Walking in Mind

A Trail of Thoughts


8 Comments

A Gift From The Sea

The day has been overcast, but now, as afternoon drifts towards evening, blades of light are cutting through the thinning cloud at irregular intervals, mottling the sea in real time. In Cornish a single word, glas, can capture the colours of the water, but here, east of the Tamar, at the edge of Torbay, the story of the world is told only in English, and so I need four words to describe what I see: blue, green, pale grey.

How can a language have a single word stand for all these colours? To understand why, imagine the early settlers of a place we now call Cornwall. Where does their eye first fall, what lies in the foreground of their imagination, along whose roads do they come and go? The sea, so first a word for the colour of the sea, undivided, whole. Glas. It then begins to make sense. The sky is the colour of the sea, plants are the colour of the sea, the sea is the reference for interpreting the land.

Scanning the water I spot two patches of darker grey. One of them dissolves again, but the other grows with proximity until it is just a dive’s length from the stone jetty on which I’m standing. I can see the whole of his shape now, a large bull, his flippers extended as he glides to a halt before me. He pushes his head through into my world, snaring me with ebony eyes whose gaze is a lesson in curiosity. I fumble for my phone, desperate to capture the moment, but unwilling to look away. He submerges again, but, to my relief, only to move even closer to the shoreline rocks. He’s head and shoulders above the surface now, looking around, although not at me. I, however, am transfixed by all of him: his mottled belly hanging still in the pellucid water, his twitching snout with its watery snuffles, and his majestic whiskers, the vibrissae without which he would be unable to locate the movement of prey in the deep, dark sea.

He shifts his attention to me once more, locking me with a stare I find unsettling. It is as if he is examining me, peering into my human form in search of a selkie, daring me to shed my borrowed skin and return to the sea. I am released from his spell by the actions of a fisherman further along the jetty. Packing up for the day he casts a couple of fish heads into the water, their plop plop drawing my watcher away. He is a shadow once more, diving for easy prey, all grace and skill, dignifying the sea with his presence.

I linger for a while, expectant, hungry for more, but he’s nowhere to be seen. Time, then, to reel in my dreams and head for home, alone again but for the music in my head, the voice of June Tabor carrying on the tale in song.

img_0002_2

img_0009_2

img_0003_2

 


10 Comments

Reflections on Homecoming, Two Centuries Apart

When we lose a loved one it is not uncommon for objects that had themselves been lost during that person’s lifetime to re-emerge. Sometimes we discover things we didn’t even know existed.

In the months following my father’s death in 1994 one of the objects that resurfaced was a small red book with a golden anchor debossed on its front cover. For many years I showed what now seems like a discourteous lack of interest in its content, but more recently, while reflecting on all that had led me to make a home away from home, I have revisited the little red book time and again, as if looking for a thread to pull and tie to those from which my own life has been woven.

Towards the end of 2015 I was invited to submit a piece of writing to a website called Cornish Story. An initiative of the Institute of Cornish Studies at the University of Exeter, the stated goal of Cornish Story is “to promote a greater knowledge of Cornwall and the Cornish Diaspora overseas”. The website hosts both written and visual work, and if you’re interested in Cornwall and its history then it’s well worth a look.

The piece I submitted drew not only on my own experience of walking from Catalonia to Cornwall last summer, but also on some of the stories I had discovered in that little red book. You can see the piece as presented on Cornish Story here, or simply read on.

***

Dehwelans / Return

I arrived in Plymouth aboard the Armorique, he on the William and Amelia. I had walked a thousand miles across France from Catalonia, and had then been ferried across the Channel in just six hours. He had set sail from New Brunswick and had endured thirty-nine days on the Atlantic. His name was Richard, and he was my great, great grandfather.

In 1984, aged nineteen, I left Cornwall for London. There I studied, laid the foundations of a career, made friends and fell in love. When things fell apart I did what countless others have done before me and looked elsewhere in hope. The choice of Barcelona was not a random one. I had Catalan friends and had spent several summers visiting them and their city. So, in January 1998, I returned there with the idea of spending a year, maybe two. Nothing permanent, just long enough to get back on track.

Richard Nance was born in Roche in 1791, and he was a carpenter by trade. On 14 June 1818 he left Plymouth aboard the Mary, bound for Halifax, Nova Scotia. I know this because he kept a diary of his voyage, a pocket-sized book that passed down the family line to my father. On the opening page of his diary, Richard expresses the hope that he is going “for a better country, a more hospitable clime where it is possible that I may enjoy the Blessings of life in a far greater degree than I can in my native country”.

