open the curtains

and take a look out the window if you want to know what the weather's like


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Proper Cornish Bird Ar’ee?

chough3

(c) Nigel Blake

Up and out of the shelter of the dunes at Holywell the wind was sweeping Kelsey Head under a pearly sky. But when is it ever not windy in Cornwall?
Windswept, rugged, remote… words of such over-applied cliché that almost cease to have any significance either inland or on the coast in this neck of the woods. Cee and I were talking about ravens as we walked. They like that sort of thing – windswept, rugged, remote – last time we’d seen one had been at the top of a Cumbrian mountain. We wondered if we’d see any here, tumbling and cronking over the cliff-tops.
“What I’d really like to see is a chough”.
I pointed out that we’d come to the wrong side of the coast: since their self-initiated reintroduction to Cornwall in 2001 the iconic birds had taken up residence on the Lizard peninsula, which is as far south as you’ll get either in Cornwall or mainland Britain. Next time, we decided, we’d head over that way and see if we could spot any.

We walked into the wind and around the headland, the sea churning below us. Ahead was a smattering of jackdaws picking about in the grass. Two of them were larger than the rest of the group.
“What are those bigger ones there – could they be ravens?”
“No they’re not” I replied, “but look what they are…”
It was like we’d conjured them up, these two magical birds trying to disguise themselves amongst their smaller corvid cousins, unmistakable in their red stockings like they’d just stepped out of our imaginations or a book of heraldic beasts. We watched in near-disbelief until, aware of our scrutiny, or bored with their pickings, they flew off, flicking their fingered wings, a strange cazooing call that neither Cee nor I were expecting them to utter. Continue reading


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Coastlining 5: Fowey – Par

Date: 12th April 2014         Distance walked: 6 miles         Height climbed: 1119 feet

2014.04.12  (11) Fowey

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. Continue reading


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False Lights

A Tale of Salvaging History from the Wreck of Cultural Myth

picture credit: BBC’s ‘Jamaica Inn’ (2014) fictional wreckers on location at Holywell Bay

Despite having lived in Cornwall for a while now I am still intrigued by the romanticism suggested by its rugged coastline and find myself drawn to the fantastic stories that accompany it. Here is a landscape that lends itself to adventure. To someone raised on a literary diet that began, pre-school, with Captain Pugwash, leading on – via Swallows and Amazons – to Daphne du Maurier’s gothic coastal romances involving shipwrecks, plunder and bodice-ripping encounters with pirates, every cove is a smugglers’ haven, every cliff path a desire line worn in through years of wreckers wreaking mischief with their lanterns on stormy nights. Barrels and caskets stacked in a sea cave above high water mark. Brandy for the Parson, ’baccy for the Clerk. Curtains drawn over the lighted windows of a nearby village. What the eye doesn’t see the heart doesn’t grieve over: so watch the wall my darling…  Continue reading


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Death of a Naturalist

blackberryI ate my first blackberries of the summer just a few days ago.

I’ve been eyeing them up in the hedgerow since the beginning of the month when they first started to ink up in small numbers, biding my time, waiting for the sweetness, the ripeness to set in.

Pausing on the path up Pennance hill to let someone pass, I saw them, seven, eight, maybe ten black blackberries on the edge of the field. Any thoughts of saving them for my picnic dessert evaporated as the first one hit my tongue, flooding my head with juices and flavours and purple stain, and re-drawing to the surface lines indelibly printed in the back of my mind:

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: the summer’s blood was in it
[….]

___

I was fourteen and I’d never heard of him. It was the end of the summer term, and having finished all our end of year exams we were in a sort of educational limbo between lower school and GCSEs. (But of course I didn’t know the word limbo yet, nor the ‘cold glitter’ and the spark of deep core grief-sadness I cannot dissociate from it.) So they gave us something to bridge the gap, a poem to look at such as we might get to study in the following school year. It was ‘Blackberry Picking’ by Seamus Heaney. Continue reading


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A Dragon for George


It is a truth universally acknowledged that very few of the English can tell you when the feast day of their patron saint falls. St George’s Day is of course, for anyone who doesn’t know, 23rd April: the day the saint was martyred in 303 AD. (A handy way to remember the date is 23-4.)

George was not English. He was a Greek soldier of Palestinian descent in the Roman army, and although he has become one of the most venerated military saints in Europe there is much fantasy and little solid evidence about what it is he actually did. He is most famous for the legendary slaying of the dragon, a part of his mythology that became entangled in his hagiography around the 8th Century and was brought back to England from the Middle East by Crusaders.

As a child I loved dragons. I vividly believed in their existence and was as disappointed to find out that they were actually mythical beasts as I was to discover that my country’s patron saint was most famous for dispatching one. Continue reading


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Shadowlands & Reflections

I wrote this a while ago as a sort of joke 2012 retrospective piece, and initially wasn’t going to post it on here at all. However, in the wake of the popularity of my previous post wherein I visited the location of a BBC adaptation of a classic novel, it seems more appropriate. Forget country houses and nineteenth-century romances and read on if you fancy a trip to Narnia by way of the Great British countryside…

Wrapping myself more tightly in my inadequate layers I attempt to minimise the possible gaps in my clothing through which the wind can creep, and peer over the ship’s railings to see if I can catch a better glimpse of our destination. Cee is standing a little ahead of me on deck keeping a weather eye on the horizon. The first hint that there was something other than sea out there appeared about an hour into the voyage, a smudge on the border between sea and sky that disappeared almost as soon as it had arrived, leaving us in doubt as to whether it had been visible at all. Continue reading


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Pemberley by Accident

With the road atlas spread out in front of us, I put the finishing touches to the set of complex instructions that my friend and I would have to follow the next morning as we headed south, attempting to avoid a) getting ourselves lost, b) driving into another quarry, and c) Manchester. Despite having looked forward to Yorkshire so much it had not turned out quite as we’d expected. We’d been on the road about two weeks already, and the day’s events had had a somewhat dispiriting effect on us.

‘I hope the Peak District’s good. Derbyshire’d better be better than Yorkshire anyway or I think we might have to just drive straight home.’

With the mention of Derbyshire, there were many ideas connected. It was impossible for her to see the word without thinking of Pemberley and its owner.

‘Of course it’ll be good,’ I replied confidently, ‘Mr Darcy lives there!’

 

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