CHAPTER 14

 

It was Cowper’s proposed visit to Cornwall which finally tempted me.  I longed to see the waves which uncle John had described, crashing on the rocks below the cliffs of The Queen’s folly.  Mary, who assured me of her reliability, quickly found a very worthy wet–nurse for Philippe, and Mary would look after him most ably.  Anna also offered to look in from time to time. So I was ultimately weaned away from my baby in the month of September which, we had always been told, was a lovely time to be in Cornwall.  I did wonder how we could afford these journeys, as Cowper was only on half-pay. He told me he had been putting money aside, especially on his long sea voyage back to England.  “There is not much to spend on a sailing ship,” he had said, but I began to wonder if Charles was subsidising his old school friend.

Our preconceptions of the county of Cornwall had evoked: rocky coastlines; pounding white–capped waves; narrow streets; fisher folk; smuggling; tranquillity; friendliness.  We were not to be disappointed.

During the journey Cowper and I decided not to take up uncle’s letter of introduction to the Edgecumbes. A member of Court certainly, but uncle was not of high rank; ‘Lord of the Closet’ was his extraordinary title and the Edgecumbes might possibly have been condescending towards us.  Their Tudor mansion had been clearly seen when we made a rough and windy evening crossing of the river Tamar. This place where the river had been crossed for 2,000 years, was known as Cremyll, named after the hamlet on the western side of the river.  The present ferry turned out to be a none too steady boat, manned by four oarsmen, and we were thankful to arrive in one piece. The coxswain spoke so well of an inn at Cawsand known as the Old Ship that, despite the weather, we pointed the heads of our hired horses in that direction.  Struggling against the wind and the rain along the top road we reassured each other that we did not wish to risk the probable formality at Mount Edgecumbe, but on arrival at the low ceilinged, smoke-filled Inn we wondered if we had made the right decision.

The old buildings nestled up to each other on all sides so there was no approach to the rear, and our horses were taken right through a passageway in the middle of the Inn to be stabled in the small, enclosed yard. Doors led off this draughty passage and there was a rickety staircase to the upper floors.  However, once inside, the rooms, the atmosphere and the temperature improved. The food was wholesome and well cooked and on this unseasonably cold evening, a hot meal was welcome.  A good night’s sleep and a large cooked breakfast improved our opinion of the place.   The inn was over 100 years old, being built around 1703, in the time of Queen Anne.  During our stay we spent many an evening by the dim light from the fire and a couple of candles, often enjoying the salty tales, which we guessed were recounted for our benefit.  Old men declared that they had seen ‘The Little Admiral’, Lord Nelson, sitting in that very room with his lovely Emma, the Lady Hamilton.

A few nights after our arrival we were awoken by the sound of feet running down Garrett Street.  Since there was an unusual urgency about the sound, we became inquisitive and, jumping out of bed we peered through the small window of our bedroom which overlooked the narrow street.  Four or five men entered the door of the inn which was quickly shut.  Another man, apparently in hot pursuit, rounded the corner just in time to witness this and knocked loudly on the door.  Someone obviously kept him talking on the step, until another two joined him.  Whilst this was going on we heard soft movements above our heads which could only be in the rafters. Finally, the men (customs officers, we assumed) entered the inn, so we returned to bed but the sounds above the ceiling persisted. After a while voices from below, led us to think that the pursuers were leaving the inn. As the ring of their heavy boots passed under our window we heard them say: “I know they went into The Ship – I saw ’em.”

“Where did they go then? –  They can’t just melt into thin air?”

The sound of their angry voices moved out of earshot.

 

The following morning Cowper asked the innkeeper: “Did you hear the noises during the night, particularly in the roof?”

He appeared surprised, and said he had heard nothing.

“Not in the roof?”

“I’m afraid Ma’am,” the landlord said looking at me: “You does sometimes gets rats”.

“I don’t doubt you do, plenty of them,”  Cowper said, smiling broadly. Then turning to me he scoffed:  “Rats indeed!”

This, we felt sure, was the famously rumoured smuggling.  Cowper believed the houses to be connected in the roof rafters, thereby enabling smugglers to make a quick get-away.

One evening he remarked to a man pouring drinks “This is a remarkably good brandy. French isn’t it?”

“Ah, an lively–like… like folks ‘ereabouts.  Tharr’s plenny of good spirit.” He said with a twinkle in his eye.

