We were largely unsuccessful on all our previous seal-spotting trips during our week in Cornwall. We’d seen a couple, far away from shore, bobbing around and sunning their faces, but for the most part we were left disappointed.
We’d become a bit obsessed with seals after spending an afternoon in the summer watching them through a telescope off Lizard Point. That was the right season to see them though, of course. Nevertheless, we went back to Lizard Point in late November to try our luck.
We were the only people there.
Somewhat disheartened, I decided to go the fish-in-a-barrel approach instead and drove us over to a seal sanctuary which did not disappoint.
It turned what was a miserable afternoon into one of the best of the week because, let’s be honest, seals are funny as fuck.
The sanctuary is essentially a seal rehabilitation centre. They have a hospital where any seals found to be in trouble off the coast are brought in to be treated and healed, and they also provide homes to any former zoo animals or otherwise injured animals that would unfortunately no longer survive if released back into the wild.
Our favourite was Ray. Many of the permanent residents had plaques with information about them and their lives on and Ray’s story was that he was found off the coast with a severe head injury, presumably caught up in bad weather and slammed against Cornwall’s jagged coast line. They said he was brought in but suffered brain damage so he needed some extra help from the staff but he was loved by the vets and other seals alike. It said you could spot him quite easily because he acted very different to the other seals.
We couldn’t stop laughing after looking over the barrier to see a seal flat on his belly on a step, face half-submerged in the water, just blowing bubbles and insistently making weird noises to himself. That was Ray. The special seal.
A lot of the other seals had damage to their eyes. Apparently, in the wild, when they’re feeding, it is not uncommon for them to be attacked by seagulls trying to steal what they catch. They peck their eyes out, which easily become infected, and then they’re brought to the sanctuary to heal up. It was quite sad how many were missing eyes or were completely blind, but they were no less playful despite that fact.
On our way round, we were stopped at one point by a woman doing a survey about visitor experiences in the winter. She was lovely and really helpful and gave us tips on where we might be able to see more seals in the wild at this time of year. She mentioned the Godrevy coast, across the Carbis Bay from St. Ives. Saying goodbye to our seal pals, we went there next.
By the time we arrived at the Godrevy coast, the weather was taking another turn for the worse. We walked some of the way along to the Godrevy lighthouse and saw two seals relaxing on the beach but little else.
As the sun was descending rapidly, we decided to turn back, making our way to Urbanomic HQ and thinking we should bring Robin back with us the next day before our long drive back to London.
The next day, Robin did join us. He fantasised about moving to the Godrevy lighthouse to become a lighthouse keeper — “for the psychological challenge” more than anything.
We climbed the hill, heading to the furthest end of the headland where we were told there were some 150 seals basking on the beach in a little colony.
We assumed that 150 was an exaggeration.
There were signs everywhere asking for silence. Any sudden movement or loud noise could make the seals think their cove was unsafe and scare them away for good.
After watching them for some time, with binoculars and through whispers, we descended to a seal-free beach on the other side of the point before scrambling across the jagged rocks back to our car, with Robin commenting on the strata along the way.
Heading back inland, we stopped for lunch to warm us back off and later said our goodbyes, driving back to London in heavy rain and fog. It was a miserable journey.
We’ve been quietly looking at jobs and houses in Cornwall ever since we got back.
On our trip to St. Michael’s Mount we ended up signing up for National Trust membership. We’d never thought about the benefits before but, realising that we tend to go to National Trust properties a lot when escaping London every other Sunday, we realised that it would actually be very much worth our while.
With our new memberships in hand, we decided to spent yet another rainy day in Cornwall being shown around another old house. This time we went to the Godolphin estate.
It had very strong folk horror vibes and is also supposedly home to the oldest walled garden in Western Europe, according to archaeologists. Our guide mostly told us all about how much of a fuck-up the place was. It had been a prominent estate at one point, home to some very important lord, but the groundskeepers over the years had done very strange things to try and keep it in shape. The National Trust has spent tens of thousands of pounds mostly undoing a load of historic bad craftsmanship.
The gardens, despite being pristine now, are also a bit of a dumping ground. Gardeners dig up archaeological treasures every week, the guide said, and showed up many of them. The site could have a museum all of its own as a microcosm of Cornish history.
Later we went to Falmouth and did a bit of seal-spotting off Pennance Point. We saw nothing but the sunset was nice.
St. Michael’s Mount
We arrived in Marazion early that morning in a high wind and at high tide. The sea was rough but we had arrived to here to skim across it.
On our last visit to Cornwall, earlier in the year, we had walked over the causeway to St. Michael’s Mount with a caravan of other tourists on a still windy but warm day, had a look around the island, but deemed the price of entry to be too much for us at that time and later walked back.
This time, the causeway was not an option, and with the weather dire we were determined to take a look inside so we opted to take the amphibious vehicle over to the island.
St. Michael’s Mount is a strange place with a complex history. Taking its name from a sighting made there of the archangel Michael, the patron saint of fishermen, back when the bay was a lush forest before rising sea levels carved out the island as we know it today. (It’s name in Cornish translates to “grey rock in the wood”.)
Later, it was a monastery and then a fortification that was a line of defence against European invaders.
During the English civil war, the castle on the mount was the scene of a battle between Parliamentarians and Royalists, with the Parliamentarians winning the position for Cromwell. However, those that took over the mount, turning it into a garrison, can’t have been too loyal to the cause. Once the monarchy was reinstated, the lord of the manor stayed put and switched sides and many royals have visited the site over the years, with the garrison turned back into a grand home and the family still living there today — albeit in an annexed wing not accessible to the public — all these centuries later.
