It breaks my heart to see the horrendous storm damage to the South West of England this week. Of all the regions of my native country, it’s the one I love most, and crossing over the Saltash Bridge from Devon into Cornwall gives me a thrill that never abates. The line at Dawlish that has just been swept away holds particularly special memories for me. The first holiday that my husband of 26 years and I took together was a trip to Penwith and the Isles of Scilly in 1984. We took the night train from Manchester to Penzance – an adventure in itself at the time – and I remember waking at 4.00 am to look out of the window and discover, with a thrill of joy and anticipation, that we were literally travelling along the Devon coast. That line, built by Brunel in the 1840s has always been a marvel of engineering, defying the elements, linking the far west of England with London. Now it has gone.
The South West in general, and Cornwall in particular, is a world apart. That is what draws so many people there for relaxation and adventure, but it is also a vulnerability that leaves them economically fragile. I was concerned on our last trip to the region to discover that the Isles of Scilly no longer has a direct air link with Penzance. Beautiful though it is, the tiny population of Scilly is one of the most economically deprived in Britain, and having to travel the 32 miles to a halfway-decent shopping centre via Newquay puts an unfair burden on them. Such cuts in infrastructure are increasing the impoverishment of an isolated region where many local people can already barely find a decent place to live and secure year-round work.
For the last five years DH and I have been walking the entire South West Peninsula Coast Path; a monumental trek of 630 miles, including a combined ascent three times the height of Everest. We are just over halfway through, with our ninth campaign planned for early summer. During that time we have always travelled down from our home in Manchester by train and used local transport to get around. We have stayed in a variety of hotels and B&Bs, most of them delightful and memorable. I wonder if all of them will survive to welcome guests into the 2014 season.
Ultimately our goal has always been to retire to the region. Like many others, no doubt, recent events may cause us to rethink those plans. With ageing and decreasing mobility to consider, finding the right property has been a balance between the delights of living right on the sea coast and the relative safety of an inland home, which in most cases will be up a hill steep enough to isolate an elderly person. Much as I love the high street at Lyme Regis, I shudder to think of the practicalities of getting down it and back on a frosty winter morning without falling and breaking an oseteoporotic bone or two. So the attractions of a coastal home are not simply aesthetic.
About two years ago, on a glorious September evening, we walked into Kingsand, the first village west of Plymouth, and fell hopelessly in love. We made enquiries about the local community and felt that this could be the right place for us, regardless of our earlier decision that Cornwall was too remote and isolated. Now the lovely little village hall with its iconic clock tower is on the verge of collapse. And if we’d been able or willing to find the £750,000 for our dream house, we’d probably now be pumping out the cellar. With the present weather, even your own private smugglers passage direct to the beach is a mixed blessing.
Our Enid Blyton vision may be faced with the cold winds of reality and common sense, but our problems are nothing to those faced by those who live and work in the beautiful South West counties. When we return – hopefully by train – next Whitsuntide, I can only hope that the path, and the hotels we have booked, will still be there to welcome us. I have a Cornish ancestry that stretches back to the early 19th Century. I’m taking this personally. My thoughts are with you all.