A week after my visit, there’s a return to the normal state of things. It starts to rain. Petrichor fills the air. Wind comes in from the Atlantic. I’m called in to cover a few lifeguard shifts at Porthcurno. My friend Matt and I hole up in the small wooden lifeguard hut, coffee bubbling away on the stove, an empty beach and an empty crossword. What had happened here during the heatwave is now in the past. Matt is grateful. I feel a profound sense of loss. Summer has passed.
We have plenty of time to discuss life and regale with stories of gory incidents. Like the time I’d been first on scene to a middle-aged woman who’d had fallen 10 meters onto the rocks halfway between Porthcurno and Pedn Vounder. I held her fractured skull together whilst my colleague calmly reassured her partner. We struggled to request helicopter evacuation under the towering cliffs. The lady survived, but my colleague didn’t come back the following season.
Matt explains how, in an effort to reduce communication black spots, the local nudists have recently been given a radio with their own “PK” call sign, along with a klaxon to allow them to summon lifeguard assistance to Pedn in event of an emergency. I query why the lifeguards shortened Porthcurno to PK in their radio communications.
“Di-dah-dah-dit. Dah-di-dah,” raps Matt, simultaneously tapping the desk. “Old school. You know, Morse code. It’s what they used to call the cable station up the valley.”
I’m vaguely aware of the history of the area as a hub of communication pre-internet. It was the terminus for a number of intercontinental submarine telegraph cables transmitting messages from around the world to the UK. The bay was chosen for its steeply shelving and sheltered topography.
It’s only later that I discover its true significance in global communications. The first cable was laid here in 1870, connecting Lisbon, Portugal, with Porthcurno. It also represented the final link in the Great Britain-India cable. Packet ships, which had previously sailed messages and news around the world in weeks, were instantly superseded by the transfer of messages in minutes. Porthcurno became the unlikely gateway to a modernising British Empire, with cables linking the country to all corners of the planet.
By the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Porthcurno had grown into the largest submarine cable station in the world, capable of transmitting over two million words a day. In an effort to protect the vitally important telegraph station, two tunnels were carved out of the granite bedrock and the entire operation moved underground. Cognisant of the risk of sea-led attack, the beach was decked out with an array of armaments, including pop-up flamethrowers positioned under the sand.