‘I think boyfriends are irrelevant, because of what’s happening to the planet. This is about the planet, and it’s called ‘Foolish Man’.
– Open mic night at the Kettle and Wink, St. Ives.
The feeling from up above Greenaway beach is serenity. I climb out of my tent and into a clump of shrubbery, all that protects me from the suspicious glares of dog-walkers behind me, or an easy tumble down into the maws of the seas below. This beach is special in the memories of people I met yesterday. It was also preserved in poetic aspic by John Betjeman, the poet who died and was buried by here.
‘I know the roughly blasted track
That skirts a small and smelly bay
And over squelching bladderwrack
Leads to the beach at Greenaway.’
It’s lucky I didn’t attempt to clamber down to that shingle stretch below. The tide is now in and the bay disconnected from the rest of the land by several meters of surging surf. I’d’ve been cut off, or something worse. At the end of his poem, Betjeman imagines the ‘weights of water over me’ as rogue tide surges over him.
‘Back into what a water-world
Of waving weed and waiting claws?
Of writhing tentacles uncurled
To drag me to what dreadful jaws?’
There’s something thrilling about imagining your own destruction. Betjeman gazes a second too long into the waves and that’s enough to have him hurrying back to the cosy mediocrity of tea, toast and an evening of Radio Four. Collectively, there’s no need to stray far to find a soothing voice promising our destruction. Nuclear war, ecological collapse, overpopulation, the inevitable crack-up of capitalism. Anything that promises something other than the resumption of the everyday. For everything to carry on as it is would be the worst catastrophe. We age and get slower as the world becomes younger and faster: no no no. Apocalypse, please. For the last thing we can bear, in an age attached to the mediatised image of itself, is the possibility that we might actually be commonplace, clichéd and boring.
Shelducks fly over Padstow bay, their wings flickering against the backdrop of Pentire Head like a series of animated ticks. They squeak at each other cacophonously and repeatedly, though none seems to regard the other. I eat my granola and water and take in the scene.
A little south from here is the village of Rock. From here, Sharps brewery exports Doom Bar beer to every chandeliered and damask-papered pub in the affluent South East. In return, though for only about a fortnight a year, the South East exports its wealthiest citizens to this bland little blottage, where they return to their cottages, and, over oysters and champagne, complain about their tax affairs. There’s little to see here, though there’s some fun in trying to find the most unimaginative house name among the second homes, each one some new-build, mock-shanty, Cap’n Spreadsheet shittery. The Nutshell, or Gull Rock? Fuck off.
I’m glad to board the ferry for the brief little crossing over to Padstow.
‘This is a second home county’, says a lady in the information office. Where those with the wherewithal come to play. A lot of the locals can’t afford to get on the property ladder, she adds.
I can’t help grimacing at the phrase, with all its aspirational implications, getting up the ladder, climbing out of one class and into another. Where do the snakes hide in this game of ladders? What of the third of the population who aren’t even given a go to roll the die? No matter I suppose, it’s a loaded die, but still the illusion of social mobility has kept the lid on popular disaffections from boiling over. The property ladder, anti-depressants prescriptions, cheap alcohol, the microwave oven: I picture each inside a glass cabinet in a museum to come. Looking back on early 21st century life, children will tug at the sleeves of their parents and ask, ‘why did they put up with it?’
She tells me that they’re building some new houses in nearby Newquay and St. Austell. ‘Is it enough?’, I ask. Momentarily, her eyes flicker towards the distance above me. ‘I’m not sure’, she replies, unconvincingly.
By Padstow’s bustling harbour I spy a fishermen in yellow waterproof dungariees. His name is Gavin, and his large scarred hand attempts to cover a cigarette from the wind as another tries to light it. I ask him about his work. ‘They catch bass and Pollock here, but it’s mainly sold overseas. I wouldn’t eat it!’
A few weeks ago you could catch mackerel here, but the season’s passing. There’s bream still around, the quarry of sports fishing. Interesting for some, but do many still fish for a living? No, most don’t make money from it. Tourist fishing is the best income.’ Padstow is all too dependent on tourism. ‘You should see this place in winter, it’s dead’. Gavin doesn’t know anyone who can speak Cornish, nor did any of the local bar-staff in the Oyster Catcher. People find it a humourous question to be even asked. ‘More in the place names and culture’, one barmaid said. But what? Tre Pol and Pen… As the fishing vessels jangle in the bay, Gavin tells me about his own cycling around the country. Finally, he returns back to one of our topics with the manner of a teacher attempting to impress a conclusion on a distracted classroom. ‘It’s very expensive to live here’. Inheritance helps, otherwise renting. He sees himself lucky. His family are from here, and have seen the value of their houses reach stratospheric prices. They could retire early and easy. He looks on, then wishes me luck for the hilly road ahead. Hilly…?
