SURPRISE! A CORNISH ADVENTURE by Margaret Moreton 19.1.17
A handful of postcards, tossed onto our table – one surfaced and faced me, – it said “Cornish Adventure”. It spoke to me and demanded of me the revelation of tales untold…it strangely allied itself to surprise too, so …
Our Cornish Adventure began in Market Bosworth in 1958, with John’s appointment to the headship of Tolgus County Secondary School – a newly created school in Redruth. Building was still in progress and the opening was proposed for Easter 1959. So, on January 1st 1059 we said goodbye to Market Bosworth , our home and the familiar and took a leap in the dark – into completely unknown territory and for a ground-breaking new task. John took our car, with treasures not committed to storage and I, with a good friend, took our daughters [aged 2 years and 3 months respectively] by train. Anything that happened to me on that opening day, had to be a surprise. Although my mind was buzzing with immediate relevancies, there was an emptiness there – a readiness and a wondering for what was to come. I anticipated the unfamiliar, a strangeness and yes, surprises.
Crisis at Birmingham station. We needed to change trains from Snow Hill to New Street. In those days, there were porters in plenty and one kind soul took Anna, in a Moses basket, and told us to follow him. We did, but we lost him; near panic on both sides; reunited, there was joy unconfined – on both sides!
As the train rumbled on to the S.W, the meaning of adventure became a reality. What was to come, for surely an adventure is the unknown which will befall. There was a complete blank sheet ahead of us – no friends there; no family there and a school just 3/4 built to be equipped and staffed. All this with a very basic Cornish cottage – as yet unseen and in the middle of a field, to call home. Journey’s end, at Redruth station, with rain whistling horizontally, driven by a wind that cut to our very bones, I felt lost. Adventure? Surprise was the word foremost in my mind!
We did survive; we slowly began to integrate. It was not easy – we were the only non-Cornish family in the village and known as “they up-country folk”. Even our speech was different – not just accents but vocabulary too. We traded in the village shop [I asked for bread-cakes, they sold me splits] We went to the village church and John joined the local golf club.
Slowly, the school was nearing completion and John received a cheque from County Hall for £25,000.00, with which to equip this brand new, much talked of, establishment. The trust which that bespoke and the freedom it gave was immense. It heavily underlined the responsibility that was forever at the forefront of planning. Would it happen today? I doubt it. But psychologically it was a very clever, if normal move. “You will be judged by the results” it said. The spirit of adventure was rampant.
Rugby was very much to the fore in the Cornishman’s way of life. Supporters and well-wishers were vehement in their opinions and many a pound changed hands on a result. The P.E master at Tolgus school [appointed by John!] played number ten for Penzance and the school caretaker [appointed by John!] played for Redruth. He also helped coach the school’s rugby team, to well-deserved success. They both became stalwart friends.
The sea, of course played a great part in our life in Cornwall. After all we were a family of Midlanders and went to the sea-side once a year – if we were lucky. From our windows, high above the shore, we could see and watch the sea whenever we chose. It’s many moods and displays were always sights for comment and reflection. The sheer fathomlessness of ifs depths was at once magnificent and yet eerie and foreboding. There was adventure in the visions it encapsulated. What did it hold and where could it take one? One day, relaxing on the beach, we became aware of a man calling urgently to a swimmer. We wondered why, for all seemed calm enough and then we spotted a dorsal fin breaking the water. An all-time speed record was surely broken when the swimmer also saw it! It was a shark and it beached itself. What a phenomenon and what an interest. Willing hands kept it watered until ropes were found and it was towed back into the waters. That day was reported as “the day of the shark” and it opened the eyes of the children who came after school to see it. Truly, an unlikely adventure – but what it taught them.
The harbour in Portreath, in those far-off days, was functional as a harbour for business. Men went to sea from ifs shelter, to fish for their livelihoods and their boats were part of the back-drop there. Boats also came into harbour, on a regular basis, from South Wales, delivering coal, which every household needed. For those boats, entering that tiny harbour through ifs narrow entrance required skill and expertise of a high order. On a bad day, when seas were rough, they perforce must anchor outside the harbour and wait. Watching such manoeuvrings one marvelled at the sheer abilities possessed!
All that glorious, shiny Welsh coal was unloaded by hand onto the harbour floor and then reloaded by Donald Williams onto his cart for delivery throughout the village. That little pony earned many a carrot from grateful home-owners. He was rounding off what was a necessary adventure from a coal mine in South Wales, across often turbulent seas to a tiny harbour on the Cornish coast. Handling the coal, Donald always wore black – a trilby; a sweater; trousers and a leather apron – and a black face to match! On Friday’s and Saturday’s, scrubbed and polished and in his white he delivered meat for the local butcher. On Sunday*!, in pressed and tidy serge suit, he sang base in the chapel choir and on Monday’s – his day off, he visited Mary in the cottage at the end of the terrace! Bless him he’s long gone to a well-earned rest!
Though we made many seriously good friends, words often singled us out from the Cornish. “Oh, she’s west country” someone would say about a Cornish friend. “Of course she is” I would say, “she’s Cornish.” but to the Cornishmen, west country meant land south of Penzance! Again, one fine day, I thought I would take the girls through the woods to lllogan. I asked a friend about a safe route, “Oh, you just stick on the tram which goes by the stile and you’ll be safe.” There were 2 buses to Portreath each day, but a tram?? I was nonplussed. Much laughter and discussion later, I learned that a tram was an age-old track into the wood, a path to you and me!
My first acquaintance with a very old Cornish idiom caused John’s eye-brows to arch…His golfing partner had come home with him after a match and his greeting to me was “How now Margaret! You fit my lover?” Explanations quickly ensued and it was established that in Cornwall ‘lover’ was a special, endearing and familiar word, expressing affection and respect! Learning all these many more words was a real adventure. Could we use them or would that be presumption? That we understood them was necessary. Better for us to offer some of our Midland idioms in exchange and thus present an amiable and understanding front.
One day, when in the nearly-ready new school, I met the Director of Education who was there with John. “Do you know the Cornish, Mrs M?” he asked me. “I’ll tell you – they are 1/2 an inch of moss on top and all granite underneath.” How right and accurate he was. When you recognise granite as immovable, rock-solid and sound, you have the indigenous native Cornishman, who smiles happily and is as welcoming and soft as the moss, but who holds the granite in reserve to deal with any and all eventualities.
I’m glad I knew Cornwall when I did – then it was real and true to itself. It has an ambience of ifs own and was so very proud of it’s difference. I am not surprised at the dilution of that ambience; that erstwhile way of life has gone. It has become a modern holiday resort and the butt of an overwhelming wash of modernity. In the UK then it was far-flung and distant and it was an adventure to go there. I was surprised and stunned as I came up, close and personal to it, by the overwhelming beauty and power of the sea. I was surprised by the singularly lush, verdant vigour of the wild flora. I was surprised by the so often ethereal quality of the light – a photographer’s dream… all this and much more made Cornwall a place of charm, of intense interest, of adventure and surprises.