TRAVEL / A WRITER'S BRITAIN: Land of lost ships: For Thomas Hardy it was a place of failed love at the edge of existence. Rugged Cornwall can still seduce. Ronald Blythe fell under its timeless, elemental spell

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A PLACE that holds us in its spell is often a native place, now and then a personally discovered landscape, or somebody else's special territory which we simply had to annex. I suppose that for me north Cornwall has to belong to the last definition. Thirty years ago two old friends left Suffolk for Trethias, a hamlet near Constantine Bay, where I followed them for a few weeks each winter or spring, to write, to talk, to walk and quite unintentionally to allow that powerful moorland and seaboard secretly to become part of me as it had become part of them.

At first I thought we shared its impact, that it was saying more or less the same thing to each of us. But being so much alone there - they were for short strolls, myself for long hauls over St Breock downs or the coastal paths - I soon knew that where this dramatic scenery was concerned I was not their guest. It had roared and blown and burnt itself into me. Then equally unexpected and surprising, after I had wandered all around this wonderful region, came the invitation from P N Furbank for me to work on the New Wessex edition of the works of Thomas Hardy, 'my' volume being none other than A Pair of Blue Eyes, that fictionalised account of his courtship in and around St Juliot, every land and field of which had by this time become as familiar to me as those at home.

This task necessitated thorough travels through the north Cornwall of Hardy's youth and widower-hood, when his attempt to come to terms with a failed marriage resulted in a sequence of love-and-landscape poems which have no parallel in the English language. He called it 'the land beyond the land' and one of 'those sequestered spots outside the Gates of the World'. Emma, his unfortunate, immortalised wife, had said: 'All this should be seen in the winter to be truly appreciated.'

That was when I was always seeing it, although occasionally I was there in May. My friends were 'movers', shifters about in the same few miles, makers and forsakers of gardens, and enthusiasts for a year or two of almost any fresh view. I used to envy them their up-sticks energy and panache, and there was always the thrill each Christmas or Easter of being shown the new house. Praise for it poured from us. They would never leave it, never move again. But they did. I loved them for their fickleness.

Where I was concerned, the chief effect of these moves was to set me down in the next square of the six-inch Ordnance Survey map. I would check on the revised position of Brown Willy from my bedroom window, or hark for a changed note in the sound of the sea. The first explorations from the new base were intensely thrilling; even the glimpse of yet one more wintering holiday bungalow called Tamarisk or Spindrift on the edge of the new village would create runs of speculative thought. There would be my friends' latest church, latest pub. At the early service Suffolk churches strike dry cold, the Cornish dank cold. My friends' Cornish churches often stood among swaying rookeries and huge shrubs which clawed against the windows. Their painted roofs were carved from bog oak and the granite preaching-crosses of their founders stood tall among the dead, whose memorials were elegantly engraved slate visiting-cards. Miracles of penmanship carried out with a chisel.

There is nothing like slate for taking a good flourish and I never grew tired of searching the hilly Cornish churchyards for these refined letterings of grief. The slate came from Delabole, arguably the biggest man-made hole in Britain, where it has been cut and split for many centuries. The abandoned surface machinery gives no real warning of its immensity. They said that the best slate lay 24 fathoms from the top. Men abseiled on ropes to reach it. This went on headstones. But the main product of this recently vanished industry roofed the Cornish for life.

Beyond St Austell, not far off, rose the milky mountains of the china clay trade, and I remember thinking how amazing it was that two such manufactures, the one so deep and blue-black, the other so high and white, and both so vast, should exist below the moor. Industrial Cornwall - and it includes the fishing and the pittance farming of the recent past, the tin-mining and the quarrying - may be 'another country' to the holidaymaker, but to me it was an integral part of what made this county such an unforgettable experience. I would clamber about in old workings and find my way along the tinners' tracks, all this side of Cornwall captivating me.

But the ultimate influence was the sea itself, the Atlantic brought to a crashing halt by a dizzy granite barrier along whose face screamed wild hosts of sea birds. These tall cliffs offered pleasures that were shot through with fears, terrors even, if one knew only a little of their history. Below them are the lands of lost ships and a turbulence which, like the tides themselves, alternately drags one towards it and drives one back. The towering headlands - Trevose, Pentire, Tintagel - jut from it, and broken-away islands such as Quies and Gulland provide a kind of staying point for the eye in so much movement.

