Caught by the River


17th October 2019

Wilkie Collins & Ithell Colquhoun, Lamorna Cove to Launceston, 1850 & 1950 — an extract from Peter Fiennes’ Footnotes: A Journey Round Britain the Company of Great Writers, recently published by Oneworld.

Ithell Colquhoun was one of the first prose writers to try and describe the deeper magic of a place. Not just to show what we think we see (the glory of the woods and the trees, and the songbirds she cherished, and the river that danced at the edge of her field), but through solitude and kaif – a direct experiencing of the momentshe opened herself to the shifting of the ‘landscape-veil’ and described, with as much accuracy as is possible, that sense we all get, the feeling we all know, that there is something else around and within us that is neither obvious nor apparent but is nonetheless present and vital, except it’s just out of reach or slipping past the corner of our eye, and even perhaps other-dimensional. It is there, though, even if we keep on missing it. We just need to find – or remember – another way of seeing. 

None of this would have occurred to young Wilkie, despite his love of sensation and drama, and with all his feeling for supernatural undercurrents. The rocks are the rocks. The Druids are strange – but gone. And the last of the ‘superstitions’ – folkloric festivals and holy wells – are ‘the best evidence of the low state of education among the people from whom they are produced’. That was not Ithell’s belief. She knew that ‘certain places need people as much as certain people need places’ and Lamorna became her life: ‘I am identified with every leaf and pebble.’ She was told that Lamorna Cove was where ‘the Atlanteans, fleeing from cataclysm, first landed’ and she described the spirits and emanations of her valley and the force (‘the Michael-force’) that flowed through everything. But most of the time she is transfixed by what she can see right in front of her: the birds, she says, have a brighter plumage here, the sky has its own tone of silver, and ‘the hedgetops in summer are bright with the tiny pink stars of stonecrop’. She writes with poetry and grace and humour – sometimes anger – and I promise you will find yourself sharing and transformed by her visions. 

We couldn’t find any kind of memorial to Ithell, even though the valley is  littered with plaques commemorating the artists and writers who have shared her love of this magical valley, but we do find the site of her corrugated iron shack, now rebuilt as a trim little hut with Velux windows and well-scrubbed stone walls. It is the primrose time of year and the patchy ground around the house (what she called her ‘Irish garden’, but is really just a thinning of the woods) has clumps of primula, narcissi and anemone growing among the sycamore and birch. Beyond is ‘her’ field, green in a clinging mist, and the stream where she would sometimes sunbathe naked, hidden from the road, and watch the dragonflies ‘making love, emerald and black, or turquoise and black’. The valley is damp, from the mist and the streams that run to the nearby cove and from last year’s leaf-mould in the woods, now being forced aside by a rising tide of bluebells. It’s not raining – away from this valley we have left behind a sunny day – but everything here is slick and slippery to touch, including the soft spring leaves of the lime trees that crowd close to the narrow road and the top of the new wooden gate that blocks the way to Ithell’s old home. 

Ithell was certainly not the first or last to make her way to Cornwall looking for a deeper connection to an ancient land. She was followed by countless others (artists, of course, but also academics and antiquarians, magicians and witches, neo-pagans, bards, mystics, druids, occultists, weekend hippies…), all on the trail of standing stones, stone circles, pulse spots, ley lines, Gaia, Arthur and Merlin, Celtic crosses, the White Goddess, petroglyphs, runes, crop circles, UFOs, labyrinths, Wicca, Elysium, Camelot, Atlantis, and so on. It’s a long list. And as Ithell said, ‘Cornwall has an attraction for the seeker, bearing as it does traces of those sunken countries Lyonesse and Atlantis … people, irresistibly drawn, will jettison their prospects and come down here to find not only a living but a life worth living.’ There has also been a resurgence of the old beliefs and customs from within Cornwall, perhaps starting in 1928 with the re-energizing of the ‘Cornish Gorsedh’, the gathering of the Cornish people and their robed bards. Wilkie, on the other hand, would have told them all to go back to school. 

Not far from Ithell’s home, on the other side of the valley, there’s a hotel described in the Time Out Guide to Devon and Cornwall as ‘bringing a sprinkling of glitz to Britain’s furthest reaches’. A sign on the road is advertising cocktails and views over Lamorna Cove, and so – with the light fading and the magic hour upon us – we climb some sweaty wooden steps through a neglected hillside garden and push the door open into a white, minimalist reception area. Despite Time Out’s excitement, the place seems utterly unsuited to this valley and in fact some kind of process of uneasy osmosis is already taking place: an atmosphere of decay from the surrounding woods has been drawn inside and is possibly even now seeping up the walls. There’s no one around. My mind is filled with Ithell and her belief that this valley is especially haunted by ghosts, poltergeists and spirits – none of them ever hurt her, she said, but still – and as we poke around the empty white corridors and peer through some French windows at the deserted, windblown terrace, a feeling of distress, of something being unpleasantly wrong, creeps up on us. Neither of us wants to say anything. We just walk back fast towards the reception – and we’re almost there, with the long corridor behind us, when a family emerges from the far end. They have a large dog with them. Now, I’m not brave about these things – aged seventeen I had to walk out of The Shining– but there’s something about deserted hotels that is horrifying, and I whip round to seek solace from Anna only to find she has already fled out the door and down the hill back to Ithell. I turn around again and the people and their dog – a Rottweiler, as it happens – are almost upon me and they haven’t said a word – not a word! – but why would they? – and I want to say something about cocktails or cream teas but before I can do that one of the women looks into my eyes with such fathomless despair that I find myself lurching back against the reception desk unable to move or speak until they are clear of the hotel and – I see this now – heading up the hill to their large black MPV in the car park. 

And that is Lamorna Cove: disturbingly empty off-season; but rammed, they all tell us, in the summer. Ithell left for a more isolated part of Cornwall in the late 1950s, exiled by the traffic and the noise, before returning years later to die. People were becoming disorientated, she felt, and unable to concentrate on anything because of their addiction to the clamour of modern life, especially the ceaseless background drone of the radio. The radio, bless her.


Ithell Colquhoun’s The Living Stones was published in 1957 and has been reissued by Peter Owen.

Wilkie Collins’ Rambles Beyond Railways is currently out of print.

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