The most interesting thing for us, I think, was how this complex history was mirrored in the layout of the castle — a labyrinthine settlement of twists and turns, updates and reconstructions, antiques and security systems. It’s like any National Trust property in that respect but the history is literally carved into the walls. It is a lasting bastion of English domestic unrest, in some respects, but the scars of that unrest are more visible here than elsewhere.
Another detail that struck me was a painting — pictured above — that seemed out of place in a hall towards the end of our guided tour, showing an old woman hunched over a book. In amongst what is essentially a grand family album of painted residents and ancestors, here is a portrait of Dolly Pentreath, thought to be the last fluent speaker of Cornish before the language effectively went extinct.
I have fond memories of talking to Robin about the Cornish language on one of my trips to Urbanomic HQ. It has seen a revival in recent years — somewhat like Wales and similarly driven by middle-class linguistic hobbyists (at least in older non-native generations: Welsh is of course taught in schools there) — but, unlike other lost British dialects, no one really knows what Cornish sounds like. We may have records of it as a written language but Dolly Pentreath, who died on Boxing Day in 1777, was arguably the last known person to know how to speak Cornish aloud.
Considering all that this castle represents, as a strategic site of English political unrest, it is interesting to see this uniquely Cornish figure tucked into one of the wings…
The day before, stopping off in Truro and running around the shops in the minutes before they closed, I decided to buy a rain coat.
I hadn’t owned one for years. I’m not sure why. It’s a Northern thing, maybe? I don’t really mind the cold. My winter coat is an old thing that has gone from fine fabric to a felt-like thing over the years that I’ve owned it.
On arriving in Cornwall, I felt an uncharacteristic urge to wrap up. The wind was fierce and the threat of rain serious. Something worthy of mountaineering felt necessary if we were to do all the coastal walks we intended to, despite the weather, and still survive.
I quickly felt like I’d made a very good decision.
On our second full day in Cornwall, it rained nonstop. We first decided to go to Land’s End but were scared off by the sheer force of the wind. Instead, we headed for St. Ives and walked its streets.
With the tourist season over, the entire town had decided to get all of its repairs out of the way. The high street was like a warzone.
We walked up the hill to St Nicholas Chapel, pictured above. This was the only photograph to come out from the day. Everything else was ruined by rain on lens and persistent fogging. Nevertheless, we saw seals from the hill to the west, overlooking the harbour, and we saw a lot of very brave surfers out at sea to the east.
I’d wanted to go and see Talland House — the one-time home of Virginia Woolf and where the bar was set for her happiness. When she would later write of a “room of one’s own”, it seems to be her room at Talland House that she remembers most fondly. However, on reading a Google review that suggested the house was down a private road, inaccessible, and with no signage identifying it and its history, I changed my mind about going to see it. Something I know regret.
I’d never realised her connection to St. Ives before this trip — our third or fourth in two years. Her time there influenced many of her novels, To The Lighthouse and The Waves most famously, but also Jacob’s Room. I started (once again) to read Hermione Lee’s biography which I’d decided to bring along for the trip and enjoyed reading her connecting of the dots between Woolf’s various descriptions of her room at Talland House, weaved into many of her books under different guises, and also the experiences of the town described by her extended family.
St. Ives is renowned for its connection to various artists and artistic movements these days but they seem to bring out a cynicism in a lot of people. For what it’s worth, Barbara Hepworth’s former studio is a nice if overpriced place to visit. However, Tate St. Ives itself is not. Leach Pottery aside, the rest of the town seems to be dedicated to the usual bland seaside tat. (“I’m a local artist… I put shells on things!”)
I was amused to read that, long before the arrival of Hepworth and co., the healthy cynicism directed towards St. Ives’ artists goes back over 100 years, with Woolf’s parents writing theirs down repeatedly.
First she quotes Woolf herself in To The Lighthouse:
But now, she said, artists had come here. There indeed, only a few paces off, stood one of them, in Panama hat and yellow boots, seriously, softly, absorbedly, for all that he was watched by ten little boys, with an air of profound contentment on his round red face, gazing, and then, when he had gazed, dipping; imbued the tip of his brush in some soft mound of green or pink. Since Mr Paunceforte had been there, three years before, all the pictures were like that she said, green and grey, with lemon-coloured sailing boats, and pink women on the beach.
It’s a passage which seems only obviously mocking in the context of Woolf’s own circle of avant-garde modernists who would no doubt look on the seriousness with which such tat is painted and scoff.
The most scathing tale comes from Julia Stephen, however — Virginia’s mother — who writes in “The Wandering Pigs”, a short story penned for her children, about three little pigs who wander around the bay and get up to mischeif. One of their encounters is also with a monkey, painting on the pier, whose response to Curly’s somewhat patronising exclamation is telling:
Curly, who was never shy, went up to see what was going on. He was quite surprised to see, on the bit of board before the monkey, the boats and their brown sails and blue sea running into the little harbour. ‘Dear me, you are very clever,’ said Curly.
‘You are very polite,’ said the monkey, looking round for a minute. ‘Are you an art critic?’
There is much more to be said about Woolf and St. Ives but, as luck would have it, it’s all recently been said, in blog form no less, over on Blogging Woolf, who visited St. Ives the weekend after we did.
Our first full day on the Cornish peninsula and the week’s last day of sunshine. We went to Roseland and walked along the coastal path before descending into a very witchy forest and reading on the beach.
I had with me a collection of short stories by Daphne du Maurier (which later felt prescient). My girlfriend had with her The Living Stones by Ithell Colquhoun (no relation). We saw seals far off in the distance and watched them through binoculars.
That evening we watched the sun go down over Pendennis Castle.
Our first day in Cornwall. We stopped off at Urbanomic HQ and Robin took us to Carn Brea to see the tiny castle, the big monolith and their bizarre neighbouring rock formations.