In spite of Cornwall's 'otherness', writers like Sir Thomas Malory in his Morte d'Arthur and composers such as Elgar, Bax and Malcolm Arnold were to establish what we now accept as 'Englishness' out of what they imagined here. I vividly recall my first lonely encounter with this coast. It was on Trevose Head on the afternoon of the shortest day. I had walked there from Trethias, which was not far in mileage but at that particular moment as far as one could go from secure hearth. It was haphazardly light, with spumy mist and yet a clear enough path. A foghorn brayed and farm dogs barked and for a while there was no sound of the ocean. Then, just below, it announced itself, not violently as I had expected but rather like the sound of the sea which we heard in a shell when we were children. Behind me stretched the tees and hummocks of a golf links and a neolithic burial ground. All around me were the coves and bays with their mocking names: Booby's, Stinking, Cat's, Mother Ivey's. I looked down from various edges. The air which blew in from the water was mild and phosphorescent. The map in my head was saying, this is only the beginning. There is everything to look for from here to Hartland - when it is light.

I went to St Juliot with no feeling of pilgrimage. Although heart-breakingly signposted in Hardy's novel and poems, the village itself and the immortalised Valency Valley leading to it would tell one little if one had not read his work. The wits used to say, 'Thomas Hardy loved women' - 'Yes, dead women', yet he went back to St Juliot to come close again to the vital Emma, not her ghost.

In A Pair of Blue Eyes one reads their story between the lines, in the poetry along love lines uneqalled for their openness. They met here on Monday 7 March 1870, both aged 29, she boisterous and close to being an old maid by the standards of the day, he slight and private, an architect's assistant sent from Weymouth to 'restore' the parish church where Emma's brother-in-law was the rector. Four years later, on the strength of Far from the Madding Crowd, they were wed, to the inestimable benefit of English literature but apparently doubtful benefit to each other. Yet who can tell? The spots they shared in north Cornwall do not attempt to and stay, in Hardy's words, 'old love's domain'. The stream and its waterfalls, the bluebell banks and the woodland walks of Valency appear quite undisturbed by time since they courted there. I noticed when my friends were with me how conversation had to make way for the silences needed for such a unique journey.

With Emma gone and old age come, Hardy had to acknowledge that St Juliot held the key to his existence. Bits of discarded stone from his restoration still lay in the churchyard, as did Emma's sister. The small fields combed with winter wheat rested safely from the sea. The day after Emma's death Hardy found her description of the place which was to be both providential and fatal:

'Scarcely any author and his wife could have had a much more romantic meeting with its unusual circumstances . . . with the beautiful sea-coast, and the wild Atlantic rolling in with its magnificent waves and spray, its white gulls and black choughs and grey puffins, its cliffs and rocks and gorgeous sunsettings sparkling redness in a track widening from the horizon to the shore. All this should be seen in the winter to be truly appreciated.'

As well as to Valency I would walk along the crest of Beeny Cliff towards Crackington Haven. Beeny was where Hardy set the first cliffhanger, when he makes a young intellectual in A Pair of Blue Eyes hang by his fingertips from wet shale above a boiling sea. The Cornish cliffs rise to their nerve-racking zenith at Beeny, which is no place for the vertiginous. A girl (Emma) eventually hauls her unloving 'lover' to safety. It is a great scene.

Boscastle, just under St Juliot, also had its appeal. It had not quite lost its workaday roots when sailing ships would be towed into its swan-necked natural harbour to be loaded with Delabole slate. The gloss of tourism never quite smooths away the industrial grittiness of Cornwall, as harshly toiling a place as one could find anywhere.

One of my friend's moves - he was the poet and novelist James Turner - took him and his wife to their own 'Valency', a secluded farmhouse near Wadebridge where unseen brooks could be heard coursing through the trees and there was never a minute during the year when wild flowers were not in bloom. The formidable Miss Seward, who had re-introduced camomile lawns, lived nearby in a low-set cottage whose tiny rooms were filled with birdsong and the sound of rushing water. It was from here that I was to discover north Cornwall's exhilarating wilderness, Bodmin Moor.