He reached Halifax in August 1818, and from there sailed on to Boston, where he soon found work and a small house to rent. On his second day in Boston he wrote in his diary that he believed “the New World to be much better for the labouring classes than the Old”.

The idea of walking from Catalonia to Cornwall came to me a few summers ago. By then I had long since settled in Barcelona, but that year I spent my holiday trudging across the north of England, following a coast to coast trail imagined by A.W. Wainwright. When I returned to Barcelona I realized that the experience had taught me a lot about what we gain by travelling on foot, not least that it is a way of finding new and deeper meaning in our relationship to place. Over the years, I had come to call Catalonia home, but this had always had its counterpoint in a longing for Cornwall. By walking between the two, I would follow that thread of longing to its source.

Having recorded his outbound voyage and arrival in some detail, Richard Nance then wrote nothing in his journal for two years. When entries resume, it is clear that the promise of the New World has faded. Permanent employment has proved elusive, and he has decided to return home.

He departed New Brunswick aboard the William and Amelia on 22 July 1821. On 10 August the ship met with a terrible Atlantic storm that lasted four days. In words reminiscent of Psalm 107 my great, great grandfather described the experience as follows: “Now the vessel skims the frightful ridge and again sinks into the deep abyss. In such dreadful scenes as these, horror and dismay seizes the vitals of those who are unacquainted with the wonders of the Lord on the face of the deep”. Amidst the gales and the mountainous seas, however, he found solace in the purpose of his journey, writing that “the best of all is every heave of the billows wafts us nearer to our native spot endeared to our memory by the ties of love and friendship”.

Although my walk across France this summer was arduous both physically and psychologically, the seascape on my Channel crossing could not have been more different to what my forebear experienced on the Atlantic. Mizzle fell upon the ferry’s decks as it pulled out of Roscoff under a sky the colour of Delabole slate, but I barely noticed the swell as we headed out into the Channel. Warm and dry inside the giant, metallic cradle I soon dozed off, and by the time I awoke, the early morning grey had given way to white and blue.

When I heard the announcement that we were half an hour from Plymouth I went out onto the upper deck and waited for the land to form. Gulls wheeled above me on the wind, and turning to starboard I spied the yolky head of a gannet skimming seaward. As we passed the breakwater and entered Plymouth Sound I went and leaned on the portside rails, from where the first villages of Cornwall – Kingsand and Cawsand – could be picked out with the naked eye. The ferry held a north-easterly course, and then, as it drew level with Drake’s Island, arced ninety degrees west, bringing it head on to the docks. I switched to starboard once more and anchored my gaze on the red and white hoops of Smeaton’s Tower. Approaching Plymouth almost two centuries ago, my great, great grandfather would also have seen this tower, yet not as a memorial on the Hoe but as a working lighthouse further out to sea on the Eddystone Rocks. Even more than I, perhaps, he would have looked upon that tower as a prelude to home.

After landing at Plymouth, Richard Nance secured passage on a boat that would take him along the Cornish coast to Charlestown, from where he could travel over land to Roche. Due, however, to what he describes in his journal as “contrary winds” he had to wait almost two weeks before making the final leg of his journey home. I know nothing more about his life.

Ten days after my own arrival at Plymouth I reached the end of my walk, Cape Cornwall. I climbed up onto the promontory to where the old mine stack still stands, and there I sat, staring out over the sea, my mind drifting off across days and miles. Finding it hard to take in, I took out my iPhone and scrolled through the GPS tracks, reassuring myself with hard data that the walk had been more than an act of imagination. The numbers were there – 77 days, 1132 miles – but they only told part of the story. On the first page of my journal, however, I found something that captured more of what I felt there on the Cape. The day before leaving Catalonia I had recorded some thoughts, hopes and fears about the journey ahead, and among these jottings were some words written by the Spanish poet Antonio Machado: “¡Ay del noble peregrino, Que se para a meditar, después del largo camino, en el horror de llegar!” / Pity the noble pilgrim, who stops, at the long journey’s end, to reflect in horror upon having arrived.

It was time to go. I started down the path that leads to the remains of St Helen’s Oratory, but before I’d gone more than a few steps I was brought to a halt by a flash of red moving among the rocks. Red bill, red legs. Palores. True to its Cornish name, which means digger, the chough was pecking at the earth, just a few feet away. Of all the experiences I had been gifted during my walk, this unimagined encounter with another returnee felt like the ultimate reward for my efforts.

