It is a wild, dark, forbidding place. The sparse landscape latticed with ancient, low slate walls that follow field patterns established in the Iron Age. Now, in the depths of a severe winter, the land has had the colour sucked out of it, reducing it to muddy shades of green and brown under a dark, gun-metal sky. What few trees that escape the constant westerly winds adapt by complying to its demands and bend inland in submission. The trees are small but thick of limb, their gnarled roots clutching at the thin soil, their branches scraped back, stripped bare by the force of the wind. It is a land that almost seems devoid of life. In summer what meagre grazing there is,wrenched from its roots by flocks of scrawny sheep. But even they can’t winter in this landscape. If the wind and the cold don’t claim them, the sea cliffs often do, so they winter indoors or sometimes shipped up-country to fatten on milder pastures.
What houses there are, hunker down below in valleys and hollows. Built of the same slate as the field boundaries, they squat low on the earth, as if fearful that they could be blown off it. Their walls are two or 3 feet thick. The grey slates of their roofs covered in layers of black tar to prevent them being blown away, their doors, their windows, set well back into the walls. Small, mean affairs. The windows are not to be looked out of. When a man spends all his time in the open air, he’s had enough of light and space and the elements. He wants to close the door on it. Shut it out, stoke up the fire and light up the oil lamps. Thick velour curtains are pulled over the windows and the doors to keep out the wind which, even so, manages to force its way in through small gaps in the weathered wood and make the heavy material billow and collapse on itself, like a live thing.
Even when the sound of an Atlantic storm is at its height, with a house creaking and groaning under its assault, there are other sounds to be heard, waves crashing on the worn faces of the vertiginous cliffs and gulls screaming in excitement and fear as they hurtle inland to seek shelter.
God help the fishermen caught out on nights like this, their wives and families waiting anxiously at home for them. No closed curtains for them. In the small fishing ports, in the poor, terraced cottages, hanging on the hillsides, curtains are kept open to show the men folk their way back to harbour. On nights like this even non believers pray.
When the sea runs high, up on the cliff tops you can hear a boom as thousands of tons of surging water hit the caves and blowholes carved out of the cliff faces. Water that has started its journey thousands of miles away off North America before it arrives to spend itself on granite determined to resist its force.
Underneath those same cliffs, stretching out to sea were the mine shafts where men, women and children worked to bring out the ores that even Caesar’s Legions coveted. Cold, damp tunnels and caverns pushed out under the beaches and the seabed itself, so that above the miner’s heads surged millions of tons of seawater.
They could hear it groaning, they could smell it and see it, as it ran in rivulets down the faces of the very rocks they were working. They feared the water breaking in more than a rock fall, more than the collapse of a tunnel from which there might be some escape, some faint chance of rescue. But when the sea came in, a miner had no chance. To die in freezing seawater, panicking and gasping for air in a dark mineshaft in which one could barely stand upright, was the kind of death that struck terror into a person’s soul.