Padstow is all too dependent on tourism, though conveys an air of affluent gentility. For reasons I can’t fathom, the town makes as much fuss of its associations with TV chef Rick Stein as medieval abbots over the relic of a holy saint. There’s a choice of outlets selling fashionable baby clothes. On one row, three pasty outlets stand adjacent to each other, some turf war kicking off over beef and potato pastries. Any region could’ve invented what is now known as the Cornish pasty, perfect in its simplicity, but Cornwall’s done it. But how well? In what will mark the start of a twice-daily dependency on pasties over the next few week, I eat my first of the trip at the Cornish Pasty Company. It’s not exactly the real deal – vegetarians have a choice of a cheese pasty or… cheese pasty, but it’s good filling stuff, a complete meal in your hand. Satisfied, I ride on, puffing up a tough hill and then out pedalling along a coastal road west.
I’m following the road south-west, clinging where I can to the coastline. The simplicity of this strategy has been rewarding. There’s no need for a map, all you need is the sea somewhere close to one’s right – and the narrow cliffs roads have been quiet and delightful. I huff up to St. Merryn, enchanted with the bareness of their surroundings. Cornwall has traded its trees for a harsh rockiness and abundance of low-level shrubs. The landscape refuses to stay still, jutting up down up down. But the lack of vegetation affects its smell. There are blackberries or apples like those on the roads of Somerset, or mint or rosehips like on those Devon trails. Few even are the cattle. It’s rougher, tougher, and emptier.
One recurring problem is the hills, so often restless and steep. Seaside resorts and fishing towns are often built into bays, great partings in the cliffs. As the road starts to descend down, as it does to Porthcothan Bay, no sign is required to point out that you’re about to reach a settlement. The momentary exhilaration of plummeting into a twee promenade of ice cream kiosks and cream tea dispensaries soon dissipates when you see the near-perpendicular gradient of a cliff-hill ahead of you. And then back down again!
The wind is against me today, as it was yesterday, but that’s some relief with this intense and unseasonal September heat. I stop near Trevose Head, home of many a shipwreck, and slap on some sun-cream. Rarely has this been necessary (after all, this is the British summer), and there’s pleasure in the novelty. I’m feeling a little worn out though when I finally reach Newquay. Its long expanses of golden sand stand out in the distance, but the overriding impression once one draws close is the scale of the town. So many small supermarkets and chain stories seem to have opened up in the ten years since I was last here, transmogrifying a cool surfer town into somewhere that’s like… everywhere else.
Most of those dawdling the pedestrianised streets appear to be unhealthy, skin pale, tired eyes, guts spilling above trouser waistlines. Earlier today I’d flicked through a photography collection of old Padstow, some eighty-ninety years ago. Those fishermen and their families look positively starved by comparison with their descendants. There must be some kind of hidden association of the most tawdry and tacky stores, ensuring each sells exactly the same crap fudge and lettered rock, and ensuring that any remotely interesting or unique seaside business is shut out and shut down. No, it’s not so bad, Newquay, but it’s far more tacky than it should be. One of the country’s prime surfing spots deserves a bit more care.
I pop into one of the town’s few independent pasty shops to find out more about the area. A local woman speaks candidly about the place, with degrees of desperation and frustration in turn. ‘It’s very hard to make a living here. August, it’s packed. Now it’s starting to quieten off. In winter it’ll be dead. A lot of people round here have three or four jobs. But it’s all zero hours. You might work in a shop, but if it’s quiet then they’ll send you home and won’t pay you. The supermarkets only call you when you’re needed, so it might only be a few hours. It’s very difficult.’ She is flustered and stressed, yet willing to share and talk about her experiences. Recognising the problem is not difficult. But all across these islands, no matter what the province or local accent, not one person has been able to share with me their imagination for an alternative. Complain, yes. But…?
People sigh like kettles, wearying themselves with the murmurs of their moaning. What good does it do…? What’s silent in that second ellipsis is that innate creative spark that’d suggest an opportunity, a possibility, a beginning. About labour laws or a new constitution, about public ownership or, more simply, a third question about what life in advanced developed countries could be like, after work and leisure.
Warren’s claims to be Cornwall’s oldest pasty shops, and its stores are most common of all the chain bakeries here. I hear similar sentiments at its pasty counter. A young man reflects that ‘all this town has is tourism’. ‘Isn’t that dangerous for a town to only rely on? ‘I dunno, I don’t really think about.’ Unlike the other lady, with her other jobs in nearby shops and supermarkets, this is his only job, and the store stays open all year round. I get my second pasty of the day, cheese and onion, nice but like everywhere else, a little overpriced. Still famished, I get an ice cream and wander along Towan beach.
