A writer, surfer and lifeguard at Sennen in West Cornwall, frequent visitors to the Broadcast will be familiar with the writing of Pete Geall.
Since lockdown restrictions have been imposed on our daily lives, many have been rediscovering spaces close to home that often go overlooked. Below, Pete takes us on a walk around the place he calls home and talks us through six lessons learned right on his doorstep.
Like so many, I have taken to exploring close to home during recent times. One unintended consequence of enforced boundaries has been to emphasise the small joys that can be found in nearby places
The surfers amongst us have had ample time to reflect on the self-imposed shackles that keep them hooked on the next chart rather than the current one. Nearly all of us will have been able to find solace in walking - whether home is in an urban or rural environment. Affording us a welcome pause from the barrage of information that we sift through online.
My daily walk has become an affirmation of the simple pleasure of fresh air and an inquisitive mind. Inspired by Finisterre’s conversation with James Bowden about his family’s ‘Basecamp’ - I wanted to see what lessons I could learn about current events on my daily stroll. Whether my modest amble around the block could help illuminate my understanding of the world outside. These are the six lessons I found within thirty minutes from my home in Newlyn, West Cornwall:
1) The reassuring joy of heading home.
When I think of the Penwith peninsula, I see and feel granite. Big flakes of the stuff, managing to simultaneously crumble away into the sea and stand firm to the frequently changeable moods of the West Atlantic. Seams of quartz, feldspar and mica woven through boulders, rising and forming ridge-lines up the west facing coast like sleeping dragons lying dormant in the cliffs. Then, when it is time, falling back down to spawn bays out of the shattered remains.
My home in Newlyn isn’t quite as elemental. East facing, it defiantly turns its back on the westerly storms that batter Cornwall in the winter, providing safe refuge to the largest fishing fleet in Cornwall. From my home I can see right up the spine of the county, towards the mining heartlands of Carn Brea in Camborne.
My thirty minute walk starts with a calf-aching stomp up the steep Chywoone Hill through Gwavas estate at the top of town, before journeying over the stile and footpath that separates Newlyn from the small village of Paul.
I take a moment to send a picture of the empty bench outside the ‘Kings Arm’ pub to a friend - a nostalgic reminder of the cider we shared here on a similarly sunny day here last year.
Kit for your local explorations...
Arriving on the outskirts of the small harbour village of Mousehole, the narrow lanes which would’ve normally been chocked full of tourists on a sunny afternoon like this one, have gained a quiet expansiveness as if under the gaze of a magnifying glass. The scent of cow parsley and field fertiliser fills the air - I can hear a tractor working a nearby field.
Exactly thirty minutes from my home - my phone timer rings out. I pause. Then turn. At this point I’ll be walking home. This is my first lesson: Never underestimate the power of walking home. For those of us fortunate to have a safe roof over our heads, heading home should be something we should feel grateful for - even if we all occasionally forget.
My route home via the SW coast path will allow me to mirror the journey of the fishing boats also making their way back to the safety and security of Newlyn harbour. In many ways our homes, however temporary, play sanctuary to the storms in our lives. We should protect them, But we should never let them anchor us down for too long: ‘a ship is safe in a harbour, but it isn’t what ships are built for’.
2) History repeats itself.
Down a side alley I come across a thick granite stone, about the size of a kitchen sink with a hollowed out indention on-top. A small plaque above states that this is a ‘plague stone’. The bowl in the stone would’ve been filled with vinegar during times of plague and used to disinfect money. In this instance for the outbreak of Bubonic plague in the village in the 16th Century.
A timely reminder that the community here has overcome the ravages of disease before and will do so again. That history repeats itself is a truism that many of us appreciate, but there is also a certain solidarity and humanity that comes from relating to the experiences of others. Mousehole’s ancient plague stone is a physical embodiment of the community’s collective effort to protect each other during times of sickness. The second lesson: whilst history repeats itself - so does our desire for collective action. As I leave the cobbled streets for the coastal path, I can’t help but wonder if contactless debit-cards and meteoric rise of the ‘click-and-collect’ shop are the plague stones of our times.
3) Valour is a virtue we should all aspire to.
