Please don’t talk to me when I’ve just woken up. Actually, probably best to leave it for an hour and a half. Do not request a hair cut, even if it is “just a quick one”; don’t ask “have you got 80p in your bank account? There’s this Sonic the Hedgehog app I’d like”; please don’t request my help to decide how you can best waste £50 to make your new xbox controller work on your pc; in fact, just stop asking me anything. All I can hear is noise, and I really don’t like noise when I’ve just woken up.
“Why are you still in your pyjamas? I was planning on a long walk today, how am I going to do that now, if you’re not ready to leave? You were supposed to be meeting your friends at 11, it’s almost midday.” “What time do you want picking up? 4 o’clock? Well, that’s not gonna happen, I’m going to the Roseland for a walk, I told you.” And so it goes on…
I pull into the lay-by at Wrinkling Lane (don’t you love that name?) near Trelissick sometime around half past twelve. I’m hungry and thirsty, having had neither food nor drink for breakfast. Often, if I’ve dropped Kim into town to meet his friends I’ll stay and have a coffee in Neros, easing into the day by watching the world go by. Today I decide to go into the cafe at Trelissick instead, since it’s on the route I intended to walk. Another gentle easing in, a letting go. It’s not my favourite cafe, the coffee’s not up to much and the clientele are either decrepit or young families. I’m not sure where I fit. But that’s nothing new. I order a cream tea. Yes, for ‘brunch’, not tea. It includes coffee, 2 scones, jam and a pot of clotted cream. I head to the corner at the back of the room and position myself facing the door. There’s a lot of noise: clattering crockery, a woman who whistles her ‘s’s (I find that so grating), toddlers bickering; but I manage to lose myself in a chapter of Kathleen Jamie‘s Findings, the latest in a trail of books I can’t put down. It’s a chapter called The Braan Salmon. The slippery greyness of today, the heavy rain falling onto the empty courtyard – it doesn’t take much to get lost in the story of the fish swimming upstream, against the flow.
I’ve missed the ferry and sit on the side watching it cross to the other bank. The rain pushes up the river in sheets and I bow my head trying to keep the wind out of my eyes. Cars are beginning to queue behind me. I don’t make eye contact with the drivers dry and warm inside, desensitised to the world.
As I walk up the hill under the trees on the other side the daily detritus finally begins to ebb away behind me with the tide. My original plan was to walk to St Mawes and back (about 15 miles in total), but I knew I wouldn’t make it before the plaintive phone calls to “come and get me” began around 4 o’clock. I thought instead I’d walk to St Just in Roseland (about 9.5 miles or so, out and back) where I’d maybe do some drawing or reading and get back for six. It’s an attractive village, quaint even, and a while since I’d been there. It was disappointing though: most of the journey would be on tarmac.
The road twists and turns and I slalom to and fro across it to get the clearest view ahead on the numerous blind bends. It’s much quieter than I anticipated; the road only really goes down to the ferry so what traffic there is comes in little flurries every half hour or so. A postman stops to offer me a lift to St Mawes. I tell him I’m out for a walk and he calls me ‘flower’. It makes me smile, for a good while. The hedgerows are high and are beginning to thicken with spring growth, the stones of the Cornish hedge hidden like a skeleton under a wet green skin. I try to name the plants and flowers I see as I pass by: cow parsley, bluebells (the simple English sort, not the Dutch), red campion, ragged robin, three cornered leeks (wild garlic), white bedstraw like constellations shimmering in a green sky, new hart’s tongue ferns with their tips beginning to unfurl, lusciously tasting the rain. I’ve never seen a hart’s tongue, I suddenly think to myself.
