Category Archives: Cornwall

s l e e p e r

[ 23:56 monday 8 november – shipton street, london ]

i wrote this four weeks ago. the final sentence, in retrospect, is ironic and slightly forlorn.

[ 21:53 monday 11 october – first great western train from hayle to paddington ]

i’m on my way back to london after spending the weekend in cornwall. leaving this remote limb of britain always provokes a slight lump in my throat, a gentle yearning. we are all imprinted in some way by the environment in which we spend our childhood but some places seem prone to leave a stronger mark than others. my (wholly subjective) impression is that cornwall is located at the more affecting end of the spectrum. the identity of many of my friends who grew up in cornwall seems to remain in some way anchored to its landscapes, climate and culture long after their lives take them elsewhere.

at a quarter before midnight on friday evening i checked into my cabin on the sleeper train at paddington. this is only the second time i’ve travelled on the service, the fist being in spring 1999 when i was living on the island of st agnes. on that occasion i recall a rather splendid dalliance kept me from my cabin until the final hour of the journey so i arrived in penzance exhausted and slept the whole journey by ship to the islands. traveling on this sleeper is overpoweringly nostalgic. arriving on the platform one is greeted by uniformed train officials standing outside every carriage with documents, a much larger crew than any other train service i’ve used. stepping into the train feels like entering a museum of 1970s british industrial socialism. the rolling stock was financed, constructed and brought into service in that period; fully in the state sector of course. somehow it has carried on ever since despite the intervening privatisation and general rendering-down of the railways. it is hard to believe this is a profitable service. i can only imagine that enough politicians with constituencies in devon and cornwall find the sleeper convenient to ensure a nice subsidy is maintained.

the cabins are all formica surfaces and sturdy cast steel fittings. everything has a chunky engineered feel to it. it doesn’t scream “design” in the way contemporary rolling stock tends to but all the details are pleasingly resolved. i like the clothes hangers built into the wall, integrated with elastic restraining bands to stop your clothes flapping around. this is what british design used to be, before it stopped being an engineering-driven discipline and became a fashion-driven discipline. one half expects to find harold wilson puffing on his pipe in the restaurant car.

at half past seven on saturday morning a steward called tamsin tapped on my cabin door and brought in a jug of coffee and some biscuits. twenty minutes later sand dunes hove into view outside my window and the train pulled into hayle station where i alighted, to be met by anna (my sister).

the two poles of the weekend were a big family dinner on saturday night and a long coastal walk on sunday afternoon. dinner brought together my parents, my aunt jill from canada, anna and adam, sergio and myself. anna and adam won’t be in britain for christmas so the meal was slightly surreally accessorised with streamers and crackers. sergio and i braved the rain before supper to pick our way through the cowpats and gorse to the top of trencrom hill. this is a westerly outpost of the west penwith moors, a rugged windswept landscape dotted with weathered granite outcrops and stunted trees. from the top of the highest carn, buffeted by the wind and rain, we could see both coasts: the sand-fringed sweep of st ives bay stretching to godrevy to the north and st michael’s mount to the south.

on sunday we set out from lamorna cove around eleven in the morning. the strong easterly wind and a rising tide sent the swell crashing against the quay and sending plumes of spray high into the air. i find the atlantic incomparably thrilling, cold and mighty and relentless. a straggle of off-season tourists perched slightly nervously near the quay with their cameras poised, unsure how close they should advance. jill walked straight to the end of the quay and a huge roller exploded all around her. she returned grinning from ear to ear and miraculously dry.

from lamorna we walked along the coastal path to penberth, the first time i’ve covered this stretch of coast. every step was accompanied by crashing of the atlantic to our left. about half-way along we descended into a patch of ancient oak and chestnut woodland, with arum lillies peppering the ground. lowland cornwall was once covered with this habitat but today it is extremely rare. for me it is magical to be in such a place. under the canopy formed by the trees, their lichen-covered branches formed into a smooth mantle by the wind, everything was bathed in a damp greenish half-light and the roar of the sea was muffled. in places such as this i have a sense of enormous spans of time.

