The Cornish sun shone out of a Wedgwood blue sky smudged with clouds and through the open windows of the car, came the intoxicating coconut scent of yellow gorse. Gulls floated over a sea flecked with whitecaps. Diamonds of light, reflected from rock pools down on the beach, sparkled up at us.
A friend’s generosity had brought my wife and I to Cornwall, at the end of a journey through Asia, Australia, New Zealand and America, with a last stop in a snowbound New York.
By the time we’d arrived back in Manchester – luggage in London – we discovered that “we” were pregnant. It’s not often one can implicate a New York blizzard in these matters but Mother Nature works in mysterious ways.
I say, “we” because the nurse at the clinic, the kind of woman one didn’t argue with, looked me straight between the eyes and said, “Congratulations, you’re pregnant.”
Filled with delight, we walked down Manchester’s, Oxford Street in the rain, as its rooftops shone, glistened and were transmuted into gold by the winter sunset.
Manchester had never looked more beautiful.
The next day, with serendipitous timing, I was offered the part of, “Frank,” in the play, “Educating Rita.”
Michael Caine did it in the film.
I was also offered something in the next production, an adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s, “Far from the Madding Crowd,” which turned out to be so dire that the cast, huddling together for comfort, nicknamed it, “Five Go Mad In Wessex.”
Peter Finch played my part in the film.
It would be nice to think that I’d have got the parts in both films if the producers had known that I was available. Of course, pigs can be seen flying.
Also in the cast of the Thomas Hardy was an actor who became an instant friend and it was he that brought us to live in Cornwall.
He lived with his wife and children, along with a red setter called Polly and a couple of cats in a renovated, old watermill in North Cornwall, not far from Padstow
When the curtain fell on the Wessex saga, my new actor friend was to work for a couple of months on a television series about the Apostles to be filmed in Morocco, taking his family with him and he wondered whether we would we consider looking after the Mill in their absence. No rent, just keep the Aga going, feed the cats, run the dog and cut the grass from time to time, a thoughtful and generous offer, impossible to refuse.
With our pregnancy proceeding apace, I think he had visions of us being homeless at Christmas and having to lodge in a stable.
What he didn’t mention about the Mill was that the grass was not only greener, (as other men’s grass invariably is) but also overgrown, knee-high and covered an area the size of a football pitch before finally running down a slope into a stream.
There was, he told me, a large scythe for the tricky bits.
Still, half a day’s work once a week, looking like the grim reaper, was a small price to pay for free board and lodging and the prospects of a summer, maybe even longer, in Cornwall.
The Thomas Hardy play came to an end and somehow we’d all managed to keep our sanity. Our benefactor returned to Cornwall to get ready to leave for Morocco while we bought a pale blue, second-hand VW Beetle and set off to join him and his family a week later, so we could overlap and learn the ropes.
Important things like where to buy the best Cornish Pasties.
Our host’s main concern was not pasties or indeed the animals but not letting the Aga go out. One got the impression that it’d been lit for so many years; no one knew how to light it again if it did.
One morning, after they had left, only a whole packet of firelighters saved us from the ignominy of telling him and his family that we’d failed them.
We found the mill down a narrow lane, passing a little church, visited by John Betjeman on his bicycle and described in his long, beautifully written, autobiographical poem, “Summoned by Bells,” in which he paints an idyllic picture of a childhood spent regularly at Rock, a short ferry ride across the estuary from nearby Padstow, where he’d arrive by steam train from London, Paddington.
Betjeman, the Poet Laureate, visited the area all his life. His resting place is amongst the sand dunes at the pretty church of St Enedoc near Rock.
I spoke to one of the ferrymen that took him across the estuary and he told me that Betjeman once pointed to a cloud and said that it looked like a horses head.
“And do you know, “ he said, “It did, that’s ‘cause he were a poet, you see.”
The road to the mill led down to a stream, now dried up, that had been diverted along a leat at the back of the house,.
The house was long and squat with old grey roof tiles that had been repaired by skimming them over with a coating of cement, known in Cornwall as a, “Proper job.” It had been three separate cottages, one up, one down, housing large families behind small deeply recessed windows.
I met one of the original occupants, called George, a sprightly man of 92 who’d lived there in the 1920’s and who used to walk about the village with Dennis, his young pal of 84.
I asked him why the windows were so small in such a beautiful spot.
When the two of them had stopped laughing, coughing and wiping their eyes, he said, “Well, sir, when you’m been oot working’ in the fields from morn ‘til night, the last thing you want is a view.”
At which point, they both exploded into laughter again.
I got the impression that I’d made their day.
It was a beautiful spot and at dusk in midsummer, you could lie awake and see from out of one of those small windows, a perpetual light flickering in the stained glass windows of the church up the hill.
We’d fall asleep to the sound of moths fluttering against the windows and owls hooting in the darkness.
If you ever decide to uproot and live, “Down South,” maybe in Cornwall, you’ll probably drive down on the A30 following your removal van. There is another route via Plymouth but by a strange quirk of nature it invariably rains as you cross over the Tamar Bridge, so I’d stick to the A30, that way you might stand a chance of arriving in sunshine. Not a guarantee you understand, there’s a lot of Atlantic out west and the weather is as changeable as it is in the Pennines.