I’ve only seen a stag once in the wild. It was a moment of pure wonder that has stayed with me for decades. I was with Kim’s dad (Kim wasn’t even a twinkle), his sister and her husband (were they even married then?). We were camping on Exmoor, a beautiful National Park of wild windswept hills and stone built farms and villages in the west of England. We’d gone for a walk at nearby Bats Castle, an Iron Age hill fort on the outskirts of Dunster, and had wandered off a path in the woods into a small glade. The light was filtering gently through the canopy and the ground was soft and quiet under foot. We looked up and there it was, barely 20m or so away. We stopped in our tracks, as did the stag; it felt like time had stopped too. There we were gazing at each other, unexpectedly in full view. As it stood motionless, side on, I was transfixed by its grace, its muscularity, its undoubted presence. Its stature was much taller than I had ever imagined a deer to be; with its long graceful neck and its crowned head it was taller than any man. I remember feeling incredibly privileged, like I was glimpsing a world that didn’t belong to me. Then it wandered off. As silently as it had arrived.
I realised I was walking downhill now, catching glimpses of the landscape below me through farm gates. Hills like swollen bellies were covered in lush sward, broken here and there with fields of fading pale daffodils, the season gone. Pendennis shipyard and castle, away on the horizon, appeared and disappeared behind slabs of grey rain clouds moving fast across the busy sky. My waterproof trousers were clinging to my knees now, cold and wet. Not waterproof. Maybe the incessant heavy downpours were just too much, or maybe they were never fit for purpose. After 4 miles I was beginning to feel uncomfortable. I took a footpath on the right down to St Just Creek, glad for the shelter of some trees.
Ipass St Just’s holy well and there on the edge of the creek is St Just in Roseland church, probably one of the most picturesque churches you’ll ever see. A celtic cross and weathered headstones teeter along the edge of the creek, looking out across the tidal water to numerous small boats tied up in rows. I try to imagine a funeral here, could it ever be sombre, even in the pouring rain? I followed the narrow track around the creek and suddenly something caught my eye. As the light shifted across the water the reeds on the opposite bank seemed to shiver above a thin line of green – everything seemed to be distilled into colours. I couldn’t describe what I was looking at in terms of trees, hills and water; it was only the colour that spoke. I walked as far as I could along the track until I was stopped by the tide lapping the bank. I turned around, mildly irritated that I couldn’t go any further, but as I walked back the rain began to ease and I thought maybe it was serendipity and I was meant to go back and draw the creek. I don’t believe in fate, but I saw an opportunity, made myself at home on a convenient bench and got out my sketchbook and pastels.
Rain dripped from the trees onto the paper. As I tried to wipe it off the colour smeared and the surface grates and pulls, if I carried on there would soon be holes. I leave it to dry and start another.
I sat there for an hour or more. Just looking, paring back the shapes and shadows into colours, the essentials of what I could see. At some point I decided I had to leave but would come back: a couple of sketches isn’t enough and I need to study some more. Just look. Whether the colours will even be similar on another day though is another thing altogether. My fingers are filthy from the pastels and I wipe them on the grass; I notice my knees are finally dry and I reluctantly head off for the ferry.
Why is it that the journey back the way we’ve come always seems shorter? Perhaps it’s because things seem familiar, so we’re not looking so intently, not searching out the new? It’s just a mis-perception though; it doesn’t actually take any less time. No-one offered me a lift as I headed back so I was guaranteed at least another hour or more’s soaking. But time passed quickly enough and I was soon at the top of the hill that drops steeply down to the ferry.
Streaming up the hill like salmon on a mission was a large group of boys: Cubs. Suddenly the air was filled with more noise than a rookery at bedtime. They looked bedraggled and tired, soaked though and covered in mud. Sullen eyes stared at me from under pulled down hoods. I smiled broadly at them but could feel their disdain: I had it easy whilst they were being forced onwards. And, upwards. I negotiated another group and wondered why the leaders weren’t leading them on the other side of the road, towards oncoming traffic, as any Girl Guide knows is safest. I didn’t ask. As I got towards the bottom of the hill the last group seemed more cheerful. I wondered how many miles they’d travelled. “Great day for it!”, I said to a woman as she ushered her charges along. She replied with a smile, a noisy sigh and a roll of the eyes.
The last child, who was about 10 years old, looked at me all innocently “You’ve just missed the ferry”, he said. Smiling broadly.
Related articles across the web