I thought then of the silence in my great, great grandfather’s journal, of how he wrote in detail about his two Atlantic crossings but very little about what happened in between, as if what mattered most was leaving and returning. Perhaps he was aware of the Cornish word dehwelans, and of the psychological sting in its tail. For dehwelans means not only ‘return’ but also ‘atonement’. It is in the act of returning, it seems, that a Cornishman makes amends for having left.

DSCN1771 DSCN1770


6 Comments

52 Artist Dates 2016

Two of the most enjoyable – and certainly the most stimulating – weeks of 2015 were those I spent at Rosemerryn, a house-in-the-woods-cum-writing retreat near the village of Lamorna, way down in the west of Cornwall. I learnt much, and received an enormous amount of encouragement from the two tutors, Kath Morgan and Jane Moss, who have now set me a playful challenge for the new year: 52 Artist Dates. As they say on their blog, the Artist Date is Julia Cameron’s idea for a block of time that aspiring and established artists devote to stepping aside from their work to engage in simple, fun activities that nourish their creative spirits. Or as Julia Cameron herself puts it: “the Artist Date need not be overtly “artistic” – think mischief more than mastery. Artist Dates fire up the imagination. They spark whimsy. They encourage play. Since art is about the play of ideas, they feed our creative work by replenishing our inner well of images and inspiration. When choosing and Artist Date, it is good to ask yourself, “what sounds fun?” – and then allow yourself to try it.”

Mischief, imagination, whimsy, play. It sounds like fun to me, so I’m going to take up Kath and Jane’s challenge and see where it takes me. Over the coming weeks I’ll post a weekly update on how I’m doing, and if you’re taken by the idea as well, then I’d love to hear about your own Artist Dates.

As we’re already into the second week of 2016, I’ve crammed my first two Artist Dates of the year into one week, and I describe them below. A final word. Alongside whatever task or activity I end up doing, I have also set myself the challenge of learning one new word in Cornish each week, with the word being linked somehow to whatever it is I have done.

Artist Dates No. 1 and No. 2

– Go to the hardware store and buy something with whatever change you have on you at the time.

– Use the thing you have bought to work on an object at home.

I have vague memories from childhood of accompanying my father to the ironmonger’s in town. High, dark-wood counters, walls lined to the ceiling with shelves and nooks and boxes of things I didn’t know the names for, and an inescapable mustiness that, I now realise, foreshadowed the end of an era. They don’t make shops like that anymore, and I no longer use the word ‘ironmonger’s’ except when referring to the past. Nowadays, I buy my nails at the hardware store. God knows where I learnt to speak like that.

It’s somehow encouraging that with only €1.53 in your purse, you can still buy something useful, and have change to spare.

IMG_3529

Two sheets of sandpaper, one coarse, one fine, came to 90 cents.

IMG_3534

When I got home I cleaned out the fireplace and restacked the wood pile, and in the process found the ideal piece. Having broken several bones in my life, a femur fragment from a stout-legged wooden animal seemed like just the thing I would enjoy working on.

 

IMG_3536 IMG_3535

Cornish words:

askorn n. bone

tewes n. sand


7 Comments

A Short Walk By The Crooked River

Before I left the house this morning I travelled to the other side of the isle, from North Cornwall to Norfolk in the company of Helen Macdonald. In an article published just before Christmas in the New Statesman she recounts her annual pilgrimage to the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust reserve at Welney in Norfolk, the wintering site for thousands of whooper and Bewick’s swans. Her description of the spectacle is as vivid and original as anyone who has read her recent book H is for Hawk would expect. What does a thousand-strong chorus of Arctic swans sound like? Until this morning I couldn’t have told you, but through her words I can hear them now, I can hear what she calls a “vast amateur brass band tuning up in an aircraft hangar”. But what most caught my attention was something she expresses towards the end of the article: her delight, while watching the swans, that they are as at home in Norfolk as they are in the Arctic.

Home. As a child growing up in Wadebridge, one of the things I loved was to stand on the bridge across the estuarine River Camel and watch the mudbanks re-emerge as the water receded with the ebb tide. There was something reassuring about their reappearance. The world may have seemed different for a while, but at bottom nothing had really changed. Best of all was the grassy mound that sat just upstream of the bridge, and onto which a pair of swans would regularly clamber and there wait patiently for the river to return. When I left home aged 19, the swans and the river were among the few things I acknowledged missing.

IMG_0591

Today the afternoon skies are heavy and grey as Paloma and I set out upstream along the Camel Trail. We’re not planning to go far. We’ll walk until the light begins to fade, and then head back for tea. But that will be enough, for this is rich terrain that is best taken in small amounts that can be savoured. We follow a south-easterly line below Treraven Wood and begin to cross the meandering river at Pendavey Bridge, led on by a gentle honking. Reaching the midpoint of the bridge we see there are twenty or so Canada Geese pottering around the riverside. They seem as unmindful of me as I am of everything else as I stop to photograph them.