later on, at porthcurno, we ate pasties sheltering from the rain under the cliff whilst the rollers crashed against the beach. jill ventured to the shoreline and this time she get soaked. we found a slow-worm on the beach, just twenty centimetres long with a lustrous golden skin. maybe he had fallen from the cliff, certainly the sand is not his favourite habitat. as i held him in my hand he twisted around my fingers, as if fearful of falling, and pressed the side of his head against me, his tiny black tongue darting in and out against my skin. we carried him up the beach and placed him in some grass where he darted off.

my life is bursting with unshared stories. i am absorbed in trampoline to the exclusion of almost everything else. previously i believed it was just a question of finding time to write these despatches, but i now realise the reflection that underlies the writing is equally important; and it is this that i lack. my days are given to the ceaseless demands of my business. it is thrilling. but having achieved a near-perfect balance in my way of living between 1999 and 2003 it pains me to recognise how unbalanced my life is become. yet this is what i chose, in full consciousness, and through this imbalance i am achieving things i could achieve no other way.

in the last few months we have brought several more people into the team, and have moved the company’s office out of my house into a rather splendid neo-classical pile off old street. week by week the momentum is increasing.

a month ago i was in japan with christian and kumi. i have 400 photographs to show for this and a half-written wanderer despatch. two similarly half-written despatches from sicily were lost when my computer was stolen from a train between florence and milan in july. a further half-written despatch describes these losses. somehow i have to learn new habits which permit me to write and send these things, rather than having them fester unfinished on my computer. possibly i should try to write briefer observations rather than the rambling descriptives towards which i seem inclined.

with perfect timing my train is now arriving into paddington. this message, at least, is complete.

peace to all : c*

e o y s t e r

[ 00:29 monday 16 april – bodgriggy street , hayle , cornwall ]

this evening i cycled to gwithian towans and scrambled down the cliff onto the sand . there was hardly anyone around . perhaps a dozen people visible along two miles of beach . earlier in the day i’d been walking with my family at land’s end and the sky was overcast . here it was quite different , a soaring blue mingling with violets and ochres as the sun closed to the horizon .

i felt fully awake for the first time in days , running along the tide line as my shadow grew longer on the firm white sand . the light was gorgeous , my camera gorged itself .

oh it is so hard to leave this place for london .

but of course i must . my main focus at the moment is the recruitment of a software engineer to work for six months on learning web , the partnership established between circus foundation and the school for social entrepreneurs . we need someone experienced in messaging systems , able to manage themselves and highly inventive .

i’m sending out a card with this despatch (you’ll need adobe acrobat reader to open it) . if you know any software engineers who might be interested i’d be very grateful if you could send it in their direction . we need to engage someone in the next couple of weeks .

learning web will be the first practical implementation based on the “trampoline” concepts which i first outlined eighteen months ago in the isles of scilly . i feel frustrated with myself that it has taken so damn long to reach this point . i could scarcely have wished for stronger support from those around me . james smith has patiently championed the project within sse and helped win resources to get it moving . it was he who pressed me to return to london for six months , itself a crucial step . craig mcmillan has provided the discipline of a technical perspective and a genius for drawing coherence from my incoherence . warren langley has helped me steer my thinking from a vision towards a venture .

each day i awaken wondering if i am about to discover that someone else has brought a technology to market which embodies everything i envisaged . it’s horrible . i would rather be completely wrong then be completely right yet too slow . but until one or other of these conclusions becomes manifest i shall plod on as best i can .

my first contact with the school for social entrepreneurs came about in consequence of an interview i read with michael young (lord young of dartington) on a flight to meet kirmo kivela in helsinki back in 1997 . i knew nothing of him prior to this . since getting involved with the school i’ve been able to spend a bit time with him .

while i was in ghana i realised how much i wanted to continue learning from michael (who is now 85) . a couple of weeks ago i finally plucked up the courage to ask if he would agree to be a mentor to me . he agreed on condition that i teach him to use a computer and the internet , which i suspect is going to be a nightmare . but , as warren commented , i still got a good deal !

during my time as a student michael gave me a copy of his first major piece of social research : “family and kinship in east london” , which he wrote in bethnal green during the early fifties . it’s a wonderful book , farsighted in its analysis and overflowing with humanity . michael is currently completing a sequel , looking at the same neighbourhood fifty years later . he’s asked me to contribute a section describing the influx of young information-sector professionals into the area and its impact . it will not be easy to write with clarity about a phenomenon of which i am so conspicuously a part .

