Cornwall’s Wild Coastline, Wheal Coates Tin Mine
NJWILDBEAUTY readers know I tend to be enraptured about wilderness in New Jersey. You may not realize that many other wild places call to me. I am re-reading Daphne du Maurier’s Vanishing Cornwall, with its eloquent retelling of Cornish tales and magic, dooms and disasters, legends and lore — above all Arthurian.
In 1995, Darlene Prestbo and I set off on an Arthurian quest to Cornwall, which ‘just happened’ to be scheduled so that we were there for the Autumnal Equinox. We’d found a National Trust House, Mouls Point, on the Bay of Tintagel – the perfect locus for setting out to places that had mattered to The Once and Future King.
Our National Trust Dwelling was perched, as is this one (from Internet), high above black rocks and not far from tiny Port Isaac and Port Quin.
Typical Brooding Rocks of Cornish Coast — We watched oystercatchers (birds) feeding among them
Minuscule Port Isaac at Low Tide
It is a treat to re-read books that nourished past journeys. Du Maurier is a gifted storyteller, as anyone knows who has devoured her riveting novel, Jamaica Inn. Among our non-Arthurian expeditions was one across Bodmin Moor to Jamaica Inn, where we sat in an inglenook by a roaring fire, after being out in a mizzle of rain and quite thoroughly drenched. We were brought shepherd’s pie to restore us, and some local ale. As a gift, the barkeep (not the villain of the book, though overlooked and scolded by a raucous parrot) gave us our first tastes of mead. Mead on the moor. What could be better?
Daphne’s son Christian Browning journeyed with her from cove to moor to standing stones to tin mines. His photographs in the book are arresting, mostly black and white, as evocative her prose and that storied land itself.
These, from the Internet, will just have to do until you follow in Darlene’s and my footsteps, anywhere within a day’s journey of the Bay of Tintagel.
I take notes in books to savor later. In this twenty-first century, I read my own comments from 1995 such as, “The magic of Cornwall matters to her, but the sinister, more-so.”
Notes of Daphne’s descriptions only fired our determination and eagerness to BE THERE, such as “to learn the call of the night-jar.” “to hear wind in rigging, scent tar and salt.” “to stand in a mizzle of rain.” “to discover the nursery of the oyster.” “to look on sea from every aperture.” “to hike among the moors and tors.” “to stride amidst bracken.” “to build a fire of turf and furze.” “to hear drowned steeple bells and the calling of curlews on the wind.” Above all, we yearned for the last two, which we did not achieve, nor were we, though we longed to be, “pixie-led.”
Arthur was our magnet. Even when we didn’t know we were searching for him, we came across references. He was nearly worshiped as the horned stag in his time — a bridge between the ancient ways and new Christianity. Going to a pub so we could order “bubble and squeak”, an antlered deer glowered over our table. In a remote squat church, far from Arthur’s former fortress, we came upon a stained glass window of a saint who had (Perhaps in an excess of mercy) restored to life a villain Arthur had executed, a man who had harmed her. We heard the sea toss the rounded stones in the multi-entranced cave where Merlin gave the boy king to the wise fisherman who took him to another enchanted land, Brittany, to be raised until his time would come. We walked on the Tintagel headlands, where fierce storms had recently uncovered foundations and ruins old enough for our king. We two poets found ourselves riveted in the stone-outlined space known and signed as “the place where the bards declaimed.”
We hiked the entire Pentire, a 12-mile jaunt, on a day so windy we had to hold onto seaside thrift not to crash onto the black rocks and rollicking tides below. One of our discoveries that day was the site of the battle between Uther Pendragon and Gorlois, without which contest and its outcome, there would not have been an Arthur.
He’s everywhere, in the magical land of Cornwall. DuMaurier asserts, “There is no fever like the quest for the past.” True, indeed, especially when that past is studded with sites dear to Arthur, Guenivere, Lance, Tristan, Gawain, Gareth… well, you know…
Even our hike through St. Nectan’s Glen, fueled by an ancient mystery of two eccentric women who had lived and died there alone, turned out to be Arthurian. Darlene discovered that St. Nectan was a hermit, to whom Arthur sent knights on the eve of their being elevated to knighthood.
In that glen, we came across mysterious arrays of white feathers on mossy streamside ground. Something as silent and huge as an owl, whooshed past us, though it was noontime. The only person we met on that trek was wearing a black and white horizontally striped jersey and had a gold ring in his ear. Of course, the Pirates of Penzeance were never far from our consciousness.
Daphne insists, “Arthur is to Cornwall as Theseus is to Greece.” We followed him to Dozmary Pool, where Sir Bedivere had to be commanded three times to jettison the sacred Excalibur. The water was darker than Cornish coastal rocks, and guarded by horned long-haired red cattle that could have been wooly mammoths.
We moved through golden sands at the Camel Estuary, where the wounded Arthur was taken from barge to barque to travel, in the company of holy women, to Glastonbury Tor — where Darlene and I had begun our Cornish journey.
I see now, as I write, that we had been, not pixie-led, but Arthur-led.
And there were sites and sights we were denied, by the famous mists of Avalon. A key quest was Land’s End. We never found it. Fog hid the boot (hood) of the car from my eyes, and turned cattle to stone.
Instead of Land’s End that day, we returned to our local baker for scones and clotted cream, to savor at next morning’s breakfast, in our sea-girt kitchen, looking out over a tin mine’s chimney, which faced Mouls Point. Little did we know that the name of our dwelling was the site of the battle between Pendragon and Gorlois…
Everything was meant. I spend my life searching for magic to equal that of any Cornish day.
We learned a new word, Darlene and I, on that journey — “Errantry.” “Wandering around in search of adventure.” As in knights errant.
That’s what I do in New Jersey. That’s what I do for NJWILDBEAUTY.
Meanwhile, you can see why my soul always yearns for Cornwall.
Though Not Moul’s Point, our waking view was similar – onto the backs of coasting gulls and crashing surf