IMG_0517Canada geese (Branta canadensis) alongside the River Camel

The woodland opens and the water, now on our right, flows straight for a stretch, belying its original Cornish name, Dowr Kammel: crooked river. On the far side bank, the strip of filamentous grasses seems to shiver in time to our own movement, as if it were a sound waveform capturing the music of this place.

IMG_0519

It is then we spot the second skein of geese and begin to hear and see their announcement of imminent flight. Honk waddle, honk waddle, honk waddle, honk honK hoNK hONK HONK HONK… “¡Qué escándalo!” says Paloma, and there is indeed a considerable racket as the birds take to the air and head downstream. Quiet returns, and we decide to press on for another ten minutes or so, as far as Polbrock. There we climb the steps up onto the narrow road that runs along the top of the twin-arch bridge: one arch spanning the disused railway line along which we have been walking, the other the river itself. From our new vantage point we gaze upstream and marvel. At this distance and shorn of leaves the trees are impossible, with our knowledge, to identify, yet they are no less beautiful in anonymity.

IMG_0528

What was it that the poet Neruda wrote in response to a world of too many names? Pienso confundir las cosas, I have a mind to confuse things. Or as one of my clinical supervisors used to say: Forget the diagnosis, listen to the patient! Sound advice, but not always easy to follow. And so, our vision prejudiced by training, we fill the lacunae with what we think we know. “See that tree there: don’t its branches look like Purkinje cells? And that spindly one to the right: isn’t that a motor neuron?” This is how we bring the anonymous trees into focus, by imagining the foundations of life.

The light is fading now, and we need to head home. As we descend the steps and start back along the trail I think of how my father loved this place, and of how in leaner times he had fished this stretch to put food on the table. For him it was not just a place of recreation, it was somewhere that through care and respect would continue to provide. In his own way, that is what he communicated to us as children. I realize, then, what it was I had felt up there on the bridge. A sense of permanence.

I quicken my step so as to catch up with Paloma, and together we stride out, hand in hand and singing into the dimming of the day. By the time we reach Pendavey Bridge it is almost dark, and that is why we almost miss them, there on the upstream side: six mute swans plopping patiently, one at a time, off the riverbank and into the rising water. A whiteness of swans. The collective noun is right in this light.

IMG_0539Mute swans (Cygnus olor) drift towards Pendavey Bridge

Despite their name, swans of this species are not actually mute, although they would never pass the audition for an Arctic brass band. But they are the swans I know, and they are doing what the River Camel swans have always done. They are moving between land and water, between two homes.

I watch them until they pass beneath the bridge, and then I turn to Paloma. “Come on,” I say. “És l’hora de tornar i fer les maletes. It’s time to go home and pack.”


Leave a comment

Midsummer Fires

Arles-sur-Tech is a small town at the eastern end of the French Pyrenees, and it is overshadowed to the north by the Canigó massif. These lands at the southernmost end of the Languedoc-Roussillon region have deep connections to Catalonia, both its language and traditions. On 23 June 1955, Francesc Pujades, a resident of Arles-sur-Tech, took it upon himself to continue a centuries-old European tradition by lighting a bonfire to mark the eve of St John’s Day. What made Pujades’ initiative stand out was that his fire burned at an altitude of 2,784 m, at the summit of the Canigó. The idea that followed was that a torch lit from the fire could serve as a mother flame, la flama, from which St. John’s fires could be lit in succession throughout the Catalan lands. As a symbol of a cultural identity that refused to be extinguished despite the prohibitions set in place by Franco’s dictatorship, la flama had considerable value, yet not until 1966 would the torch pass south of the Pyrenees. Today, however, la flama de Canigó is relayed freely throughout the land on both sides of the mountains, and St John’s Day is now a national holiday in Catalonia. As I walked home just before midnight on St John’s Eve, the streets around the main square of my Catalan hometown, Sant Pere de Ribes, were still alive to the sound of snappers, whistling rockets and conviviality.

In contrast to the light and spark of the night before, the town awoke to slate-grey skies, and around midday an intense storm blew in over the Mediterranean, rinsing the air of the gunpowder perfume that had hung heavy into the early hours. When the storm cleared I went out to walk some of the trails that wind their way through the vineyards, scrub and woodland that surround Sant Pere de Ribes. The dirt track I chose is lined to the west by carob trees, and at this time of year they are festooned with unripe glossy-green pods.