as soon as i decided to come and live in london for these six months i decided i would give up smoking pot for the period . i’ve smoked it intermittently since i left cambridge and , dare i say , enjoyed it a lot . the first week of abstinence was not very successful as i kept finding excuses to make exceptions . but after that i’m happy to say it’s been no effort at all . i’ve a sneaking suspicion my libido has expanded to fill the gap , but it’s probably best not to dwell on that …

i’m sitting here in anna and adam’s sitting room typing away by the light of the lamp i had made for their wedding . mum and dad are staying here as well .

happy easter everyone

: cH

e x e u n t

07:58 saturday 12 february – steamship company office , hugh town quay , st mary’s

i sit here keeping out of the way of the frenetic ballet of forklifts on the quay outside . the gry came in yesterday afternoon with a full load . as i walked round to keith’s yard at porthmellon one of the steamship company directors commented to me that he’d never seen her so low in the water .

there are still stacks of flower boxes waiting on the quay to be loaded . i reckon she might be an hour later than the scheduled eight o’clock sailing time . no matter . i am content to sit and observe .

ian is phoning round the islands letting them know the lyonesse lady’s revised movements . there’s so much freight to despatch that she’ll have to take it in two runs .

the sky is grey and troubled but for the present the wind is not too severe . ian says it’ll rise over the next two hours .

everybody looks at me as if i’m mad when i tell them i’m going over on the gry . it has a reputation for being less than the most comfortable way to travel between here and penzance , particularly in rough weather . it has been known to take seven or eight hours in a heavy sea . but today there should be a following wind and swell , even if they are a little on the large side . people seem to regard it as some kind of ultimate sea-sickness endurance challenge . because she has a shallow drought and the wheelhouse is up forward the motion can be quite unpleasant . i’ve never succumbed in the past and rather hope to avoid it today .

ian’s just handed me the latest weather fax from the met office . southwest force 7 or gale force 8 with the strongest winds around the isles of scilly . sea state rough to very rough . hehe !

10:09 – gry maritha , a couple of miles out from scilly

i was eventually called at twenty past nine and hurried down the quay. i threw my bags onto the deck then grabbed the rail and heaved myself up . we slipped berth five minutes later . the sky has cleared . we are rolling about quite a bit .

10:19 in the last couple of minutes the ship’s motion has changed noticeably . we rise up and down each wave more steeply . the hull judders as we pitch into each one and there is a constant swish of spray breaking across the deck . my rucksack falls over in the cabin as i write .

10:26 i went out on deck and was confused to find the islands already out of sight to stern . then i poked my head over the rail , looked forward , and there they were . i blinked and checked again . but we were definitely heading * towards * the islands . no wonder i sensed a change of motion . i went down to the mess where the crew was variously sitting and lying with cups of tea . i enquired why we were going back . to drop me off , they teased , to answer some tricky questions for the police . but it turned out a fuel line had burst , spraying diesel all over the engine room .

this creates a slight problem for me . at two o’clock a van will be delivered to the quay at penzance for me to drive all my stuff up to my parents in gloucestershire . i need to be there to brandish my licence and sign some papers . i’ll phone and try to delay it .

12:05 we have just cast off from st mary’s quay for the second time today , having arrived three quarters of an hour ago . it felt earie to be returned like this having bade the islands farewell . the fuel line couldn’t be repaired and the decision has been made to proceed to penzance anyway . could be a slow journey .

13:58 no land in sight from the main deck , though there probably would be if i climbed up to the wheelhouse . we have passed out of signal range for my mobile phone . following a flurry of calls to the penzance harbour office , the steamship company office and the van rental company i am left with very little idea whether there will be a vehicle waiting for me , and whether its keys will be locked in an office somewhere .

there is nothing more i can do . the crew gave me some tea and a pack of biscuits . i shall settle down to some reading .