The approach to a great moor is one of the excitements of travelling. Mine to Bodmin was via St Breward and Altarnun. Admiration for moorland is a modern notion; traditionally there was never a good word to say for them. Travellers needed to have a hard time, now and then, and crossing Bodmin Moor could be proof of their nerve. They peopled it with horrors and shut their eyes to its loveliness.

The moor's twin peaks are Rough Tor and Brown Willy, and these crests must have been the holy mountains of neolithic Cornishmen, whose huts and hearths and cromlechs are scattered all around them. Wild horses shelter where they must have stood out of the wind. Far off the Atlantic is cameoed in distant bays. Nearby is Cornwall's only inland lake, Dozmary, the tarn from whose depths a hand caught King Arthur's sword, Excalibur.

But my romance was with the early dwellers on this granite platform, who were clearly careful to put the boggy downs between themselves and the terrible sea, and who must have been folk of wonderful perspectives and clarity of vision. When I find traces of this old society, I don't so much think of what it fed on as what it sang. Rails for the tinners' trucks remind me of another race of Cornish highlanders, and their liberating songs - by the Wesley brothers.

Rough, rude and elevating, Bodmin Moor with its strong scents and racing air has marked me for life. Just mentioning it makes me long to walk there again, and then to the raging January shore, and finally to Treneague to see the mild lanes and the hart's-tongue fern curling from the banks. There are special compensations for covering the same ground.

TRAVEL NOTES

WALKS AND PLACES TO VISIT: Tintagel castle ruins (c 1145), said to be the birth- place of King Arthur, stand on an isolated rock, surrounded by the sea. In the centre of Tintagel village look out for the Old Post Office, a weather worn 14th-century manor house with tumble roof.

Walking south from Bude along the south-west peninsula coastal path (it stretches 515 miles from Minehead in Somerset to Studland in Dorset), climb over High Cliff, the highest point on the Cornish coast, and Beeny Cliff to the small fishing village of Boscastle with its National Trust owned harbour. Behind Boscastle, walk up through the wooded Valency Valley to Thomas Hardy's St Juliot. On the six mile stretch from Portquin to Polzeath look out for Pentire Point, Rumps Point with its cliff castle, Lundy Bay and Doyden Castle, a 19th century folly.

Walking north from Bude along Crooklets Beach and Northcott Mouth over Maer Cliff you will reach Sandy Mouth, Duckpool and Morwenstow. Further up the coast is the picturesque fishing village of Clovelly with its 14th-century harbour and cobbled streets.

Dozmary Pool on Bodmin Moor, close to Jamaica Inn at Bolventor, immortalised by Daphne Du Maurier, is the silent tarn said to be the lake where Arthur cast his sword, Excalibur. Du Maurier once said: 'I may determine to write a light romance. But I go for a walk on a moor, and see a twisted tree and a pile of granite shines beside a deep, dark pool and Jamaica Inn is born.' The inn is a thriving roadside hostelry and nearby Altarnun is also worth a visit, with its 15th- century bridge and church that has become known as the 'Cathedral of the Moors'.

Launceston, dominated by its Norman castle, stormed four times during the Civil War and dubbed the 'Northern Gateway' to Cornwall, was once its capital.

RESTAURANTS AND HOTELS: *Trebrea Lodge, Trenale, Tintagel, tel: 0840 770410. Meals with local ingredients served in an oak-panelled room. pounds 14 a head. Bedrooms with fine views across fields to the sea in the distance. Double pounds 60.

*Port Gaverne Hotel, Portgaverne, nr Port Isaac, tel: 0208 880244. Cosy rooms with sea views. pounds 86 a double.

PUBS AND INNS: *Napoleon, Top of the village, Boscastle, tel: 0840 250204.

*Bush, Morwenstow, near Bude, tel:

0288 83242.

*Listed in Egon Ronay Guides.

FURTHER INFORMATION: For further details about the area contact North Cornish Tourist Officer, 3-5 Barn Lane, Bodmin, Cornwall PL3 1LZ, tel: 0208 74121.

Isobel Hunt

Next week - A Writer's Britain: Jane Gardam visits Cleveland, 'the land of cliffs, great red-brown warriors as far as the eye can see . . .'

(Photographs and map omitted)

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