guns here, you know. A sign along the main drag tells me so, as it competes with others to point out the nearest outlet that’ll rob one’s change in exchange for something mean and inadequate. But the people are warm and friendly. I take a stop in the tourist office. Inside, I get into conversation with two different women, one overhearing the other. Each insist on the same instruction: Greenaway beach, wherever it is – and it is on no map – is where you must stop. Somewhere by Trebetherick, possibly. ‘My haven’, says one, recalling something pleasurable as she looks back several decades. ‘Where we always went as kids’, the other says, her testimony still around two decades out of date. I like the challenge, and make it my mission to find this mysterious location.
The road out of Bude is long, flat and all-too-linear, a civil engineer’s wet dream of motion and order. It’s called the ‘Atlantic Highway’, but any further imaginary comparisons are soon dispelled. We’re riding through King Arthur country, by Camelford, Boscastle and Tintagel. Curious that countries have needed to discover and ‘define’ a heroic pre-history at times of their own overseas expansion or civil wars. There’s no historical evidence for King Arthur until the oft-inventive accounts of Nennius in the 9th century, during a time of Viking raids and Anglo-Saxon invasions; Geoffrey of Monmouth embellishes much more in the 12th century when the England is divided by civil wars between Stephen and Matilda. Later, the poet Tennyson turns Arthur into a chivalric ideal for Victorian men, a model of emotional constipation and unthinking duty, of a kind to bind together the base of imperial expansion.
By Slaughterbridge, near Camelford, lies King Arthur’s stone, a place supposed to be his grave, 1500 years old. An Arthurian Centre plies a good trade nearby. I avoid it, my road passing Dimma and the Rebel cinema (showing Hollywood flicks instead of Godard, Pasolini or John Waters’ shit, alas), taking me up to Boscastle, tucked neatly into the coastline. It’s abub with visitors, wandering besides a series of attractive visitor attractions built alongside the narrow fishing harbour here.
It’s a fine place to stop, so I jump off the bike and wander round, seeking out more clues from local traders about Greenaway Beach and Cornish identity. Both elicit responses of confusion. There’s a Witchcraft Museum here. Intrigued, I venture in.
Witchcraft, what is that? I ask the question in an open spirit. ‘There are good forms and bad forms’, is the warm and friendly, if somewhat apologetic reply from the worker I speak to. She dwells a little too heavily on popular misconceptions, but tells me of traditions of ‘wise’ or ‘cunning folk’ who provided medicine, magic and fortune-telling to surrounding communities. The persecution and murder of ‘witches’ across Europe between the 15th and 18th centuries forced much of this tradition or underground or disappeared it altogether. Centuries later, this small museum was opened by Cecil Williamson in 1948 to preserve traditions of a folk witch culture, lost, and then reconstructed, by figures like Williamson, Gerald Gardner, and Aleister Crowley.
I wander around the exhibits, impressed by the scale of the collection. Artefacts, objects, verses and beer bottles narrate the tales of wise and benevolent witches, magical hares, staffs and stangs, worship of an archetypical mother – the Goddess, as well as folk charms seeking revenge, desiring love, mandrake roots or other things. Some attempt to represent infinity, or some kind of supreme mystery, labyrinths scratched into stone, portals to another world, or wooden boards that attempt communication with the dead. Nor are these all aged and twee objects. Cecil Williamson worked for M16 during WW2, helping intelligence agents understand the occult reasoning of top Nazi officials as well as carrying out some very strange ‘black ops’. Rumour has it that Williamson helped capture Rudolf Hess after producing a fake Nostradamus book that tricked the Nazi deputy into flying to Scotland, whilst Aleister Crowley carried out elaborate spells to protect the mainland from German invasion. More recently, British intelligence officers planted black candles, upside-down crucifixes and other ‘black magic’ across Belfast during the Troubles of 1972-4, exploiting fears of Satanism and attaching them to paramilitary Republicans and Loyalists. The fact is not in the belief itself, but in its being believed.
‘Go and catch a falling star,
Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me where all past years are,
Or who cleft the devil’s foot,
Teach me to hear mermaids singing,
Or to keep off envy’s stinging,
Serves to advance an honest mind.’
Wandering around these odd, intriguing objects, some words enter into my mind which I later trace back to John Donne. Confronted with colossal meaninglessness all around us, these charms, tricks and trinkets indicate a uniquely human ability to imagine and confabulate reason and meaning back into the world. Earlier, when pushed a little harder, I was told that witchcraft is not a single belief system but a way of seeing the world. There is a ‘divine creative energy’ in nature and that is nature, a power that permeates all things. Witchcraft’s gambit is that this power can be used to assist humans. I’m not so sure.