Two lifeguards gaze out at the quiet beach, facing an empty sea. As we talk, their limbs continually jerk and jitter about, their tanned bare feet connected to some subterranean live current. ‘Lots of first aids: surfboard to the head, sprained ankles. Not so many rips here. It’s mainly sunbathers, body boarders. People surf at the sides. Fistral.’ Their speech is animated and rapid, as if anticipating the curls of the seas. Talk is a lively series of jokes. ‘This winter I’m going to California, if I can save the money. This isn’t a saving town though, there’s a lot of nightlife.’ He gives a knowing smile. Both lifeguards work here during the summer then migrate somewhere warm for winter, like Indonesia, Australia. It sounds like a good life.
There’s a contrast further up the road, by the tourist office. Uttered loudly, suggestive of a mind too disarrayed to hear itself, ‘I told you you can get ESA for that’. A group of surprisingly ragged looking young adults are clustered together in a road, aspects of their face and physique suggestive of drug dependency. Paramedics resuscitate some sunburnt soul in a nearby car-park. Weary of Newquay, I force feet down as the bike ascends a steep hill out of the town and out towards Goonhavern.
The route twists and winds as it courses the Cornish countryside. Traffic remains behind my shoulder the whole way as I hug the side of a tight single carriageway. The combination of a roasting sun and these restless, W-shaped hills is so taxing! With the continually oscillating hills, it’s impossible to build a rhythm. Everything’s a surprise, except the continual drop then rise.
Already weary, I abandon plans to cycle by the seaside towns of Perranporth and St. Agnes. There’s a potentially delightful looking trail from Portreath along the north Cornish coast to Gwithian and down to Hayle. I could take it, but after the teeny lanes and savage hills of these last few days, I want something different. So instead, I take a more direct route that cuts a cleaner route south-west, following the hectic A30. Everyone’s warned me against this road. Charity-fundraising cyclists have been obliterated on this route by local lorry-drivers. But this afternoon I want a hit of its speed, a dab of that frenzy.
This road is crazed, all cars accelerate at full pelt. Unlike the country roads, it never changes: there is a continual state of sameness for miles and miles that provides a cool salve for an overstimulated imagination. On the hard shoulder, adjacent to two lanes of impatient vans, cars, lorries, tractors and motorbikes, the sheer struggle and stress of the ride has my mind tapping straight into the depths of the imagination. Thoughts are flooded with images of friends, loved ones, of past moments and future scenarios, all accompanied by a soundtrack of pop songs and made-up lullabies.
And then there’s the regularity of the major road architecture, like a motorway. Ordered lanes, bridges, crash barriers and hard shoulders. It’s satisfying in its simplicity, in the angular straightness of its lines, in the order of its careful demarcation of lanes, and the lack of drama in the flat road ahead. The speeding traffic passing my right shoulder shares the same rhythm, a continual whoosh-whoosh like that of some gigantic single machine, seemingly asleep but alive in its computations. My body’s spiked with adrenaline as it tries to keep up.
I eventually reach Hayle after around an hour, and come off the major road at a roundabout. As I join the lane for St. Ives, an aggressive motorist shouts abuse at me (and, I hate to say it, but except for that near-miss in the Highlands, there’s been one shared characteristic of the many drivers who have shouted abuse or hit my bike on this trip…). It distracts her, and me, but familiar with the incompetence of the average road-user in London, I ignore it. But a word of correction: cyclists are legally permitted to use A-roads, B-roads and roundabouts. That’s it. Nothing complicated about that.
I can drive a car, and when I started cycling as a means of transport a year ago, I decided to use my bicycle like I would a car, respecting lanes and adhering to the rules of the road. Most car-drivers do the same – most cyclists do not. I’ve witnessed bad accidents in London as a result. Fault usually rested in the cyclist’s misjudgement. But spending around seven hours each day on the roads, I’m in a good position to observe traffic behaviour. Again, most motorists are very respectful and careful around me. But a minority, no. I didn’t mention it at the time, but whilst leaving Preston I was hit by one woman. She pulled out of a side-road into a busy main road, its two lanes filled with traffic. Stupid thing to do, right? There’s only so far that high-vis gear can help. The car wacked into my bike. Luckily my clothes pannier took the impact and flew off the bike. But she drove off, and it took another motorist to check I was alright.
Near-misses and casual aggression are rare overall, but they occur in small incidents on a daily basis. I try not to make judgements. There’s a massive core of people who regularly vote Conservative. Stupidity, aggression and bigotry are unfortunately residual features of at least a third of the country.
I ride into St Ives, a delightful seaside town, and take in the view over Carbis Bay. It’s one of my favourite places on earth, this. It winds down into the main town, a small fishing town that’s managed to resist the lure of tourism, to its charm, all the while being awash with visitors. Its streets are tightly-packed, particularly towards the back of the seaside promenades. Lanes are narrow, cobbled. Some with haunted imaginations would call them ghostly, but I find them floral, places of love, of activities and stories.
