Home to myths, legends, lore and traditions, the place where land meets sea has fascinated humankind for millennia. Born and raised in West Penwith near Land's End, Ambassador Mike Lay muses on the culture and communities that have grown, struggled and flourished in this raw landscape at the edges of the Atlantic, and their intrinsic connection to the sea.
From the mesolithic period, early peoples of western Europe travelled along the Atlantic edge of the continent and her islands. Over the millennia these communities lived and thrived and died along these soaring, rocky shores. Thousands of years after their lives have been lived it is difficult to guess at their beliefs or stories. There are the shared languages of Brittany, Cornwall and Wales, of Scotland and Ireland, or the common threads of folklore and mythology. But is ascribing some kind of conscious Celtic identity for the folk of the western edges of Europe perhaps a step too far?
Another unifying feature of these landscapes is the presence of thousands of megalithic sites, of stone circles, menhirs, cairns, barrows and dolmens. Whose alignments and configurations point towards both an in-depth understanding of astronomical phenomena and reverence of carns and crests and those places where the land meets the sea. Nowhere else is this in evidence as much as West Penwith, where over 700 megalithic sites are packed onto a small peninsula making it the most densely populated area of Neolithic activity in Europe. These sites are a patchwork of mystery and intrigue, an opaque window onto the ceremonial and spiritual lives of those who inhabited these lands before us.
Fast forward thousands of years and I, like many residents and visitors alike, am still drawn to these places. Drawn to the ancient sites and to the high points of West Penwith to stand in the presence of the Atlantic. Life here now is many different things to many different people, for some it is the joy of a summer holiday, for others the hardship of seasonal work and scarce housing. For many it is the end of the line, both figuratively and geographically, retirees seeing out their days in Belerion or 'the place of the sun', or those down on their luck getting off the train in Penzance in search of new beginnings.
As a child I can think of no better place to grow up. My childhood was spent with my friends roaming over the westernmost edge of Cornwall. We played football overlooking the Scillies in the park at St Just, chased each other through the back streets of the small town, behind the pubs and butcher's shops, and past the methodist chapels. We rode our bikes over heaps of undulating mine waste in the rain, covering ourselves in arsenic-infused slime, we leapt from granite zawns into the roiling sea.
"There is something in the water at the end of the land, knowing you're one the first and last humans semi-connected to an island of 70 million"
And it is in the sea where I felt and feel most at home, perhaps most connected to this place which is so defined by the sea's presence, embracing Penwith as it does on three sides. In surfing I found a practice which helped me to stitch land to sea, to thread in and out of the narrow strip which stands between cliff and the endless blue or grey or green.
For a place of relatively few people, there is a rich surfing contingent in West Penwith. A community who converge in reverence of waves and weather, perhaps a link to the neolithic people who might have paid their respects to similar elements and entities, and while it is sometimes a serious endeavour, an environment that deserves respect, the sea is often a place of unbridled joy. There is something in the water at the end of the land, knowing you're one the first and last humans semi-connected to an island of 70 million, that inspires irreverence and an immersive approach to nature, at least for an hour or two.
While not everybody surfs, not everyone swims, and perhaps there are some who never even visit the beach, the sea in West Penwith is always there. Always over a hedge or a hill or a shoulder, at the end of a once-bustling valley. A constant reminder of where and who we are, of the whole wide world beyond the sea, and of similar people on similar fringes thinking similar things. So in this place we exist in two states. In relative isolation at the very end of the land, immersed in sea and weather.
But we are not alone, we look out at seas and horizons as many thousands have before us and as many thousands will after us, as many thousands are at the same time as us, in edge lands all over the world, in reverence.