Halfway home, I pass the RNLI Penlee Lifeboat house. With the all-weather lifeboat now operating out of the harbour at Newlyn, the ageing slipway and boathouse here now serve as a poignant memorial to the Penlee Lifeboat Disaster. On the 19th December 1981 - The lifeboat ‘Solomon Browne’ launched in hurricane force winds in an attempt to rescue the MV Union Star; drifting without power towards Boscawen point near Lamorna. All eight men onboard where lost in the rescue attempt, alongside the crew of the MV Union Star. When I read the chilling report from Lt Cdr Smith (the Search and Rescue pilot on duty that fateful evening) I can’t help but feel both humbled and empowered by the rich vein of courage that underpins this town:
“The greatest act of courage that I have ever seen, and am ever likely to see, was the penultimate courage and dedication shown by the Penlee crew when it manoeuvred back alongside the casualty in over 60 ft breakers and rescued four people shortly after the Penlee had been bashed on top of the casualty's hatch covers. They were truly the bravest eight men I've ever seen, who were also totally dedicated to upholding the highest standards of the RNLI.”
4) Protect special places.
Leaving the footpath, I am able to shave a minute off my walk by going the wrong way through the one-way-system road system into Newlyn. An impossible shortcut in normal times due the narrow coastal bottleneck. To my left is the charred remains of the Fisherman Arms - a favourite pub that burnt down in a fire last year. My friend Jack Hoare lives down a back alley adjacent. In normal times we would frequently drink too much Guinness on the slate stoop out front. His father, Harvey, was the best surfer round these parts back in the day.
Before the coast road was built through Newlyn, the town itself was comprised of three separate villages - Newlyn Town, Street-an-Nowan and Tolcarne. Each of the villages would get cut-off on high tides.
About a third of the tightly knit cottages were razed in the 20th century to make way for modern housing at the top of the hill - thankfully many were spared by the direct action of a group of fisherman who sailed their boat the ‘Rosebud’ to the Westminster in 1937 to deliver a petition against the destruction of their homes.
5) Change can also herald progress.
As I continue my journey down Fore Street into town. I reflect on the determined action by the community to protect both their homes and the picturesque quality of the town. The intermingling of fisherman and artists like Stanhope Forbes, who spearheaded the Newlyn School movement, greatly influenced the way the community viewed their home. Capturing the beauty of the honest work of Newlyn’s inhabitants ‘En Plein Air’ - gave rise to an early recognition of the visual uniqueness that many love about Cornwall today.
Yet, some modernisation was necessary. The lack of basic sanitation and overcrowding in Newlyn directly contributed to the spread of cholera and smallpox in the 18th/19th Century. Off Fore Street were a number of small courtyard complexes. One of these, no longer in existence, was called ‘Vaccination Court’.
Smallpox was endemic in the early 19th century. By 1848 the ‘Vaccination Extension Act’ extended free vaccination to rich and poor alike. The act required doctors to send annual returns to the Board of Guardians to ensure the important duty was being performed. It is most likely that ‘Vaccination Court’ was where these lifesaving vaccinations were delivered and recorded. The lesson: Change can herald progress.
6) In praise of benchmarks.
Reaching the harbour - I’ve become so fixated on the metaphor of the harbour being a refuge that I’m finding it hard to find another lesson. I realise that I’ve spent the last 5 minutes focused inwardly rather than trying to explore what the external can offer.
Fortunately, I find the final one on the very edge of the harbour, at the terminus of my walk. Housed inside the weathered granite hut on the south pier sits a nondescript brass bolt within a small windowed case. This incongruous item is the Ordnance Survey Benchmark for mean sea level for the U.K. As ships increased in size - with ever larger draughts, the need for an accurate baseline for Mean Sea Level (MSL) for coastal safety intensified. Newlyn was chosen for this important role due to the stability of its granite bedrock and position close to the edge of the continental shelf. Until the 1980s a small piece of steel ticker tape, suspended in a hole in the harbour, diligently measured and recorded the rise and fall of the tide.
In current times, where many of the things we hold to be reliable are in flux, the presence of the tidal observatory is a reassuring benchmark of stability. The ebb and flow of the tides a metronome we can apply to our daily lives. Within that perpetual movement is a deeply grounding sense of consistency that I feel especially grateful for. The steadying power of benchmarks and routine to provide us with the solid foundations we need to fulfil our lives - even at times of profound change.
Standing on the edge of the harbour, I look down at the Atlantic below. I am home.
Words by Pete Geall
Photos by Jack Johns