21:32 bodriggy street , hayle , cornwall

we docked at penzance at half past five , eight hours after the initial departure from st mary’s . by this time the uncertainty regarding the van had been augmented by the possibility that my belongings were not even aboard the gry . the crew could find no trace of my two palates and bicycle in the hold . my feeling of exasperation increased a couple more notches .

but some anxious communications with st mary’s drew assurance that they had been loaded into a big steel container on deck , though this would not be confirmed until we arrived in port .

the quay was crammed with articulated lorries waiting to collect shipments of flowers from the islands to deliver across the country . we drew in , lines were thrown , i leapt across with my rucksack , my powerbook , my camera , my saxophone . as the holds were being opened i scuttled up to the steamship company office , where i found a waiting van . but no keys in evidence . and nobody around . i returned to the quay to find the first of my palettes and my bicycle unloaded . encouraged by this i went back for another search of the parked van . the keys were tucked in the sun visor . i suddenly felt a lot lighter .

i drove down to the quay , tore the plastic wrap off my palettes and transferred everything into the van . three children emerged and started firing a stream of questions at me : where had i come from where was i going could they come with me what was in the boxes why were all the lorries on the quay what was it like to ride in a ship ?

i shouted my thanks to the master of the gry and made the twenty minute drive here , the home of my sister anna and her husband adam . i’ll continue up to my parents tomorrow afternoon . so what was the voyage like ? well the sea was big and ship rolled around a lot , but to be honest there was nothing very exciting about it and at no point did i feel even the tiniest bit queasy . almost a sense of anti-climax . but this was the right way for me to leave the islands .

: cH

t u r n

08:34 friday 31 december , penzance heliport

a thick fog shrouds land and sea . it has just been announced that there will be no service until visibiity improves . anna and adam waved a bleary farewell from their doorway in hayle just forty minutes ago .

the spirit will be waiting against hugh town quay shortly after eleven . i’ll be able to meet her so long as a flight departs from here by 10:30 .

this shall be my last crossing to the islands for the forseeable future .

21:47- rosevear , st agnes

just about to don my costume and walk down to the island hall . i was planning to lift some remarkable seventies clothes from my parents but was mortified to discover they had all been sent to jumble over the last year . so we cobbled together a sort of psychadelic african guise . could catch on …

the helicopter was delayed an hour by the fog , but i made it . had a chance to catch up with nick lishman on st mary’s . the first time i’ve seen him since the workshop was founded . lots to sort out for the next month .

some of my friends are already in the next millennium . my turn will come soon , and other friends a little later . there is a great sense of a sphere rotating majestically , a perimeter between lght and dark sweeping across a rounded surface .

the afternoon was clear , with wonderful vivid light .

chin chin everyone

see you next time

: cH

t w e a k i n g

991001.1550 hayle station , cornwall

three slightly ragged young girls , no older than seven or eight , were sitting on a fence as i wound my way here through the council estates . i pointed to a path forking off to the left and asked if it led to the station . < police ? > asked one of them brightly . she looked non-plussed when i explained that it was actually the * railway * station i was after .

23:54 sunday 3 october – watermill , st mary’s

i arrived back in the islands yesterday evening feeling refreshed and focused . i’ve been working for most of the time since then and enjoying it more than i have done for ages . anna and adam looked after me in hayle for a couple of days and i took the opportunity to visit dr randolph white in truro , an early mentor of whom i have not seen enough in recent years . it feels as though i’m back on some kind of track .

on friday night a trawler was lost off peninnis head , the jagged southern tip of st mary’s , in high wind and sea . she struck rock while most of her crew were asleep below deck , sinking so fast there was barely time to send up a flare . one soul was lost , a pendeen man on his first voyage , leaving a wife and two children . the lifeboat found the rest clinging to a gas tank in the water . these tragedies are felt closely .

the islands are windy , cold and beset by flurries of rain and hail . a lifestyle based in tent and stable becomes uncomfortable in such conditons . i am grateful for my great aunt ethel’s eiderdown which keeps me from chill . but as i sat writing in the workshop last night with hailstones bouncing on the papers and machinery around me i had a sense that it might be time to move on .

happily for me johann has had a cancellation and i will be able to move into rosevear , the house on agnes in which he was born , any time after next weekend . heaven forbid i should ever take solid walls , a watertight roof and ( gasp ! ) an oil-fired range for granted again . i expect to be joined sometime in mid november by nik shultz , an interactive designer from san francisco who will be working in the islands until easter . perhaps i mentioned that already ? quite a funky little hub of digital industry !

my last gloomy despatch provoked quite a range of responses , from a lovely account of endurance running in the scottish hills to plain old worry ( i’m okay mum , honest ) . i was grateful for them all . but i still don’t understand what mr godfrey from dad’s army has to do with it . perhaps you could explain , alistair ?