The concealed inlets and coves encouraged smuggling.  Perhaps the coastline always would, but the temperamental moods of the sea did not.  However, the anchorage in Cawsand bay was well sheltered from the prevailing Westerly winds, and the South Westerleys, so the bay was often favoured as a safe harbour.  During our stay, two warships were anchored there, and smaller vessels came and went.  One old salt had told us:  “Boney’s prison ship stayed a couple of days, but ‘cos the Cap’n heard ’bout a plot to rescue ’e do get zum of we fishermen in our boats and us towed ‘is great boat out to sea.”

“I would have thought Plymouth had the bigger harbour.” Cowper remarked.

“So ‘e do, ’till wind blows a wrong ‘un.  This do face Sou/East but Plymouth do get ‘ammered by Sou/Westerleys and Westerleys, but they do say it wont allus be.”

“Oh, why is that?”

“Ain’t yer seen the reef?  They’ve been a’buildin it for years.  They do tell we that’ll make Plymouth one o’ best ‘arbours in’t world.”

“But I thought it always had been – I mean Drake sailed from here didn’t he?”

“Tis fine ’til wind blows a wrong ‘un.”

 

To Cowper and I viewing from a safe haven, the changing moods of the Channel were very exciting.  I wanted to walk to Penlea Point and see the summer house built for Queen Adelaide, about which uncle John had spoken, and Cowper wanted to climb up to St.Michael’s Chapel on Rame Head, but all the land of the Earl’s estate had been fenced in, either to protect his Red Deer or his Pheasants.  Quite a few locals who objected to this sometimes broke the law and just walked where they had always walked.  However we felt that we had two alternatives, either to make ourselves known to the Earl and his family, or observe the law.  We chose the latter.

One of the gamekeepers who visited the inn, told us about the bridle path, which followed the top of the cliff round to Whitsand Bay and this was free land anyway.  Walking in the teeth of a gale along these cliffs – hat tied on – hand firmly held by Cowper, was an exhilarating experience. Returning windswept and cold to the warm inn and to an even warmer welcome was a pleasure, long remembered.  On fine days we stayed out later, and as we returned, we would stop to gaze at the beautiful curve of the bay with its green backcloth of Devonshire hills turned golden by the setting sun which twinkled on the returning fishing boats.  All just as typical of Cornwall as the crashing white-capped waves which produced brilliant emerald hues from the submerged rocks.

On another day this same gamekeeper told us that the Minadhu was sometimes open to the villagers.”Lord Edgumbe leaves it to I to say when gates can be open – ‘cordin to the stage of the nides –  that’s pheasant’s nests. I ‘eard you talk t’other night to old Sam ’bout the reef.  Best place to see it is Minadhu and it’ll be open tomorra.”

After breakfast, Davey the innkeeper pointed us in the right direction and we set off for what turned out to be a large green sloping sward half way up the cliff.  It was a fine clear morning and the view was glorious.  It was still early and the gamekeeper had only just opened the gate, so he walked along with us to show us the best vantage point to see the reef.

“They’ve been building it for years Sam told us. Is that right?” Cowper asked.

“Yes, 1811 they started it, but that’s a mighty buildin’ job – mile long tis. ‘Ard to tell from ‘ere, but it is a mile long.”

“But you can see it above the water from here, it must be nearly completed” Cowper remarked.

“Nay tis not – long ways to goo yet.  First they put in stone – tons and tons, kep bringin’ it oot in boats til arter a wile, three year I think, you cud see it – then they stopped – no more money – then storms cum and moved a lorra stones away – then they started agin, like that, see.”

“So when will it be finished?”

“Well they do say they’m zoon goin’ to start and this time they’m goin on wi’ it til ‘e’s finished.”

“It is, as you say, an exciting project.  Does it afford any protection now?”

“Is it any good d’ya mean for ships like?”

“Yes”

“Well mebbe folks dinna trust it, zo they kep goin’ in Cawsand.”

As we walked back Cowper and I agreed that despite all the setbacks it was an amazing engineering project and we looked forward to seeing it in action one day – protecting the magnificent harbour for which it was designed.

Awaking one morning to a golden dawn reflecting on a sea rippled by a gentle breeze, the reflected sunshine creating a carpet of sparkling diamonds, I stood by the window murmuring: “This precious stone set in a silver sea.”

Cowper laughed from under the bed covers: “What, Shakespeare at this time of the morning?  I had Richard II for a school examination once – not a happy thought. What has got you out of bed so early?  Shall we make the most of it and go for a really long walk?”

“Not today.  I’m up early because I couldn’t sleep, so I’m rather tired. Can we not take a stroll on the beach?”

