Caught by the River

Many Rivers To Cross

Melissa Mouchemore | 9th December 2015

Mevagissey – Fowey
Words and pictures: Melissa Mouchemore

“… though she was a woman and middle-aged she dreamt not of a warm fireside and an easy chair but of a lifting deck and a straining mast, grey seas beneath a wind-swept sky. There, where the sky and sea mingle and where no land beckons, she felt her youth and her strength would return to her…”

Daphne Du Maurier
The Loving Spirit

Oh but family holidays can be hard work. Camping in Cornwall. Enforced proximity, the van pop top shuddering with nightly sibling elbow-shoving, unpromising skies, traffic jams in viewless lanes, rammed beach car-parks, the sea always just out of reach. We parents were typically knackered. Too much multi-tasking –resolve disputes, plan entertainment, erect awning, set up equipment, cook, wash up, now out of supplies. Back to the St.Austell Asda where most of the holiday seemed to be taking place.

The Chief Driver was surprisingly accommodating when I mentioned a spot of ferry-collecting. He would need to drive the van all the way round St. Austell Bay so that I could take the children on the ferry from Mevagissy to Fowey. A child-free hour, radio on, uninterrupted coffee by his side, ‘with one bound he was free.’

There is a worryingly long queue of day-trippers when we arrive at Lighthouse Quay. Will we all fit on? I twitchily keep our place chatting to some ladies from Nantwich about the Eden Project while my boys run up and down the stone steps jutting out from the sea wall.

On time a smartly painted boat appears round the curve of the harbour wall – the Bessie James, bright white fibre glass, chrome railings glinting, colourful bunting and generously seated. Can I relax now? A bespectacled crewman in a sunny yellow polo shirt, more retired accountant than sea dog, nips off with a rope and ushers us on board. We head to seats in the far corner. I relax for possibly the first time this holiday.

As the boat speeds away from the quayside and the claustrophobic huddle of Mevagissy diminishes both sons kneel up on the seat, heads poked through railings looking down at the wake – young
Brunels and Bazalgettes calculating force and flow. “The boat is mowing the sea” one announces. I have time to wonder about sea distances – sea miles, leagues – I have no idea. But I delight in the minitiature cows stuck on the hillsides, the green baize and fawn fields curving, appliqued with the tiniest haystack rolls. And now I can marvel for here are all the coves and beaches that we have been trying to get to in the van – revealed like the explanation of a magic trick – Ah! So that’s Polrudden, Porthpean (Asda thankfully lying low), Charlestown, Grinnis Beach, Polkerris – I trace our land steps of the last few days with fresh eyes and wish I had the time to explore every one of those bays and inlets by boat, by foot.

One person who did seem to have the time was Daphne du Maurier, who endlessly walked the coastal paths and sailed the creeks and bays of this region.

“I walked this land with a dreamer’s freedom and with a waking man’s perception” she wrote.

That sounds like an enviable state to be in to me.

A certain dreaminess is descending on the ferry passengers now – the chattiness and initial ferry selfies have died down as we all settle into the journey. This is what we have come for. The chance to be out on the water, to see what it’s like out here.

Beyond the shoreline the snowy-white pyramid that is Great Treverbyn Tip rears up above St. Austell, a Victorian china clay slag heap. In Du Maurier’s day this industry was still going full tilt and she was so curious about all aspects of sea-faring that she visited the china clay ships at anchor – even, it is said, having tea on board with the crew. She was more than curious – Helen Doe, maritime historian, in her enlightening article on Du Maurier’s passion for the sea, argues that Daphne had been bitten by that most romantic of bugs: the one that could make young men of the time run away to sea. But as a young woman of the 1920s she had to be content only with sailing in the harbour and immersing herself in sea-lore.

Almost a century further on and women do take to the high seas. But I am no seafarer; the sea furniture coming into view now – triangles and a hexagon on a large metal buoy – must be a marker and measurer of something to the initiated, but for the likes of me it is just a geometric resting point for cormorants.

I may be no seafarer but it is good to be out here. Sparkling sea, salt spray, speed, light, air. This is more like it. But as we zip along I know it will be over all too soon – rocky beaches give way to sandy coves and the red and white stripes of the towering Mariners’ Mark at Gribbin Head come more sharply into focus. We are reaching the eastern most tip of St Austell bay and the mouth of the River Fow.

I have mixed feelings as always on these journeys; joy – I am here, melancholy – I am here but not for long, frustration – why am I not here longer?

But a couple of greening faces on board, wan smiles imploring ‘no more ferry selfies please’, are probably just relieved as the boat slows and one of my Brunels starts to complain about the drips coming off the roof – the sitting still meter is ticking.

As we enter the river mouth and motor up to Whitehouse Quay in Fowey I scan the opposite side, Polruan, and search below the rows of old fishermen’s cottages along the water’s edge for signs of a boatyard. It was here that Du Maurier’s lugger, Marie Louise, was built by the last-surviving boat-building family of the time, the Slades. She later saved the boatyard by owning it herself for several decades. Today the lettering on the dark weatherboard boathouse says C. Toms and Son.

Helen Doe explains that it is possible to picture exactly what the boatyard was like in earlier times because instead of running away to sea, Du Maurier poured all her meticulously-gained nautical knowledge into her writing. Her first novel The Loving Spirit is based on the boat-building Slades of Polruan – the Coombes of Plyn. The heroine Janet Coombe although tied to the home is obsessed with the sea, the freedom and adventure it promises.

When the summer came, and the days were warm and long, Janet would leave the house and taking the children with her, climb laboriously to the top of the high cliffs above Plyn, and sit there for hours, watching the sea.

Thirty-five minutes sea-watching on the Bessie James seems paltry by comparison but it is a start.

I take one last long look at the harbour as the ferry docks. It is nicely populated with boats, not of course so busy as in Du Maurier’s day when over a thousand steam vessels would have arrived and departed annually. She could watch them all at her leisure – further upstream is the whitewashed Du Maurier holiday home, Ferryside, where she wrote The Loving Spirit at a window with a harbour view. I spot one lone steam launch and fancy I can get a whiff of the same heady mix of ‘tar and rope and rusted chain, a smell of tidal water’ that she knew so well.

Walking up the passage from the landing stage there is a sign with the C. Toms logo advertising other ferries across to Polruan and Bodinnick linking the panoramic Hall Walk, one of Du Maurier’s favourites. I calculate the time it would take to do the walk, take the ferries, could I do a bit of a Janet Coombe on the clifftop?

But as we greet the Chief Driver on Fore Street it is clear that the meter is ticking on the van as well the boys – it took him hours to find a parking place. O why can’t I be more like Daphne? I inwardly chide.

Time to nurture my own loving spirit – much as Du Maurier knew of sailing, harbour life, Cornwall and writing I must remember she had no concept of Asda. Housekeepers, nannies and second homes can be really helpful to freeing the spirit of a middle-aged woman.

And I may not have my own Ferryside or Marie Louise but for now I have the Bessie James giving me a glimpse of other lives and possibilities.

Reference: ‘I too would find my ship’, Daphne Du Maurier’s passion for the sea by Helen Doe, in Women: a cultural review, Volume 20, Issue 1, 2009

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