At Lands End, somnambulistic Japanese tourists in rain hoods trundle about and assemble in clusters to block the footpath. I have the predictable photo opportunity standing before the famous sign – which is now cordoned off to squeeze more money out of visitors - £15 for an official print taken by a dour ruddy-faced chap which, I decide, is criminal. So bloody what if you can have your name(s) and date fixed to the sign too! Instead, I intermittently ask various folk to take one of me on my camera, and stand ignominiously before the cordon forcing a smile, awaiting one of them to actually display some photographic aptitude. It takes awhile.
With a sudden pang of yearning for somewhere wild and desolate away from the crowds, I spot an unobtrusive grassy cliff path ostensibly stretching out into the distance and over to Sennon. And then I'm on it and I've arrived at a point in which I feel absolutely alive. It was a brisk September day with flashes of sunshine followed by frowning cloud. On my right, wild romantic moor land stretches as far as the eye can see, and to my left jagged cliff tops fall away to secluded creeks below where shipwrecks lay, abandoned and battered by the elements. Naturally, a splendid feeling of freedom and happiness abounds.
On Tuesday, after reading about it and seeing it described as Cornwall’s “brightest gem”, I bussed over to Porthcurno Bay inspired by the sudden appearance of sunshine. There, I found a wedge of white sand beach hemmed in between scraggy granite cliffs, their quiet majesty bearing witness to the beauty of the Penwith peninsula. As meadow pipits wheeled upwards into the sky, I made the short clamber up the anfractuous path cut into one of the cliffs that brought me to the famous rock-hewn Minack open air theatre. It has an illustrious history.
Rowena Cade purchased the headland there for £100 in the 1920s. She built a house and began organising amateur productions for friends. From this developed the more ambitious idea of an open air amphitheatre. It was there The Tempest became the first production staged in 1932. Cade continued to improve the site until her death in 1983. It now stands as a testament to her bold vision, and quite the triumph it turned out to be.
From my seat I'm imagining myself somewhere along Italy's precipitous Amalfi coast thanks to the awesome views, the jagged headland and the Atlantic at twilight forming a magnificent backdrop to tonight's performance of Gilbert and Sullivan's Ruddigore. I was befriended by Raj, an affable Indian chap who runs a bathroom business off Oxford Street who has, similarly, escaped the city to holiday in Cornwall alone. We exchange pleasant banter in the interval, and during the show when our backsides numb and legs chill from the cold, we wonder aloud if it was such a good idea afterall. Afterwards, having waved him off back to Land’s End, I hitched a ride back to Newlyn with a retired boat-builder, Chris from Warwick, while stooped over in the back of his Hatchback trying to resist the amorous advances of his German Shepherd. Later, it's not the dog's advances I’m resisting.
After supping a late night beer and cup of tea at his rented port side bungalow, I offer my hand on the doorstep as a gesture of thanks for the ride and hospitality. He instead grabbed me in a tender bear hug which possibly lasted a little longer than I’d have liked, even feeling a slight tumescence as he pressed himself into me. I stammered my thanks and disappeared into the night.
If it weren't for the crowds, I'd say St Ives could possibly be one of the most brilliant towns the UK has to offer. It's quirky, arty, with higgledy-piggledy back streets full of quaint cottages, comely buildings and a bustling quayside from where I sat and watched seals perform for the tourists in aquamarine waters by the jetty. It has street names like Salubrious Place and Teetotal Street, and a Tate Gallery in an ultra modern building overlooking Portthmeor Beach where you can drink coffee in its cafe while watching surfers exhibit great zeal and fortitude in the icy waters.
Atop a promantory to the east of the beach beside a small stone chapel, I was struck with a vivid sense of de ja vu, before remembering photographs of my grandparents standing in the exact same spot decades before. St Nicholas' Chapel is a tiny single-roomed stone building from which you can see the whole of the town. The realisation of my grandparents enjoying a romantic break here sometime in the 1960s brought about a brief feeling of sadness at not only the fact they are no longer alive, but how we're all only here for a finite amount of time to travel and enjoy moments like these.
Later that week I visit St Michael's Mount, a fairy-tale medieval castle perched on a promantory, complete with cobbled streets, houses and its own harbour. Originally a priory dedicated to Archangel St Michael and marking the Southern end of a pilgrim's route, St Michaels Way. When the tide is out, as it was, it's reached on foot by way of a granite causeway which, when viewed through morning mist from the Godolphin Arms, is redolent of old English horror films. I spent the morning there and lunched in its cafe.
I then took a bus to the sleepy coastal village of Zennor ,where DH Lawrence lived between 1915-17 with wife Frieda. He loved the “high shaggy moor hills, and big sweep of lovely sea.” As do I, and so attempt to have the surroundings inspire my own thwarted writing inclinations as I sit in the Tinners Arms officiously scribbling into my notebook. Lawrence lived upstairs here, before he left the area under a cloud. His experiences were immortalised in the novel Kangaroo. My novel, unsurprisingly, will have to wait, since the last bus was due as I polished off the remnants of a pint of guinness.
I never thought a barber could stir in me feelings of envy, but this particular one did as he set to work in a back street hairdressers shop in Newlyn, indulging me in how he recently left behind his London business and home in Upper Street to build a beach house on a secluded bit of coastal land near St Just. His ageing parents, who live near by, motivated the move, but from the awe and joy with which he spoke you could tell that his life here is more meaningful and happy than that of London and the grey damp streets of Islington.
Later that evening, as I sat on a cobbled wall on the sea front, my parents called me to inquire why I was still in Cornwall rather than back in London earning money. The water, naturally darkening, was equable, and the sky had acquired a bruised purple shade. The stillness was absolute, and the subdued squark of gulls, when accompanied by the soft pelt of the waves, brought about a gentle cadence which rendered my excuses to my father all the more futile. I didn't want to return. That was the truth.
On the train home the next day, I fantasised about moving permanently to a place like Cornwall. Fanciful thoughts abounded at a new life in the West. That heady sense of excitement at going to London – as witnessed in the loquacious girl beside me – had long gone. A life in Cornwall would be an existence of self-sufficiency and wilful isolation. But, then I realised, in so many ways, my life in London already is.