Whispering palm trees, booming Atlantic surf, reliable sunshine ... no wonder Brian Jackman can't wait to return to the Cornwall he adores
Growing up in suburban Surrey after the war, I knew there was a wilder world out there beyond the surrounding sea of rooftops. A world where palm trees whispered in the breeze and basking sharks cruised beneath the cliffs in waters bluer than the Caribbean.
This I had discovered because my father worked for the Southern Railway. Every year, he was given privilege tickets that allowed him to take us on holiday anywhere in Britain at no expense. So, while my childhood friends spent their summers at easy-to-reach South Coast resorts such as Bognor and Littlehampton — this was long before the advent of package tours and cheap flights, when the Mediterranean was still a rich man's playground — we travelled by steam train to Britain's own Cote d'Azur: Cornwall.
The highlight of my year was the day we set off for our family hols from London's Paddington station on the flagship service of GWR (God's Wonderful Railway, to its aficionados), the six-hour Cornish Riviera Express to Penzance. In the golden age of steam its elegant chocolate-and-cream carriages were hauled by King Class and Castle Class locomotives, painted a glossy Brunswick Green and gleaming with polished brass. Since my father was a railwayman, he would speak to the driver and I would be allowed on the footplate for a few precious moments as the fireman shovelled coal into the engine's blazing maw.
Afterwards, standing in the corridor, nose glued to the window, I waited for the longed-for moment when the first glimpse of the sea appeared at Dawlish, framed by the red cliffs of South Devon. Then, as the train raced on to Plymouth and beyond, my mother would open our picnic lunch. Chicken sandwiches — such a treat in post-war Britain, when the only other time we ever ate chicken was on Christmas Day.
On we went, huffing and puffing up Dainton Bank, talking to the rails as we picked up speed with a tum-ti-tum rhythm past the Dart at Totnes.
Crossing the Tamar on Brunel's mighty Royal Albert Bridge felt like travelling out of England into another country. Then, finally, the line wound its way around the coast, high above Carbis Bay and Porthminster Beach until there it lay with its feet in the sea, the loveliest fishing port in the world.
This was the St Ives that had attracted generations of painters, drawn like moths to its pure Atlantic sea light in which everything — the painted boats, the pink hydrangeas, the green and purple waves — seemed twice as colourful. From Turner and Whistler to the present-day masters, all were bewitched by its luminosity, dazzled by the reflective power of the encircling ocean.
What held me in thrall was its uniquely higgledy-piggledy nature, a salt-encrusted barnacle of a town so totally different from my tame and orderly suburban home, a Cornish kasbah of granite steps and lime-washed cottages with sudden glimpses of the sea, where the streets had names like Barnawoon and locals addressed you as "my 'andsome". I would make a beeline to the lifeboat slipway where, next door to the 14th-century Sloop Inn, stood Hart's Ice Cream Parlour and its splendid sign: "Hart's Ice Cream. Often Licked. Never Beaten."
Days were spent on the white-shell sands of Porthmeor, with my father in his one-piece black woollen bathing costume showing me how to catch the waves on a plywood surfboard. There were no boogie boards in those days; no rashies or wetsuits to keep you warm. While my parents snoozed in hired deckchairs, I would lie on a towel and enjoy the delicious feeling of the sun drying the salty water on my back while herring gulls wailed like souls above the town's lichen-scabbed rooftops.
One year, we forsook St Ives and lived for a week on a farm in Rocky Valley between Tintagel and Bossiney Cove, where the little River Trevillet tumbles down to the sea in a series of spectacular waterfalls. By day I went butterflying, trying to catch silver-washed fritillaries as they basked on wild flowers at the water's edge; and when bats flitted around the farm outbuildings at dusk, I fell asleep to the sound of owls in the woods.
Another time, we stayed at Polzeath on the Camel estuary. The taxi that took us from Wadebridge station drove straight on to the beach to show us the breakers rolling in before depositing us at the wooden chalet we had rented for the fortnight. Nightingales sang on its roof every night, and the stream made its way through a jungle of cow parsley and yellow iris down to the sands where, as I walked barefoot in its braided shallows, small dabs skittered away from under my toes.
Because we went to Cornwall only in summer, it seemed to be a place where the sun always shone. In those days, even in the peak holiday season, the acres of sand between Pentire and the Greenaway were almost empty; just a few families scattered on each side of the bay, with beach towels and picnic baskets spread out on the rocks.
The rocks themselves provided endless hours of exploration. Bristling with limpets and clusters of mussels, their shallow pools held all kinds of mysteries, from sea anemones with waving tentacles to shore crabs, blennies and darting prawns with translucent bodies. Elsewhere, beachcombing expeditions revealed hidden tidelines where small cowrie shells lay, and bigger pools deep enough to swim in.
On later visits to St Ives, as I grew older, I would leave my parents on Porthmeor beach, buy a pasty and a bottle of lemonade and forsake the coast, following the foxglove lanes into the moors of West Penwith, where the wind sings in the telephone wires above a pagan world of standing stones lost in the bracken above the ocean.
At Zennor, near the sphinx-shaped promontory of Gurnard's Head, a moorland stream ran under the road. Its clear waters were alive with trout, which I tried in vain to catch by baiting a fishhook with a grasshopper and letting it slowly drift downstream.
By now, I had learned to love Cornwall in all weathers, including those days when a sudden sea fret comes rolling in over the hedge banks. So much so that even at night, alighting at Bodmin Station, I can identify that ineluctable smell, perhaps of the Atlantic not so far off, and the acid odours of the ancient moor by which I would know Cornwall with my eyes shut.
Nowadays in summer — perhaps even this one — the whole county is heaving with holiday visitors, the beaches filled with striped windbreaks. Yet the magic is as strong as ever, the feeling of the land running out and the sea taking over as you follow the sun on its westward journey. When I go back to St Ives, come rain or shine, everything is as I remember it: the crying gulls, the booming surf, the smell of hot pasties in the sand-blown lanes, and Godrevy Lighthouse standing guard on the rim of the bay.
In a lifetime of travel I've been lucky enough to have explored some of the world's great coastlines, from Lamu and Zanzibar to the shell-strewn sands of Mozambique; and from the coral cays of Belize to the whale-rich waters of Canada's Great Bear Rainforest shores. But none has given me greater pleasure than when I set out, going west with the light to revisit the Poldark coves of West Penwith.
Cornwall will always be my land, the one that made me who I am. If life's a beach, mine should be enclosed in granite and washed by thundering Atlantic rollers. And that is why I can't wait to go back, as soon as I am able.
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- Telegraph Group Ltd