From Boscastle, the road rejoins a steep and winding hill that passes Trevalga, Trethevy, Trevillett, and so many other Tre-s. ‘By Tre, Pol and Pen shall ye know all Cornish men’ goes the rhyme, and the frequency of such names in this region is an odd delight. Beside the River Trevillet flows St. Nectan’s waterfall, a secluded beauty spot surrounded in myths of magic. Nectan was the brother of Morwenna, our lady in Morwenstow, and his fate is quite strange. Inspired by the early Christian fathers, he sailed out of Wales with his companions and let the seas decide where they would settle. They landed in Hartland, and survived in the forest for several years, worshipping and farming. One day, Nectan’s cows were stolen by two thieves. Tracking them down, he attempted to convert the two to Christianity, but for his efforts had his head cut clean off. Nectan picked up his head and walked back to his well, eventually collapsing and dying, yet wherever his blood fell, foxgloves grew, and a shrine quickly began to draw distant pilgrims. Over this waterfall, Nectan sat out and meditated over the wondrous beauty of nature, as countless others have done before and since.
Tintagel, just a little ahead, is a special place. The spectacular ruins of its castle, cast adrift on a jagged rock in the midst of surging seas, is quite unforgettable. Geoffrey of Monmouth claims it is where King Arthur was conceived (combining magic with plain deception). Victorians made even more of this minor association, turning Tintagel Castle into the bastion of Arthurian myth. Yet wandering around the ruins of this castle, I discover that these fortifications were largely built in early medieval times, then later, abandoned. Tintagel’s magic, disconnected from the land and its time, is a relatively modern effect. Archaeological evidence suggests the castle was once part of the headland until some sea washed its thin link with the world away. When John Leland arrived, one could only reach the ruins of Tintagel by way of a flimsy bridge of tree-trunks. Now one must scale staircases cut into the cliff, then wander around on the plateau, among the ruins of past lives.
I leave Tintagel and cycle through the most beautiful of countryside, glorious and light. The sun is setting in the skies ahead of me, providing me with the light, heat and inspiration to continue. I recall the exhibits of the Witchcraft museum, and the standing stones I’ve passed and slept by, the stained glass of the cathedrals, and the solar and lunar rituals of Judaism and Islam. It’s not just paganism, but in so many belief systems there’s worship of the sun directly or indirectly. Consider Stonehenge and its alignment of the solstices, and those great festivals one can imagine in ancient times. Look beyond the face value of the claims of those belief systems. Behind the rituals around fertility, spring or harvest, these events inscribed pleasure and play into human lives that were regularly rocked by deaths, deprivation and uncertainty.
That’s not to say that there was something more authentic or ‘natural’ in the religions that preceded Christianity, as the museum suggests, and as modern critics of the Church sometimes lean towards. ‘Nature’, as Raymond Williams notes, ‘is perhaps the most complex word in the language’. The early Christian calendar incorporated many of those rituals and events into what are now Easter, Christmas and saints’ days. Its imagery and parables were newer attempts to explain the same meaninglessness of death, suffering and social wrongs, backed by the wealth of the Roman empire and later the collaboration of medieval kings. Though they could not understand its Latin services, its consolations were narrated in images and rituals that gave relief to the poor and grieving. It conveniently aided the development of a medieval way of life becoming more densely packed into larger villages and small towns, no longer nomadic but tethered by agriculture, and made to work harder and longer in feudal duty to an idle lord. Growing populations and trade increased the susceptibility to cruel disease. It held desires and frustrations in check, dangerous to exercise in any case, with its promise of a better world to come. It does not surprise me that such belief systems have been altogether necessary for the development and industrialisation of human societies.
For the age-old question that our man Spinoza asked, why do people fight for their slavery as if it were their freedom? I see belief systems that offer social and psychological rewards for their adherence. What better way to endure the unendurable except by the promise of a blissful afterlife? I remember those Richard Dawkins-quoting backpackers back in Inveraray, well-meaning in their hatred of organised religion but too brusque in their way, unwittingly arrogant. Rather than being ‘life-denying’, such belief systems have made life and living possible for so many.
The road winds down and then right back out of Tintagel. I cut through Tregatta and fork at Trebarwith, where there is the most horrifically steep of all hills towards its little village. The sun is setting and casting a heart-stopping glow across the valleys. The breeze is cool and sweet after such a hot afternoon. I ride through Pendoggett then veer off north towards Polzeath, passing a bee centre and then a small touristy settlement at Polzeath itself. Somewhere around here is Greenaway beach, that mythic stretch of sand that locals claim not to know or speak in hushed, euphoric tones about. I huff up to Trebetherick, where one final location tugs me before I stop for the night. As I catch my breath, I make conversation with a friendly-looking man walking by. My initial line of questioning is about holiday homes in the area, but conversation tilts round to politics, as it so often does. His name is Dave, and he calls himself a ‘generalist’.
