A Summer Afternoon at Lamorna, by Frank Heath
Oil on Canvas 20″ X 24″
Aileen (left) and Nancy on the cliffs above Lamorna circa 1925.
I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.
Sea Fever, John Masefield
I have been in a state of raging restlessness for days now. I knew I was longing, but I hadn’t been able to put a name to what I craved. Then I saw a picture of Mounts Bay and it all fell into place. That doesn’t make it any easier to deal with. If my life was a movie, this would be the moment when I threw things into a suitcase and boarded a westward train, never to return. The moment when I Found Myself, and began to live authentically, which in many cases seems to mean a total disregard to the wishes and feelings of anyone else.
I didn’t ask to fall in love with West Cornwall. It chose me. Perhaps it goes all the way back to the Treleavans, my ancestors from Tywardreath near Fowey. Probably they couldn’t get out of the place fast enough; they seem to have lost little time relocating to Plymouth as soon as the railways made it feasible. And Emma, my great-great-grandmother, was only sixteen when she eloped with a Scottish bandsman from the Royal Marines, changed her name to the unromantic Harrison and began a new life in the Lancashire textile industry.
My family connections since that time have been overwhelmingly with the North West of England. I was born in Manchester and have lived there for most of my adult life. We have a desirable, if somewhat neglected, house and a wide circle of interesting friends. We can go to movies, talks and theatre performances whenever we want to. We love Manchester, its warm, indomitable people, its rich cultural and musical life and its vainglorious Victorian gothic public buildings. We have a good life here. My husband, though semi-retired, is closely involved with the University and has work that fulfils him. Why would we want to move?
Nobody ever said that love was convenient. Love, as Simon Callow once said, is where it falls. Mine fell many years ago on a windy promentary steeped in history, with wide skies, pounding seas and gorse flowering yellow against the blue. I have never felt more at home anywhere. When I stepped off the train in 1985 and found myself in Penzance, I was intoxicated.
Penzance is, in fact, not an uncomplicated place to like. Much of it is frankly tatty. It has its share of ugly concrete buildings, rough pubs and shuttered shops. If you have travelled overnight and hoped for somewhere glamorous, its mundane shabbiness may depress you despite its inspiring setting. Seen on a drizzly day, with the smell of cheap pasties in the air, it’s not uplifting.
But dig deeper. Seek out the Western Georgian terraces, the graceful Penlee gardens with their lovely gallery, the richly charactered patchwork of architectural treasures on Chapel Street. Here you will find the hotel where news of victory at Trafalgar reached mainland England, the glorious eccentricity of the Egyptian House, a sturdy granite chapel used for dancing classes, a pub called the Admiral Benbow with a plaster pirate boy sharp-shooting from its eaves. Try one of the many independent coffee shops and you’ll find flyers advertising art exhibitions, delicious vegan cakes, and individual takes on furniture and decor. We went into one café on Market Jew Street and found an upside-down washbasin hanging from the ceiling of the loo. Then there is the Edge of the World, surely one of the country’s most enticing independent bookshops. There’s a tiny theatre, a range of galleries, a glorious restored 1930’s lido. And a railway station that, despite its functional barn-like design, retains an aura of romance.
Out in Mount’s Bay, St Michael’s mount sails on the horizon. Over to the left you can make out the Lizard, Britain’s most southerly point, on a fine day. A short drive or bus ride will bring you to the finest coastal scenery you’d see anywhere. The Zawns, virtigiounously plunging clefts through sheer cliffs, beloved of artists and rock climbers. Iron Age villages and old mine workings grace the furzy inland hills. Winding roads reveal new vistas at each turn. Cape Cornwall, its lonely chimney proud against the sky. Zennor, with a mermaid in the church. The glorious Gurnard’s Head pub, yellow as a gorse bloom. Around each corner, a view that could nourish you for a lifetime.
Penzance is just the start of it all. But what a start. Say you want to live there and people will roll their eyes at the thought of being so far away from everywhere else. The hours to get to London! No motorways. A sleeper train to reach a decent airport. Oh, they’ll give you lots of reasons not to go. In fact, there are places in Cornwall that, though closer as the chough flies, are more complicated to reach. Once you’ve done it a few times, even the hardship of the long train journey feels like the frame of a painting you can’t wait to rediscover. Once over the Tamar Bridge, I have never resented the distance. Every station is a well-loved old friend.
Penzance is too far away to be like everywhere else. It has its own rhythm, its own character, its own alternative and artistic scene. Pirates are a part of the mix, but not the most important one, and mostly there for the tourists. What you will find is a large working harbour, a place where the sea still matters. You smell it in the air. Coming home to Manchester after that air gives you the sensation of filling your lungs with soup, cramming the grey biscuit-lid of low cloud over your spirit.
Every time I leave Penzance I feel more aware that a part of my soul, everything that makes me interesting, unique and creative, has stayed behind there. The stump continues to bleed. For a week or two, there are distractions. There are chores to do, the garden to tidy and harvest from, the girl who knows just how I like my hair done, the health club, all the amenities of a major city suburb long-inhabited. There are the tendrils of memory and obligation. There is happiness, of a sort. But each time, fewer weeks seem to elapse before the longing returns.
If we don’t go soon, I will age and regret that I lost my best years living somewhere I didn’t really want to be. Somewhere that doesn’t fizz my blood and make my heart sing. Already I have osteoarthritis. It will never be sensible to move. With each year that passes, it becomes less so. The excuses multiply. The fear, masked as practicality, persists.
And I remember Steve Jobs, who didn’t live all that long as it turned out, saying “Your time on earth is limited. Don’t waste it living someone else’s life.”
I tell myself not to be silly. I run through all the practicalities, my objections – both moral and ethical – to second homes. But every year, it gets less convincing. I love West Penwith. I never asked to. But love is where it falls.