Robert Selby makes a pilgrimage to the Cornish house of poet W.S. Graham, encountering corvids, Poldark, and surprisingly high-speed internet along the way
On our first morning in St Ives, I opened the blinds to a tree re-leafed by jackdaws. So that was the heavy footfall on the roof. Jackdaws are common across the UK but I don’t see them in my part of Kent; during our week-long stay on Cornwall’s far western Penwith Peninsula, they were a familiar sight, picking at litter in the rec, acting sentinel on gatepost or powerline, riding a cliff’s thermals. The official bird of Cornwall is another crow, the chough, which perches atop the county council’s insignia with one foot ambiguous on the Duchy of Cornwall’s teetering coronet: preventing it from falling off, or sending it on its way? We spotted no choughs: only a handful of pairs breed in the county – their heyday, like many things in Cornwall, is in the past.
An older version of the council’s insignia has the chough accompanied by two human figures: a bearded fisherman in sou’wester, and a tin miner – or ‘tinner’ – with a candle in his hat. Cornwall’s commercial fishing fleet has greatly diminished in recent decades; the last Cornish tin mine, South Crofty near Camborne, closed in 1998. Cornwall’s civic motto is Onen hag oll – Cornish for ‘One and all’ – but the tourist industry has only unevenly picked up the fishing/mining slack. St Ives is a picture postcard, eerie by November with vacant second homes and holiday lets (each with a web address on its name or number plaque, promotional leaflets dispensed beneath). We drove through Camborne, once the global heart of tin mine engineering, without stopping. After it closed, South Crofty was daubed with lines by the Cornish singer Roger Bryant:
Well Cornish lads are fishermen
And Cornish lads are miners too
But when the fish and tin are gone
What are the Cornish boys to do?
‘There’s a lot of history in Cornwall, a lot of history,’ our guide down Poldark mine, the venerable Percy, said repeatedly. ‘A lot of hangings. A lot of murders. Thanks for coming to see us.’ Poldark mine was called Wheal Roots when it was operating c.1720-1780. Following its accidental rediscovery in the 1970s, it was renamed to cash in on the success of that decade’s BBC adaptations of the Winston Graham novels. The popularity of the current BBC production – its mining scenes are filmed down Poldark – has given the place the confidence to embark on a (much-needed) refurb. ‘Thanks for coming,’ says Percy again, coming into the shop for a tea just as I self-consciously pay for a postcard of Aiden Turner as Ross Poldark, on horseback, silhouetted against a seascape that could be anywhere.
Some mines in Cornwall are as deep as 3,500ft. We had been given a flavour, down at 100ft, of the dark and wet. Two pumps are constantly bailing the water out — if they were switched off, the entire mine would flood in 48 hours. The tinners in the 18th Century worked 6am to 6pm seven days a week (Wesley, Methodism and the campaign for Sunday rest were in the future). Tin mines, unlike coal mines, held no risk of fire or explosion, but radon poisoning caused stomach cancer. The tinners had to pay health insurance to their employers. In the 19th Century the fatality rate was high among the ‘bal maidens’ who hammered the ore brought to the surface into smaller pieces – they would get dragged into the machines by their long Victorian skirts.
We embark on a special pilgrimage down to Madron, the village towards Penzance where the poet W.S. Graham lived from 1967 until his death in 1986. I glimpse a large raptor in a tree overhanging the lane. I want it to be something exciting, but of course it’s only a buzzard, brownly hunched. We park atop what Graham once referred to as ‘buzzard hill’ — Zennor Hill — to take in a view that is a perfect example of how, in this county, English chocolate box countryside meets something wilder — something, in Graham’s words, ‘Celtic and definitely Unenglish’. High Zennor Moor above, its brown autumn bracken pockmarked with granite quoits and boulders, and the forbidding cliffs below, shouldering the Celtic Sea, are the untamed bookends to a placid English pastoral of hedgerows and grazing sheep, the gleaming steeple of Zennor church, and the 13th Century Tinners Arms promising a ‘legendary Thursday Folk Night’.
The winding lanes are lethal, sometimes barely wide enough for our little Vauxhall Adam. Still, a motorcyclist overtakes above the speed limit on a blind bend; cyclists emerge from nowhere without high-vis or helmets; one gent doing under 10mph in a mobility scooter refuses to let us pass, then drives on the wrong side of the road when it eventually opens out into two lanes. Live Free or Die country.
Graham doesn’t warrant a blue plaque, but a modest slate tile is nailed to the side of the whitewashed two-up two-down, standing end-on to the road, that he lived in for 19 years with his wife Nessie Dunsmuir. ‘You know I live now / In Madron with the black, perched beasts / On the shoulder of the gable-end,’ Graham wrote of the jackdaws – or perhaps rooks – in his poem ‘Are You Still There?’ ‘Like struck flints black flocking jack / Daws wheel over the Madron roofs’ he wrote in ‘Five Visitors to Madron’. Now of all moments the daws are nowhere to be seen, visible only when we’re up the road at Ding Dong mine where ‘once the early beam / Engine pounded and broke / The air with industry’ but now there is only ‘the chuck of daws / And the listening sea’ (‘The Thermal Stair’).
Finally visiting this singular, hardy, proud, scenically thrilling ‘Duchy shire’, as Graham called it, has allowed me to appreciate the topography he used so well for atmosphere in his late – and in my view best – work, in which abstraction has been eroded to lucid elegy by the absence of old friends (‘The Thermal Stair’ for Peter Lanyon; ‘Dear Bryan Wynter’; ‘Private Poem to Norman MacLeod’; ‘To Leonard Clark’; ‘Lines on Roger Hilton’s Watch’; ‘For John Heath-Stubbs’). By virtue of his friendship with many important artists of the ‘St Ives School’, Graham features in the town’s Tate gallery, newly extended: one affecting exhibit is a letter he penned to Ben Nicholson shortly after moving from his native Scotland to a caravan near Marazion in 1943, aged 25: ‘Ive been here three months and I would like to talk to someone. Im quite alone here. Could I please visit you […] I can ride over on my bike.’
BT Openreach was out in force in St Ives and environs: Cornwall is getting superfast broadband, part-funded by the European Union. Due to its high poverty levels, Cornwall, along with Wales, has been the biggest beneficiary of EU funds to the UK, but, also like Wales, voted for Brexit. The UK government has given no assurances to Cornwall that it will fill any funding void. It will be interesting to see how this peninsula, culturally distinct from the rest of England, with its own now officially recognised and protected language, reacts to having to scrap for a piece of the remaining pie in the potentially fractious post-Brexit future. Any increased tension with London may boost the popularity of the ‘Sons of Cornwall’, Mebyon Kernow, the Cornish nationalist party campaigning for a devolved assembly akin to that in Wales, and which currently has four seats on the 123-member Cornwall Council.
But the Cornwall of the future may not need to go cap in hand: with world tin prices soaring, South Crofty mine is slated to re-open; and public and private money is going into lithium exploration across the county, bringing hope that extraction of this metal – to meet the growing demand for lithium batteries for electric cars – will give the Cornish boys and girls jobs to do.