Cowper was agreeable.  In fact, he was very agreeable in Cornwall, his depressions were noticable by their absence.

After breakfast, Davey asked: “Did ya see ‘ow ‘igh tide was last night?”

We nodded, we’d watched it from above, swirling over the sea wall.

“Bit odd, too late for full moon, but wind was Sou/Easter and low tide’ll be very low the day.”

He was right, the tide was exceptionally low.  I had decided to seek small ginger/brown stones which I hoped might turn out to be Cornelian. If I could find sufficient I would have them made up into a bracelet as a keepsake of our visit.  As my concentration was fixed on my quest I failed to notice the high rocks which surrounded the small beach I moved on to.  The sea, even at low tide, would normally cover this beach.    I wandered further in to what seemed like a small cave and found myself looking at a heavy metal door fitted with large hinges almost spanning its width.  Of course, I found it to be securely locked and immovable.  Wondering what Cowper would make of it, I soon discovered that he had climbed up the rocks.  At the same time he saw me and shouted: “This is Garrett Street, I’m right opposite the Ship.  Can you make it up here?”

Nothing daunted, I set off and got about half-way up, but as the rocks were slippery, Cowper came down to give me a hand.  When at the top, once I had caught my breath, I told him – indicating the spot: “I’ve just discovered a heavy metal door, behind those rocks on the beach. It’s locked, of course.”

Cowper said:”That’s right below the Ship – it might be the entrance to a tunnel, for smuggling, do you think?”

“But how would they get to it?  The tide is not usually so low.”

“They’d bring the boat as close as they dare, then wade in the sea to the doorway, you see the customs men would have difficulty in finding it if the tide is normally over the entrance.  But the smugglers must have misjudged it the other night – it would be submerged at high tide – that’s why they nearly got caught.  I’m hungry; let’s go inside and eat.”

Feeling quite smug about our discovery we sat down to a deliciously herby beef stew and a glass of ale. Glowing and refreshed Cowper said: “We’ve never seen them bring in the catch” – turning he asked Davey: “Will the fishing boats be returning about now?”

For the answer the innkeeper went to his door and looked up at the sky, then walking back in he said: “Might be lucky. S’fine day zo them’ll stay out, but zum’ll be comin’ if them full o’fish.”

We set off towards The Cleave and could see from above the sea wall on Garrett Street, which was half way up the cliff,  that boats were indeed returning, and as we passed the first beach we saw some of the smaller vessels being moored on the beach.  They were secured to stakes at both ends, for safety from the sea and when we asked a boy about it he told us: “Girt, that’s what they they calls doing that.  That’s why it’s called Girt beach.”

We could hear the noise and bustle before we reached the Cleave.   Several boats were drawn up and women and small children were running down with well-used boxes which they pulled up as they climbed aboard. From our vantage point we could see that the sorting abiity which followed was very expert, even among some quite young children. Flat boxes packed with fish, which appeared to be sorted into type and size were being handed down, to be stacked on the Cleave.  Every so often a large fish would be thrown on to the beach and some women hurried to gut an unusual looking Angler fish, keeping some of the offal. The offal, which was usually discarded, was pounced on by hungry screeching gulls. The fish itself was cut into sections and this, with the offal was shared out among the women.

Because there was so much activity, we had not noticed that two men had arrived, bringing pony-driven carts.  They were now haggling with the fishermen; then once a price was resolved, were putting their purchased boxes of fish into their carts.  Another type of boat had been moored just off shore when we arrived, a large boat which had sets of oars protruding from the sides, and a reefed sail.  This too was being loaded with boxes, which had been bargained for, and before each was stacked they dipped it into the sea, either to wash or cool the fish. Close by where this boat was moored, just on the edge of the beach by the flat rocks, which made a path to the rest of the beach, a man was haggling, even more successfully than the others. His successful purchases, which we were told, consisted of herring and mackerel, were being carried off mainly by young boys, along the beach, out of our sight.  By this time the fish had all been sorted and some of the fishermen were hauling their nets over frames to dry and, where necessary, mend. One had a large tear caused we were told, by the Angler fish.  Other men were climbing into the larger boat and taking up their oars, whilst others unreefed the sail which soon filled with the slight breeze and they set off. Silently and we thought slowly, yet when we looked again they were already out of sight.”They’m goin’ Plymouth” said one of the fishermen we had met in the inn who, his work done had come up to join us, adding: “Sell ’em better there.”

“Where are all those boxes going, along the beach?” Cowper asked.