Somewhere like Norway Square and its gentle tranquillity haunts the imagination, as it has mine, when I came here ten years ago, aged seventeen. Things change. I drank in every pub here and swam drunk and stoned in the sea around midnight. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life or who I wanted to be. I wasn’t happy, nor was I particularly aware of why I might be sad. Life was a blur of impressions and ill-expressed desires. I’m chasing ghosts up Salubrious Place and Love Lane, down towards the lighthouse, by boys backflipping into the sea, where seals were once seen, and pilchards caught. Visitors like me take in the evening light, take photos, eat ice creams, wonder at a quality of life that seems enticing. What if we might live here? Such is the lure of Cornwall.
In the health food shop I’m given recommendations from a friendly local fella about places to drink (The Kettle and Wink, the Three Ferrets). Again, St Ives is a very quiet place in winter. One lady I talk to lives in Penzance. I get the impression that some drift between jobs based on the season, or go away altogether over winter, unless they’ve found something secure, ‘like a lawyer, or solicitor’, as the Newquay pasty lady suggested, as if instructing me on a choice of university degree. ‘Local’ and ‘Express’ style mini-supermarkets seemed to have begun to fester around the corners of the high streets here, but the town is lovely, and has kept its independent shops, plethora of pubs, a small art-deco cinema and decent eateries without caving in to chain brands.
I follow the harbour round, passing the slumbersome sands of Porthminster beach, where I take a stop at The Sloop Inn, established in 1312. I drink greedily from a delicious pint of Doom Bar outside, with the same feeling of wearied bliss and physical relief as finally emptying one bladder after being locked into a mind-numbing meeting for a couple of hours. No words of Betjeman describe it, and I have nothing else to compare it to. Just lovely, St. Ives, even if the seagulls here are crueller than most.
I drift back up to the Kettle and Wink, where there’s a night of folk music on, and some superb local acts. I talk to Joe behind the bar, who shares a similar tale, ‘it does get quiet here. I go away. Last year I went to India. It was amazing. This year it’s Asia, I’ve just booked my flights, mid-January. I came back in May when the season was starting. It’s just what you do. Bar work, restaurants. It’s dependent on the tourists.’ I drink pints of St Austells Proper Job and Dartmoor and tune in to the lovely evening atmosphere.
‘When dreams become reality, what else is left to dream? Be careful what you wish for. Life isn’t what it seems…’
A local poet takes the stage, the night’s compere. His words are tangy and bitter, a little too heavily salted.
‘There’s something in the air around this ancient fishing town, and it’s not the seagulls as they come swooping round. There’s something in the bones about this port of old St. Ives. You can sense it in a minute, you can sense it all your lives.’
I’m by no means the first to find something charming in the peaceful ambience about old St. Ives. It depends on its tourists as much as anywhere else. But to me it’s such a tonic, a lovely and rare place, surrounded by tranquil beaches and bathed in what is, really, a more stark and intense white light. These quaint, higgledy-piggledy fishermen’s cottages are enchanting. Add the tourists, or remove them, and one is still left with an unusually characterful little town. This is not Newquay, Penzance or Falmouth, and is all the better for it.
A husky old dog takes the mic and sings “Letter to a hooker” in a smoky baritone, true to Tom Waits. Next, a young couple sat next to me suddenly take to the stage. ‘I’ve just about had it here. You’re not the way you used to be.’ Like so many before them, they sing about their heart’s desires and loneliness, using a shared currency of music that everyone else here shares, and appreciates, without attaching any kind of special or serious meaning to the individual expressing it. In these folk gatherings there’s something religious going on, a shared communion of feelings, but a sense of fun too – people slapping each other’s shoulders, chatting good-humouredly, a community at play.
The young people here look sun-kissed and healthy, and there’s a glow of happiness all about the place. I’ve already fallen for St. Ives, and I could stay in this boozer all night, with its curious assortment of hippies, ex-punks and vagrant minstrels, each chatting and laughing. But I’ve nowhere to sleep for the night. As memory served, there was a large stretch of grassland just outside St. Ives, nicknamed ‘the Island’. I decide to give it a try. I ride up through the old town, and through a car-park besides Porthgwidden beach. The island lies ahead, some kind of meteorological outpost on one hill to my right, and the outline of small St. Nicholas’ chapel to my left. In most parts of the country, this open common land would be plagued with gangs of bored drunk kids (and to all intents and purposes, am I not also one of them?). But it’s a Friday, and it’s deserted. Among the dark dunes with the roar of the sea beside me, I pitch up tent, listen awhile to the waves, then soon collapse asleep.