Date: 12th April 2014 Distance walked: 6 miles Height climbed: 1119 feet
12th April 1931. A wife is brutally murdered by her husband in the beach cottage at Polridmouth Cove, on the wooded headland just west of the Fowey estuary. Her body is dumped in a boat which the murderer then sinks in the bay. Her death is passed off as a tragic accident until just over a year later, when a shipwreck nearby causes the discovery of her concealed body.
12th April 1951. The only person apart from the now-deceased murderer to know the truth – or his version of it – about what happened that night twenty years ago is his second wife. But there are ghosts afoot. The truth, and there are as many versions of that as there are people to perceive, or to narrate it, has become entwined with this landscape, the stories are now as much a part of the place as its wooded headland, the beach with the cottage, the grey slate pools in the cove.
12th April 2014. I’d just started reading a follow-up novel to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and found myself taking the coast path out of Fowey – with its streets that wind around the contours of the nook in the river estuary, its artisanal boutiques, its nice houses, its sailboats moored in the estuary – and out towards the coves of Readymoney and Polridmouth on the same date as the serious action happens in the original work of fiction, and on which the events are returned to in the sequel. I’m not sure how I feel about sequels written by different authors, and wasn’t convinced that exploring further a story whose premise hinges on the unreliability of its narrator, through a series of other narrators, twenty years later, was a great idea. However a copy of Sally Beauman’s Rebecca’s Tale came into my hands and as I was currently exploring the places in which it is set I thought I’d give it a go.
I was accompanied again by Annie and her dog Luna. This would be familiar territory for Annie who works in Fowey (pronounced Foy) and grew up not far away, though it would be the first time she had walked all the way round the peninsula. Apart from my brief arrival there three days earlier I’d never been to Fowey before, though, like Annie, I was familiar with Gribbin Head from a distance – you can see it stretching out into the sea, with its famous red and white striped daymark, from Annie’s mum’s house above St Austell Bay – I’d never seen it close to.
It is well known that for many years this headland was home to Rebecca’s creator, Daphne du Maurier, while she rented the large house Menabilly from local landowners the Rashleighs. It was partly this house and its location at the head of the wooded valley leading down to the cove on the Fowey side of the peninsula that inspired what would become her most famous novel, and became the model for the mansion Manderley, a place so atmospheric that it almost becomes a character in itself. There is little doubt that the small town of Fowey (‘Kerrith’ in du Maurier’s novel) has done quite well out of the association, though it is an attractive location in its own right. 2014 was the first year the Du Maurier Literary Festival was moved down into the town itself and rebranded the Fowey Festival of music and literature (though still with a heavy du Maurier content and association – ‘Frenchman’s Creek’ river trips, ‘Rebecca’ tours and lectures etc).
Sometimes ideas and their locations become so inseparable that they become a part of the place. In the novel Rebecca the character becomes so bound up with the sense of place of Manderley that her presence continues to be felt long after her physical departure (prior even to the start of the novel). In reality Rebecca the novel has become bound up with the sense of place of this part of the Cornish coast, as much as any historical event or person might, as much as its author has, despite it being a fictionalised version of the location rather than specifically set here. I found it interesting to see how my own perceptions of this part of the coastline built on my imaginings of a fictionalised version of the area with the reality; reconciling the preconceived sense of place and actual place.
The reality was a strange mix of how I imagined it would be from seeing it from afar and from seeing the coastline around it in St Austell Bay and the other side of the Fowey estuary, but not how I imagined the coastline of Manderley. That I imagined more rugged, more remote, more dangerous. What I really want to say is wilder, and despite the stigma surrounding the definition and use of that particular word I feel I am justified in this instance because I am writing about the imaginary landscape of a gothic romance after all.
The path out of Fowey follows the curves of the river mouth, passing the remains of the Tudor St Catherine’s castle perched on the edge of the estuary, and through woods and the edges of fields between the slatey coves. Readymoney Cove was pretty much in the town and quite busy. Polridmouth (or P’ridm’th to the locals) was quieter, and Annie liked it so much she decided we were going to live in the lakeside cottage there, and that it was far enough outside of Fowey for us to be less pestered by tourists. The cottage and lake is part of the Menabilly estate, and is far grander than anything I could imagine living in during my lifetime. Also would not want to live somewhere that is the honeypot to the hive of tourist activity that is drawn here on the back of Rebecca. It is also a fair way removed from the renovated boathouse-turned-cottage that is pivotal to the plot of both Rebecca s vulnerability to tempestuous weather.