on the basis of people’s feedback it’s clear that i must abandon the practice of sending photos as email attachments . from now on i’ll stick them on the web and include a reference to the address .

oh , and i’ve decided to change the way i mark date and time in these despatches , as sharp-eyed readers will have noticed . my minimalist rows of numerals came to seem unnecesarily clinical .

having resolved to describe my project i’m trying to work out how .

so from me , adieu

: cH

r e v i e w

990925.1441 par station , cornwall

this is bleak . the rain is steady but lacks conviction . it barely raises a patter on the victorian roof , bulbous with a century’s grey gloss .

i sit on a wooden bench on which i already feel uncomfortable , though i have been here just a few minutes . in front of me is the asphalt platform . beyond that the rusting tracks , crowded with weeds , and a patch of dead land littered with old cable reels , palettes and concrete pipes . i hear a distant motor and the splosh of broken guttering . down the line a cluster of tall chimneys exhales pale grey vapour . a few transients loiter about me . nobody smiles .

perhaps i descibe myself as much as my environment ? if my state of mind were different would i find beauty here ?

the bristol train draws in , almost deserted . i board .

so this is to be another self-indulgent essay . i feel a growing frustration with my banal commentary . somewhere i lost the point of this exercise . when was the last time i tried to say something difficult ? how can i have spoken so little of my work ? there has been an occasional reference to a gloomy day , but almost as a formal exercise , a gesture . there seems to be little exploration , little creativity at work .

when i began this , back in the icy bluster of february , it was a simple matter . i was embarking on a new adventure and these despatches were a way of reporting back to a small group of friends , a thread between familiar and unfamiliar . i remember my excitement in those first weeks , returning from moonlit walks by the crashing rollers and struggling to convey the intensity of what i was feeling . no doubt the results would make me blush if i read them now , but my heart was in them .

then , as the audience grew and came to include people in the islands , the picture became less clear . i found myself growing circumspect and self-conscious , sensing constraints in what i could say . slowly i have caged myself in , become content with mundane reportage . until i find myself at this present point with nothing to discuss but the discussion . something must change . but i don’t yet know what or how .

.1640 virgin train , teignmouth , devon

the track runs along the red sandstone cliffs . far out at sea a beam of sunlight breaks through the heavy cloud and catches a solitary yacht’s sail , a brilliant white beacon between the lead grey of ocean and sky .

– – –

991001.0126 bodriggy terrace , hayle , cornwall

five days since my last writing . it has been a hard time . the questioning continues , seeping through my thoughts and activities . i don’t know where it’s leading .

but i think i must try to describe my project .

: cH

t w e n t y – e i g h t

990917.1527 scillonia digital workshop , st mary’s

here i am with mum ( on the right ) and her sister jill from canada . it’s thirteen minutes past five on my birthday . we’re on gwithian towans , a three-mile-long fringe of fine sand around st ives bay on cornwall’s north coast . we’ve just been swimming . the water’s not too cold and there’s just enough surf for bodyboarding .

later on we went out for supper , along with my sister anna , her husband adam and my old friend henry whom i’ve known since we were students together at truro school . i had a plate of lovely plump scallops . sadly dad couldn’t join us because of work .

for the first time email greetings outnumbered paper ones . and a couple of much valued phone calls ( you know who you are ! ) .

thanks everyone . i had a terrific day .

: cH

u p c o u n t r y

990424.1323 penzance , cornwall

at a table in a little diesel train beneath the arched roof of brunel’s terminal station , the very end of the great western railway . oh . the train stalls . a toddler across the aisle expresses his fear that we’re going to blow up . pre-millennial tension ?

the engine fires up again , a whistle blows , punctual departure .

as we trundle out into the sunshine the tops of sails are visible over the wall which separates the line from mount’s bay . perfect conditions . how i wish …

with every month i find it harder to leave the islands . this morning , as the little plane ascended and the familiar landscapes slid away beneath me , i found myself quite emotional . we flew over the scillonian ( the steamer linking the islands and penzance ) , coming into the eastern isles on a glittering azure sea . it’s a beautiful day .