“Dryin’ sheds. Ain’t you seen ’em?  Lots o’ dryin’ sheds ‘ereabouts.  Wen they’m dry they do go to all sorts a’countries, France, Holland and the like. ‘Ere” and he bent down to a box of his own, “take a couple o’mackerel for zupper, nuttin’ like fresh. Davey’l cook ’em for thee… and, he said as an afterthought, “I’ll see you gets couple o’ kipper afore you do go – they be mostly dried ‘ere, but I d’know a fella what smokes ’em.”

How kind they were, I thought.  They seemed to have so little yet they shared what they had, and as the women came up off the beach rubbing their hands on their aprons after dipping them into the sea, there were no surly looks, and many smiled at us.

“Been a good catch.” our fisher friend said, as if in explanation.

A fierce storm only two weeks previously had been in strong contrast. It had claimed the lives of three village fishermen and had been caused by a combination of the autumn equinox, a full moon, an exceptionally high tide and a south easterly gale, which was predictable yet unavoidable.

From such patterns are our lives woven.  An incident, which could not have been predicted, took place the following evening in the Ship.  The day had been exceptionally warm, the sea – calm as a millpond.  As usual, we had taken our meal in the little room to the side of the main communal room where the villagers gathered.  When we’d eaten, it had become our habit to join them, and this we did. Sitting at a table chatting to one elderly seaman we had grown to like, we were disturbed by a lot of noise, as two men who’d obviously had too much to drink, rolled in.”Jes come ashore:” said our seaman friend as he removed his old clay pipe to make the remark out of the side of his mouth.

One of the men, probably the noisiest, suddenly fell into an empty seat near us and stared at me cheekily:”Wha’s this then?  A lady ‘ere, and a pretty one.”

“That will do – have a care, hold your drink man.”

When Cowper said this the man turned and looked at him for the first time.  He said nothing for a while, he just stared and stared, looking right into Cowper’s eyes.  Gradually the room went very quiet as there seemed a sense of drama.

“You – ‘ere?  You dunno me do you?  I was in your reggimen, n’India.  They chucked me out – did they chuck you out?  What ‘appened to all the natives then?  I did’n know nuttin’ – but, did you?  I’m at sea now – whach you doin?”

At this Cowper got to his feet and said with a chilling but controlled voice:  “What right have you to address me – and with such nonsense?”

The man jumped up raising both fists: “Call me a liar, wud yer?”

He leared towards Cowper and seemed determined to cause more trouble, but Davey and a burly customer, who had quietly moved around to the back of the man, lifted him bodily and threw him outside, as he loudly protested – his drunken companion followed, without a word.

Cowper was visibly shaken and we moved to go to our bedroom amid cries of:”Tak no notice o’ee –”

“‘im’s well drunk”

“Lorra rubbish.”

But as I lay awake that night staring at the ceiling I thought of the smugglers on the run.  Was it going to be like that for Cowper?  If he could be recognised as a protagonist in the Madras affair here, in this remote part of Cornwall, what ever might happen next?

Whilst getting ready for bed Cowper had said that he hadn’t recognied the man and that he’d no-doubt been thrown out of the army for bad behaviour, but next morning he had gone out before I woke.  Realising, I suppose, that he could not leave me unaccompanied, he joined me for breakfast but did not speak to me all day.  His mood was much more difficult for me to handle here, with just the two of us and neither able to escape.  In Essex these moods had sometimes lasted for several days and when we went to bed that night I lay awake wondering how I would be able to deal with it.

The following morning he had again risen before me and I pulled the covers up around me for comfort, fearing the worst but to my amazement, his cheery face appeared at the door bearing a tray: “Our friend delivered the smoked kippers and they’ve been specially cooked for you with lots of butter.”

There was a large hunk of freshly baked bread on the tray, which smelt wonderful, along with a glass of warmed milk.

While I grinned my appreciation and put out my hand to take Cowper’s he said: “There’s a drop of port and a drop of brandy in the milk. Davey said it was to cheer you up after the other night.”

A bit early in the day I thought, but was delighted, especially because Cowper seemed to have shaken off his mood.

“Eat away,” he said, “I’ve had mine,” then added: “little Philippe will be getting bigger, you must be missing him.  I’m missing him too and our little house. Let’s go home.”

He made no further reference to the encounter with the drunken soldier/seaman and we went for a last walk to Whitsand, then left reluctantly – promising to return, as everyone who visits such an enchanting place must surely do.

Trotting briskly along the cliff–top road heading for the ferry to Plymouth to catch the London–night–mail, the waning moon rose over the sea and seemed to travel with us.

 

 

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