Walking in Mind

A Trail of Thoughts


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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.

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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.

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Stories That Need To Be Told, And Heard

In my final post of 2015 I reflected on my walk across France this summer, and on how different my experience and situation was from the plight of those who walk to save their lives. The focus of that post was a piece of music by Toumani and Sidiki Diabaté, Lampedusa, and one of my final reflections was that it is in the telling of people’s stories that we weave a thread of hope from events worthy of lament.

The purpose of this new post is simply to share a link to a programme that was first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 29 December 2015, but which I only heard when it was repeated yesterday. In The Boat Children, Hashi Mohamed, once a child migrant himself, travels through Italy gathering stories from some of the young people who have made it this far from Eritrea, from Somalia, from Afghanistan. He reminds us that these are children who have travelled alone, without their parents, for thousands of miles, and through their stories we learn of their ordinary dreams, of their hope for a better life, not just for themselves but for the families they have left behind.

One of the young men interviewed explains that his goal in life is to wipe out the poverty in his family, and as I listened to his story I thought of my Cornish ancestors who sailed for America in search of a better life, and of the many Catalans from Sant Pere de Ribes, the town where I now live, who did the same. These Cornish and Catalan emigrants were not fleeing war or persecution. They were, in today’s parlance, economic migrants, a class of person who is now regarded as less deserving of settler’s rights than is the refugee. We have forgotten, it seems, that a thread of economic migration runs throughout our own past, and that it contributed to the accumulation of the wealth we now enjoy.

The stories recounted in The Boat Children need not only to be told but also to be heard, so please share the link widely (the programme is available indefinitely via the iPlayer Radio app and the programme website).

 


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Trail Music: Track 7

On the fourteenth of June 1818 my great, great grandfather, Richard Nance, sailed from Plymouth aboard the Mary, bound for America in the hope, as he wrote in his diary, that “I am going for a better country where it is possible I may enjoy the Blessings of life in a far greater degree than I can in my native land”.

The hope of a better life elsewhere. An ordinary aspiration, then as now. I often wonder what my great, great grandfather would make of our society today, one in which migrants are classified according to degrees of entitlement, and where the simple hope of a better life is far from synonymous with the right to settle. And whenever I read his diary I am reminded of how much the history of Cornwall, like that of other Atlantic edgelands, is tied up with the push and pull of migration.

Cornwall. A land of holiday dreams, of golden sands and clear waters, of seafood, pasties and cream. And a land where average house prices are ten times local pay, and where ten thousand properties are second homes. A curious fate for what had been one of the first economies in the world to embrace industrialization. Tin had been mined in Cornwall for centuries prior to the Industrial Revolution, but the arrival of steam power brought renewed vigour to the tin and copper industry, and saw a skilled generation of Cornish engineers and Cornish companies develop engines, pumps and drills that would transform mining across the world. By the 1820s the parish of Gwennap was producing one-third of the world’s copper ore, and by the 1850s the mining industry was providing direct employment for one-third of the working population in Cornwall, with more still working in ancillary trades. It was not to last.

The drivers of migration are always complex, and the case of Cornwall is no different in this respect. Although the mining industry thrived throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, other sectors, such as agriculture, suffered in the depression that followed the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Cornwall also had a strong tradition of Methodism and Nonconformism, so some had religious or political motives for seeking home elsewhere. Moreover, at the time of my great, great grandfather’s voyage, the British government had come to see organized emigration as a way of bringing reform and improvement to its overseas colonies. That many Cornish chose this option is clear from the opening verses of R.S. Hawker’s nineteenth-century poem, The Cornish Emigrant’s Song:

Oh! the eastern winds are blowing;

The breezes seem to say,

We are going, we are going,

To North Americay.

There the merry bees are humming

Around the poor man’s hive;

Parson Kingdon is not coming

To take away the tithe.

There the yellow corn is growing

Free as the king’s highway;

So we’re going, we are going

To North Americay.

Due to their expertise Cornish miners were in particular demand in the New World. As early as 1825, three ships sailed from Falmouth with a party of sixty miners and 1500 tons of state-of-the art machinery and equipment, their destination, the silver mines of Real del Monte, high in the mountains north of Mexico City. Over the decades that followed, many of their compatriots would make similar journeys, to Canada, South Africa and Australia, where they came to be known as Cousin Jacks. The story goes that whenever more skilled workers were needed, the Cornish miner always had a ‘cousin Jack’ back home who would fit the bill. And they arrived in such numbers that no-one doubted the old Cornish adage that wherever in the world a hole is sunk in the ground, you’ll be sure to find a Cousin Jack at the bottom of it, searching for metal. The exodus, of course, was now being driven not only by the demand for skilled workers overseas, but also by the decline of an industry at home.

Although the Cornish economy had been one of the first to industrialize, it was highly specialized and hampered by its lack of coal, which meant that the smelting and manufacture of tin and copper products were done in places with more immediate and cheaper access to fuel. Global markets were also changing, as rich deposits of copper ore were discovered in America, Chile and Australia. By the 1860s the copper industry in Cornwall had collapsed. Thanks to technological innovation the tin industry held on for longer, but it too would eventually buckle in the face of overseas competition. In the three years from 1874 to 1876, Cornwall witnessed the closure of 132 mines, and by the turn of the twentieth century only nine mines remained in operation.

The figures for emigration over this period make for stark reading. In the last four decades of the nineteenth century, around 45% of the Cornish male population aged 15-24 left for overseas, with a further 30% leaving for other parts of Britain. The corresponding figures for Cornwall’s female population – 26% and 35% – are equally as striking.

As I walked home from Catalonia to Cornwall this summer I thought often of these Cousin Jacks and Jennies, of the lives they left behind and the futures they sought to forge. Remembering them is important, not for sentimental reasons but in order to understand something of the Cornwall we know today. And they are remembered, not just in more academic histories but also in song. Following the closure in 1998 of South Crofty, the last of the tin mines, one of the walls outside the main gate was daubed with a question: When the fish and tin are gone, what are the Cornish boys to do? The line came from Cornish Lads, a song written in the 1980s by Roger Bryant, who can still be heard singing with the Rum and Shrub Shantymen. Roger answers the question in the final verse of his song:

We’ll do as we have done before,

Go out to roam the wild world o’er.

Wherever sea or ship are found,

Or there’s a hole down underground

Embarrasing though it may be for a Cornishman like me to admit, however, one of the best songs about these Cornish miners was written by a man from Devon: Steve Knightley, of the folk duo, sometimes trio, Show of Hands. So it is his song, Cousin Jack, which makes my playlist for the trail. To soften the cultural blow, the Devon boy is at least joined on stage in this video by a group of fishermen from Port Isaac.

I’ve been enjoying this song for years now, although more recently I’ve found that my thoughts when listening to it extend beyond the Cornish men and women whose story it tells. In an article published on 23 October 1863 the West Briton newspaper acknowledged that the scale of emigration from Cornwall was becoming “a matter of grave consideration”. However, the writer went on to note, with satisfaction, that “wherever the Cornish miner goes he is generally well received, and rarely fails not only to benefit himself, but those of his friends remaining at home”. Might that journalists in Syria and elsewhere be able to write the same about their own skilled citizens who are forced to seek a better life in a foreign land.