Unripe pods on a carob tree (Ceratonia siliqua)

Unripe pods on a carob tree (Ceratonia siliqua)

As the carob is also known as St John’s bread it seemed fitting to be following this path on his feast day. It also felt good to be alone after so much companionship the previous evening. Alone, that is, except for the birds, who seemed to be relishing the freshness of the storm-swept air. To my left, finches gold and green flitted over and among the vines, while ahead of me on the path, swallows swooped back and forth like stray fireworks. The skies, however, had yet to clear, and maybe it was this, their colour, that turned my mind to Cornwall. St John’s fires would also have been lit in many towns across my homeland, most notably, perhaps, as part of the Golowan festivities in Penzance. In Cornish, the verb golowi means both to enlighten and to illuminate, from the noun golow, light. Until the end of the nineteenth century it was common for the Feast of St John to be celebrated in Cornwall with bonfires, flaming tar barrels and torches, but adminstrative anxiety over insurance claims doused these traditions, which only re-emerged in force during the 1990s. Nowadays, festivities last a whole week, from St John’s Eve right through to the Feast of St Peter on 29 June.

As its name would suggest, my Catalan hometown of Sant Pere de Ribes also celebrates its annual festival on St Peter’s Day. So, barely a week after the St John’s festivities the streets were once again filled with the sound of fireworks and the hum of expectation. Before joining family for the traditional St Peter’s Eve supper I decided to retrace my steps from the previous week. The afternoon was much hotter this time, and I walked quickly past the carob trees with an eye on the shade offered by the small wood that lies at the head of the trail. Just before I reached the cover of pine and holm oak I stepped off into the scrub to inspect what is a dispenser of sweet carnality to all who walk this path in early September, a gnarled old fig tree. Now, in June, however, only green gobstoppers clung to its branches.

A fig tree (Ficus carica) in June

A fig tree (Ficus carica) in June

I pressed on into the wood and was glad that it offered a shaded path back down to the edge of town where my in-laws live. I reached their house just as the final guests were arriving, so I quickly showered and joined the party for an al fresco supper of cured ham, stuffed omelettes and grilled sardines, followed by a traditional sweet flatbread washed down with a bottle of Cornish sparkling wine that I had been saving for the occasion. As night closed in we waited expectantly for the aerial maroon that would signal the ten-minute countdown. As my in-laws house sits on the western permiter of town it offers a perfect vantage point from which to enjoy the firework display that is launched each year from the tenth-century castle nearby. On the stroke of 11 the first rocket was fired into the air, and for the next twenty minutes the skies were filled with willows and palms, serpents and strobes. The best, however, was yet to come, as the centrepiece of the St Peter’s festivities is a diabolic street parade culminating in the main square. Hessian-clothed and hooded demons of all ages take to the streets, holding aloft staffs from which fountains of fire shower sparks upon the expectant onlookers. The first time you witness it, it all appears quite mad.

St Peter's Eve celebrations in Sant Pere de Ribes

St Peter’s Eve celebrations in Sant Pere de Ribes

As I watched the parade I wondered whether next year I might spend these days in Penzance or in one of the other Cornish fishing communities that mark the Feast of St Peter, their patron, with bonfires. I remembered, then, something I had read back in March on the BBC News website. The item described how the only complete copy of the Catholicon Anglicum, a fifteenth-century Middle-English–Latin dictionary had been purchased by the British Library in order to save it from export to a private collection. Interestingly, one of the entries in this dictionary refers to ‘ban fyre, ignius ossium’, the bone-fire from which our modern bonfire is derived. As a young child I had encountered a similar Latin expression, fragilitis ossium, which for all its apparent authority did nothing to help me understand why my bones broke so much more easily than those of other children. The modern term for brittle bone disease, osteogenesis imperfecta, captures more of the problem, since we now know that the fragility is caused by a genetic defect that affects bone formation. Bone is a composite of two materials, a mineral called hydroxyapatite (a form of calcium phosphate) and the protein collagen. In brittle bone disease it is the latter which is deficient, either in quality or quantity, or both. Collagen is important as it gives bones a degree of flexibility, while the job of the mineral hydroxyapatite is to provide a complementary hardness. Too much collagen and our bones would be rubbery; too little or poor quality collagen and they become fragile.

As in so much of life, balance matters. A summer of too many wildfires can cause lasting damage to the scrub and woodland landscapes that surround my Catalan hometown, yet its people nonetheless turn to fire as a way of celebrating the feast days of St John and St Peter. For those who lived through Franco’s dictatorship it is a reminder, perhaps, that they now live in more enlightened times.