You’ll cross the border into Cornwall on a bridge over the River Tamar near Launceston, pronounced locally as “Lahnson.”
You will know you’re there, even if the voice on your SatNav doesn’t tell you because there’s a sign, which reads, “Cornwall.”
Sometimes, the sign isn’t there. It’s regularly removed by Pixies, pesky little devils who like getting tourists lost for a bit of fun.
It’s called, “Being pixilated.”
As you cross the Tamar into Cornwall (“Kernow” in Cornish) you enter another country, literally and another way of life, at first only glimpsed out of the corner of your eye, something older, more mysterious and perhaps not what you expected.
You’ll not find it in Newquay with its bars and surfing but it’s there, below the surface, in the woods and the fields, in the villages and the hamlets and the moors. It’s there too on dark nights when the sea rolls in from across the Atlantic and battles with the land.
Most likely, you won’t see it when you first arrive, your spirit will still be on the motorway, preoccupied with your northern past and worried about your future but if you let it, it will begin to work its magic on you.
Being English and perhaps, possessed of just a touch of genteel conceit, (sometimes we’re not as nice as we think) you might arrive wanting to conquer Cornwall, take possession of it for yourself, use it, as it were.
Don’t worry, we English have always done this, our colonialist nature has become part of what we are. It doesn’t, necessarily, make us bad people.
Once you’ve crossed the border at Launceston (“Lahnson”) you can stop and see the castle the English invaders built as they put their boots on Cornish soil and prepared to rule it.
When they got braver and felt easier crossing Bodmin Moor, they established an administration in Bodmin with magistrate’s courts, military barracks and a jail. Gradually over the years, they moved on until now Truro has become the administrative centre of a Nation that is now called a county.
At this moment, you are an,” Emmet,” or an, “In-comer,” although you wouldn’t be expected to know this, nor is it necessarily expressed unkindly by the indigenous locals.
If you have the good sense to keep a low profile, (the best way is to consider yourself a guest in someone’s house), you will eventually be accepted into the community, by which time, although you will still be an “Incomer”, you will not be an “Emmet” any more.
You will, however, never be Cornish.
A friend of mine, a Bodmin boy, with an accent thicker than clotted cream, told me a salutary tale. His is family name is of French origin.
“Thing is, Richard,” he said, “ We’m coom ‘ere to live in Corn’all in 1066 and ‘tis not long enough for some Cornish folk.”
Our own two children, the one conceived in that New York blizzard and eventually born in Truro and the other who arrived in St Austell (“Snozzle,”) can both rightly claim to be Cornish by birth but the native Cornish, proud Celts, will smile and say, “Not quite, my ‘ansome.”
Well, they won’t, they’re too polite but they might well think it.
You see, the “Conquered Celts,” the Cornish, the Welsh, the Scots and the Irish are innately suspicious of our English intentions and can you blame them?
If you want to be accepted in Cornwall by the Cornish, you’ll have to learn to be patient.
That sometimes doesn’t come easily to us Northerners. We Lancashire and Yorkshire folk are of a blunt disposition. Culturally, we are, at least on the surface, a confident, out-spoken, pugnacious lot, brought up in communities where taking a firm stand and speaking our minds is a way of life.
We might not always want to put the world to right and wag our fingers at it when it won’t conform but we do tend to wear our thoughts on our sleeves, don’t you think?
As a young actor, fresh from the north, I saw nothing wrong in being outspoken, if I thought a scene wasn’t working in rehearsal.
It took a kind director to take me on one side and tell me that although I had a good instinct about these things and might well be “right,” there were subtler ways of going about it.
The Cornish, on the other hand, prefer to be approached gently by new arrivals, like one might approach a horse, one slow step at a time. Think of yourself as a Cornish horse whisperer and you’ll be on the right track.
You won’t have these problems with your fellow immigrants, of course and should you feel lonely, you’ll be able to find many a northern incomer like yourself. You’ll be able to swap stories with lots of “Brummies” and listen to the sometimes over loud accent of south east England, “Estuarine English.”
But you’d be unwise to linger long amongst them, good people though they may be, less you start to moan.
The Australians have long had a phrase for that. “Whinging Poms,” immigrants that grumble about their adopted home the minute they step foot on its soil.
You wouldn’t want to be one of those malcontents, who go on about how they do things up north, would you?
So if you decide to live in Cornwall, go with an open heart and a mind ready to learn. Cornwall is not just another place, it’s an attitude and it may well take you a while to sense and adjust to it.
Maybe you won’t, maybe you’ll feel that your move was a mistake and that you’re a northern plant, raised on limestone, whose roots are uncomfortable in Cornish granite and decide to move back north.
Why not? The pull of one’s roots is a strong and the hills and dales of Lancashire and Yorkshire are full of great natural beauty.
But one May day, when the wind is blowing over the Pennines from the southwest, bringing a hint of Spring and you spot a gull against a Wedgewood blue sky and see sunlight sparkling on a northern tarn, you may find that a sweet wave of nostalgia will wash over your soul like the foaming tongues of an incoming tide and you’ll realise that Cornwall is calling you back again.