‘You know the Scots are having their referendum. I think if you gave people the vote here, they’d choose to be separate from the Westminster politicians. People are fed up.’
Dave’s from Somerset, though has lived and worked across England. The conversation is very open, and he steers it from topic to topic. He tells me about the University of East Anglia, and about producing maps for the British government, from guides for submarines to pioneering the use of GPS. ‘You know about Rock?’ Rock is the next village after Trebetherick, and has been the subject of complaints and grumbling by people I’ve met today and yesterday about an invasion of wealthy second-home buyers. ‘Yes, the second homes’, I reply. ‘It’s very expensive for a first home here. Never mind a second. It’s causing problems. People from the south east with a lot more money. You know, the south west, it’s quite a poor place, really dependent on tourism. A backwater…’
London casts its shadow over here. ‘London that’s where the numbers are. Making money. But they don’t recognise they’re supported by the rest of the country’. ‘You mean with the workforce?’ ‘Not just that’. One of the features of Thatcher’s devastating legacy on the UK has been the predominance of London, economically, over the rest of the country. Many parts of the city remain the poorest in the country, but in small pockets, wealthy individuals and banks have been allowed, indeed encouraged, to become absolutely ‘loaded’. Regressive tax-breaks and the break-up of public ownership and government protections of labour have…
Come on! In beautiful and rugged Cornwall, in a magical place like this, must we be gloomy about politics? No, not now, I won’t allow it!
I part ways with Dave and then cycle down towards Daymer Bay. There’s a lovely sandy beach here and a sprawling golf course just by. I find a narrow path that weaves to a small church just behind the beach. Surrounded by undulating sand dunes and sleepy grassy plains, this is a remote and breathtakingly tranquil place. No one is here. I follow the narrow path round into a churchyard. One of the first headstones one sees, and the one which has drawn me here, is that of the poet John Betjeman.
‘Come on! Come on! This hillock hides the spire,
Now that one and now none. As winds about
The burnished path through lady’s-finger, thyme,
And bright varieties of saxifrage,
So grows the tinny tenor faint or loud
All things draw toward St. Enodoc.’
Betjeman’s words are significant to my project: his poetry tells a story of England made up of train journeys, of life lived through the anodyne and humdrum, with teasing glints of tantalising delights, of misguided or plain ugly new buildings, of the ‘tinned minds’ that testify to a lack or loss of imagination, that the way we live is produced by the buildings and objects around us. In his final days he was drawn here, to Trebetherick and this eccentric little church, with its cone-shaped Norman tower and odd Victorian features inside. It’s a fitting place to sit by his grave, alone perhaps, unless one counts the songbirds and the moths still flickering about in the fading gloaming light.
I ride out, still none the wiser about the location of Greenaway beach. I decide to take a stop at the Oyster Catcher Arms, which Dave told me on good authority is the cheapest pub around for miles. They serve a number of Tribute ales, a good local Cornish brewery, and I quench my thirst on a selection of their brews, their 1913 stout well worth a second taste. Conversation inside the boozer is typically unpredictable.
The drinkers here all speak with ‘horsey’ accents, suggesting an expensive education. I am on my own by the bar, drinking, thinking and listening. I chat with the bar staff mostly, but long for the sociality of the northern or Scottish lowlands boozer. The patrons here are surprisingly rude even to their friends. A woman chastises one of the guys with her to ‘be a man’ and not be a ‘girl’, her casual sexism surprising me. Others dispute the rules of cricket with the anger and impatience of a Daily Mail journalist and occasional mother correcting a Filipino au pair for preparing Jonty or Jemima’s supper with non-organic chicken livers. ‘Just say England, cos there won’t be a UK soon’, corrects the father on a nearby table. For many in this particular social group, England has always been England, the UK has always been England, Britain has always been England, the provinces left to rot and be thankful.
One barman thinks he may know where Greenaway beach is, and gives me some vague directions to head around the pub and towards the cliff-path. I hobble out into the dark, tracing a narrow path that eventually terminates on the edge of a cliff. Below is a secluded bay and a pebbly beach. I can’t make out the path down to it, and decide instead to set up camp just above what may well be Greenaway. With the stars above me, and thick dunes around me, my sleeping spot is peaceful and discreet.