But then Manderley was a fictionalised version of Menabilly, and Kerrith a fictionalised Fowey. This was not creative non-fiction, just fiction. It lives in the imagination not the real. I realised later that when I read Rebecca now, I still envisage the imaginary landscape I always did even having seen the ‘real version’. When I read Rebecca’s Tale the whole thing played out in my head in the actual Fowey and Polruan. Whether this was because I was there at the same time that I was reading it, or whether the sequel’s themes of finding a real version of past/sensationalised events had more to do with that I don’t know, though having been to Polruan and Fowey and the Gribbin Head promontory and woods and beaches it is hard to ‘unsee’ it.
After Polridmouth Cove the daymark was close by on the top of the next hill. Luna and I made short work of it, though Annie, less used to hills or walking in general, gave me plenty of time to take photos and notes. The trees were bare and the wind was cold. We sat up against the daymark tower for lunch. It was much shorter and squarer close too than it appears to be from far away, striped like an archetypal lighthouse (though all the lighthouses I’ve seen in Cornwall are white), but the stripes don’t actually go all the way round. It was built to differentiate this headland from similar promontories around the Fal estuary. I pulled up the hood of my jumper and wound my scarf a bit tighter, wishing I’d worn something windproof as it was much breezier up here than in the lee of the headland.
After lunch it was a gentle walk between fields and the cliff edge, which in places had recently crumbled, and in others looked precipitous and ready to go. The tide was in and the sky was grey over the wide and familiar sweep of St Austell Bay. An unidentifiable bird of prey hovered overhead, quite close, not close enough to photograph, and too silhouetted against the sky to be able to discern any markings as clues. Rapeseed escapees flowered acid yellow in the fields and hedges. Reaching the woods above Polkerris we began the descent to the secluded fishing cove. Ramson leaves thickly carpeted the steep slopes, tall spikes of lime green alexanders reaching up between the tree trunks. An oniony smell wafted around. Give it a couple of weeks and this will look like its snowed when these ramsons – a sort of white flowered wild garlic (Allium ursinum) – come into flower. I wished I could see it then, but consoled myself with the thought that there will be many more, potentially better, who knows, opportunities to witness the blossoming of a huge array of flowers as I progress along the coast.
We stopped at the Rashleigh Inn (thanks again Daphne for the association with a pompous toff from Frenchman’s Creek) in the cluster of buildings nestled in behind the protective arc of the Polkerris harbour wall. With its moustachioued ship’s figurehead outside and its collection of nautical goods mounted on the panelled walls within – notices of sale of goods from French Prize and other privateering ventures of the eighteenth century – it’s not hard to see how so many novelists have found their inspiration around here.
Back up the other side of the steep Polkerris wood and we were soon on to Par Sands, a sparkly beach of soft by-product of the china clay industry, flanked on the western side by the hefty infrastructure of Par Docks for separating, processing, drying, transporting the multi-million pound mineral product. Coming along the coast from the east this was the first real sense of the scale of the minerals industry I’d encountered. It certainly won’t be the last.
[coastlining [′kōst‚līn·iŋ] – the process of obtaining data from which the coastline can be charted]
In the spring of 2014 I set out to walk the coast of Cornwall. I started at Plymouth, crossed the River Tamar, which separates Cornwall and Devon, and began walking west along the south coast of the most south-westerly peninsula of the British Isles, and then east along the north coast until, 300 miles later, I will hopefully reach Marsland Mouth where a small river enters the Atlantic Ocean and I will step back into Devon.
Why? Because it’s there. Because I am here. Because I can, and because I want to.
What will be gained from the expedition? Unquantifiable experiences, an unimaginable amount of mud on my boots, clothes and face, and probably several thousand photos of sea views, rocks and flowers.
Other than that, who knows? Watch this space.
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1938) is widely available. A recent edition including an introduction by Sally Beauman is published by Virago Modern Classics (2003) ISBN: 978-1844080380. I would recommend it if you like semi-self-aware gothic romance with an unreliable narrator. Or if you’ve seen the film – the book is much better.
Rebecca’s Tale, a sequel to the original, by Sally Beauman is published by Sphere (2002) ISBN: 978-0751533132. I would only recommend it if you can deal with sequels that raise more questions than their inspiration and four more unreliable narrators.
You may also like on Open the Curtains:
If you liked du Maurier’s novel Jamaica Inn then follow the link to find out more about the tradition of wrecking that has become as intrinsic to the cultural perception of Cornwall as surfing and pasties. Was it all as nefarious as Revd Hawker and Ms du Maurier would have us believe?