excitement on thursday evening . gaz phoned to ask if i felt like coming to supper on st mary’s , to which i replied that i’d love to but there were no more boats . so he persuaded his friend phil , a diver , to nip over in his rib ( rigid inflatable boat ) to pick me up . after a quick pint in the turk’s head we sped back . the journey took less than ten minutes , skimming and bouncing over the swell . most exhilarating .

on my way back to agnes yesterday morning i saw a couple of gigs being winched off the scillonian in preparation for the world championship next weekend . which reminds me , i didn’t hear how shah , the agnes gig , fared in yesterday evening’s inter-island race . murray and aidan hicks were teaching me billiards in the island games room while their brother ross was rowing his heart out . billiards is an elegant game . a shame it’s been eclipsed by snooker . aidan , who is about ten , thrashed me soundly .

we’re just leaving camborne . it looks as if something’s on today . from the train i could see the silver band and festive-looking crowds . the driver’s got something relaying through the intercom now . can’t really imagine that happening on an english commmuter line .

: cH

y o o t

990312.1141 st erth railway station , cornwall

sitting here on platform 2 waiting for the plymouth train . a bright fresh morning . my only companions on the platform are six young hooligans , sitting on the backs of the benches , passing a fag between them , spitting on the tracks .

when i made towards the benches one of them challenged me < no yi caan’t join us > in a strong scouse accent . the others cackled and looked on expectantly . i continued without breaking step and replied to the one who had spoken < yeah , i’m gutted about that > . dropped my rucksacks and sat down . pulled out my psion and started to write .

the boys slid from their perches and swarmed about me . < whassat ? > < he’s got a computer > < how much did that cost you ? > < i had one of those but it gor nicked > < that’s a pee ess eye owe enn innit ? > . i chatted with them while we waited for the train . the liverpudlian kid , clearly the leader of this little fellowship , was a bright chap . he claimed to be a hacker , having learned it from his father , and it’s possible he was telling the truth . i suggested that coming to cornwall from liverpool must be quite a change . he said it certainly was , that the quiet was unnatural and hard to bear . < yi can only hear the pigs and animals , it drives me nots > .

it turned out they’d all walked from penzance that morning , a good eight miles i’d say . they were trying to get back to truro , another ten or more miles hence , and intended to hide in the train heads . they claimed that one of their number had lost the tickets bought tickets the day before .

so the train arrived , a local two-carriage diesel heading up to cardiff . they slunk into the loo and locked the door . the provision of wheelchair-friendly facilities means that that six average prepubescents can comfortably be accommodated .

the guard caught them just after the train left redruth , the last stop before truro . they got away with a stern reprimand , their journey accomplished . at truro station they barged through the tutting and eye-rolling passengers , sprinting victoriously down the platform and off into the world .

what will become of them i wonder ? they are sufficiently bright and tough to defy the state education system if they choose . and they probably will . they will be able to get unskilled jobs in the service sector or as seasonal labourers . but employers are able to get away with paying insulting wages here and some people see more dignity in the dole or chancing it in one of the various illegal professions .

i wished them luck , and wished there was more i could do .  i flew over from st mary’s in the helicopter yesterday afternoon . the islands were sunk in a thick fog . john peacock made a special journey from agnes for me , cutting through the still dark water with rocks and islands appearing and disappearing around us . the flight was a strange , disembodied journey . just the vibration of the rotor and the suffocating featureless white outside the windows .

there is a feeling of preparation , of awakening , in hughtown . on every street one sees people up ladders , cleaning windows , polishing brasswork , painting woodwork . easter brings the first surge of visitors and their cheque-books . often the weather is idyllic , with clear skies , bright sun and still a sense of freshness in the air . but nothing can be taken for granted .

as soon as i landed at penzance my phone bleeped to announce a text message from ross in sydney , sent a few hours earlier . he was setting off for work round about the time i was turning in after a chilled evening with anna adam adam nikki and their friends in hayle . today we sent messages back and forth all morning , until ross went to bed about an hour ago ( it’s now .1336 and we’re crossing brunel’s superb tamar bridge ) . i’m cut off from this uniquely immediate mode of communication in the islands and it’s always a rush to have it restored .

my new nikon tranny scanner arrived at the farm yesterday , carried up from the post office by johann , just as i was walking out . that made it even harder to leave .

: cH